Analysing the Arab 'democratic revolutions'


There has been a great deal of wild speculation about the character and consequences of so-called ‘democratic revolutions’ in the Middle East. In this short essay, international relations specialist John Heathershaw, pursuing a historically-grounded power analysis, argues that comparison with post-communist states sheds some light on what is happening and helps us identify both the hope and tragedy in ongoing events - not least from a Christian perspective that seeks to demand justice and practice nonviolence. He also contrasts principled and pragmatic approaches to nonviolent action, and discerns six parallels between the two waves of rebellion.

Hope and Tragedy in the Middle East: Lessons from the Post-Communist ‘Coloured Revolutions’


Euphoria and triumphalism inside and outside of Egypt have understandably emerged in the wake of the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak on Friday 11 February 2011. [1] When an authoritarian kleptocrat is held to account, whether by secular liberals or Islamic conservatives, the world rejoices. [2]

Moreover, the consequences of this ‘revolution’, and the resignation of Tunisia’s Ben Ali before it, seem to be wide-ranging. Uprisings from Algeria to Yemen, from Bahrain to Libya, have been met by violence but are yet to be put down. Commentators have speculated on an ‘Arab Spring’, spoken of the battle for the ‘Arab soul’ and predicted democratic contagion across the region. [3]

However, many of these voices, including some of those coming from the protestors, lack balance and perspective. Triumphalism is inappropriate given the tragic deaths of many hundred and perhaps thousands across the region.

A more sober, comparative and historically-grounded view of the power of such popular rebellions suggests that their impact is limited not just by government suppression but by schisms within their own ranks and the support showered on regimes by Western powers that now claim to stand behind the protestors.

Several years ago, the spirit of ‘revolution’ spread across the Former Soviet Union following the ousters of Milosevic in Serbia (2000), Shevardnadze in Georgia (2003), Yanukovych in Ukraine (2004) and Akaev in Kyrgyzstan (2005). I spent a little time studying these rebellions, witnessed the ‘Tulip Revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan first-hand and slowly came to several conclusions about the role of popular protests in toppling authoritarian governments in post-communist states.

These post-communist states are quite different to the Arab regimes which are falling or on the brink in the Middle East. Moreover, the contagion of ‘revolution’ across the Arab world today is shocking in its speed and intensity. That said, we can discern at least six parallels between these two waves of rebellion.

1. The power of non-violence

First, whilst there were many differences to divide the protesters in the former Soviet Union, the vast majority of them shared a commitment to non-violent methods. Few had the willingness to take up arms but many were brave enough to risk their lives and limbs in demonstrations and occupations of government buildings.

In Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine it was the sustained and non-violent nature of the protests gradually heaped pressure on regimes which felt unable to respond with violence with the international media spotlight focused on their countries. If the protests had turned violent then a violent response would have been legitimated and the tenuous unity of protestors would have disintegrated.

Egypt’s events should remind us that national movements of non-violence are far more effective as legitimate removals of governments than all the bombs and guns deployed by the United States against authoritarian regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2. An apparent emulation effect

Second, the post-communist countries suggest that one ‘revolution’ incites another. However, this emulation or diffusion is more complex than it appears at first sight.

The power of non-violence to effect change may lead us to try and spot patterns in each case – a model of non-violent resistance – that can be repeated in other countries. Theorists of non-violence, such as Gene Sharp [4] of the Albert Einstein Institution [5], have sought to specify particular methods and – to some extent – take credit for uprisings launched by those who appear to be following their methods. To listen to much of the media and many commentators you would think that revolutions are fully planned and diffused from one country to the next via Facebook. [6]

However, a close look shows that a common model is absent and the links between uprisings are far fewer and more difficult to trace. Facebook is the ultimate in virtual communication, but uprisings are all about context. They are about the presence, passion, emotion and the unpredictability of events that comes with the politics of resistance. New technologies of communication play a role but far more important is the immeasurable and symbolic power of ‘revolution’ to inspire others in emulation. [7]

In Kyrgyzstan, many journalists found out that some of the protestors had been present in Ukraine for the ‘Orange Revolution’ not three months before. From that, they understood that the Orange example was being transported to Kyrgyzstan. However, it was not these sponsored civil society activists who were in Ukraine for monitoring the elections that were instrumental in the Tulip revolution.

