Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848?

  • Kurt Weyland (a1)


Prominent scholars have highlighted important similarities between the Arab Spring of 2011 and the “revolutions” of 1848: Both waves of contention swept with dramatic speed across whole regions, but ended up yielding rather limited advances toward political liberalism and democracy. I seek to uncover the causal mechanisms that help account for these striking parallels. Drawing on my recent analysis of 1848, I argue that contention spread so quickly because many people in a wide range of countries drew rash inferences from the downfall of Tunisia's dictator. Applying cognitive heuristics that psychologists have documented, they overrated the significance of the Tunisian success, overestimated the similarities with the political situation in their own country, and jumped to the conclusion that they could successfully challenge their own autocrats. This precipitation prompted protests in many settings that actually were much less propitious; therefore problems abounded. Cognitive shortcuts held such sway because Arab societies were weakly organized and repressed and thus lacked leaders from whom common people could take authoritative cues. The decision whether to engage in emulative contention fell to ordinary citizens, who—due to limited information access and scarce experience—were especially susceptible to the simple inferences suggested by cognitive heuristics.



Hide All
Abdelmoumni, Fouad. 2011. “Nous sommes tous des Tunisiens!” Tel Quel (January 22–28): 24–25.
Aday, Sean, Farrell, Henry, Lynch, Marc, Sides, John, and Freelon, Deen. 2012. New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.
Ajami, Fouad. 2012. The Syrian Rebellion. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.
Albrecht, Holger. 2007. “Authoritarian Opposition and the Politics of Challenge in Egypt.” In Debating Arab Authoritarianism, ed. Schlumberger, Oliver. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Al-Momani, Mohammad. 2011. “The Arab ‘Youth Quake.’Middle East Law and Governance 3(1-2): 159–70.
Anderson, Lisa. 2011. “Demystifying the Arab Spring.” Foreign Affairs 90(3): 27.
Asseburg, Muriel, ed. 2012. Protest, Revolt, and Regime Change in the Arab World. Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.
Barany, Zoltan. 2011. “The Role of the Military.” Journal of Democracy 22(4): 2435.
Bartolini, Stefano. 2000. The Political Mobilization of the European Left. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beinin, Joel, and Vairel, Frédéric. 2011. “The Middle East and North Africa.” In Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Beinin and Vairel. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Beissinger, Mark. 2007. “Structure and Example in Modular Political Phenomena.” Perspectives on Politics 5(2): 259–76.
Bellin, Eva. 2012. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East.” Comparative Politics 44(2): 127–49.
Brownlee, Jason. 2007. Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brownlee, Jason, Masoud, Tarek, and Reynolds, Andrew. Forthcoming. After the Awakening: Revolt, Reform, and Renewal in the Arab World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bunce, Valerie, and Wolchik, Sharon. 2011. Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Clark, Phil. 2012. “An Arab Spring South of the Sahara?Public Policy Research 19(1): 72–4.
Comninos, Alex. 2011. “Twitter Revolutions and Cyber Crackdowns.” N.p.: Association for Progressive Communications.
Dalacoura, Katerina. 2012. “The 2011 Uprisings in the Arab Middle East.” International Affairs 88(1): 6379.
Dowe, Dieter, Haupt, Heinz-Gerhard, Langewiesche, Dieter, and Sperber, Jonathan, eds. 2001. Europe in 1848: Revolution and Reform. New York: Berghahn.
Eley, Geoff. 2002. Forging Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Feiler, Bruce. 2011. Generation Freedom. New York: Harper.
Filiu, Jean-Pierre. 2011. The Arab Revolution. London: Hurst.
Ghonim, Wael. 2012. Revolution 2.0: A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gigerenzer, Gerd. 2006. “Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire.” Risk Analysis 26(2): 347–51.
Gilovich, Thomas, Griffin, Dale, and Kahneman, Daniel, eds. 2002. Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Givan, Rebecca, Roberts, Kenneth, and Soule, Sarah. 2010. “The Dimensions of Diffusion.” In The Diffusion of Social Movements, ed. Givan, Rebecca, Roberts, Kenneth, and Soule, Sarah. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goldstone, Jack. 1986. “Revolutions and Superpowers.” In Superpowers and Revolution, ed. Adelman, Jonathan. New York: Praeger.
Goldstone, Jack. 2011. “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011.” Foreign Affairs 90(3): 816.
Goodwin, Jeff. 2011. “Why We Were Surprised (Again) by the Arab Spring.” Swiss Political Science Review 17(4): 452–56.
