Preliminary Theoretical and Empirical Deliberation

By Philipp O. Amour

The purpose of this section is to sum up the concept of revolution and to distinguish a revolution from different forms of social disturbances.



A successful revolution usually involves two stages.

In the first stage, a revolutionary transaction takes place in a slow or sudden fashion, causing a shift in the state leadership. Such a shift must be accompanied with institutional developments in the short or long term.

These developments are essential for the first stage of the prospective revolution. This first stage, the transition period, of would-be revolution is a prelude to the reenacting of the state, government and society.

A replacement of the old political elite by a new one is on its own no successful revolution.

In the second stage, the revolutionary leadership attempts a transition period to consolidate the democratization process and to generate socio-economic reforms and social developments. Sweeping transition of the social order may take several generations to accomplish.

A transition period is frequently crucial to continue on the revolutionary course due to differences in driving ideologies, transformative expectations, and prospective course between and among soft-liners and hard-liners, reformers and principlists.

A transition period is more likely to be successful if professional and public groups prioritize national interests and the stabilization of the transitioning state administration/newly elected leadership instead of personal and party particularities.

A pronounced revolution that has established a new political system and generated a novel social order is an effective one that has successfully completed both these stages.

Examples of historic revolutions are the Glorious Revolution (1688) or the French Revolution of 1789. Research demonstrates, however, that most of the would-be revolutions did not complete the second stage due to different complications.

Unsuccessful revolutions are thus more common than (successful) revolutions. The abovementioned forms of revolutionary actions are bottom-up. Other prospective revolutionary actions are top-down, such as a coup d’état. A revolutionary outcome of this form is not certain, however.

What make revolution more likely to arise?

So far, the chapter has dealt with the concept of revolution. The question remains valid as to what makes revolution more likely to occur.

In answering this question, social scientists tend to deliver explanations grounded in their disciplines, such as economy, sociology, political science and history.

In their analyses, most social scientists mark a distinction between long-term causes as underlying factors for the rise of the prospective revolution and short-term, immediate causes invoked by a triggering incident.

What are the classical long-term underlying causes of a revolution?

First, socio-economic causes. Increasing poverty among the polity marked by imbalance between rapid growth of population, level of employment, production and distribution could have major implications for the state’s leadership.

Rational economic motivations are significant. The presence/absence of net income and the level of inequality incentives seem to have a specific impact on the occurrence of revolution. Economic hardships may result in an increase in taxes and inflation.

These may increase the level of disaffection among wider fragments of the nation. Research reveals that poverty-led mobilization did not bring out a revolution, contrary to cases in middle-income states. Scholars argue that poverty may start a revolution. A high level of poverty, however, results most likely in submission and hopelessness.

Mobilization in low-income countries may cause a revolution if a major portion of the professionals, in particular the army, refrain from interference against the ongoing revolution or decide to step onto the side of the revolutionaries.

When do professionals refrain from backing up the ruling authority or even join the side of the ongoing revolution? Mutiny becomes an option for professionals who consider the ruler an antagonist for reforms and fundamental change. Such groups of professionals start to increasingly desert the ruler and welcome a possible shift.

If the ruler can no longer hold allowance to his/her clientele, then material support is no longer a guarantee for the persistence of the ruling authority. Such development may increase the disaffection among the political elite; more loyalists come to terms with the uncomfortable possibility that sooner or later the ruling authority will collapse.

If the misfortune of the whole clientele appears to be on the rise, then members of the clientele regard the ruler as a burden for their survival. Under these circumstance, resentment may grow among professionals; the ruler becomes disposable.

To gain control of the unfolding situation, the unstable elite may seek to induce reforms and initiate radical changes or to tackle the government’s/state’s leadership. If the ruler loses the support of the professionals, then the ruler will scramble to survive.

Second, a common discontent with the socio-political situation towards an oppressive system and bad governance. An interplay of socio-economic and socio-political causes increases the gap between polity, on the one hand, and the ruling authority, on the other hand.

If this gap widens, then the revolutionary context becomes more effective for carriers of a potential revolution and dangerous for the repressive ruling authority. Within this process of moving from equilibrium to disequilibrium, a shared narrative of opposition can transform popular resentment towards authority into mass revolutionary actions.

Third, the presence of revolutionary brokers and public groups to bond and rally mass groups for widespread mass mobilization. Technological changes through history have been an integral part of revolutionary expansion.

Currently, the Internet revolution and social media applications are supportive for the ability of public groups and revolutionary brokers to include further segments of the people in the ongoing revolution and turn it from an isolated into a mass movement.

Fourth, a successful revolution requires a positive international context; hence, foreign states are aware that the revolutionary outcomes of constitutional and institutional shifts alter a state’s foreign policy and regional rationale, thus affecting their own national rationale.

