Revolutions Beyond Failure and Success


By Walid el Houri


Tahrir (Photo: Gigi Ibrahim unter CC BY 2.0)


How can we approach and talk about the protest movements taking place in the world today and about their success or failure? This is both a political and an academic issue (and whether political and academic can be separate things is itself a matter of debate when dealing with ongoing political and protest movements).

The following text addresses two issues that can open the discussion on how to speak of the events unfolding in the region and beyond: first, terminology and semantics and, second, the notions of failure and success in analyzing them.

1. Semantics and Terminology: The Meaning of a Name 

Many terms and names have been given to the political processes taking place in the region and the world. On the one hand we have a range of terms describing the nature of the event, and on the other, terms addressing their scope or location.

To start with the Middle East (a category we may later problematize and contest), there are names such as the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution, the Arab uprisings, and so on. The nature of the events are described as uprising, spring, revolution, riot, protests, civil war, among other things. As for the scope, there are terms ranging from Arab, through national and urban, to regional (such as the Middle East or even the Muslim world, including terms like the “Muslim Winter”).

One of the basic challenges in analyzing and speaking of these political events taking place today is of course the choice of terminology. The choice of words carries not only a political position, but also an underlying assumption about the nature of the subject and its scope and therefore affects the analysis, the corpus, and the conclusions, which is why such a discussion is relevant for assessing success and failure.

Saying “the Arab Spring” determines the scope (Arab, and the definition of Arab here is itself a matter of debate). Arab here can be a geographical or perhaps cultural or even a linguistic categorization. The metaphor of a season implies something that comes and goes without much agency. Also “The Egyptian revolution” carries a different meaning than the plural, “Egyptian revolutions” for instance.

The other question in this context is whether we can speak of an Arab event, regardless of whether we call it spring, summer, revolution, uprising, or any other term. What does such a category imply about what we are speaking about, its inner relations (what is Arab?), and its relation to other protest movements (especially when interconnections between different movements and their effects on each other are increasing – think of Ukraine and Syria, for instance, as opposed to Syria and Yemen).

So why Arab? Is it a valid category? And how is it useful or counterproductive? And does speaking of an Arab event undermine its relations with other protest movements in the world? What can their interconnections and comparisons tell us about all of them?

Is speaking of an Arab event reductive? And can we put Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia in one category and exclude Turkey or Greece for instance? If so, what is the common ground?

Calling these movements “Arab” implies a separation from other protest movements in other parts of the world with similar tactics, demands, and modes.

When we say “Arab”, are we treating the Arab world as one entity, and are we reducing all the different events and protest movements to one model or one interconnected narrative undermining their disparate forms and contexts? Is there an undertone of cultural exceptionalism that separates the Arab event from the rest of the world? (Do we speak of the “European”, the “Southern European”, the “Eastern European”, and the “Asian event”…?)

Our perception and analysis of the events is already partly defined by the terminology we use. We do not need to agree on one terminology, but the discussion about the meaning and the merits of each term is part of how we can approach these subjects.

In this text, I use three terms: protest, event, and revolution. Protest refers to the act of opposing a certain established power. Event is a particularly problematic term because it implies an end but can also be regarded simply as something that disturbs a certain state of things – when I use event I am usually referring to something that is not over: an ongoing event. Revolution, finally, qualifies the nature of this event. I call an event “revolution” to imply a protest’s potential for a structural change. This is a position I take in my analysis and it can, of course, be contested.

2. Revolutions beyond Failure and Success

The underlying assumption about all protest movements is that they seek a certain change, regardless of what we call them and regardless of how structural the change is. They are a conflict of some sort, and perhaps we can speak of a crisis of governance in which various agents and actors compete for power and dispute how power should be exercised. Protests also challenge the boundaries of inclusion in and exclusion from the polity and can construct new political subjects.

For Ranciere, the part of society that has no part in power and the distribution of the sensible seeks the ability to challenge the established power structure that defines the boundaries of inclusion in and exclusion from the polity (what he attributes to the police regime). Those who are or feel excluded want to be able to speak and be heard, to change the accepted organization of power and where one can and cannot speak, what can and cannot be said, and who can be part of the polity and how. Essentially, this is about the construction of new political subjects, a process that is always ongoing.

