Summary of article: Theories of Revolutions and Arab Uprisings

A summary of Derya Göçer Akder’s article Theories of Revolutions and Arab Uprisings.

Protest and prayer on Tahrir Square, Cairo Egypt

Protest and prayer on Tahrir Square, Cairo Egypt

Derya Göçer Akder, Theories of Revolutions and Arab Uprisings:
The Lessons from the Middle East,
Ortadoğu Etütleri, Volume 4, No 2, January 2013, pp.85-110.


The article persuades us to rethink some of the ideas that are generally assumed about revolutions – lessons that we can learn from the 2011 Arab uprisings. The author, Derya Gocer Akder, argues that some topics require revision, or a more critical look, in the study of social movements, revolutions, and, more broadly, of international relations

  • the changing role of mass mobilisation and social movements
  • the key role of the military on contentious politics and collective action
  •  the issue of foreign intervention has been studied in too narrow a scope, focusing almost exclusively on the state-to-state role. Akder urges broadening of the scope to state-to-people and people-to-people

Akder criticises the treatment of the Middle East as an exception in the study of social movements: “the idea that it is somehow different from the rest of the world when in fact it shared the modern revolts and revolutions with the rest of the global history“. The article delves into three issues:

  1. the distinction between revolutionary situations and outcomes
  2. the difference between political and social revolutions
  3. the international dimension in revolutions

Revolutionary Situations

The author goes against the notion of a general theory of revolution and emphasises the value of distinguishing between revolutionary outcomes and revolutionary situations. She brings forth the concepts of two scholars, Ellen Kay Trimberger and Charles Tilly.

  • Ellen Kay Trimberger: there can be two types of revolutions, depending on the actors and their approach to achieving their goals. “She argued that deep and radical change does not have to come from below nor does it have to be violent. There could be revolutions from above carried out by actors belonging to the elite rather than the masses and Turkey and Egypt fell in this category.”
  • Charles Tilly distinguishes between revolutionary situations, and their outcomes. “Revolutionary situations are marked by multiple sovereignty when the political authority is seriously challenged by contenders back by a significant portion of the people and it seem that the government cannot easily suppress the contenders.”

Akder then argues that these two concepts have not appropriately been used in the analysis of revolutions in research and the media. This severely limits the information that can be extracted from the analysis of the revolutionary situations which don’t lead to revolutionary outcomes. It allows research to focus more on the process. Tilly: “the basic theory predicts action from interests. Here instead we are assuming interests and dealing with the political processes which lead from organized and conflicting interests to revolution.” Analysis is thus on the contenders, their formation, interaction, network and repertoires of action.

Where the author is speculating is in the role of the social media, and the effects that the usage of these media had on the unfolding of the events, but I wish to discard that for the moment.

Political Revolution versus Social Revolution

The argument here goes that in revolution theory, “the ‘great revolutions’ are famously described as social revolutions that resulted in fundamental social change in the class relations as well as in the regime type, Middle East as a region has experienced more political revolutions than social revolutions.” This means that the revolutionary episodes in the Middle East are not merely about elite contestations or social class struggles, but involve informal networks, coalition formation, solidarity and enmity between coalitions and other forces, etc.

For the above argument, Akder refers to Jack Goldstone’s article Rethinking Revolutions, which I posted about a couple of months ago, also in the context of Egypt.

International-Domestic Interaction

“[W]e should see that the international factors, whether structural, ideological or geopolitical, are not posited as merely ‘constraining’ or ‘enabling’ the domestic agency but as being ‘constitutive’ of the agency. The opposite is also true, the domestic agency is capable of constituting the international setting and is not simply pre-determined by it.” This quote describes the crux of this section. Akder sees that the role of the international community on domestic affairs in the context of revolutionary episodes is underrepresented — an under-theorising of international politics in revolutions.


“All efforts that go into theorizing these [Middle East] uprisings, would also be contributions to the theory itself. They would also be contributions to the major issues in the region that will be revisited in the coming year, such as the role of [the] military, the role of [the] youth or new media in the region. Time has long come to treat [the] Middle East just like any other region from the experiences of which these theories are built in the first place and the rewards of doing so would be worthwhile indeed.”

Remarks about the article:

  • I regret that the author did not have an (native English) editor go over the text; especially since it was published in a journal. It is littered with grammatical mistakes, which causes the text to lose some of its value, despite its insights.

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