Time will tell us more about the links between Arab states but it is clear that nothing like a single model is being repeated throughout the region. This makes these interconnected Arab uprisings all the more fascinating as they are inspired without being copied. Moreover, the emulation effect has moved quickly as Arab rebellions against governments proceed apace and simultaneously.

This does not mean that there is a wave across the region that will inevitably bring regimes down but that each case is both wholly regional and wholly local. This is a paradox which scholars of post-communist states still cannot explain, and it will be no less intransigent to Middle East experts.

3. The danger of descent to violence

Third, we must remember that popular protests are neither virtuous nor non-violent in their very nature. They can forward sectarian or militant agendas and can easily turn violent without a strong and principled commitment to non-violence [8] across a relatively unified movement such as the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition in the civil rights movement of the United States in the 1960s or in relation to the charismatic authority of Mahatma Ghandi.

Non-violence was a tactical move for most of the protestors in the post-communist states who were unprepared and unwilling to resort to violence. Gene Sharp and many other secular theorists explicitly argue against principled non-violence which is normally based on religious convictions. [9]

However, the problem with the tactical approach to non-violence is that movements easily adopt violence when the context changes and the balance of power shifts.

In Kyrgyzstan, non-violence became violence quite quickly in some regional centres outside of the capital city of Bishkek. At the time this led to few deaths but since 2005 Kyrgyzstan has suffered more protests, yet another ‘revolution’ and ethnic violence in 2010.

As Martin Luther King understood, violence begets violence. “Returning violence with violence only multiplies violence,” he argued, “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

It is easy to denounce regimes and laud the protestors yet a closer look at some of the rebellions in the Middle East shows that protestors have responded to violence with violence and the conflict has spun out of control. Most secular and religious thinkers who support tactical non-violence may consider this a justifiable response but it is unlikely to lead to a more just order in the long run.

4. The limits of popular protest

This tendency to resort to violence speaks to a fourth parallel with post-communist states and a deeper truth about the limits of non-violence. In many settings, non-violence is simply not sufficient to remove a government.

In Kyrgyzstan, the state was weak and had very little military power. In Georgia the government was seen as weak and not worthy of support by the military. In Ukraine, thankfully, the military remained off the stage. It was the fracture of the regimes and the splintering away of former loyalists which characterised these so-called ‘coloured revolutions’.

However, in the Middle East militaries are often much stronger. In many states across the Middle East the relationship between the Head of State and the military is far closer. Military commanders may feel they have far more to lose if the government resigns and far less to lose in light of international condemnation and the prospects of some limited international punishment.

In Libya the extent to which the armed forces remain loyal will be crucial in deciding the outcome.

In Egypt the military was the king-maker. Had it decided to suppress the protests it could have easily done so. It may have lost a portion of its American subsidy for some time but this would surely have been restored eventually or channelled through other means. Moreover, whatever new order emerges in Egypt it will reflect the interests of the army first and foremost.

From a Christian perspective, it is entirely understandable that non-violence is of limited effectiveness in a fallen world which has been torn asunder by powerful states that concentrate military power in their hands. Such Christian realism, allied to the theologically-rooted nonviolence of John Howard Yoder and others, challenges the more crude forms of secular idealism. [10]

5. The complicity and hypocrisy of Western powers

Fifth, both post-communist rebellions and those more recently in the Middle East have witnessed bare-faced hypocrisy and active complicity in sustaining autocratic regimes by Western powers. The US, UK and others are all partly responsible for keeping these regimes in business but they have sought to associate themselves with and offer political support to their opponents.

In Kyrgyzstan, President Akaev was a key Western ally who had received significant aid and hosted a US military airbase since 2001. After hypocritically lauding the ‘Tulip Revolution’, the Bush administration then allowed the new regime to make money out of corruption in contracts to supply the airbase which became a new cause of contention in Kyrgyzstan. Obama followed suit, caring more about strategic imperatives for the ill-considered Afghanistan mission than the long-term effects on political order in Kyrgyzstan. The next rebellion in 2010 was bloodier and more destabilising.

