Revolution: Modern

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Modern revolutions are generally viewed as part of the process of political modernization. Although marking a breakdown in the process of state-building and constituting a radical rupture with the past, they are often caused by obstacles in the path of political modernization and can result in far-reaching political transformation. The first wave of modern revolutions in the Islamic world occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century, in reaction to the suspension or frustration of the attempts at political reform.

Early-Twentieth-Century Constitutional Revolutions

Popular agitation for reform in Iran began in 1905, and forced the shah to order elections for a parliament and to grant Iran a constitution in 1906. It is therefore appropriately called the "Constitutional Revolution." The ailing Mozaffar al-Din Shah died shortly after signing the constitution at the end of December 1906. No sooner had the second part of the constitution (the Supplementary Fundamental Law) taken effect in October 1907 than serious trouble began between the constitutionalists and his successor. The Shi˓ite religious leaders had been prominent in mobilizing popular agitation for the constitution, but were split when the secularizing implications of parliamentary legislation became clear to them. The young Muhammad ˓Ali Shah formed an alliance with the Shi˓ite traditionalists, suspended the constitution, and restored autocratic rule in 1908. Constitutional government was restored, however, after his defeat and ouster in July 1909.

The Turkish revolution of 1908 was also the result of a constitutionalist movement, this time led by the Young Turks and organized by their Committee of Union and Progress. It began with scattered revolts of military units led by army officers who belonged to the movement. They ultimately forced Sultan ˓Abd al-Hamid (1842–1918) to restore the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, after a thirty-year gap. The Committee of Union and Progress won a decisive majority in the parliamentary elections of that year. In April 1909, however, the sultan instigated an abortive counterrevolutionary uprising in Istanbul among traditionalist religious students and officers who had been purged from the old army corps. This uprising, similar to the traditional counterrevolution in Iran a year earlier, ultimately failed, and the sultan was deposed in favor of his brother. The Young Turks amended the constitution and strengthened the power of parliament, and remained in power until the end of the First World War in 1918. During their tenure, however, they carried out a program of administrative reform and military modernization.

The Arab World After the Second World War

The modern revolutions of the Arab Middle East occurred after the end of the Second World War. Following the fashion of the time, especially in Latin America, military officers carried out coups d'état in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq in the 1950s, and in Yemen, Libya, and the Sudan in the 1960s, proclaiming them to be revolutions. These events became understood as a revolutionary wave washing across the Arab world, and were primarily motivated by Arab nationalism. Of these regime changes by the military, the two cases with the strongest claim to being considered modern revolutions are the July 1952 revolution in Egypt and the July 1958 revolution in Iraq, both of which overthrew monarchies and established republics.

Army officers were among the first groups to receive a modern, Westernized education in the Middle East. Imbued with ideas of nationalism and modernization of the state, they were considered "intellectuals in uniform" in the 1950s. In July 1952, a group of Egyptian officers of the rank of colonel or below, who called themselves the Free Officers, overthrew the ruling monarchy of the descendants of Muhammad ˓Ali (1804–1841). They proclaimed a republic and named a respected army general its president. The real power, however, was in the hands of the leader of the Free Officers, Col. Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser (1918–1970), who abolished all political parties in 1953 and proscribed the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. In its place he created the Liberation Rally, followed by the National Union in 1956, which became the Arab Socialist Union after Nasser's adoption of socialism as the ideology of the Egyptian state in 1961. Nasser immediately championed pan-Arab nationalism, which became so closely identified with him that it was sometimes called "Nasserism." He succeeded in bringing about a United Arab Republic, to which Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya adhered for brief periods. The war against Israel in 1967 was primarily justified in terms of Arab nationalism, and the defeat of the Arab coalition was taken as a clear signal of its failure and of the failure of socialism as a modernizing ideology.

In July 1958, the Iraqi Free Officers overthrew the Hashimite monarchy that had been established under the British protectorate in 1921. They declared Iraq a republic, with General ˓Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914–1963) as its prime minister. The revolution set in motion an intense competition for popular mobilization between the Iraqi Communist Party and the pan-Arab Ba˓th Party. This competition culminated in an insurrection that brought the Ba˓th party into power in February 1963, and General Qasim was executed that year.

Nationalism was the defining feature of the Egyptian and Iraqi revolutions, and it was most clearly reflected in the foreign policies of these countries. The idea of social reform was not absent, and both regimes carried out land reforms. The main impact of the respective revolutions on their economies and societies was, however, the result of the adoption of socialism and a wave of nationalizations in Egypt in 1961, and the coming to power of the Ba˓th Party in Iraq in 1963.

The Iranian Experiment

The most important revolution in the twentieth-century Middle East, and the one with the greatest social and international impact, was the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran. Although it fits the pattern of revolution as part of the process of modernization of the state, its unique feature was the replacement of Islam for constitutionalism, nationalism, and socialism as the ideology of revolutionary transformation.

See alsoModernization, Political: Constitutionalism ; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa ; Revolution: Islamic Revolution in Iran ; Young Turks .


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Saïd A. Arjomand

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Revolution: Modern