The Arab Uprisings and the Many Meanings of Revolution

By Mona El-Ghobashy

When they unfolded over the winter of 2010-11, the Arab uprisings were jubilantly hailed as a region-wide freedom cascade that promised to end decades of predatory authoritarian rule. Presidents-for-life in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen fell under the pressure of sustained mass protests, threatening contagion for the famously stable monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan. However, as dauntingly complex political struggles broke out after the downfall of the presidents, and the monarchs retained their thrones, scholars, journalists, and citizens within and beyond the Arab world fell out of love with the revolutionary wave.

They began enumerating the uprisings’ failures and absences—old elites were not vanquished, merely reshuffled; revolutionary leaderships failed to materialize; political structures were not transformed; economic orders and social relations were not upended. The scholarly and popular mystique attending the idea of revolution was applied to the realities of post-2011 Arab polities, and the latter always came up short. The consensus was that these were not real revolutions.

What is a real revolution? Ever since 1789, the concept has signified total, thoroughgoing change, not simply an alteration in the form of government. As political philosopher Norberto Bobbio notes, the post-1789 concept of revolution “draws it closer and likens it to significant religious upheavals…it is not just the transformation of the political and social systems, but of human nature, even.”[1] The social sciences have perhaps a less grandiose definition, but their concept of “social revolution” is no less demanding, even transcendent. “What is unique to social revolution is that basic changes in social structure and in political structure occur together in a mutually reinforcing fashion,” argues Theda Skocpol in her field-defining 1979 book, States and Social Revolutions.[2] Acknowledging the rarity of such occurrences, Skocpol explains that she is attracted to them precisely because they are so momentous: “My concept of social revolution necessarily highlights successful change as a basic defining feature.”[3]

No wonder the Arab uprisings do not measure up. They lack the world-historical gravitas built into the concept of social revolution. And their ongoing outcomes fly in the face of any sensible idea of “successful change.” After ten years as the Arab region’s only functioning democracy, Tunisia is now imperiled by a presidential strongman who in 2021 dissolved parliament and attacked the judiciary, and in 2022 rewrote the constitution to reflect his plebiscitary conception of direct democracy. Egypt is governed by a personalized military dictatorship that incarcerates or eliminates all forms of opposition, even its erstwhile business cronies. Yemen, the Arabian peninsula’s sole republic, is ravaged by an air war between a Saudi-UAE alliance and Houthi rebels, rendering 80% of Yemenis in need of humanitarian aid. In Syria, the nationwide uprising did not end the 50-year rule of the al-Assad dynasty. With military support from Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad has subjected Syrians to staggering state violence; over half a million have perished and 13 million forced to flee their homes.

Two points can be made here. First, declaring “successful” versus “failed” outcomes leads to an unsatisfying, rigged explanatory strategy. The scholar reasons back from the result, plucking factors that purportedly explain success, and by extension noting the absence or dysfunction of those factors in the failures. This typically leads to some variation of lauding the foresight and capacities of revolutionaries in the successful cases and their myopia and disunity in the failed cases. But assuming that results merely mirror the actions and motives of one or two collective actors is an error, redacting the welter of interactions between multiple agencies and their indeterminate effects. Drawing a straight line between actions and results “sets aside any contingency that may be otherwise observed quite frequently in the emergence of these results,” sociologist Michel Dobry points out.[4]

Second, why should success be built into the definition of revolution? What if the outcome of revolution, whether success or failure, is de-coupled from its definition? This is the move I pursue in my book Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation. Instead of cataloguing the ways that Egypt’s 2011 uprising fails the test of real revolution, the book confronts the ambiguities attending the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year-rule over the largest Arab state. While the nationwide popular mobilization made it impossible for Mubarak to continue in power, it was the military high command that shunted him aside and declared themselves custodians of the revolution. While no broadly recognized revolutionary leadership emerged as a counter-power, Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other major cities’ central squares teemed with protesters throughout 2011-2013, pressuring the generals to pass a host of measures and forcing them to backtrack on plans to extend their interim rule.

The first-ever free and fair elections for parliament and presidency brought oppositions to power, but both institutions were dissolved before their terms were up. Parliament was disbanded by constitutional court order in 2012, and president Mohamed Morsi was toppled by a popularly-backed military coup in 2013. A Constituent Assembly chosen by parliament engaged in a highly conflictual constitution-making process, producing a charter that received 64% approval in a referendum, but only 33% of voters turned out. Ultimately it was replaced with a military-backed constitution. Hosni Mubarak, his two sons, their business cronies, and top police commanders were put on trial for corruption and the murder of unarmed protesters, but no policemen were convicted, and Mubarak’s convictions were overturned and he and his sons walked free after the 2013 coup.

What emerges from these and other events during the revolutionary interregnum is neither unassailable success nor abject failure, but a confounding mixed picture of, above all, struggle. One could settle for a halfway house and categorize Egypt’s 2011 as more than an uprising but less than a revolution. But there is a better option, found in revolution’s own rich conceptual history. Historians have long worked with an understanding of revolution that predates its 1789 aura of total rupture led by a motivated band of radicals. “In this semantic field, revolution was a fact but not yet a collective act,” writes Keith Michael Baker, “there were revolutions but no revolutionaries.”[5] Revolutions then meant disturbances and great upheavals in public affairs. No stipulation here of revolutionaries as the motive force, seizing power and reconstructing state and society along entirely new and coherent lines.

