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Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks out of his studio in Beijing November 15, 2011. Mr. Ai's secretive 81-day detention this year sparked worldwide attention. (David Gray/Reuters/David Gray/Reuters)
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei walks out of his studio in Beijing November 15, 2011. Mr. Ai's secretive 81-day detention this year sparked worldwide attention. (David Gray/Reuters/David Gray/Reuters)


Revolutions: Long in coming, they require disciplined preparation Add to ...

But this view glosses over the protesters and organizers who don't quite fit the 1968 historical parallel, the Islamists who long resisted authoritarians like Hosni Mubarak and now have a leadership role that could distort our understanding of the social-media revolution.

This is a challenge to the Western view of revolutions as strictly secular affairs, but there are analogues.

Pope John Paul II sustained a defiance against the overwhelming forces of Russian communism that inspired liberal Polish revolutionaries. Similarly, in East Germany, the Protestant churches that were heirs to a long tradition of snubbing authority became a centre for dissident gatherings. Democracy advocates in Egypt were making common cause with younger and more progressive members of the Muslim Brotherhood for years before the Arab Spring. Apparently, they didn't get the message that religion was the enemy of liberty.

Or more likely, they knew the revolution couldn't succeed without the active involvement of Brotherhood members: Since they connect with a considerable portion of the population, any democracy movement worth its name has to go through them. And now, like the American founding fathers, both groups will be forced to confront the role of religion head-on in their constitution-building, with whatever real-world consequences that entails.

If you're a Burke follower, this is where you reject the comforts of Prague Spring optimism and point to a harsher lesson from the revolutionary past: the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, another popular uprising against a pro-Western tyrant, yet one that gave way to a medieval theocracy with what pessimists would call historical inevitability.

But it's not good enough to depend on Burke's view of France and accept that revolutions are synonymous with debased mob rule. As historian Simon Schama has pointed out, aristocratic defectors like Lafayette played a key role in overthrowing the monarchy in France, and the hollowed-out reign of Louis XVI has numerous counterparts in the modern world. Leaders don't leave on their own. They're pushed out by former friends and colleagues.

For those who like their revolutionary causation to be quick and direct – the Berlin Wall falls, end of story – history is a distraction. The sudden, spontaneous side of change can't be denied, not when Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation incited Tunisian protests or the revelation that a dead girl's phone had been hacked finally persuaded Britons to stare down Rupert Murdoch's arrogant empire.

But a revolution's time frame needs to be extended far beyond the momentary present to make complete sense. Consider Anna Hazare, whose hunger strikes have galvanized support among the emerging Indian middle class: He's been challenging the way things are supposed to get done in India for decades, honing his skills in tumbledown villages before patiently making his way to the now-receptive multitudes in Delhi.

The Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, a veteran of the protests that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, has been meeting for years with opposition movements around the world that are fighting for his brand of non-violent regime change. Some look to have succeeded, as in Egypt. Others are very much a work-in-progress, as in Burma, Zimbabwe and Iran. But he's proof, for those who need it, that revolutions are long in coming and depend on disciplined preparation no matter what their untidy outcome.

Before Occupy Wall Street set the new standard for demonstrated discontent, there was Barack Obama. His capacity for believable change is due to be retested in 2012, an election that has the potential to put the political forces of right and left in much starker relief than they've been for years. Which makes proto-revolutionaries on this complacent continent wonder: Why was it so much easier in 2011 to admire far-off revolutions while treating the Occupy movement as a ragtag seasonal sit-in that inconvenienced dog-walkers?

Perhaps it's actually an encouraging sign that things aren't so bad when we can't be bothered to summon the mass anger of 1968, let alone the vengeful bloodlust of 1789. Or else maybe 2011 wasn't 1968, our last, best attempt at bucking the system. Maybe it's the year before, the goofy and self-conscious summer of love, when the coming chaos was still a small-time conspiracy.

Europe is falling apart and facing brutal austerity measures to go with huge youth unemployment. Republicans in the United States are blocking the president of the idealistic young while parading candidates who are trying to outdo each other in fundamentalist purity. Conservatives in Canada are lording it over leaderless opposition parties, savouring their majority swagger even though they represent an aging minority of eligible voters.

You've seen the dress rehearsal in 2011. Now it's time to get ready for opening night.

John Allemang is a senior feature writer for the Globe and Mail.

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