Mary Dejevsky: The false romance of revolution


Click to follow

As the uprising in Libya evolved into a revolution, with a little help from Paris and London, there was no doubt which side "we" were on. For politicians, pundits and, yes, journalists, the "rebels" were the good guys and Libya's regular army the bad guys. And why not? As at each stage of the Arab Spring, the forces of progress have been pitted against the forces of reaction; freedom against tyranny; light against dark.

But taking sides has not been limited to the Arab Spring. After the riots in English cities this month, BBC news bulletins opened with lurid footage of burning streets, accompanied by calls for tougher policing and fierce condemnation of the rioters. Invariably the very next item was a dispatch from Syria or Libya, couched in the language of crackdowns, hero-protesters and villain-regimes. This was rarely a comfortable juxtaposition.

Occasionally, some analyst or other would feel the need to explain why "their" mostly youthful "protesters" were so very different from "our" mostly youthful "rioters". You see, "theirs" were idealists fighting for a just cause, while "ours" were "mindless hooligans" who would not know an ideal if it hit them with the thwack of a police truncheon. "Theirs" were young people looking to create a better society; "ours" were over-indulged juveniles with not enough to do.

Yet there is another distinction that was largely ignored. In condemning England's urban rioters – even when we conceded that they might have legitimate grievances – we were approaching things from the perspective of the established power. We were the people with something to lose, whose streets had been trashed, whose homes, in the most egregious instances, had been invaded. It was our generally stable lives that were threatened by the failure of police to prevent "disorder". In Syria and Libya, as in Tunisia and Egypt, we contemplated events from the other side: we aspired to be revolutionaries, too.

But in all the countries swept by the fresh breezes of the Arab Spring, it is not only tyranny that is being challenged. Much, if not the whole, of the existing order is under threat. And that order comprises not just misguided demagogues – "deluded", as our Foreign Secretary described Colonel Gaddafi – self-serving careerists and the corrupt elite. It includes the likes of you and me: professional people, the middle class, and those who work for them – all those with a stake, however modest, in the status quo.

The only place where Western coverage showed any measure of hesitation or analytical shading was Bahrain, a state where Western countries, particularly Britain and the US, had their own (mainly defence) interests in preserving the existing regime. Here, it was just about possible to decry the repression and the deaths, while hazarding that the regime's overthrow might be a step too far.

Something similar can be discerned, for similar reasons, in discussion of Jordan. But it is not just in these two countries where the arguments, as between order and disorder, may be more finely balanced than the all-or-nothing, black-or-white, presentation of the Arab Spring – or the British riots – may suggest. The point at which people start to believe they have a greater interest in change than in the status quo is not always easy to define.

It is tempting to romanticise revolution: the injustices are so obvious; the images of statues toppling and flags burning so dramatic; the rebels' readiness for martyrdom so glorious; the liberation of prisoners so inspiring; the euphoria of the crowds so infectious. Revolutions provide all this and more – so long as they are someone else's.

In the real world, there are few more truly terrifying experiences than a complete breakdown of law and order – as some of those who suffered during the riots in London and elsewhere will testify. And this was just a few hours in a relatively few locations in a country where no one will have doubted that the law would once again be laid down and order restored.

There could be no such confidence eight years ago in Baghdad, where "stuff" just "happened", just as there must be doubts in Libya today whether the transitional council, even after so much planning, will be able to exert its authority the length and breadth of the land. There are so many disgruntled groups and so many firearms now on the loose.

Few revolutions are either brief or bloodless. Changes of regime are more often chaotic, ruthless and deeply unjust affairs. The meek rarely inherit the Earth – still less the well-read intelligentsia or the nicely-mannered bourgeoisie. Contemporary accounts of France in 1789 or Russia in 1917-18 offer little, beyond leaders' rhetoric, that is uplifting. Rather, they depict extreme violence, vicious settling of scores, and a great deal of acquisitive opportunism on the part of those you and I might call "mindless thugs".

When Libyan television described British rioters as "revolutionaries" fighting against "Cameron's mercenaries and brigades", it was ridiculed, and rightly. But one person's revolution may well be someone else's riot or criminal coup, with a good many shades of grey in between.