It only takes a spark to ignite the flames of revolution. As the spirit of changes sweeps through the Middle East, we all should be reminded of the struggles against oppression that has marked the human condition throughout history. The human spirit is difficult to extinguish; a fact that is evident as the quest for justice and freedom continues to take center stage in the face of overwhelming odds. Here are 10 of the most notable (and violent) revolutions that have resonated in the minds and hearts of our consciousness.
10. The Intifada (1987-93 and 2000-04)
The ongoing struggle in Israel between the government and the Palestinians has seen two separate uprisings. The issue at hand is the desire of the Palestinian people to have an independent state apart from Israel. Generally, the areas that are in dispute are the West Bank and the Gaza strip, two very familiar names to most folks. Both of these areas were under Palestinian control until their capture during the Six-day War of 1967. Israel, for its part was not inclined to give them back (they were the ones attacked, after all). The first intifada (which is an Arabic term meaning to throw off) started off as civil disobedience protest against Israeli rule. Demonstrations turned into strikes that turned into riots that turned into wholesale violence. The Palestinians resorted to so-called terror tactics on Israeli military and civilian targets. Israel, in turn, responded with economic sanctions, mass imprisonments and of course military retaliation. Death for many on both sides ensued. The continual violence necessitated both sides to regain some common sense and seek a diplomatic resolution to end the fighting. This desire resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords which provided for Palestinian rule in the city of Jericho in West Bank (later, the agreement was expanded to include most of the West Bank), as well as the Gaza Strip territory. For awhile, peace was the word.
No good thing can last for long and this apparently includes peace between Palestine and Israel. While the Oslo Accords addressed some of the issues at hand, they did not deal with all of them. Essentially, Palestinians were seeking increased self-determination and economic independence, while Israel had sovereignty and security concerns. A failed peace summit in 2000 led to another uprising. Called the Al Aqsa Intifada, this round of conflict pretty much followed the same script as the previous one. Palestinians attacked Israeli military and civilian targets and the Israeli military responded brutally in return. Additionally, Israel retook land that it had ceded control to the Palestinian Authority. Needless to say, more death ensued before calmer heads prevailed. When the smoke finally cleared the death toll from both uprisings combined stood at approximately 30,000 people.
9. Chechen Revolution (1994-96)
Not to be out done by the Middle East, Eastern Europe has also found itself a cauldron of brewing revolutions that has garnered the attention of America. Chechnya is a small Eastern European locale that has a history of rebellion dating back to the early 1800s. With the collapse (or at the time, collapsing) of the Soviet Union, Chechen authorities concluded the time was ripe to declare their independence from the Soviet Union/Russian Federation in 1991. At the time, Russian authorities had other pressing problems to deal with besides a breakaway republic, though they did not recognize the republics calls for independence. This period of relative quiet ended in 1994 when Russian forces finally garnered their attention to the breakaway Republic and invaded Chechnya. With many of the former Soviet Union satellites and republics becoming sovereign nations once again (i.e. Ukraine, Georgia, ect.), the Russians had had enough. Russian forces, not known for being particularly even-handed in their approach, were brutal (The Russians just about completely destroyed the city of Groznyy before capturing it). Out matched and out gunned, the Chechen government was ousted and Russians set up a puppet regime. Nevertheless, pockets of rebels (as they usually do) continued to hold out and take the fight to the Russians over the course of the next couple of years. Finally, a peace accord was reached in 1996 that essentially allowed Chechnya to be an autonomous entity within the Russian Federation, but not secede and become a sovereign state. By the end of the conflict, more than 40,000 people were dead (mostly Chechen civilians) and over 300,000 displaced refugees.
8. Kosovo Rebellion (1997-99)
The strife in Kosovo is about as convoluted as any that can be found. The main issue – if one really gets to the bottom of the matter – is tied up in ethnic tension between Serbians and Albanians. Put it another way, they don’t particularly like one another; the reasons for which relate to matters that transpired in the midst of history. Nevertheless, Kosovo happens to be an area (located in the sovereign state of Serbia and Montenegro) that is ethnically important (some would say sacred) to Serbians. However, as it so happens, Kosovo has a population that is about 80% Albanian. Naturally, the Albanians would prefer not to be a part of the whole Serbia and Montenegro thing going on and instead have voiced their desire to either be a sovereign state in their own right or to be annexed into the sovereign nation of Albania. Of course the Serbian minority population of Kosovo doesn’t agree, nor does the nation state to which Kosovo is a part of. To this end, Kosovar Albanians decided to take up arms and force the issue. Calling themselves the Kosovo Liberation Army, they set out to attack Serbian targets. In retaliation, Serbian forces launched a campaign to simply wipe out the Kosovar Albanians, or at least anyone they determined was a problem. The violence resulted in hundreds of dead Kosovar Albanians and with over 200,000 people (again Albanians) displaced. The sheer brutality of the Serbian forces enticed many to join the rebels in the hills and fight. By 1999, the United Nations was convinced that further Serbian forces were intent on committing genocide by completely wiping out the Kosovar Albanian population (about 1.5 million people). NATO intervened militarily (including US forces) and eventually an agreement to end hostilities was signed. By this time, it is estimated that well over 4,000 are dead and 600,000 Kosovar Albanians were displaced, though most returned under the protection of UN peace keeping forces. Kosovo remained a territory under Yugoslav sovereignty, but was essentially a protected territory of the United Nations.
