Cross-class Coalitions and the Making of the Arab Revolts of 2011


Theorists of social movements and revolutions have given great attention to the factors creating vulnerability for the state – including elite divisions, loss of foreign support, and economic problems. Substantial attention has also been given to factors facilitating the mobilization of protest actors, including framing, prior network ties, social and public media, and political openings. Somewhat less evident has been the role of cross-class coalitions, which play a vital role in affecting both the strength of the state and mobilization, and in shaping the outcomes of protest and revolutionary change.

If a protest draws support mainly from just one class or group (peasants, workers, students, urban shopkeepers, professionals), the state can confront that group as a disruptive force, and seek to unify elites from other sectors against that threat. However, if protestors represent many different groups, it is much harder for the state to find allies against them. Moreover, while a state can claim to be preserving society by acting against isolated disruptive elements, it is far more difficult to maintain legitimacy when acting against a broad cross-class coalition. Elites are more likely to desert the state, creating crippling elite divisions, if protestors represent a broad spectrum of society. In addition, a broad cross-class coalition facilitates further mobilization by creating ‘mega-networks’ linking prior, tightly-linked within-group networks to each other. The impact of public media in favor of the protestors is also greater if media representation shows protestors as representative of the whole society, rather than as one particular group seeking partisan advantages for itself.

For these reasons, virtually all successful revolutions were forged by cross-class coalitions that bridged the diverse goals and interests of different groups, thus pitting society as a whole against the regime and its loyalist supporters. Conversely, revolts rooted in the needs and organization of one particular class or group – peasant revolts, urban uprisings, student protests, regional rebellions – have usually been effectively repressed by regimes able to draw on other groups for support.

The three successful revolutions in the Arab world in 2011, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, all demonstrate the crucial role of cross-class coalitions.

The Sidi Bouzid Revolution in Tunisia

The first protests against Ben Ali’s regime arose in mid-December in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, with young townspeople protesting at the regional government headquarters. Their actions followed the self-immolation of a native of Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bouazizi, who acted to publicize his own problems, suffering from underemployment and police harassment and abuse. Many Tunisians had similar complaints, and sympathy for Bouaziz in the town of Sidi Bouzid was widespread. Yet the police quickly put down these protests with tear gas and police reinforcements. Had the protests remained limited to rural townfolk, they would have had no national impact.

However, the scenes in Sidi Bouzid were broadcast on social media, and the plight of Mohamed Bouazizi gained national attention. In the next few weeks labor groups, lawyers, and students took the lead in demonstrations. On December 27, independent trade union activists organized a rally of 1,000 or so in the capital city of Tunis, with protestors calling for solidarity with Bouazizi and, notably, for jobs. Over the next few days, the demonstrations spread to other large cities. The Tunisian Federation of Labor Unions held a rally in Gafsa on December 31. At the same time, lawyers started to mobilize. A small lawyers’ protest took place near the government palace in Tunis on December 28; this was soon followed by a call from the Tunisian National Lawyers Order for nationwide protests. In early January, students joined in, staging a violent rally and clashing with police in the city of Thala. Hackers also targeted state websites.

By January 6 virtually all of Tunisia’s lawyers were on strike, an action coordinated by the national bar association. Teachers joined the national strike the next day. Workers remained active as well, as there was a major protest in the working-class neighborhood of Ettadhamen-Mnihla in Tunis, with protestors setting fire to buses and cars. On January 14, with protests still spreading in defiance of riot police and dispatching of military personnel to riot sites, Islamist organizations began calling for protests from the mosques, and one group went to the April 9 Prison to free political prisoners. Later that day, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the joint actions of workers, students, lawyers and teachers, Islamist and labor unions, rural townsfolk and residents of the major cities, the revolution had triumphed.

The Nile Revolution in Egypt

In Egypt, protests began in January on the National Police Day holiday of January 25. Student and labor organizers, who had been using internet networks to build support, called for coordinated protests. Perhaps spurred by the recent departure of Ben Ali in Tunisia, the turnout surprised everyone. Not only in Cairo, but also in Alexandria, Suez, and other cities thousands of protestors appeared.