The first issue in the assessment and analysis of the success or failure of a movement is the way certain normative models are used as a basis for the analysis. We often compare political events with previous historical models that are mostly the product of other historical, geographical, economic, and social contexts – often 18th, 19th, and 20th-century Europe, events that have been the source of much of the dominant models in the social sciences. The comparison with a normative model and whether a revolution or protest movement succeeded or failed sometimes depends on whether it fits the model or not, and this itself can be problematic.

So can we call something a revolution if it does not fit the particular normative model of what political science calls a revolution?

The second issue is that to determine success or failure requires an underlying outcome. Ernesto Laclau argues that the unit of politics could be the demand. He speaks of two kinds of demands: democratic demands (which are particular demands) and popular demands (which are general demands) These popular demands can stand for any number of the particular demands of various groups who unite around one popular demand that at a contingent moment would represent all their demands. This, he argues, is the core of populist movements (and here populism is not meant pejoratively, but as a form of politics rather than a content of a certain movement).

Democratic demands, the particular ones, have a clear and practical outcome that is easily spotted (a new road, a raise in wages…); their success or failure can be judged by their fulfillment of a particular outcome.

Popular demands can stand for any number of specific demands from various groups that unite around them momentarily, but they are also hard to determine since they have no particular discernible outcome (these are generally vague notions such as freedom, democracy, justice, and so on…).

The success or failure of such demands cannot be judged as directly as the democratic ones, since these are empty signifiers whose meaning depends on the meaning ascribed to them by the different groups making the demands; these groups often have different outcomes in mind when they unite around these demands (what the Muslim Brotherhood calls freedom is not necessarily what the revolutionary socialists call it, though at some point they can both be joined in the same demand).

The term “revolution” itself acts as a floating signifier whose meaning is contested by the different political agents and actors, including the authority. “Revolution” becomes the name of  legitimacy when it becomes a hegemonic term that stands for something good, a change for the better, even if this change is merely imagined; it becomes a means of legitimizing authority and claiming legitimacy. So in many places we see the whole range of agents speaking as those who are faithful to the revolution, or those who represent the revolution as the popular demand.

The demands that constitute the core of the protest or revolutionary movements are popular demands and always vague; they express the desire of certain groups to be counted as part of the polity without necessarily agreeing on how: to reclaim the people as a political category and to transform the political agent. In fact one common criticism of many of these movements has been their lack of a project or a clear program. Some argue that this vagueness is precisely why such movements were able to gather popular support.

The demands of revolutions and protest movements is an issue connecting and relating the various places where radical protest has taken or is taking place: these movements are motivated mainly by a desire for participation and a frustration with both the inability to voice concerns and the state’s refusal or inability to answer to demands and claims from larger and larger numbers of disenfranchised people.

Such demands are hence political, social, and economic, and the three are not mutually exclusive categories. The demand is to be a part, to have a space of existence within the state as agents. The form of this space, however, is not clearly stated.

So if there is no clear, stated program or clear view, how can we speak of whether such a movement has succeeded or failed?

The third and last issue is that success and failure require an end. The success or failure of a political movement is determined by whether and how it succeeds in establishing its final goals or a new, radically different power structure; but this logic implies an end, a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and a contested end.

So when do we start asking? The questions whether a movement is over or not and when we can declare the end of an event and start assessing it are part of any analysis of success or failure. Have we reached an end or is there an end to reach?

Finally, some questions can be raised about how we can approach such movements. Is it possible to look at the processes rather than the outcomes, away from a teleological perspective that suggests an end or a closure of the movement of revolution? So instead of asking whether the revolution/spring/uprising… in such or such a place failed or succeeded or whether it has ended or started again, can we ask what kind of processes are taking place? What kind of subject positions are being articulated and why? What new spaces are created and what is happening in these spaces? What new signifiers have appeared and how are they contested? And finally, how can protest movements respond to the present situation in the ongoing process of revolution? How can we analyze these events, and for that matter should we assess them beyond the question of success and failure, not as a zero-sum game but as part of a process of transformation?

Walid el Houri is currently postdoctoral Fellow of the EUME program 2013/14.


Citation: Walid el Houri, Revolutions Beyond Failure and Success, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.05.2014

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2014, 2. Mai). Revolutions Beyond Failure and Success. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 16. April 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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