Goodwin, Jeff, Jasper, James, and Polletta, Francesca, eds. 2001. Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hamdy, Sherine. 2012. “Strength and Vulnerability after Egypt's Arab Spring Uprisings.” American Ethnologist 39(1): 4348.
Harb, Zahera. 2011. “Arab Revolutions and the Social Media Effect.” Media/Culture Journal 14(2): 2.
Hastie, Reid, and Dawes, Robyn. 2010. Rational Choice in an Uncertain World, 2d. ed. Los Angeles: Sage.
Heibach, Jens. 2011. “Jemen: Ein zaudernder Despot.” In Die arabische Revolution, ed. Nordhausen, Frank and Schmid, Thomas. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag.
Hinnebusch, Raymond. 2012. “Syria: From ‘Authoritarian Upgrading’ to Revolution?International Affairs 88(1): 95113.
Hirschman, Albert. 1982. Shifting Involvements. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hoffman, Michael, and Jamal, Amaney. 2012. “The Youth and the Arab Spring.” Middle East Law and Governance 4(1): 168–88.
Howard, Philip, and Hussain, Muzammil. 2011. “The Role of Digital Media.” Journal of Democracy 22(3): 3548.
Huntington, Samuel. 1991. The Third Wave. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Hvistendahl, Mara. 2011. “Young and Restless Can Be a Volatile Mix.” Science 333, July 29, 552–54.
Jacobs, Andrew. 2011. “Chinese Security Officials Respond to Calls for Protests.” New York Times, February 20.
Jones, Bryan. 1999. “Bounded Rationality.” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 297321.
Joseph, Sarah. 2011. Social Media, Human Rights and Political Change. Melbourne: Monash University.
Kahneman, Daniel, Slovic, Paul, and Tversky, Amos, eds. 1982. Judgment under Uncertainty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kasinof, Laura. 2011. “Air Goes Out of Protests in a Leaderless Yemen.” New York Times, July 7.
Kasinof, Laura, and Slackman, Michael. 2011. “Dueling Protests in Yemen Unfold Peacefully.” New York Times, February 3.
Khashan, Hilal. 2012. “The Eclipse of Arab Authoritarianism and the Challenge of Popular Sovereignty.” Third World Quarterly 33(5): 919–30.
King, Stephen. 2009. The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kirkpatrick, David. 2011. “Tunisia Unrest Stirs Passions across North African Region.” New York Times, January 17.
Kirkpatrick, David. 2012. “Judge Helped Egypt's Military to Cement Power.” New York Times, July 4.
Kuran, Timur. 1995. Private Truths, Public Lies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kuran, Timur, and Sunstein, Cass. 1999. “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation.” Stanford Law Review 51(4): 683768.
Kurzman, Charles. 1998. “Waves of Democratization.” Studies in Comparative International Development 33(1): 4264.
Kurzman, Charles. 2008. Democracy Denied, 1905–1915. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Landis, Joshua. 2012. “The Syrian Uprising of 2011.” Middle East Policy 19(1): 7284.
Langohr, Vickie. 2004. “Too Much Civil Society, Too Little Politics.” Comparative Politics 36(2): 181204.
Lohmann, Susanne. 1994. “The Dynamics of Informational Cascades.” World Politics 47(1): 42101.
Lohmann, Susanne. 2000. “Collective Action Cascades.” Journal of Economic Surveys 14(5): 655–84.
Lust-Okar, Ellen. 2007. “The Management of Opposition.” In Debating Arab Authoritarianism, ed. Schlumberger, Oliver. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lutterbeck, Derek. 2012. “Arab Uprisings, Armed Forces, and Civil-Military Relations.” Armed Forces & Society, forthcoming.
Lynch, Marc. 2011. “After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State.” Perspectives on Politics 9(2): 301–10.
Lynch, Marc. 2012. The Arab Uprising. New York: Public Affairs.
Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. 2012. “Is Morocco Immune to Upheaval?Middle-East Quarterly 19(1): 8793.
Mainwaring, Scott, and Scully, Timothy. 1995. “Introduction.” In Building Democratic Institutions, ed. Mainwaring, Scott and Scully, Timothy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Marwell, Gerald, and Oliver, Pamela. 1993. The Critical Mass in Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Masoud, Tarek. 2011. “Liberty, Democracy, and Discord in Egypt.” Washington Quarterly 34(4): 117–29.
Mercurio (Santiago de Chile). 2011. “La ola de protestas alcanza Libia,” February 17.