7. Bosnian Civil War (1992-95)
The civil war that erupted in the former Eastern European country of Yugoslavia was another military engagement that involved NATO and the United Nations (and United States forces assigned to peace keeping duty). The disintegration of the Soviet Union left a political vacuum in Eastern Europe that reignited much of the regional animosity that had existed prior to Soviet domination of the area. Such was the case in Bosnia. Bosnia (officially called Bosnia and Herzegovina) was one of the six republics that made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia being the other five). Bosnia, unlike the other republics with significant ethnic majorities was comprised of equally large populations of Muslim Slavs, Serbs, and Croats, with each side receiving assistance from either Serbia or Croatia. Serbian military forces (which were better trained and equipped) managed to take control of about 70% of Bosnia. The Serbs then launched a massive ethnic cleansing campaign to rid the areas they controlled of all non-Serbian people. These atrocities led to worldwide attention and condemnation. The Croats then launched an attack against their former Muslim allies. While the territory in contention was not dramatically altered – both sides committed their own versions of ethnic cleansing. The atrocities committed were horrendous with well over 200,000 deaths. Mass murder and rape, tens of thousands of people placed in modern day concentration camps and executed (mostly Muslims), and torture was the business at hand. The war finally came to an end with NATO and UN intervention.
6. Egyptian Revolution (2011)
When most people think of Egypt, images of pyramids and stories of pharaohs are the usual affair. Certainly, in the eyes of the United States, the Egyptian government under Hosni Mubarak represented a measure of stability in an unstable region. This wasn’t the case in 2011, when the eyes of the world watched a revolution unfold on their televisions. In the mold of many leaders around the world, Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak was popular abroad and generally disliked at home. Mubarak had been the president of Egypt since 1981 when he assumed the presidency after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat. Western nations, including the US, generally supported the Mubarak government because of its willingness to align Egypt with pro-western policies that affected the region (particularly the Middle East). The story on the home front, however, was much different. Egypt, during the entire length of Mubarak’s rule was officially under martial law (a move that began after the assassination of al-Sadat and simply never ended). This gave Mubarak exceptional powers over the country. Those powers were used in a very autocratic manner. Any opposition to his government was silenced in one form or another. Mubarak also cracked down on what he termed religious fundamentalism, which in turn, angered a largely religious population. Guerilla warfare-like violence ensued and was sporadically a problem throughout Mubarak’s regime. Dissatisfaction with Mubarak’s regime culminated in a popular uprising that was generally unforeseen in January 2011. Surprisingly, this revolt unlike other similar uprisings was fairly bloodless. With the exception of a few clashes between protesters and government forces (with casualties only numbering a few hundred), the downfall of Mubarak’s reign was the result of mass demonstrations held in major Egyptian cities. Coupled with wide-spread media exposure and pressure from the international community Mubarak decided to step aside leaving the military in charge of plotting a new course for this ancient nation.
5. Iranian Revolution (1978-79)
The Middle East has always been a hotbed for revolution. Iran, a consistent focus of international attention in recent years, was also headline news in the 70s. During the majority part of the 60s and 70s, Iran was ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Shah (or ‘the king’) initiated a sweeping set of reforms in the early 60s (Ironically, called the White Revolution) that severely limited traditional religious authority and influence in the nation. As a result of the Shah’s more secular leanings, the US lent its financial support to the regime (promoting regional stability and other security concerns). Unfortunately, for the Shah, his governmental reforms didn’t go over very well with Iran’s clergy or most anyone else in the country. Out of this discontent came Ayahtollah, Ruhollah Khomeini. The Ayahtollah (literally “gift of God”, and is a term for a religious scholar) as early as 1963 began fermenting dissent against the Shah’s government. He particularly lambasted western and specifically US influence in Iranian affairs. Though the Ayahtollah was quickly exiled, he continued to sow the seeds of revolution from Iraq and then France. It all came to a boil in 1978 as demonstrators (about 20,000 strong) were fired upon by government security forces. This was the day that became known as Black Friday. Several hundred students were killed and thousands of others were hurt. Within a few months, protestors began rioting across the country, attacking any symbol of so-called Western “decadence” (liquor stores, banks, government institutions, etc.). Finally, disgruntled soldiers rebelled and attacked officers of the Shah’s Imperial guard. This was the Shah’s death knell and in 1979 he fled the country, leaving the Ayatollah Khomeini and his plans for an Islamic state behind. It wasn’t long after this that the US embassy in Iran was taken over by militants (because the US support of the Shah) and held the personnel assigned there as hostages. The rest – of course – is history.
