Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings there has emerged a debate on whether this domino of social movements is a revolt or a revolution. With the Tunisian and Egyptian people overthrowing their countries’ dictators, the civil war in Libya turning into a victory for the rebels against the government of Gaddafi, the Syrian crisis intensifying, and the small states of the Gulf being in a state of uncertainty and social instability, the situation is indeed very fluid, but the developments of the last few months allow us to evaluate the situation and reach certain conclusions regarding the nature of the recent Middle East crisis. (Editor’s note: read the follow-up to this article here)
The sociologist Anthony Giddens created a definition about the term “revolution” based on three elements that occurred from the study of different revolution theories. In short, he suggests that in order for a social movement to be called “revolution” it needs to be a) a mass social movement, b) a process that will lead to fundamental and systemic changes or reforms, and c) include the use or the threat of use of violence. He also stresses that those who are to rise to power must be more competent than the overthrown establishment and at the same time they must be able to accomplish at least some of their initial goals.
On the other hand revolts are of smaller scale, they last for less time and have more limited outcomes than revolutions. Of course although these elements characterize the nature of revolutions or of revolts, they do not identify their causes. There are different theories about what causes revolutions like the ones of Carl Marx and James Davies; nonetheless, we can safely say that, broadly speaking, a revolution is caused by the need of altering a given, often systemic, reality.
A first look at the situation in the Middle East makes the job of deciding whether these social movements are revolutions or revolts very difficult. However, a second look, from the perspective of the aforementioned theoretical framework, clears things out a little. The following table presents the extent to which the most significant Middle East revolt/revolution cases agree with the three elements of the “revolution” definition. “X” indicates which elements can be found in each case.
It should be noted that the results of the above table are subjective since different people have different views on what constitutes “violence”, “change” or “social movement”. For the purposes of this article a mass social movement is not necessarily class-based or organized but it rather consists of large social masses with at least some common goals regardless of class, age, gender or ethnicity. “Fundamental changes” are important systemic or structural changes that bring about a very different order than before (e.g. perestroika in the late USSR and the end of the Cold War). “Revolutionary violence” refers to brutal violence (not to the stone throwing, for example) that is employed by the rebels as the ultimate means to accomplish the end of the revolution.
As we can see on the table, none of the Middle East social movements qualifies as a revolution although some of them are still in progress. Many would disagree with the argument that in Tunisia and Egypt changes have not taken place. However, although Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt were overthrown, or better, stepped down, the nature of those regimes has not changed: the dictators left but the dictatorships stayed. Therefore, the reforms that the protesters have been asking for are nowhere to be seen. Furthermore it is important that the demands of the protesters were not really politicized; rather, they were focused on overthrowing the dictators and not their policies or regimes. Regarding the use of violence, in Tunisia the protests were massive but not as violent as in Egypt, where even the military got divided and Egyptian soldiers fought each other.
In Libya the situation, at first, was very similar to the Egypt case: with massive protests and a divided army. The difference in Libya, though, was that the Libyan leader Gaddafi did not step down; instead, he ordered a violent crackdown on the protesters. Consequently the protesters, with the help of the anti-regime military factions, became armed rebels and thus a civil war broke out. In this case there is both a social movement and violence. However the goals of the rebels are limited to the overthrowing of the regime and its leader; no one has specific aims regarding the new political system or the nature of the new regime. In Bahrain there was again massive protesting but the regime’s violent crackdown managed to contain it, and ultimately stop it, while there was not any violence from the part of the protesters. However it should be noted that in Bahrain there is also an ethnic element which inevitably gives a different character to the whole situation. The most recent crisis in Syria presents again mass social movements but the monopoly of violence is still in the hands of the government and the military. The strong ties between the government and the military make the situation even worse for the protesters because they limit the possibility of divisions among the armed forces.
In none of these cases is there a stong ideological or class orientation. It is just the people against the dictators and their regimes, not the people against the political system or the social structures. Furthermore, most of these revolts went on for a short period of time, apart from Libya and Syria. It is essential to add that in Egypt and Tunisia, for example, even after the end of the crackdown and the step down of the dictators, the protests re-emerged, a fact which indicates that things remain mostly the same.
Even though it has been made clear that the Arab spring was not a series of revolutions, but rather a series of revolts, and that it was not a world changing fact, we should still acknowledge their importance. Through these events people realized their power and capabilities and they made a start that could mark the beginning of a new era. The fact that these people obtained some kind of political consciousness is a positive development because it could further evolve and lead to a new “Spring” that would be even more political, more organized, more demanding and more efficient.
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 Giddens, A., Κοινωνιολογία [Sociology], Gutenberg, 2002, p.655 or the English version, Giddens, A., Sociology, Polity Press, 6th edition, 2009.
 In brief, Marx argued that industrial capitalism, which succeeded feudalism, will lead to the clash between the capital owners and the working class since the economic gap between these two classes will increase dramatically and the latter will gradually question the capitalists’ authorities. This, according to Marx, will happen because of the increasing economic inequality between the two classes and the shrinkage of the middle class. On the other hand Davies challenged Marx’s argument by suggesting that ultimate poverty is not by itself the cause of revolutions since there have been periods in history when ultimate poverty existed and yet no revolutions took place. Instead, Davies says, a revolution is more likely to take place when life conditions become better. Better conditions mean greater expectations from the people; therefore when the life conditions stop becoming better and the people’s expectations are not being fulfilled the emerging “relative deprivation” creates revolutionary tendencies.
 There are also different ideological perspectives on how a revolution should be undertaken like the anarchic and the organized/Marxist-based ones.
See also the follow-up article to this one, published on Dec. 1st, here.