Democracies are no longer immune to revolution – evidence from Lebanon and Iraq

New research for UNU-WIDER explores the differences between revolutionary mass mobilizations in democracies versus dictatorships. Evidence from Lebanon and Iraq supports the argument that revolutions in democracies follow different trajectories—and may be less likely to succeed in their objectives.

Revolutions are not supposed to happen in democracies. Citizens should be able to change democratic governments that have failed to deliver without the need to resort to difficult and risky types of mass mobilization that are normally required to force out a dictator. While protests are common in democratic settings, they usually tend to demand reforms rather than wholesale regime change. Yet, the 21st century has witnessed an unprecedented increase in the number of revolutions in democratic settings—understood as extra-institutional efforts to change an existing regime through the mass mobilization of everyday citizens.

Figure 1: Revolutions occurring in nominally democratic states (Polity > 5)


Note: a Polity score of > 5 is generally understood to indicate a democratic regime.
Source: authors’ construction based on Beissinger (2022) revolutions dataset and Centre for Systemic Peace (2021) Polity V dataset.

In nearly 20 democracies around the world, from Eastern Europe to Latin America to the Middle East, uprisings have broken out. These mass mobilizations embrace the repertoires, the claims-making strategies, and even the vocabulary of revolution. They call for the removal of the entire political class and the transformation of the political system. Revolutions of this sort peaked in 2019, a year some branded the most revolutionary in decades.

What do we know about revolutions in democracies?

Because revolutions in democracies are historically rare, there is little work analysing their unique dynamics. Our paper takes on this task, pointing to some of the ways in which these movements might differ from well-studied revolutionary movements in consolidated autocracies.

At first, we might expect democracies—no matter how broken—to afford more political space for movements to organize, making it easier to launch revolutions compared to repressive autocracies. But unlike revolutions in autocracies, these revolutions are waged against networks of kleptocrats, who rule in order to enrich themselves and their cronies rather than to benefit constituents. Though certain reviled figures are emblematic of that system, there is usually no one figure to whom it can be tied. Thus, the resignation or ousting of certain regime officials—a prime minister, a major party leader—does not put the system itself under serious strain.

Indeed, the collusive and networked nature of these regimes means that official positions can be rotated easily without affecting the underlying distribution of power. The same cannot be said of most autocratic systems, which typically cannot survive the ouster of the dictator.

A related issue is that ‘success’ in a revolution targeting a democratic regime is hard to define. In an anti-autocratic revolution success is usually understood to be the fall of the dictator, and all of revolutionaries’ strategies and energies are focused on this clear and singular goal. The same is not the case in a revolution targeting a democracy.

Our research shows that revolutions in democracies are likely to struggle to form and sustain ‘negative’ coalitions, and tend to face difficulties formulating clear, least-common-denominator goals that can hold together a diverse coalition. In that sense, it becomes hard for the revolutionary movement to unite behind clear goals or a unified leadership.

Moreover, the decentralized nature of power in broken democracies means that repression may emanate from various pseudo-state and non-state actors that support the status quo. This can make it difficult to pin down responsibility or blame for major repressive acts, undermining the ability of protesters to generate outrage in response to state violence—a crucial mechanism by which unarmed protesters in autocracies cultivate new supporters and forge elite alliances.

Armed, non-state actors, particularly partisan ones, may also hold fewer qualms about using lethal force against protesters, and may be less likely to defect or refuse when given orders to use mass violence. This is particularly the case in post-war democracies—which form a considerable number of cases where these revolutions have broken out.

Evidence from Lebanon and Iraq

We analyse the Tishreen uprising in Iraq (2019–20) and the Lebanese Thawra (2019–20). Both countries have regimes that are nominally democratic, in that they regularly hold elections. These elections are fiercely contested but fail to produce legitimate governments. Fed up with these systems of institutionalized corruption, revolutionary movements in both countries took to the streets in 2019 to call for the downfall of the entire regime.

Our analysis reveals two main trends. First, we observe a clear tendency in both countries for demand cycling, where the revolution goes through four main phases (revolutionary escalation, dispersion, frustration and resuscitation, and demobilization). Following the first phase of escalation, the prime minister typically resigns, creating a deadlock for the movement, which then becomes highly dispersed and unable to formulate a clear, least-common-denominator demand moving forward. This becomes a major weakness that undermines the uprising.

Second, we see a clear pattern of repression by non-state or pseudo-state actors tied to various political groups within the regime. In Iraq, the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militias, and in Lebanon, the Shia parties Hezbollah and Amal were likely to be deployed against certain modes of protest—against unarmed occupations/sit-ins in both countries.

Furthermore, repression by these actors more frequently resulted in protester injury or death than repression by the police. In both uprisings, political elites turned to non-state actors for repression when they felt especially threatened by disruptive or long-term protests, or when they wished to avoid direct responsibility for particularly violent crackdowns. Eventually, this type of repression complicates the ability of the revolutionaries to specify a clear enemy and leads to demobilization. 

Our study suggests that revolutions in democracies may, paradoxically, have a harder time achieving real regime change than revolutions in consolidated autocracies. Future research—by our team and others—should be directed to understanding when and how such challenges can be surmounted, and how citizens in the aftermath of such revolutions can build institutions that are, this time, truly democratic.


Chantal Berman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

Killian Clarke is an Assistant Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Rima Majed is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University of Beirut (AUB).

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.