Protesters hold a flag of Tunisia as others shout slogans during a demonstration in a street of central Tunis on January 21, 2011.

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after the police confiscated his fruit stand.

His self-immolation struck a chord with young people around the country and throughout the Middle East. Within days, protests erupted around the region, from Syria to Egypt and Libya, as millions demanded economic, political, and social reforms from governments that were chronically unresponsive to their needs. Such shows of civil disobedience had been extremely rare in these countries, where authoritarian leaders forbade political dissent.

But despite taking place at the same time and in neighboring countries, these revolutions—collectively referred to as the Arab Spring—took dramatically different directions. Tunisia successfully ousted its longtime dictator and transitioned to a democracy. Libya, Syria, and Yemen descended into devastating civil wars that have continued for a decade. In Egypt, citizens voted in the country’s first free and fair election in 2012, only for a counterrevolution the following year to install yet another military regime.

Revolutions come in all shapes and sizes, but at their core they are mass mobilizations that simultaneously overthrow both the government and the social structures that support the political system, ushering in rapid and significant change to a society. These powerful political movements have the potential to reshape not only a government but a country’s standing in the world. The United States, France, and Haiti, for example, are all products of eighteenth-century revolutions inspired by calls for greater individual rights and freedoms.

Importantly, revolutions are not automatically “good” or “bad.” They can free people from the grip of foreign powers or a repressive government and usher in an era of economic prosperity and political stability. Alternatively, they can lead to greater disorder and chaos, and an even more brutal regime could take the place of the ousted government.

This lesson explores a revolution’s defining characteristics in order to make sense of the next such movement that challenges a ruling authority when it arrives.

What Drives Revolutions? 

Why did so many people across the Middle East participate in the Arab Spring? In Tunisia, protesters demanded “the fall of the regime.” In Egypt, demonstrators called for “bread, freedom, and social justice.” Although these slogans make for memorable rallying cries, all the reasons revolutions start would never fit on a poster. Instead, they are rooted in deeper economic, political, and social grievances. 

Economic grievances: Bouazizi set himself on fire because the government confiscated his sole source of income: his fruit stand. Widespread poverty and unemployment are common drivers of unrest, especially in countries with high inequality like Tunisia, where select individuals with personal ties to the government amass immense wealth while many citizens live in poverty.

Political grievances: Many authoritarian countries limit participation in politics. Some countries do not hold elections, while in others elections are neither free nor fair. For example, Muammar al-Qaddafi—Libya’s four-decade-long dictator—ruled the country with unchecked power, imprisoning political opponents until his ouster in the country’s 2011 revolution.

Social grievances: Humiliation—whether in the form of discrimination, persecution, or a lack of opportunities—is a common driver of unrest. Government oppression is another factor. In Syria, protests demanding the fall of the country’s dictator erupted in early 2011 after government security forces arrested and tortured a group of teenage boys who had written anti-regime graffiti on a school wall.

Illustration of an iceberg representing how the Tunisian man setting himself on fire in 2010 was just the 'tip of the iceberg' of Tunisian grievances. Many Tunisians were also upset about other economic, political, and social issues.

What Influences the Outcome of a Revolution?

Some revolutions begin suddenly, taking rulers by surprise, ousting a regime, and resulting in dramatic political change. Others go on for years and end with the government and revolutionaries at the negotiating table, perhaps agreeing to reforms such as a power-sharing agreement. Still others are stopped short, with the government resuming control—often after brutal crackdowns.
Why are some movements successful in overthrowing their government while others fail to do so?
In some countries, the government is able to restrict, monitor, and censor social media, which prevents demonstrators from gathering and helps rulers target political activists and deflate protest movements. In Iran, the government shut down the internet for a week amid countrywide protests in 2019, which made organizing demonstrations more difficult and hampered news reporting on the situation.
In certain instances, governments attempt to crush protest movements with forceful crackdowns. Egyptian security forces, for example, killed hundreds of their fellow citizens during a 2013 demonstration that challenged the country’s new military regime. But what happens if the military refuses to fire on protesters and instead stands in solidarity with revolutionaries? In such instances, the government is left largely powerless, as was the case when the Tunisian military supported the country’s Arab Spring protest movement.
Successful movements need to agree on aims. Anyone who has worked on a group project in school knows how difficult it is to manage expectations, the workload, and the final outcome. When revolutionaries can’t agree on goals and how to accomplish them, they risk splintering into a patchwork of movements, often with competing agendas. This was the case in Syria, where scores of different rebel groups took up arms against the country’s government but could not agree on what a political settlement should look like.
Factors outside the country altogether can also determine a revolution’s success or failure. Intervention by foreign countries—either in favor of the government or the protest movement—can make or break a revolution. Countries such as the United States, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey intervened in Arab Spring protests with money, weapons, and diplomacy, hoping to sway the outcomes in countries including Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Some of these conflicts drew so much foreign intervention they became proxy wars, or conflicts in which foreign countries with competing interests battle it out by supporting opposing sides in an otherwise domestic conflict. In other instances, outside intervention quickly quelled revolutions, as was the case when Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain in 2011.

What Are the Foreign Policy Effects of a Revolution?

Revolutions that take place in one country often reverberate well beyond that country’s borders.

Revolutions can inspire like-minded movements across the world, just as the slogan of the Tunisian revolution—the people want the fall of the regime—echoed throughout the Middle East. Post-revolution governments can even support groups in other countries that share its goals and ideology. The Soviet Union did so extensively throughout its history, and Iran has been sanctioned for attempting to export its 1979 revolution to the rest of the Middle East.

Cuba—another country that has historically supported revolutions around the world—is also an example of how a revolution can have dramatic foreign policy implications. The island country was once a close economic and political ally of the United States, but revolutionaries saw the United States as a supporter of the regime that oppressed them. After the 1959 revolution, the new Cuban government cut all ties with the United States and instead developed close relations with the Soviet Union.

Revolution: Case Studies

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