09/16/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

Crushing the Revolution in the Arab Middle East

Americans, nurtured by a belief in the virtues of revolution and democracy, have been shocked by the way Bashar Assad and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and their armies have been crushing the revolutionary uprisings in Syria and Egypt. The gradual demise of revolutions in Libya, Iraq, Yemen and even Tunisia reinforces this shock. How is this possible when democracy and revolution are seen as the indisputable totems of progress and modernity?

The American love affair with democracy and revolution follows the less taken road to modernity of the English, French and American Revolutions. These political revolutions were built on a series of earlier socio-economic revolutions from 1420 to 1620 -- religious (Protestant Reformation), Age of Exploration (Columbus), media (printing press), science (scientific method), astronomy (heliocentrism), commercial agriculture (end of serfdom), identity (early nationalism) and capitalism (commercial trading) -- that laid the groundwork for the transition from late feudalism to the early modern era. With this powerful base, the classic early political revolutions created modern, developed democratic regimes in England, France and the United States.

By contrast, the European socio-economic revolutions of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries did not take root in the Middle East until the second half of the 20th century. Even nationalism came late due to English and French colonialism. The fruits of those European socio-economic revolutions -- significant middle class, educated populace, pluralism, strong institutions, tolerance, commercial capitalism and agriculture, modernization, honest leadership and nationalism -- are thereby weak in the Arab Middle East.

Significant elements of pre-modern, traditional society remain strong -- powerful clans, extended families and tribes, high rates of female illiteracy, intolerance of minorities, regionalism, yawning urban/rural gap, corruption, weak institutions, few interest groups and small middle class. Democracy, tolerance and creativity are tertiary or even quaternary needs. Maslow's hierarchy of human needs showed that people must meet their basic physiological and safety needs (food, health, water, job, property, safety, resources) before they move on to their self-actualization and esteem needs (achievement, respect for others, morality, creativity, tolerance and independent thinking) which are integral to democratic societies.

In the non-oil rich Arab Middle East, states frequently do not meet the basic needs of the people. The revolutionary entry of the masses into politics brings poorly educated, often intolerant, people with little stake in the status quo, who are fertile ground for two critical actors: the military and Islamic fundamentalists.

The military, often aligned with old regime elements, big business, church, security forces, and landlords, offers stability, law and order and nationalism. Its advantages include massive fire power, strong alliances with established elites, discipline and sometimes a penchant for economic development. The military has often been the most cohesive, powerful and richest institution in society. There were 37 successful military coups in Latin America (1960 to 1980), over 40 in Asia (1950-2000) and 85 in Africa (1950 to 2000).

Yet, the military can be defeated or sidelined. If society has reached the early modern era (Latin America and Asia since the 1980s), it can come under civilian control by other key institutions. If the military has been defeated in a major war (as Germany and Russia in World War I), overwhelmed by massive foreign intervention (Hungary 1919), or downgraded to being a militia (England 1640s), it loses much of its power. For the revolutionaries with their mass popular base and religious fundamentalism, these factors are sufficiently rare to constrain the military.

The frequency of revolutionary failure is embodied in the very word revolution. Like the planets revolving around the sun, revolutions will also circle around and end up back where they started. Or, as the French like to stay, "plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme" -- the more things change, the more they stay the same.