In the Middle East, it is not the anti-Western states of Syria and Iran that are currently troubled but pro-Western regimes. These governments have been sustained for decades by Western arms sales, military assistance and our insatiable demand for oil.

Egypt’s substantial US military aid is well-documented and helped maintain Mubarak in power for decades. Yemen has also become a key ally in the war on terror, sustaining the regime with military assistance.

In Bahrain, there was controversy regarding the possibility that British crowd control weapons and equipment may have been used against peaceful demonstrators. The government claims that British arms exports are subject to strict controls but the reality is that such weapons have continued to be sold to authoritarian governments for more than a decade since the Blair government adopted a new code of conduct. [11]

It is not the controls that matter – they are incredibly vague and open to interpretation – but who is the recipient of the weapons. Britain, the United States and other governments that preach about democracy have a consistent track record of selling arms and offering diplomatic and military support to authoritarian regimes.

Arms company representatives joined British prime minister David Cameron in Cairo in mid-February 2011, as he visited Egypt’s new military regime. [12] Western governments will not choose between selling arms to autocrats and preaching democracy to them. Without a truly revolutionary change in British foreign policy they will continue to do both. They have done so for decades.

6. Rebellion is not revolution

Sixth and finally, and has been implied throughout this article, labelling these events as ’democratic revolutions’ mistakes a moment of accountability for a structural transformation. We are told that the revolution has just started. In fact it has not yet begun.

Many scholars consider the revolutions of 1989 – consequences of huge geopolitical shifts as well as social change within communist states – yet to have finished. In the ‘coloured revolutions’ of recent years profound political and social change was stillborn.

In Georgia, the Western-educated Sakashvilli proved as prone to corruption and foolhardy in foreign policy as his predecessor. In Ukraine, the Orange coalition quickly disintegrated, Yanukovich eventually returned and the oligarchs easily reinserted themselves. In Kyrgyzstan, the hopes of the Tulip Revolution quickly dissipated as the family politics of the Akaev era were many times worse in the Bakiev era.

The point is that revolutions are defined by profound structural change which affects all aspects of society from how the economy is run to how the military is organised, from relations between men and women to the place of religion in society. They are extremely rare. There is no evidence that I am aware of such change occurring in Tunisia or Egypt despite the dramatic events of recent weeks.


The greatest error of the crude liberalism which seems to characterise the thinking of the majority of Western analysts of recent events in the Middle East, and those of post-communist states several years ago, is to assume that democracy is the ‘natural’ state to which the world is drawn. According to this worldview, autocrats and their regimes are impediments whose removal means that the natural pathway to democracy can be reinstated.

This is a very poor and deterministic account of politics in the Middle East or anywhere. It leaves little room for the contingency and conflict between social forces which shape politics both here and there. As we fail to make sense of the conflicts ongoing in our own society in Britain, and see government cuts as inevitable, then it may be no surprise that such low standards of analysis are applied by Britons as they look overseas.

An account of the Middle East’s ‘revolutions’ which is based on conflict recognises that these rebellions are important in themselves as indicators of injustice and resistance to domination. But this does not make them revolutions.

To a Christian worldview that seeks to identify real power relations, demand justice and practice nonviolence what is happening in the Middle East is in itself both tragic and hopeful.

It is tragic in that the politics of hidden deal-making unsurprisingly reassert themselves, and the arms dealers and generals retake their positions. But it is hopeful in that resistance movements speak of the transient power of all human governments (both the sellers and buyers of arms) and the illegitimacy of their claim to authority over our lives and our communities.

Non-violent demands for justice offer a glimmer of a better world. It is not patterns and pathways to democracy which make the Middle East’s ‘democratic revolutions’ meaningful but the very uncertain process of aspiring to a better world and demanding more of one’s leaders.

Supporting such demands without being glib or hypocritical is a challenge for all of us who watch from the sidelines as events transpire in the Middle East.



