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Why Do Revolutions Erupt?



by: Abir Bassam* —

The question was raised by Dr. Haytham Mouzahem in his Arab book “Why Do Revolutions Erupt?”(2017), coincided with the eruptions or so-called revolutions in the Arab states under the title: “the Arab Spring”.  However, the question was answered in reference to several historians’ and linguistics’ studies. Revolution, as a term, refers to a massive and public uprising that causes dramatic changes in the current social and political construction into a new one. Consequently, revolution is ultimately related to the concept of freedom. Accordingly, in his book “Why Do Revolutions Erupt?” and in around 130 pages, Mouzahem made it possible for the ordinary person to grasp a scientific understanding of the concept.

The book was introduced by the Syrian researcher Dr. Akil Mahfoud. Mahfoud explains that the question of revolutions and demonstrations in the Arab world was raised in relation to the events of 2011. Therefore, the issue raised the question about the relationship between revolutions from one side and social and political changes on the other. Moreover, there was a need to consider the situations in the Arab states, which were more complicated. As a result, Mouzahem’s targeted the concept of revolution in philosophy, history, theology, and different social sciences in regard to political experiences.

Linguistically, the concept of revolution comes from two different roots in the Arabic language and the English language.  Hannah Arendt in her book “On Revolution” explains that the term revolution was first used to explain the Astronomy Course, which cannot be replaced or altered. Then, the term was used in politics within the concept of changing or succession of governments. The first person who used the term revolution was Liancourt, the messenger of Louis XVI. When he informed Louis XVI about the storming of the Bastille, Louis XVI told him that it is a rebellion. Liancourt corrected him by saying “no, it is a revolution”. Thus, the word back then was still used in its primary context describing the movement of the planets. In Arabic, the word ‘Thawra’, which means revolution comes from the root verb ‘thara’, which basically means becoming angry and ragged. The word ‘thawr’, which means ox, comes from the same root. Basically, the word ‘Thawra’ is also a new term in Arabic. Crane Brinton perceives that the revolution was the sign of a new age in which the blockades of the old regime are collapsing.

Mouzahem, besides studying the western theory of revolution, refers in his study to different explanations on the subject. Thus, he refers to Ali Shariati and Murtadda Mutahari in studying the meaning of the term in relation to Islamic understanding of sociology and Islamic theology. This is reflected in his explanation of the Islamic revolution in Iran. In this discussion, he makes a distinction in regard to the political revolution, its meaning, and the different stages of the revolution.

Revolution, whatever its definition is, or whether it was politically, socially, or economically rooted, Mouzahem argues that the aim of revolution is freedom and liberation. This argument is based on Jean- Jacque Rousseau writings. Rousseau is a political philosopher in the eighteenth century who said that the word revolution only applies to movements that aim for freedom. Arendt also confirms that along with the need to distinguish between liberty and freedom. The first expression means the right to claim the three basic rights, which are the right to living, liberty, and property. On the other hand, the latter means the participation in public affairs, whether it was in the public field or the political one.

Hence, the revolution advocates for a new political system towards freedom. Accordingly, Machiavelli never used the term in the fifteenth century in his writings describing the changes and revolutions that swept all over Europe during Renaissance. Conversely, the American Revolution reestablished a new leadership and a new political order.

Nevertheless, revolutions are not coups of the poor against the rich. Generally, revolutions point to changes of interest among the rich and express the necessity to change the current regime. Consequently, it is led according to the interest of the economic power. In general, the revolutions in Europe were secular and led by the middle class, whose benefits were not protected and its access to power is limited. Therefore, Mouzahem’s argument reaches the conclusion that revolutions are lobbied by great forces that seek their welfare. For example, according to many studies, the Masonic movement was behind the French Revolution. Still, the revolution is a result of the long-term of misconduct of the successive governments.  Still, the revolution would never get its goals of changing as long as the regime controls the military forces of the state.

Then, Mouzahem lists a few Islamic and Arab revolutions through the history. He starts listing the revolutions beginning with the assassination of Othman Ibn ‘Afan, the revolution of Al-Khawarej against Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, Imam Hussein’s revolution, and finally, moving to the revolution of the Abbasids against the Omayyad and seizing power from them.

In the recent history of the Arab and Islamic countries, there were many revolutions against the occupation at the end of the nineteenth and at the twentieth century. For example, the revolution erupted against the Shah Nasser Al-Din in Iran, who signed a monopolistic agreement on tobacco in the favor of a British company in 1848-1896. The revolution won, and the deal was canceled. Another recent example is the Islamic revolution in 1979, which changed the regime in Iran. Consequently, the revolutions in the Arab World in the twentieth century were able to free the Arab countries from the foreign occupation.

According to Alexis de Tocqueville, it is essential to hold a comparative study on revolutions because no one can understand the concept of revolution if it is studied separately. In addition, it is difficult to predict its immediate outcomes. Revolutions should be studied years after their eruptions so that factual results can be detected. Hence, when a revolution is studied, there are certain points to be followed in relation to its causes, circumstances of the development of the revolutionary class, and the factors of the victory of the revolution.

Finally, it is a relatively interesting small book, which can lead the reader on the meaning of revolutions and their causes. However, the book can be considered as a head start on the road to understanding what is going on in the Arab region.

*Abir Bassam is a Lebanese writer and researcher.

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