When the history of the current Ukraine crisis is written, scholars will note that it began with demonstrations. The demonstrators were in significant measure young urbanites from the capital of Kiev, in search of a more Western orientation for their country. The European Union might be battered with a half-decadelong financial crisis. But the demonstrators, nevertheless, in large part saw the European Union in symbolic terms as a moral savior, promising a future of states governed by impersonal laws that treat everyone equally -- unlike the future promised by Russia's authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, and his local cohorts: that of nations, saddled with historical grudges, that seek glory for ethnic groups rather than rights for individuals. Cynics believed the demonstrations would peter out in the freezing cold Ukrainian winter, with insufficient public support. They were wrong. The demonstrators kept returning to Independence Square, also known as Maidan, toppling the pro-Moscow regime and changing European geopolitics.
Demonstrators obviously don't always get what they desire. The '60s youth rebellion in the United States split the Democratic Party of the era and alienated many middle-of-the-road American voters -- sometimes referred to as the silent majority -- and thereby helped enable the presidential election of the conservative Republican, Richard Nixon. Many of the Iranian students who demonstrated in massive numbers against the repression of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1978 thought that they were enabling the future of a more democratic and accountable government. Instead, they got the suffocating autocracy, laced with terrorism, of the Shiite ayatollahs. The young Egyptian idealists, influenced by the values of cosmopolitan global culture, thought that their demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square in early 2011 would break the back of military tyranny. Instead, their protests led to an immoderate Islamic regime that, in turn, was toppled by another military tyranny.
There are two major lessons here. Demonstrators, as numerous as they appear on the television screen -- and in the eyes of the media in general -- represent only a minute portion of the society, which may be with them or against them. And even if the society is with them, it does not mean that the same society has the social, economic and institutional traction for organizing itself into a version of the new political order for which the demonstrators yearn. Demonstrators often represent an educational elite, and an elite, well, by its very nature is not representative of the population at large, which, in the cases of Iran and Egypt, is composed of vast peasantries and proletariats prone to deep religiosity. The other lesson follows from the first: Just because demonstrators may be capable of undermining an existing order -- whether the administration of Lyndon Johnson or the rule of the Shah or of Hosni Mubarak or of Viktor Yanukovich -- does not mean that they have the capability of directing, or much less influencing, the emergence of a replacement order. For example, in recent times we have seen how social media can help depose regimes in the Arab world but is unable to foster the bureaucratic and institutional wherewithal to build better alternative ones.
The autocracies of Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria were all initially overthrown or at least weakened in 2011 by liberal-trending demonstrators. But with the exception of Tunisia, the result was either anarchy or partial anarchy, not a more liberal order. The fact that demonstrators are change agents does not mean that they know how to direct change. To wit, Ukraine may eventually turn out very different from what the original demonstrations in Kiev suggested.
Of course, massive demonstrations across Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 led to the end of Communist tyranny and its replacement by mostly liberal democracies of varying degrees of stability and competence. The difference between Europe and the Arab world is that Europe, as socially pulverized as it was by decades of Communism, nevertheless had the semblance of institutions and the historical memory of a middle class, as well as high literacy rates, that allowed it to survive the political rigors of freedom -- something that the Arab world, with the possible exception of Tunisia, lacked. And Tunisia, remember, is the most European of Arab countries -- geographically close to Europe, with a long history as a state and no significant ethnic or sectarian divides. In other words, demonstrators may all look similar on the television screen and shout similar things, but the societies in which they are enmeshed are all somewhat different. And it is that difference that determines what happens after the demonstrators remove an existing order.