Najib, Abdelhak. 2011. “El Khlifi: ‘Nous Irons jusq'au Bout.’” Maroc Hebdo International 922, March 4–10.
Narizny, Kevin. 2012. “Anglo-American Primacy and the Global Spread of Democracy.” World Politics 64(2): 341–73.
Newton-Small, Jay, and Hauslohner, Abigail. 2012. How the Military Won the Egyptian Election. Time, July 9, 28–34.
Nordhausen, Frank, and Schmid, Thomas, eds. 2011. Die arabische Revolution. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag.
Nunns, Alex, and Idle, Nadia, eds. 2011. Tweets from Tahrir. New York: OR Books.
Osterhammel, Jürgen. 2009. Die Verwandlung der Welt: Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts. München: C.H. Beck.
Ottaway, Marina, and Hamzawy, Amr, eds. 2009. Getting to Pluralism: Political Actors in the Arab World. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment.
Owen, John. 2010. The Clash of Ideas in World Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Owen, Roger. 2012. The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Peerenboom, Randall. 2011. “China and the Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.” Middle East Law and Governance 3(1-2): 192203.
Petersen, Roger. 2002. Understanding Ethnic Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Popkin, Samuel. 1991. The Reasoning Voter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Puddington, Arch. 2012. “Freedom House Survey for 2011.” Journal of Democracy 23(2): 7488.
Rane, Halim, and Salem, Sumra. 2012. “Social Media, Social Movements and the Diffusion of Ideas in the Arab Uprisings.” Journal of International Communication 18(1): 97111.
Rashad, Hoda. 2012. Rising from Tahrir. N.p.
Rashed, Mohammed. 2011. “The Egyptian Revolution.” Anthropology Today 27(2): 2227.
Salamey, Imad, and Pearson, Frederic. 2012. “The Collapse of Middle Eastern Authoritarianism.” Third World Quarterly 33(5): 931–48.
Schmid, Thomas. 2011. “Libyen: Revolution gegen den Revolutionsführer.” In Die arabische Revolution, ed. Nordhausen, Frank and Schmid, Thomas. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag.
Sewell, William. 2005. Logics of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shahid, Anthony. 2011. “In Crowd's Euphoria, No Clear Leadership Emerges.” New York Times, January 31.
Simon, Herbert. 1976. Administrative Behavior. New York: Free Press.
Solomon, Samuel. 2012. “Cascades in Cairo: The Role of Facebook and Twitter in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.” Honor's thesis, Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
Soueif, Ahdaf. 2012. Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. London: Bloomsbury.
Stacher, Joshua. 2012. Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Stolberg, Sheryl. 2011. “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution.” New York Times, February 16.
Taha, Amira, and Combs, Christopher. 2012. “Of Drama and Performance: Transformative Discourses of the Revolution.” In Translating Egypt's Revolution, ed. Mehrez, Samia. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
Tarrow, Sidney. 2005. The New Transnational Activism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tarrow, Sidney. 2011. Power in Movement, 3d. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tilly, Charles, Tilly, Louise, and Tilly, Richard. 1975. The Rebellious Century, 1830–1930. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Traugott, Mark. 2010. The Insurgent Barricade. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tsebelis, George. 1990. Nested Games. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Vairel, Frédéric. 2011. “Protesting in Authoritarian Situations.” In Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Beinin, Joel and Vairel, Frédéric. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Valenzuela, Javier. 2012. “Desencanto árabe 2.0.” El País (Madrid), March 4.
Waraich, Omar. 2011. “Inspired by Egypt, Thousands Protest on Moroccan Streets.” Independent, February 21.
Way, Lucan. 2011. “Comparing the Arab Revolts: The Lessons of 1989.” Journal of Democracy 22(4): 1323.
Weyland, Kurt. 2009. “The Diffusion of Revolution: ‘1848’ in Europe and Latin America.” International Organization 63(3): 391423.
Weyland, Kurt. 2012. Diffusion Waves in European Democratization: The Impact of Organizational Development. Comparative Politics 45(1): 2545.
Whitehead, Andrew. 2011. “Eric Hobsbawm on 2011.” BBC News Magazine, December 22.
Whitehead, Laurence. 2001. “Three International Dimensions of Democratization.” In The International Dimensions of Democratization, ed. Whitehead, Laurence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wickham, Carrie. 2011. “The Muslim Brotherhood and Democratic Transition in Egypt.” Middle East Law and Governance 3(1-2): 204–23.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed