Now the hard part begins.
Although it is often overlooked, every revolution has two parts; the removal of the old regime and the creation of a new one. The first is by far the easiest. But as the revolutions in France (1789), Russia (1917), China (1949), and Iran (1979) all demonstrate, the second part is just as important, and often more difficult than the first. Even in the American Revolution, five years elapsed between the Treaty of Paris and ratification of our Constitution.
The recent experiences in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate important lessons with respect overthrowing regimes. The first is that when enough people are willing to go up against the state, the government has no chance. In this respect every government does in some sense rest upon the will of the people. Even in a place as brutal as North Korea, the regime’s survival is just a matter of numbers.
Even when the regime has lost all support, rebellion is still a matter of strategy. If only a few protesters raise their heads, the government can easily deal with them. If everyone raises their head, there are not enough bullets or troops to put them all down. While some opponents have no regard for danger, the participation of most citizens depends upon the number of other protesters and the chance of success. In both Tunisia and Egypt the revolution gained momentum as each day’s successful protest drew more people into the streets. The calculations have already started in other countries. Opponents are learning that if they can only persevere, momentum will eventually sweep an unpopular regime away. Governments may come to the conclusion that the first uprisings need to be ruthlessly suppressed.
The second lesson is that communications technology, especially social networking software, undoubtedly makes it easier for protesters to assemble the critical mass needed to topple a regime. It does not guarantee success and governments certainly can use the same technology to fight back, but revolution is much easier with the presence of Twitter, Facebook, and file sharing software than it would be without them.
The third lesson is that in the beginning, if not in the end, it comes down to the army. Once most citizens oppose a regime, only force will keep it in power. And even force is not enough if everyone rises up. The answer then is that any serious uprising has to be crushed immediately, before it can be seen to gather momentum. And for that the army is vital. The problem from the regime’s standpoint is that even the army and police consist largely of ordinary people whose willingness to kill their fellow citizens to support a regime that largely benefits their superiors becomes more suspect as the regime becomes more unpopular and isolated. In the end, the army may decide its interests do not coincide with the government’s.
The people of every nation have the ability to overthrow tyranny by rising up united against it. The United States should make it clear that it will morally support them whenever they do. But that still leaves the hard part of establishing a stable democracy. That is the subject of a subsequent post.