4. The Cuban Revolution (1952-58)
The 60s were a turbulent time period for the United States. This was the heyday of the Cold War and the US had serious concerns about the communist government that had been established off its southern shores in Cuba (the Bay of Pigs incident, the Cuba missile crisis, and economic sanctions were all a result of this tension). The communist (actually, it is socialist) government of Cuba, led by Fidel Castro had its beginnings – like many governments – in the fires of revolution. Cuba of the 1950s was in the hands of Fulgencio Batista. He was a dictator who wasn’t particularly popular with the people. During a period from 1952 until 1958, Fidel Castro and his band of rebels (one of a number of anti-Batista groups) led a competent guerilla campaign from the mountains against the government. The military victories, however, were only one factor that would eventually lead to success for Castro. Brilliantly (because it worked), Castro was also able to establish a network of international support for his cause (including the US). It was this international support that convinced Batista that his cause was a losing one and following in the footsteps of other dictators, found somewhere else to be before a bullet found him. Castro assumed the mantle of President and flipped a switch that apparently no one saw coming by establishing a communist (as opposed to a democratic) government in the country. Castro cut off ties with the US and pretty much ended the US’s age old influence in Cuban affairs. To the US’s consternation, Castro’s reign continues to this day despite several attempts to end it over the years.
3. Lebanese Civil War (1975-90)
Civil war is just another way of saying revolution. Lebanon, for its part, is a Middle East nation that, while not militarily significant, has nevertheless been a cauldron of tension that has been a factor in the consistent unrest in the region. The 15 year civil war was a result of ethnic and religious intolerance. The history prior to the war is long and convoluted. Suffice to say, that by the 1960s, Lebanon consisted of two major blocks of people: Christians, who were the minority, yet held the government and other key military posts of authority; and the Muslims, who were the majority but were being held from assuming any authority by the Christian minority. The Christian government became increasingly alarmed as the number of former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) militia members started to rise among the ranks of the Muslims. These militias, to put a point on the situation, were heavily armed. Naturally, the Christian government was not particularly keen on the idea of giving up its power base and it certainly wasn’t inclined to allow the Muslims to go about arming themselves in East Beirut – and civil war erupted. By the time the conflict (technically) ended in 1990, well over 200,000 people had been killed. Virtually every nation in the region (Jordan, Israel, Syria, Iran etc.) had intervened in the conflict at one point or another, including the United Nations (with peace keeping troops – some from the US). Lebanon existed less as a sovereign nation than it did a smoldering collection of cities. With its economy in ruins and the nation on the brink of simply not existing, an uneasy peace was reached. In the end, the Muslim majority was able to obtain more authority within a type of coalition government.
2. American Civil War (1861-65)
The War Between the States was the deadliest military contest in American history. This war pitted son against father and brother against brother. By the 1800s, American society found itself split into two distinct and competing regional areas: the North and the South. The main issue, if distilled down to one single factor that ignited the passions of the people to the point of civil war was slavery. The South depended on slavery as the force of labor that allowed their agricultural based economy (dependent on the growing and exporting of cotton) to exist. The North, on the other hand, didn’t depend on slave labor, instead utilizing immigrants to work in its factories and build its infrastructure. With the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, the Southern states felt that their political influence was in dire jeopardy and seceded from the United States. President Lincoln found this unacceptable. The newly formed Confederate States of America then took the fight to the Union. The Union was initially unprepared to fight a war. While the North could field a larger army and had more resources, their forces were inadequately led (at least in the eastern campaigns). The Confederacy, on the other hand, would produce some of America’s greatest military leaders. True grit, however, only goes so far. Failing to obtain foreign support (which was the element that allowed the Americans during the Revolution to defeat the British, the Confederacy could not long match the resources that were available to the North. Still, the fight was a bloody one. More than 600,000 men lost their lives in this conflict, with well over a million casualties. The property damage was in the billions of dollars. And while more than 4 million slaves were given their freedom and the country was reunited, the emotional scars from the war were deep and to a certain degree, remain to this very day.
1. American Revolution (1775-83)
No list of this nature would be complete without including the conflict that defined the fight for freedom: the American Revolution. The struggle was borne out of a dissatisfaction of the 13 British colonies established on the east coast of America with Great Britain. A lack of adequate political representation within the British government, economic disparity and oppression, a natural attitude of self-reliance, and being located several thousands of miles away (and separated by a vast ocean), all contributed to American discontent. As a result, armed revolt was the answer in 1775 (with the declaration of independence coming a year later in 1776). Interestingly enough at the onset of hostilities, the 13 original colonies considered themselves as separate and sovereign nations; though with common interest. It wasn’t until 1781 that the states placed themselves under a united (loosely used) banner with the Articles of Confederation. Nevertheless, the task ahead of the American “rebels” was daunting. The British military was arguably the finest in the world (their navy was unquestionably so). They were well armed and expertly trained, with the resources of a wealthy nation behind them. The Americans, on the other hand, were poorly situated in every single category. In fact, the Continental Army struggled to the very end of the war to maintain itself. Nevertheless, what the Americans lacked in – well everything – they did have the advantage of fighting on their own land. This meant they had a much shorter line of supply (no oceans to cross) and a friendly population surrounding them. The rest, as they say is history. But the path to victory was a bloody one with 50,000 plus American (20,000 British) casualties once hostilities ended.