Over the next few days, as protestors defied police efforts to put down the demonstrations, it became clear that the protestors were not the Islamists who had been the most feared element in the opposition. Both President Mubarak and his U.S. supporters had repeatedly justified Egypt’s repression of any democratic opposition by raising the specter of Islamists seizing power. As long as the Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, including Salafists – were seen as the core of the opposition, other groups fearful of an Islamic ascendancy, including Coptic Christians, secular professionals, and above all the military, tolerated or even supported the repression by the Mubarak regime. Yet the crowds protesting in Tahrir Square, in Alexandria, in Suez, Aswan, and Assyut were dominated by precisely the secular opposition that had previously seemed powerless. Labor groups, students, urban shopkeepers, professionals, and Copts all joined in, and a few days later were joined by young Islamists. This was not an opposition that could be labeled simply “Islamist” and a threat to Western alliances and a modern Egypt. Quite the contrary – these were protestors led by modernist, internet-savvy young men and women like Wael Ghonim, who worked for the western company Google.

The breadth of the protestors’ coalition helped sway the army to hold its fire. No doubt the army had its own agenda, including stopping the succession of Mubarak’s civilian son, Gamal, who was being groomed to succeed his father as President. But the ‘whole society’ range of the protestors made it easier for the army to claim that it was not abandoning its mission to protect society, but was in fact carrying out that mission when it refused to bring its force to bear against the protests.

The broad coalition proved crucial after February 10, when President Mubarak announced that he intended to remain in office until the end of the year. Frustration with this announcement led to nationwide strikes, as well as protests across the country drawing millions of people. This combination of resistance persuaded the army that Mubarak had to step down immediately, and on February 11 Mubarak departed the capital for domestic exile at Sharm el-Sheikh.

The Libyan Civil War and Revolution

As in Tunisia, the Libyan revolution began with local protests mainly by one group – in this case lawyers – that gradually spread to form a cross-regional and cross-class coalition potent enough (with help from NATO) to overcome Colonel Gadaffi’s mercenary and praetorian guard forces.

In January and early February, a few Libyans began calling for protests to demand democracy in Libya, in emulation of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. They had hoped to inspire a similar peaceful mass movement, but were rounded up, beaten, and imprisoned by Gadaffi’s regime. The evening of February 15th, several hundred protestors assembled in front of Benghazi’s police headquarters to demonstrate in support of Fathi Terbil, a human rights lawyer who was one of those arrested. Police violently broke up the demonstration, but that led to further protests in the towns of Bayda and Zintan where protestors set fire to police stations.

The next day, a “Day of Rage” was planned by the newly formed National Conference for the Libyan opposition, which asked that all groups opposed to the Gaddafi regime, both in Libya and Libyans abroad, demonstrate on February 17th. Protestors torched several government buildings in Benghazi, and even in Tripoli demonstrators set fire to security buildings and the People’s Hall. Soon after, some army personnel in Benghazi went over to join the protestors; on February 19 Gaddfi’s forces withdrew from the major cities in eastern Libya.

The rebel forces were at first led by the lawyers who initiated the protests in Benghazi, but they were soon joined by teachers, students, oil workers, and defectors from the Libyan Army. The Libyan army consisted of professional career forces, plus mercenaries hired for special units to protect Gaddafi and Tripoli, plus praetorian guard-type units commanded by Gaddafi’s sons and drawn from tribal groups loyal to their family. Much of the professional army either joined the opposition or remained in their barracks, leaving only the mercenary and praetorian forces to defend the regime.

Islamist groups also joined in the anti-Gaddafi coalition. Many of the Islamists had prior fighting experience in Afghanistan as jihadis, and thus brought valuable skills to the opposition.

Yet even once they had seized control of the eastern part of the country, the secular and professional opposition, abetted by Islamists and military defectors, was still not strong enough to overcome Gaddafi’s forces, even with NATO support. By April, a stalemate had developed, and there was concern that rather than a democratic revolution, the civil war might yield a Libya permanently divided and in an ongoing conflict, much like Korea.

