Waves of Democratization, Waves of Disillusionment: The Arab Spring in Historical Perspective

By Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” held on May 3-4, 2016.

Most new democracies fail. They dissolve into civil wars, or are overtaken by coups or collapse under authoritarian bureaucrats and demagogues. They fade into obscure paragraphs in history books. Who remembers the Iranian constitution of 1906 or the Ottoman parliament of 1909, for example? Who remembers the Azerbaijani parliament of 1918 or the Egyptian revolution of 1919 or the Kuwaiti council of 1921? Perhaps the Arab Spring will suffer a similar fate – to be forgotten or dismissed for not having lived up to its hope.

But the hope was real. “The power of the people is greater than the people in power,” wrote Wael Ghonem (2012), the new-media activist who became the face of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Wiki-revolts, aggregating millions of contributors, constituted Revolution 2.0.

Thanks to modern technology, participatory democracy is becoming a reality. Governments are finding it harder and harder to keep their people isolated from one another, to censor information, and to hide corruption and issue propaganda that goes unchallenged. Slowly but surely, the weapons of mass oppression are becoming extinct. (Ghonem 2012:292-3)

How misguided that optimism came to seem; the following year, a coup installed a military junta, and the year after that, the leader of the coup installed himself as president.

But this has been the pattern since the late 18th century: waves of democratization leading to waves of disillusionment.

After the Ottoman uprising of 1908, for example, which forced constitutional limits on the power of the sultan, the population was euphoric. “In every corner of the Ottoman lands,” an Istanbul newspaper effused, “hundreds of thousands of people — Muslims, Christians, and Jews, whole families, men, women, and children — have held unimaginable and indescribable celebrations, holidays, and feasts for the past 10 days. This joy will not disappear from the nation’s heart til the end of days” (Kurzman 2008:9). One year later, after the military had replaced the prime minister and ordered parliament to limit freedom of the press, assembly, labor rights, the joy was gone, one pro-democracy intellectual reported.

Enough with the blame! Blame belongs to nobody, or everybody… the blame belongs to you, me, and them… the blame belongs to the time and the place… the blame belongs to those who don’t understand, and to those who are doomed not to understand…. Come close, I want to entrust you with a secret, and then I’ll be quiet: My friend, sometimes there are surroundings that are ill-omened, like a graveyard. No intelligence, no wisdom, no talent can live there. There the living lie and the dead wander about. (Tunaya 1959:64)

Supporters of democracy expressed similar sentiments in other failed democracies of the period as well (Kurzman 2008:20):

Already, as in a nightmare or a frightening dream, we can imagine that the darkness overhanging us is the shaggy chest of the shaft-horse, and that in another moment the heavy hoofs will descend. (Russia)

These ruins of a cemetery are not our Iran. These ruins are not Iran, where is Iran?

The fight is a hopeless one and a thorough waste. (Mexico)

Days of slavery await us. (Portugal)

Imagine an iron house having not a single window, and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation. Dying in their sleep, they won’t feel the pain of death. Now if you raise a shout to awake a few of the light sleepers, making these unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you really think you are doing them a good turn? (China)

Look at eight prominent waves of democratization since the late 18th century (from Kurzman 1998:52):

1789-1802: 10 countries, sparked by the French Revolution
1810-1930: Spain and 8 former colonies
1848-1851: 6 countries in Europe, plus parts of Germany and Italy
1905-1913: 6 countries beginning with the Russian Revolution of 1905
1918-1922: 10 countries gaining independence after World War I
1945-1960: numerous countries in liberated Europe and decolonized Africa and Asia
1973-1988: Portugal, Greece, Spain, Philippines, and numerous Latin American countries
1989-1991: Numerous Communist countries and African countries

Until the mid-20th century, only a handful of democratic revolutions managed to survive more than a few years, if that long. Since then, with the emergence of relatively stable democracies in parts of Europe and the Americas, and in some other countries as well, we have come to expect democracy to “stick.” But that is the historical exception.

Direct statistical tests of this history will soon be possible with a new dataset on revolutionary situations, which Mark Beissinger of Princeton University unveiled at POMEPS’s recent conference at Oxford University.

Whiggish social science makes democratic reversals all the more unexpected and disappointing for us academic observers. If democracy is the fruit of long-standing social processes – the spread of education, global communication, rising incomes and networks of trade – then we expect political institutions to evolve with the same slow pace of change, or perhaps to catch up to the “predicted” level of democracy in a burst of surface tension.

This form of causal analysis trips over the fundamental mismatch between generally slow-moving socioeconomic factors and the rapid ricochets of democratic trajectories.

The lesson I propose is that our roller-coaster emotions at the coming of the Arab Spring were not just the product of an ideological commitment – the belief that Arabs could have democracy too – but also the product of a theoretical commitment – the belief that political outcomes have long-term or at least medium-term causes.

That theoretical commitment led many observers to identify the causes of the uprisings immediately after they occurred, and to consider it a failure that they had not foreseen them (Kurzman 2012). In the years since, they have had to walk back some of those explanations, as the dependent variable has shifted.

An older, alternative approach to democratization is to take the pessimistic view that experiments in popular governance generally fail. This was the view of James Bryce, perhaps the leading scholar of democracy in the early 20th century. His masterwork, Modern Democracies, was published in 1921, in the thick of the post-World War I wave of democratizations. By his count, 10 new states “have given or are giving themselves democratic constitutions,” doubling the number of democracies in the world over the past 15 years. In Bryce’s openly racist view, these recent democratizations were absurd: “It is as if one should set a child to drive a motor car” (Bryce 1921:575, 501-2). Fifteen years later, none of those new democracies had survived. (Though, contrary to Bryce’s expectations, most were wrecked by non-democratic “adults” ramming into them, not by immature drivers running off the road.)

Betting on democratic failure has generally been a winning strategy. Many of today’s non-democracies have had experiments with democracy (or partial democracy), and most of today’s stable democracies experienced several failed attempts before generating self-perpetuating democratic institutions (and even some of those institutions often look shaky).

In historic perspective, the Arab Spring looks like the latest in a centuries-long series of cautionary tales for the study of democratic revolutions. It is imprudent to try to tame these events in a net of causal explanation before they are done thrashing.



Bryce, James. 1921. Modern Democracies, Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan.

Ghonem, Wael. 2012. Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater than the People in Power. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kurzman, Charles. 1998. “Waves of Democratization.” Studies in Comparative International Development 33:42-64.

Kurzman, Charles. 2008. Democracy Denied, 1905-1915. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kurzman, Charles. 2012. “The Arab Spring Uncoiled.” Mobilization 17:377-390.

Tunaya, Tarık Zafer. 1959. Hürriyetin İlanı, İkinci Meşrutiyetin Siyasi Hayatına Bakışlar. Istanbul, Turkey: Baha Matbaası.


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