We properly talked about revolts not always becoming revolutions which means that people may revolt in various contexts but only in some cases they succeed in subverting the existing set of power. Generally we think of revolutions as sequences of events that have their peak in the conquest of the royal building and the arrest or killing of the previous ruler: the satisfaction in this final act is something to be considered, politics can be cruel, even though this has not happened in these recent cases. In Tunisia Ben Ali unexpectedly left the country so there was not even the opportunity to arrest the ruler, while Mubarak resigned after the growing protests in the squares. He had spoken to the Egyptians as if they were his brothers and sons but in a few hours he was forced to realize they did consider themselves neither brothers nor sons. Gheddafi is still there instead.
What does trigger the transformation of a revolt into a revolution? How does the reaction of the preexisting set of power influence the whole sequence? How may external actors interfere with the events? Quite clearly the Us played a crucial role in what happened in Egypt while they had no role in Tunisia and an uncertain role in the case of Lybia.
Something to be said at the outset is that the doctrines according to which Arab or Muslim countries are incompatible with democracy are wiped out. Larry Diamond wrote a few months ago that also independently from oil- his basic doctrine is that countries relying on oil and not on taxes for public works and employment don’t need a democracy- these autocracies have so many means to prevent dissent that is impossible to start a successful process to remove them. This has proved to be wrong. Inequality and a visible corruption have been enough to start that process. Inequality had existed for years both in Tunisia and in Egypt, but the visibility and the consequent awareness of corruption has made them suddenly unbearable. To this effect the new means of communication (but also the TV in Egypt) have played a crucial role.
I can accept my poor life but I can’t accept what you steal from me, this is the correct interpretation of the fact also supported by the reactions that we have in our democratic regimes. Let’s consider Italy: our Prime Minister likes being wild in many ways and many react by saying “Happy man, he can afford it” (as long he’s using his own money). People may consider his conduct to be not appropriate, but you won’t have revolts for that. However, if one of his ministers is using an aircraft of the government to go to Milan for a football match, this becomes a national case. Using the money of the citizens for not appropriate ends is more unacceptable than other though negative attitudes.
Inequalities, corruption and the technologies making people aware of both of them are the main explanations of successful revolts. How the rulers react is a second important factor, for they may withstand the protests. Rulers in Tunisia and Egypt realized that the police forces were not arresting the protestors but siding them. Consequently they were forced to surrender. Do not forget that the essence of the State is the monopoly of violence; what happened in these two countries was a deep erosion of this monopoly accompanied by a loss of the previous political control on what had remained. To the contrary Gheddafi succeeded in preserving a good piece of it, Lybia has become a competitive market as to the use of violence and as a result you don’t have a successful revolution there but a civil war where the previous leader still has cards to play.
The last point to be considered is the external actors’ role. Without the relationship between the Us government and the Egyptian army we should wonder if the results were to be the same. For years the US had been giving money to the Egyptian army for reasons of regional strategy. Due to the consequent relationship the army was the interlocutor of the Americans and became a very effective channel for them to exercise their own influence.