Activism & Solidarity

The Domino Revolutions: 1848, 1989, 2011

image of a protesting crowd in midan el-tahrird during the 2011 egyptian protests.
Crowd in Midan El-Tahrird during the 2011 Egyptian Protests. Photo by Essam Sharaf

The successive overthrow of apparently well established governments in Tunisia, Egypt and then Libya prompts the question: how do revolutions spread? Kevin Adamson and Mike Rapport of the School of History and Politics at the University of Stirling compare years of ‘domino’ revolutions.

For historians weary of explaining to a public sceptical about the utility of their craft, the Arab Spring of 2011 has come as a shot of adrenaline.  As the revolutions and demonstrations spread from Tunisia across the Arab world – and as echoes were heard beyond, with protests in Iran and China – the media quickly drew the most immediate parallel, with the popular revolutions of 1989-91, but some commentators were drawn to other years in which revolution spread in a domino effect.

Although historians have pointed to other examples, the most dramatic of the ‘domino revolutions’ prior to 1989 were those of 1848 in Europe.  Most of the classic theories of revolution tend however to analyse the phenomenon within national contexts, even if the approach is necessarily comparative.  Yet the ‘domino effect’ is now surely a feature common to revolutions across time, space and cultures.  The parallels and comparisons between the domino revolutions offer relatively uncharted territory for historians and it is a phenomenon in its own right.  A detailed, comparative analysis of domino revolutions in the past may provide a conceptual and analytical framework for understanding present-day events in Arab states.

The parallels between 1848, 1989 and 2011 are particularly striking because of the very rapidity with which the revolutions spread, the broadly shared aims of the insurgents and protesters from one country to the next and the astonishing speed with which the seemingly brick-built old regime bent to the pressure for change (or appeared to do so).  One of the clearest similarities lies in the role of technology in spreading the revolutions – steam power in 1848, telecommunications in 1989 and the internet and mobile phones in 2011.  The obvious differences have also been mooted: it has become almost a commonplace among observers of the Arab Spring to express the hope that 2011 will turn out like 1989 and not like 1848.  Yet closer investigation is still more instructive about the dynamics of a domino revolution.

Firstly, there are the long- to medium-term problems which gave the revolutions in the different countries their common origins – and so laid the connections between them.  These origins have always included the cultural environment: in all the domino revolutions, the role of civil society is central in fostering opposition to the old order within a culture of criticism, however narrow a social base that civil society might have.  Crucially, it is not given the freedom to act, which means that it becomes almost impossible for the opposition to express itself in any way other than against the regime.  Václav Havel went so far as to describe the opposition to the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia as a form of ‘anti-politics’, since political action meant engaging with the rhetoric of the established order.

All the domino revolutions also had long term economic origins: those of 1848 were thrust forward by the onset of a relentless population growth which would not be absorbed by sustained growth in productivity until the later nineteenth century.  The Arab Spring, of course, arose in the present atmosphere of global financial meltdown.  It is almost certainly for this reason that one of the common symbols adopted across all these domino revolutions is that of bread.  On the eve of the Parisian tragedy of the June Days in 1848, phalanxes of workers marched through the streets demanding ‘Bread or Lead’ – they wanted to feed their families, or they would be prepared to die on the barricades. In Romania in 1989, the revolution started with shouts of ‘Vrem Pîine!’ – we want bread!

image of romanian demonstrators fleeing from armed forces on the streets of bucharest in 1989
Romanian Demonstrators and TAB-71 APCs on the streets of Bucharest in 1989

The symbolic use of bread in these protests is a means of emphasising that a state which cannot ensure that its own people are fed has lost its legitimacy.  This symbolism was more pregnant still during the recent revolution in Egypt – the world’s single most important wheat importer – when protesters waved loaves of bread: the Arabic for bread, aish, also means ‘life’.  Protego ergo obligo [protection therefore obedience]: if Hobbes remarked that the purpose of Leviathan was to implant the mutual relationship between protection and obedience, then the state loses the latter once it can no longer offer the former.

Secondly, acts of violence worked either to expose the frailties of the old order or to demonstrate the possibilities which encouraged revolutionary activity to spread.  In 1848, 1989 and 2011, different forms of violence gave the revolutions their first martyrs.  In France, whose revolution set off the series of other explosions across Europe in 1848, the slaughter of unarmed protesters on the Rue des Capucins tipped a tense situation into open insurrection.  In 1989, a resounding a sign of the Ceauşescu regime’s bankruptcy was the killing of demonstrators on the steps of the cathedral in Timişoara in 1989.  Neither of these atrocities were the first deaths in 1848 or 1989, but they came to symbolise the loss of legitimacy of the entire old order.

