‘Revolution’ In The Air: Why, How, And Where Next?

Recent mass protests in Turkey, Brazil, and Egypt demonstrate the enduring effectiveness of ‘people power’ in shaping the political landscape. Business Monitor Online has just published a feature article on mass uprisings since the 1980s and identifies their causes and consequences. We list more than 70 uprisings, both successful and failed, and outline their political and economic backdrops, their key developments and tipping points, and their outcomes.  

Below are some takeaways:

  • Unsurprisingly, popular uprisings often occur after a long period of economic weakness, or a sudden deterioration in living standards, due to rises in fuel or food prices, a currency collapse, or other kind of financial crisis.
  • However, it is also true that uprisings take place when economic conditions are improving, and people (especially the middle class) start looking beyond purely ‘bread and butter’ issues to matters such as democracy, social justice, good governance, clean government, etc.
  • Over the past decade or so, perceptions that election results have been manipulated in favour of the establishment party or candidate have also been triggers of mass unrest.
  • Although most uprisings have taken place in authoritarian states or heavily managed or immature democracies, liberal democracies cannot afford to be complacent, because the public will not necessarily wait for the next election to make their grievances known.
  • In most of the cases where the uprisings failed, the key to preserving the regime lay with violent crackdowns by the police or the military on protestors (e.g. Iran in 2009, Syria since 2011).
  • The feature article also discusses the importance of ‘power centres’ in countries as a whole, and their roles in any uprising.
  • We also speculate on where unrest may occur in 2013-2014, with Argentina, Iran, and Venezuela being distinct possibilities, primarily due to their high inflation rates and the pressure faced by their currencies.
  • Beyond that timeframe, we see Belarus, the Central Asian republics, Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam as vulnerable to a popular uprising over the coming decade or so, due to their authoritarian or heavily managed political systems and their rapid economic transformation.
  • We also discuss prospects for unrest in China, which is arguably the biggest unknown.
  • Finally, readers ought to keep in mind that overthrowing the government is often the ‘easy’ part of the transition. It is the beginning of the end, rather than the end itself. The hard part comes afterwards, when the country has to build new institutions and reorganise the economy. Typically, the ensuing chaos or instability provides an opportunity for the ‘old regime’, often under a new name, to return to power within a few years.