The stalemate was broken by the entrance of a new group into the anti-Gaddafi coalition: the Berbers of southwest Libya, who in early June began a rebel offensive in the Nafusa Mountains. By mid-June, these rebels had taken several key towns in the mountains, and were advancing on Tripoli from the west. NATO threw its support to their advance. A month later, the rebels were only 50 miles from Tripoli, and by the end of July, after stepped up attacks, the western rebel forces had taken every Gaddafi outpost and stronghold in the western mountains.

Starting in the middle of August, the western rebels launched a strike toward Tripoli from the mountains while at the same time the Benghazi-based rebels launched a strike at Tripoli from the east, out of the town of Misrata. On the 20th of August, they were joined by ‘sleeper cells’ of opposition members within Tripoli. The latter rose up in almost every neighborhood of the capital, and by the 23rd of August the rebels were in command of Tripoli’s center and Gaddafi’s own family compound.

The Fate of Coalitions and the Outcomes of Revolutions

In each of these three cases, a broad cross-class and cross-regional coalition was vital to overthrowing the regime. Islamists and secularists; residents of the capital city and rural towns; workers, students, teachers, lawyers; and defecting soldiers all contributed to the revolutionary effort. In Egypt, student and labor activists teamed up from the beginning and then won over other groups. In Tunisia the revolt began with rural townsfolk and spread to professionals and students in the capital of Tunis. In Libya the revolt began with lawyers in the country’s second largest city, Benghazi, but soon embraced western Berbers, students and professionals in most coastal towns, and former jihadists and members of Gaddafi’s professional military.

What united these broad coalitions, more than economic grievances, discrimination, religion, or nationalism, was a shared enmity toward a hated dictator – Ben Ali in Tunisia, Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt. Resentment against corruption, lack of accountability, arrogance, and harassment by police boiled over into a simple demand that the dictator must go.

Groups had their own grievances, of course – young people were especially angry at the lack of economic opportunity; shopkeepers and workers were angry at having to struggle with stagnant wages and rising prices while elites were getting immensely rich; while Islamists were angry that the dictators were closely aligned with the U.S. But for all these groups, the future seemed blocked and empty, unless they could rid themselves of what seemed like an endless and stifling blanket of authoritarian rule.

Yet while such alliances work well with a simple goal, once that goal is achieved the cross-class coalitions in revolutions and revolts frequently start to fracture. With the main goal of eliminating the old leader completed, the diverse groups in the coalition quickly return to pursuing their own goals. In the context of a revolutionary change of government, this means each group sets its sights on obtaining power to achieve its own distinct ends. Ethnic or regional minorities seek greater autonomy and/or greater representation in the central government; strongly religious groups seek to bring more religious ideology and practice into politics; urban and secular groups seek policies to modernize the government and economy. There are also generally clashes over foreign policy, taxation and spending, and selection of officials. In short, what was just recently a remarkably tough coalition capable of unseating a regime, even of conducting a civil war to do so, can become a pack of feuding forces in the aftermath of successful revolt.

There are three ways that this fracturing of coalitions can play out – constructive opposition, paralysis, or polarization. In the best outcome, after the old regime is defeated, the various groups that comprised the revolutionary coalition seek to form political parties to advance their goals. Working in a democratic framework, they contest for power and negotiate outcomes as constructive opponents while sharing the goal of moving the nation forward toward democracy and improved economic conditions. This was the case in the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, and in earlier periods in the aftermath of the American Revolution and the “Glorious Revolution” in Great Britain.

However, in many of the so-called ‘color’ revolutions, where the main goal was a democratic replacement for a hated dictatorship, and the revolutionary coalition was not ideologically-based, the result was a fragmented regime, with diverse groups unable to agree on how to govern the country. The result is a paralysis of policy that leaves a desire for someone to take charge, and produces a populist politics that leans toward ‘strong men’ leaders, and a reversion to corruption and partial authoritarianism. This has been the pattern in the Philippines, Ukraine, Georgia, Nicaragua, Russia, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan.