In Tunisia, the market-seller who set himself alight in 2011 in an act of self-immolation sparked off the uprising not only in his own country, but across the Arab world.  Technology alone, moreover, does not explain why a revolution in some countries should send out revolutionary shockwaves, while those in other times and places do not.  In 1848, France was not the first country to experience revolution, since there were violent upheavals in Sicily and Naples and protests in Venice and Milan weeks beforehand.  Yet it was after the revolution in Paris that the rest of Europe arose.  The role of historical memory is an essential part of the explanation: France was the beating heart of Europe’s revolutionary tradition, dating to 1789.  Opponents of the conservative order elsewhere were conditioned to believe Metternich’s aphorism that, when France sneezed, Europe would catch a cold.

image of a painting by the Hungarian artist mihály zichy's that shows revolutionary sándor petőfi reciting the nemzeti dal to a crowd on march 15, 1848.
Hungarian artist Mihály Zichy’s rendition of Sándor Petőfi reciting the Nemzeti dal to the crowd on March 15, 1848.

Significantly, in 1989 Poland was the first Communist-ruled state in Europe to cave in: although a peaceful transition – and not as dramatic as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the street fighting in Bucharest later that year – it was one laden with significance, since the Polish opposition already had a robust reputation from Solidarity and the ideological and moral refuge of the Catholic Church.  In 2011, one wonders whether a broad sense of Arab identity and of historical frustration with authoritarian rule may have ensured that, when any one part of the Arab world – Tunisia, as it turned out – sneezed, then the rest would catch the cold.

Thirdly, since domino revolutions are trans-national, they resonate in international relations, since the great powers with interests in the region are concerned for its stability and revolutionary ‘contagion’.  At the same time, even domino revolutions work within the framework of existing states, and the new regimes often think in terms of national interest.  Often the new regimes either seek to take full advantage of the hiatus by laying claim to territory beyond their existing frontiers, or they are confronted with the challenge of accommodating ethnic or religious minorities within the new order.

In 1848, this issue devoured the nascent liberal regimes in central and eastern Europe, allowing the conservatives to strike back by espousing the cause of minorities who felt persecuted or excluded by the triumphant, liberal nationalism of the revolution.  National minorities played an important role in the Revolutions of 1989-91, but they also provided the excuse for conflict, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Yet (in Central and Eastern Europe, at least, though not the Balkans) the issue has not proved to be the same corrosive agent as it was in 1848-9.  A side effect of the Arab Spring of 2011 has been the persecution – albeit not officially-sanctioned – of religious minorities, such as the Christians in Egypt.

At the beginning of 2012, the success of the Arab Spring, in terms of the emergence of truly new regimes based on popular sovereignty and deriving their legitimacy from the revolution, is still in the balance.  A fresh look at the domino revolutions as a phenomenon demands that the nature of the revolutionary ‘domino effect’ must be investigated in detail.  This requires attention to a number of factors.

Firstly, the domino effect requires the capacity of the popular opposition to be not only credible, but to adopt galvanising symbols which are widely-disseminated, signals to would-be revolutionaries that political structures exist to enable action.

Secondly, by acting on the very confidence in this capacity from one situation to the next, the revolutionaries themselves generate the conditions which allow revolutionary activity to spread.  In itself, the popular reaction to an event such as self-immolation demonstrates to other actors, in a variety of settings, the availability of opportunities for action.  Such conditions combine three connected elements, namely the exposure of regime weakness, an open space for revolutionary activity, and a focus of resources on popular mobilization.

Thirdly, there is the question of comparability.  What is striking about these events, and the efficacy of the domino effect, is the similarity of the cases within each domino scenario.  This can be noted most obviously in terms of cultural similarity.  However, the type of ancien regime, the nature of popular demands, the sequence of revolutionary action and regime reaction, the conditions of possibility for revolutionary irruptions, and finally the international conditions, all provide the specific features that allow for useful analysis.

There are therefore two levels of analysis: the domino revolutions of 1848, 1989 and 2011 as different cases of a clearly identifiable phenomenon and how the individual revolutionary scenarios subject to the domino effect comprise similar cases, but with their own specific dynamics.


  1. Protests in Iran began before the Arab spring no? They were triggered by the questionable results of a Presidential election in 2009. The so called Arab Spring begins in December 2010 in Tunisia….your first para needs editing I believe.

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