[1] ‘Egypt's euphoria’, The Economist, 11 February 2011.
[2] Alix Dunn, ‘The Religious Element of Egypt’s Secular Revolution’, Meta-Activism Project, 15 February 2011.
[3] See for example: Paul Cruikshank, ‘Why Arab Spring could be al Qaeda's fall’ (CNN, 21 February 2011), Harry Hagopian, ‘Struggling for the Arab Soul?’ (Ekklesia, 22 February 2011), Randa Habib, ‘New Arab renaissance’ (Jordan Times, 25 February 2011), and many more. For a more in-depth analysis, see Elizabeth Kassab, Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (Columbia University Press, 2010).
[4] See the biographical and bibilographical note on Gene Sharp at His many books include The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973), Gandhi as a Political Strategist, with Essays on Ethics and Politics (1979), Social Power and Political Freedom (1980), and Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System (1990). The Power and Practice of Nonviolent Struggle is being prepared in English.
[5] Sharp’s first book, Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power (1960) included a Foreword by Albert Einstein. The Albert Einstein Institution:
[6] ‘Facebook post that sparked Egypt revolution”, IBN Live, 3 February 2011; ‘Egypt's Facebook Revolution: Wael Ghonim Thanks The Social Network’, Huffington Post, 11 February 2011.
[7] Blake Hounshell,‘Think Again: Egypt’, Foreign Policy, 24 February 2011, questions the simplistic idea that “Facebook defeated Mubarak”.
[8] ‘Principled nonviolence’ has been defined as “the nonviolence of those who feel that it is a calling, as opposed to strategic nonviolence. In this view nonviolence is not merely a strategy nor the recourse of the weak, it is a positive force that does not manifest its full potential until it is adopted on principle” (the Metta Institute). Nobel Peace Prize winner and Christian, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, has declared: “Nonviolent action implants, by anticipation within the very process of change itself, the values to which it will ultimately lead … it does not sow peace by means of war.” Quoted in Matthew Taylor, ‘Nonviolence and the struggle for Palestinian-Israeli equality’, Mondoweiss, 6 July 2010.
[9] See ‘Gene Sharp Interview’, by Amitabh Pal, in The Progressive, March 2007. He argues, inter alia, that “People who believe in the ethical or religious approach to nonviolent means could assist, if they’re not too arrogant, the development of pragmatic nonviolence to be used by the masses of people.”
[10] Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder consistently argued that principled Christian refusal of violence finds its grounds in faithfulness to the salvific way of Christ testified to in the Gospel, rather than in temporal optimism or efficacy. His books on the topic include: The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (2009), Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (2009), and Nonviolence: A Brief History—The Warsaw Lectures (1983, published in 2010). See the full bibliography at
[11] See ‘UK has sold crowd control weapons to Bahrain and Libya’, Ekklesia, 18 February 2011.
[12] James Lansdale, ‘Arms trade questions for David Cameron on Gulf trip’, BBC News, 22 February 2011.



© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and the College of Social Sciences and International Relations at the University of Exeter, UK. His teaching and research interests are in three broad areas: Central Asian studies, including the former Soviet republics and Afghanistan; the inter-disciplinary study of humanitarianism, security assistance and intervention, especially post-conflict peacebuilding; and methodological issues around the use of discourse analysis and political ethnography in empirical analysis. Dr Heathershaw has spent several years working for governmental, international non-governmental and academic institutions in and on Central Asia. He is also an associate fellow of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-political Studies (EXCEPS), a research associate of Exeter Turkish Studies and is a co-convenor of the research group on Communism and Post-Communism. His most recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (London: Routledge, 2009).

Additional research by Simon Barrow



* Shatha Almutawa, Secular revolutions, religious landscapes, 24 February 2011.
* Nadim Shehadi, The Arab revolt: transformation to transition, 24 February 2011.
* Malika Zeghal, Al-Azhar and the narrative of resistance to oppression, 24 February 2011.
* Harry Hagopian, Struggling for the Arab Soul?, 22 February 2011.
* _____________, Politics, Religion and the Middle East, 31 January 2011.
* News and comment feed on Middle East issues.
* Walter Wink, Facing the myth of redemptive violence, 16 November 2007.