A third pattern is evident in revolutions with a stronger ideological mobilization, stressing class grievances (of either peasants or workers). In such cases, the aftermath of revolution often brings polarization, with class advocates pushing more radical policies against moderates seeking only minor economic changes to go with democratizing reforms. While moderates usually lead at first, subsequent pressures from international or domestic threats to the revolution often give radicals an opening to resume mobilization and lead a class-based revolt against the moderate regime. This is the sequence that leads to ‘terror’ and radical authoritarian regimes, as the revolutionary coalition not only dissolves but has its most extreme elements turn against the rest of society. This was the pattern in the great social revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran.

It is too early to tell which outcome is most likely in the Arab revolts. It is still possible that a future event – the opening of overt hostilities involving Israel; an attempted counter-revolution by the Egyptian military; or regional or tribal conflicts in Libya – could lead to polarization within the revolutionary coalitions, and open the way for a radical, ideologically-based mobilization (in these countries most likely led by Islamists) to seize the reins of the revolution. Yet at the moment, the composition and trajectory of these events looks more like ‘color revolutions’– predominantly non-ideological, aimed mainly to replace a hated dictatorship with a more accountable and open regime, and seeking an improvement in economic conditions that are poor to very poor for a majority of the population.

While Egypt and Tunisia had a path of revolt like most color revolutions, which develop through urban revolts rather than civil war, Libya's revolution did involve a civil war. But even in the Mexican Revolution of 1911, where a decade of civil war followed a pro-democracy campaign to unseat the dictator Porfioro Díaz, the result was not an ideologically extreme regime. In fact, in that case the worker and peasant arms of the coalition were eventually defeated by the moderate constitutionalist forces of Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón, leaving Mexico with a weak authoritarian regime for over a decade until the rise of the PRI party dictatorship under Lázaro Cárdenas. Indeed, it seems likely that just like Mexico, where even after the revolution and civil war ended, there were periodic armed revolts against the regime up to 1930, Libya will likely be troubled by regional and tribal revolts even if remains non-ideological.

In Egypt, the main threat to the revolution at present appears to be the effort of the military to establish its authority in any successor government. At this writing, the military appears to have turned against its partners in revolution, the secular students, workers and professionals, reinstating the emergency law and jailing thousands of protestors. Yet the military’s actions have now precipitated a new wave of strikes by teachers, various labor groups, and students. It remains to be seen whether this new wave of contestation will result in further polarization, or lead to a renegotiation among the revolutionary coalition members over the rules for coming elections that will put a democratic regime in place. Egypt could thus succeed in moving to constructive opposition, or shift to paralysis, or move towards polarization.

In Tunisia, the military is not as strong; it appears that Islamic parties are most likely to emerge as the strongest force in the post-revolutionary regime. Yet so far they appear to be a plurality not a majority, and are willing to take part in a democratic regime involving constructive opposition among diverse parties. Whether they will continue in this fashion is hard to determine; so Tunisia too could either end up with a democratic regime, or shift to paralysis and drift to authoritarianism, or even end up with polarization between Islamist and secular forces.

Conclusion: The Crucial Role of Cross-Class Coalitions

Cross-class coalitions are thus vital for the success of revolutions, and played a key role in the Arab Revolts. Even more important, however, is how the continuing dynamics of the coalition after the revolution affect its future trajectory. These coalitions do not generally survive long past the fall of the dictator whose hatred formed the key ‘glue’ that bound them together.

Whether the coalitions then fall into a mode of constructive opposition, paralysis, or polarization determines how the revolutions unfold. Where the coalition groups engage in constructive opposition revolutions succeed in moving toward democracy. Where they seek to frustrate each other and create a policy paralysis, countries usually revert to a weak and usually corrupt authoritarianism. Finally, where the coalition groups become polarized into moderate and extreme factions and engage in a bitter struggle for control, the country is likely to lapse into a radical struggle and emerge with an extremist regime.

Observers thus need to keep a close eye on the dynamics of the groups that comprised the revolutionary coalitions in the Arab Revolts, for shifts in these relationships will give the best clues as to what will follow as the revolutions continue to play out in the years ahead.