Revolutions are like great stories, they have an introductory phase where the stage is set and all of the actors are arranged in relation to each other, there is a great struggle that climaxes with the overthrow of the ruling regime and then there is a resolution of the conflict that often determines whether the story is a tragedy or an uplifting drama. Despite this basic story, the study of revolution is plagued with a paradox: the story of revolution seems to happen almost mechanically when all of the conditions exist and are put in motion, and yet, we know that those events are not put into motion without the active work of individuals. In academia, this paradox is often framed in terms of the structural debate or the "Great Man" debate. Which is more important, the preconditions that make revolution likely or the people who act on those preconditions to bring about revolutions? The paradox is that both are equally important.
If we accept this paradox, then we can come much closer to understanding revolution, both historically and in terms of what is unfolding in the Middle East today. On the structural side, we can know when revolution is likely. Revolutions are more likely when a country is undergoing the economic change often referred to as modernization. This involves moving from a more agrarian society where most of the people are tied to the land and the governing system involves a few people who own and administer the land. As countries are exposed to capitalism, engage in more trade, and become more productive, they typically undergo significant social changes as well. Whether this is the conflict between the peasants and landed elites in France in 1789, in China in 1911, or in Iran in 1979, this economic transition causes social tensions. The tensions are usually heightened by the fact that the exposure and integration into the capitalist system is not a purely natural or self-selecting process but has historically been connected with imperialism and more recently with foreign direct investment. This allows nationalist sentiments to become wed to the economic discontent, providing a potent ideological mix for revolution. Whatever the source, the result is that rapid economic changes create new winners and losers in the economic interaction in a country. The old winners often will try to hold onto power at the expense of the new winners, which is the source of most of the tension.
The fact that modernization is driven by external forces (foreign powers or even more abstract global forces like international trade) indicates the importance of international actors in setting the stage for revolution. In many ways, the international system shapes the likelihood of revolution. At different times in history, there have been different ideas that have battled for supremacy in the international system. Thus, during the Cold War the paradigms of communism and democratic capitalism shaped most revolutionary movements. Today, the global momentum toward liberal democracies as the most appropriate form of government shapes the movements in the Middle East. Though, there has emerged a smaller but potent alternative idea founded in a reactionary version of Islam that has gained traction but is less likely to gain as much international support. Thus, movements in countries that don't fit into these dominant paradigms are much less likely to ignite the passions of protesters.
Within countries, there are also important structures that shape the likelihood of revolution, most importantly the nature of the ruling regime. When a government is weak, focused on a person or family and repressive, it is much more likely to have a revolution. The alternative way of framing this reality is that democratic governments are very unlikely to have a revolution. They are typically strong, in that they have the ability to tax (which includes the ability to track where most people live and work and what they consume) as well as a modern professionalized military and police force that can be effectively utilized and that typically has popular legitimacy. This is because most democracies also are inclusive, that is everyone can have a voice in the government. As a result, most people follow the law because they believe in it and not because they are forced to, which means the military and police don't have to go around forcing people to do things very often. Thus, revolutions are most likely in countries that are in the process of economic changes that occur at a time when the revolutionary ideas match the dominant paradigm of the international system in countries that are weak, repressive and exclusive. The problem, for understanding revolution, is that there are many countries that fit these preconditions, but only a few have revolutions.
This gets to the other side of the paradox, the role of individuals in pushing revolutions. In terms of the role of individuals, we can better understand why seemingly irrelevant events have a catalytic ability to ignite the powder keg of revolution. People matter in revolutions, both in the individual sense and in the collective. Key individuals can have an important role in shaping the tenor of a revolution. These people, to be really effective, lead organizations of people mobilized toward action. Whether that mobilization involves noncooperation (as in Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence) or guerrilla warfare (as in Castro's campaign for a revolution in Cuba) often depends on the perceptions of that leader. It is clear that Gandhi's steadfast commitment to nonviolence shaped that movement. Similarly, Castro and Che Guevara's experiences in Latin America shaped their understanding of what would work in removing the Cuban dictator. These leaders are important in their ability to take advantage of events to mobilize people toward action.
Beyond these revolutionary icons, however, individuals matter in revolutions in a collective sense as well. In many revolutions, there are not clear leaders around which the masses coalesce. The end of the Communist East German regime in 1989 and the Mubarak regime in Egypt earlier this year did not feature a Gandhi or Castro figure. In each of these revolutions, people acting in conjunction with others shaped the movement. Similarly, even when there are prominent leaders, the only reason that they are prominent is because people follow them. Thus, individual decisions to participate in revolutionary movements are fundamental to the success of those movements. If people stop participating, the movement dies. If they continue to take to the streets (or barricades), the movement continues. It is the collection of all of those individual decisions that determines whether the masses will take to the streets or find refuge in their homes after the government cracks down on a peaceful demonstration.