Fifth, a triggering incident will most likely open a revolution if the element of surprise is in favor of such an opening. When all these factors come into play together, the self-regulating dynamics, cohesion and self-confidence of the ruling authority suffer, to the advantage of the carriers of a prospective revolution.

Then, a would-be revolution is more likely to occur. However, the interaction of all the above mentioned factors is exceptional. None of the factors is conclusive in and by itself. This explains the rarity of successful revolutions.

Reflections on the Arab Spring movement

Since the setup of the inter-state system in the Middle East, Arabs and other ethnicities have suffered the political oppression of their political leadership and socio-economic hardship caused by authoritarian rulers and bad governance.

At different times, Arabs have reacted with hope for a better future, with submission, or with frustration; almost every decade, Arabs oppose their dire conditions in the form of violent and non-violent actions

However, most of these mobilizations have remained exclusive or were terminated by the authoritarian leadership. Notably, Arabs had and still have grounds to revolt. What about the Arab Spring movement?

At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, thousands of people in different states in the Middle East started a potential revolution against long-settled autocracies. A minor triggering incident occurred in Tunisia, suddenly.

This stimulus mushroomed in size, yielded widespread collective actions throughout the country and transcended national boundaries. In terms of expansion, the conflict spread first from Tunisia, then to Egypt and other states and finally to Syria, culminating in the termination of certain states’ leadership.

In several ways, the timing of the potential revolutions was surprising to many contemporaries.

Arabs set out to demand change of the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Thus, the second decade of the 21st century was captious for several former dictators and quasi-dictators:

  • The Tunisian president Bin Ali became the first head of state to be toppled by the ‘people powers’.
  • The deposed president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was arrested, along with others of the old guard, and put on trial after mass demonstrations before he was released by the current ruling authority.
  • The self-alleged king of the African kings, Gaddafi, fought against revolutionary groups and a Western alliance to avoid his removal before he was caught and murdered.
  • The Yemini President Ali Saleh was forced to resign and was killed years later.

In other states in the Middle East, as in Jordan, Palestine, and elsewhere, crowds went spontaneously into the streets; they used the social media for mobilization, demanding economic and political reforms. The social movements in these states did not demand the overthrow of the state as did those in the former category.

Motivated by a heroic vision of revolution and chasing revolutionary glory, protestors called their uprisings a revolution. Observers regarded the Arab uprisings as a revolutionary wave of regional scope as part of an extended third wave or a fourth wave of democracy.

Two elements of thought deliver some degree of clarification for this perspective.

First, the revolutionary happenings were extensive in specific Arab countries and quite far-reaching in the Middle East. They came as unexpected to most people who followed their progress in part live on television.

Second, the events promised to have both an extended and emancipatory impact on the long-seated states’ system. Contemporaries assumed that a domino effect would take place in the Arab Middle East and turn the region into a garden of democracy.

Undeniably, the Arab Spring movement began with fruitful revolutionary perspectives. The uprising in Tunisia set in motion dynamics that would lead to further social movements in other Arab states. Small-scale revolutionary events in the first category managed to unfold as large-scale actions.

Mass demonstrations and public groups pressured the authoritarian executive (and legislative) administrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen to resign from power.

Later, elections were held, and newly elected politicians ran the second stage of the prospective revolution, the transition stage, to lead sweeping political and socio-economic changes. These developments can be seen as positive outcomes of the revolutionary interactions taking place in the Middle East since 2010.

However, apart from Tunisia, no Arab Spring state has managed to reach the second stage of revolution. A coup d’état took place in Egypt that put an end to the transition stage of the celebrated Egyptian revolution and returned the state of state-society relations and human and citizen rights to that of pre-revolutionary times.

Libya and Yemen, two states that completed the first stage of the revolution, dissolved into civil wars and hotspots for proxy wars between and among regional powers.

Libya and Yemen (as well as Syria) initially began as non-violent uprisings; they unfolded into cases of civil war, notably as insurrections from within and without, and hence, external forces became involved in the alleged revolutionary happenings for self-serving grounds of regional hegemony.

Against this background, the potential revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen failed. Civil wars and proxy wars in the mentioned states have caused much domestic disorder and dire human conditions.

By 2012, most states in the Middle East had become aware of the potential for a revolution at home and were able to prevent a domestic overthrow of the state leadership/old regime through economic reforms or repression.

Large-scale revolutionary events in other Arab states (e.g., Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, and Palestine) did not take place.


Philipp O. Amour is Assistant Professor of International Relations (IR) and Middle East Studies (MES) at Sakarya University’s Middle East Institute.


The Source: Chapter 8 in ‘The Middle East Reloaded Revolutionary Changes, Power Dynamics and Regional Rivalries Since the Arab Spring’. Philipp O. Amour (Ed.). Academica Press. London-Washington.



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