Without revolutionary leaders or organizations and revolutionary outcomes, what is left of the concept of revolution? This is the neglected idea of “revolutionary situation,” the conceptual anchor of my book. Historical sociologist Charles Tilly resurrected it from Leon Trotsky, who in turn borrowed it from Vladimir Lenin. Tilly rendered the concept useable for political analysis, defining such situations as junctures of fragmentation in state power. He defines a revolutionary situation as “a shift in power over the state that threatens every group having a stake in the existing structure of power at the same time as it offers new opportunities to every group—including existing power-holders—having the capacity to enhance its interests by acting quickly.”[6]

Where revolution-as-outcome draws attention to the work of building a new regime by the insurgents who seize state power, revolution-as-situation focuses on the prior, volatile juncture of acute struggle among multiple contenders over different parts of the state. Important here is a conception of the state not as a single organ but a panoply of institutions. New forces may control one part of the state while incumbent elites occupy another, making for an exceptionally turbulent politics. This is precisely what happened in Egypt, when for 6 months in 2012 parliament was controlled by Islamists, the executive by the military, and the judiciary by a crazy-quilt of judicial bodies, all making claims to sovereign power. President Morsi’s brief year in office was similarly characterized by a contest of sovereignties between the presidency, the constitutional court, the administrative courts, the upper house of parliament, and elite bureaucratic enclaves (prosecutors and the diplomatic corps) that increasingly resisted and undermined the president.

As with all conceptual shifts, this small but consequential redefinition changes the research program. The chaos and factional conflicts lamented by observers of the Arab uprisings come into focus not as aberrations from proper revolution, but as constitutive of what happens when a regime of political domination comes undone and another has yet to be built in its place. The notion of revolutionary situation rivets our attention not only on the revolutionary factions, if they exist, but on the high-stakes interactions among a longer cast list: the highly motivated stakeholders in the pre-revolutionary status quo; long-suppressed groups seeking recognition; adventurers drawn to the sudden openness of politics; multiple publics and their shifting allegiances; and the stances of foreign governments, all acting quickly, as Tilly says, to secure advantage.

Revolution-as-situation helps us understand a seemingly peculiar feature of contemporary revolutions: how quickly they cobble together broad coalitions calling for regime change, compared to the protracted and often defeated attempt to seize state power and build a new political order. Mark Beissinger focuses on these “urban civic revolutions” that rapidly assemble masses of people in public plazas to besiege a government, but have a more checkered record of capturing the state. By his count, from 1985 to 2014, there were 56 revolutions that displaced incumbent rulers, and another 67 attempts that failed to seize power.[7] This intriguing finding underscores how much we miss if we insist on building success into the definition of revolution. Success of an opposition in displacing incumbent rulers is but one of several possible outcomes of broad-based challenges to a regime; the other options are defeat, civil war, or a settlement between government and opposition. If an opposition does come to power, there is no guarantee that it will remain there. Revolutionary situation is a conceptual guide for making sense of the exceptional volatility of political contention once a regime is challenged by mass mobilization.

But it is not the only idea that we have for making sense of revolutionary upheaval. In his The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, Charles Kurzman reconstructs what living through Iran’s 1977-79 revolution felt like. Both Iranian activists and citizens who were not particularly political were “shocked by the sudden historicity of their lives.”[8] Their lived experience of revolution looked nothing like the standard social science accounts emphasizing inevitability, grand structural forces ushering in rapid change, or breakdown of state repressive organs. At the individual and small group level, the experience of revolution is all about intense confusion, ceaseless rumors, and continuous improvisation in response to new options for action. This experiential approach to revolution-era uncertainty is distinct from, yet complements, the organizational and factional focus of revolution-as-situation. One studies altered subjectivities, the other tracks changing relations between coalitions and organizations. Both get deep inside the politics of revolution, whatever their outcomes.

Revolution is one of the historical social sciences’ most captivating, protean concepts, shape-shifting over the centuries to encompass the breathtaking diversity of human political experience. It would be odd to insist on a single “best” or standard meaning, detached from history and canonized. My point is not to pronounce one definition of revolution superior to another. It’s that we should leverage revolution’s irreducible polysemy, selecting from its deposit of meanings to understand the power and fragility of revolution in our time.


Mona El-Ghobashy is a scholar of the history and sociology of politics in Egypt and the broader Middle East and North Africa. Her book Bread and Freedom: Egypt’s Revolutionary Situation (Stanford University Press 2021) is co-winner of the Charles Taylor Book Award and the MENA Politics Section award for best book, both of the American Political Science Association. She is Clinical Associate  Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University.

Title Image: Tahrir Square, February 11, 2011.

Further Reading:

Beck, Colin J., Mlada Bukovansky, Erica Chenoweth, George Lawson, Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Daniel Ritter. On Revolutions: Unruly Politics in the Contemporary World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.

Dunn, John. “Understanding Revolution.” In Revolution in the Making of the Modern World: Social Identities, Globalization and Modernity, edited by John Foran, David Lane, Andreja Zivkovic, 17-26. London: Routledge, 2008.

Kumar, Krishan. “The Revolutionary Idea in the Twentieth-Century World.” In Reinterpreting Revolution in Twentieth-Century Europe, edited by Moira Donald and Tim Rees, 177-197. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Endnotes:

[1] Norberto Bobbio, “Revolution Between Movement and Change,” Thesis Eleven 48 (February 1997): 113-129, 118.

[2] Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Michel Dobry, “Situational Analysis: Some Proposals for a Non-Popperian Programme,” in Mohamed Cherkaoui and Peter Hamilton, eds., Raymond Boudon: A Life in Sociology. Essays in Honor of Raymond Boudon (Oxford: The Bardwell Press, 2009), 299-315, 305 (emphasis in original).

[5] Keith Michael Baker, “Revolutionizing Revolution,” in Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein, eds., Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 76.

[6] Charles Tilly, European Revolutions, 1492-1992 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 12.

[7] Mark Beissinger, The Revolutionary City: Urbanization and the Global Transformation of Rebellion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022), 4.

[8] Charles Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 8.

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