Revolutions amaze the world and can change it radically. The American, French and Russian Revolutions thrilled millions while simultaneously filling others with dread. Their ultimate outcomes and the scope of their wide-ranging impacts were at the time unknown. The same is true for the uprisings in progress in North Africa and the Middle East. In fact, it is yet to be seen whether or which of the uprisings will actually end up as genuine revolutions.
A revolutionary movement is a type of social movement in which participants are committed to great structural change, that is, replacing one or more basic institution, such as a society's political system or economic system, with a different one. For example, in the 1952 Egyptian and 1958 Iraq Revolutions monarchies, widely viewed as serving foreign interests, were overthrown and replaced by republics. If the current wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East succeed in replacing monarchies and other authoritarian regimes with democracies, they will also merit recognition as revolutions.
In the past some argued that only structural change brought about through violence qualified as revolution and others that although violence is not a necessary factor, sweeping change must be accomplished by illegal means to be labeled revolution. But especially after the largely non-violent political revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 and later in the Soviet Union in 1991, the conception of revolution defined solely in terms of major structural change and accomplished even through legal means appears to have gained wide acceptance.
What makes revolution possible? Analysis of past revolutions reveals that revolutionary movements are most likely to develop and succeed when five factors are simultaneously present: mass discontent, divided elites, unifying motivations that unite different social groups in support of revolution, a political crisis for the existing government involving loss of legitimacy and armed forces loyalty, and a permissive world context in that other nations do not intervene to prevent a revolution from succeeding.
A high level of mass discontent usually results from one or a combination of three processes: a decline in living conditions; a shift in the moral acceptability of existing conditions, political, economic or social, involving people coming to feel that their lives can and should be improved; or a period of improvement in living conditions followed by a sharp decline (the period of improvement brings expectation for future progress which is frustrated by the subsequent deterioration). Discontent preceding the outbreak of a revolutionary movement is often intensified by sensational events that outrage many people such as violent government repression of opponents.
For discontent to result in a revolutionary movement, people must become convinced that their problems are not due simply to current government leaders, but to the nature of one or more of society's basic social institutions. Defining the situation in this way is typically the task of emerging revolutionary leaders. Revolutionary leadership often develops from a division among elites. Elites are people with great power or wealth or culturally recognized leadership qualities such as high levels of charisma, intelligence, talent and/or education. The development of a division among elites simultaneous with mass discontent creates the possibility that dissident elite persons will provide leadership and organization for the aroused masses along with an ideology that establishes a basis for unifying different social groups in a revolutionary alliance. Such a unifying ideology justifies the need for revolution for reasons such as to free a people from foreign domination or from the oppression of a dictatorship. Another essential element, the deterioration of the legitimacy and coercive capacity of the existing government, provides an opportunity for revolutionaries to overcome the old system. This occurs when existing power holders are perceived as failing to competently address major problems, appear corrupt, and/or engage in unjustified acts of violence that alienate wide sectors of the public as well as of the armed forces. The final crucial factor is whether other nations decide to intervene and attack a developing revolution. If other nations are unwilling or incapable of assisting in the repression of revolutionaries, then the revolutionary movement has a better chance of succeeding.
Following the many revolutions of the past century, the world is experiencing a new surge of revolutionary movements sweeping through North African and Middle Eastern nations long characterized by authoritarian regimes. Why is this series of uprisings occurring now? We can answer this question in terms of several of the five factors essential for the development and success of revolutionary movements. Among the nations experiencing popular mobilizations for change, we will focus on the most populous, Egypt.
Mass discontent existed in Egypt for decades due to factors such as dictatorship, emergency rule, and the brutality of security forces. But discontent increased and became more potent in recent years due to the impacts of perceived increasing inequality and residential segregation between the extremely rich and the rest of the population, popular disagreement with aspects of Egyptian foreign policy, and the growth in the proportion of young adults in the population, especially highly educated young people unable to find employment in the types of jobs for which they trained. Young adults, idealistic and often as yet unrestrained by serious family obligations, are typically most prominent in mass protests. Relatively secularly oriented, highly educated young people provided the initial leadership for the first major demonstrations against the Mubarak regime. Their use of electronic media played a significant role in mobilizing people for protests for a democratic political system and contributed to a developing new method for informing and organizing participants in revolutionary movements.
The coming of the Obama presidency also appeared to play a major role in the outbreak of the pro-democracy protests by signaling the advent of world permissiveness. Within months of becoming president, Obama delivered an address in Cairo on June 4, 2009 to Islamic peoples around the world which included a powerful endorsement of indigenous democratic aspirations as a universal human right. Obama's speech convinced many that there was now a realistic opportunity for democratic movements to succeed even if they threatened pro-U.S. authoritarian regimes.
The outcomes of the 2011 revolutionary uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East are far from certain. First it is not clear whether genuine democratic systems will result from current protests. For example, the wealth concentrated in certain groups as well as the interests of military leaders may constitute temporary or even long term barriers to full democratization.
Second, even if democracies are established, such an accomplishment may mean little regarding the economic aspirations of many movement participants. The creation of democratic systems in dozens of countries in the past twenty-five years has generally not resulted in a decrease in economic inequality. In fact one of the greatest disappointments in terms of revolutionary economic goals has been South Africa where income inequality appears to have actually increased since the end of apartheid. An extended period of mass mobilization may be necessary, even after democracy is established, to achieve more economic equality and social justice in Egypt and other nations in the region.
Third, the enormous concentration of wealth in the monarchies of the region's oil rich nations might well become a further target of the current revolutionary wave. Without a significant redistribution of energy revenue, the economic grievances of the masses in the area's resource poor countries may be difficult or impossible to adequately address. Thus the outcomes in individual states may be interdependent with what happens in others.