How Revolutions Happen (By Dr. Mark Almond )

Revolutions can be short and bloody, or slow and peaceful. Each is different, though there are recurring patterns – including some that were on show in Egypt.

Trotsky once remarked that if poverty was the cause of revolutions, there would be revolutions all the time because most people in the world were poor. What is needed to turn a million people’s grumbling discontent into a crowd on the streets is a spark to electrify them.

Violent death has been the most common catalyst for radicalising discontent in the revolutions of the last 30 years. Sometimes the spark is grisly, like the mass incineration of hundreds in an Iranian cinema in 1978 blamed on the Shah’s secret police.

Sometimes the desperate act of a single suicidally inflammatory protester like vegetable salesman Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, in December 2010, catches the imagination of a country.

Even rumours of brutality, such as the claims the Communist secret police had beaten two students to death in Prague in November, 1989, can fire up a public already deeply disillusioned with the system. Reports that Milosevic had had his predecessor, Ivan Stambolic, “disappeared” in the weeks before the Yugoslav presidential elections in 2000 helped to crystallise Serbian rejection of his regime.

Revolutions: Iran to Egypt

* Iran: Jan 1978 – Apr 1979
Days: 448, Deaths: 3000+; Goal: To overthrow the Shah. Democrats started the popular uprising, but Islamists took over.
Goal achieved
* Tiananmen Square: Apr – Jun 1989
Days: 51; Deaths: est. 3,000; Goal: To establish democracy, abolish one-party rule and put an end to corruption.
Goal not achieved.
* East Germany: Sept – Nov 1989

* Russia: 19-21 Aug 1991
* Indonesia: 12-21 May 1998
* Serbia: Sep – Oct 2000
* Georgia: 2-23 Nov 2003
* Ukraine: Nov – Dec 2004
* Lebanon: Feb – Apr 2005
* Iran: Jun – Aug 2009
* Tunisia: 17 Dec 2010 – 14 Jan 2011
Days: 30; Deaths: 147; Goal: To overthrow the corrupt and unpopular regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Goal achieved.
* Egypt: 25 Jan – 11 Feb 2011
Days: 18; Deaths: est. 300; Goal: To overthrow President Hosni Mubarak and bring about free democratic elections.
Goal partially achieved.

External pressure plays a role in completing regime-change. In 1989, the refusal of the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to use the Red Army to back East European Communists facing protests in the streets made the local generals realise that force was not an option.

The revolution that toppled Mubarak

The United States has repeatedly pressed its authoritarian allies to compromise and then, once they have started on that slippery slope, to resign.

What collapses a regime is when insiders turn against it. So long as police, army and senior officials think they have more to lose by revolution than by defending a regime, then even mass protests can be defied and crushed. Remember Tiananmen Square.

But if insiders and the men with guns begin to question the wisdom of backing a regime – or can be bought off – then it implodes quickly.

Tunisia’s Ben Ali decided to flee when his generals told him they would not shoot into the crowds. In Romania, in December, 1989, Ceausescu lived to see the general he relied on to crush the protesters become his chief judge at his trial on Christmas Day.


The Gathering that toppled Mubarak


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