The Sunday Leader

Recipe For Revolution

Tunisia is proof that revolutions can happen. Egypt is proof that they can spread.
Throughout the Arab world, aging dictatorships are being challenged by young people simply marching in the streets. Shocking to many observers, they seem to be succeeding. The question is how, and why.


It takes young men to fight wars, and it also takes young people to stage revolutions. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Sri Lanka had a mass of young people that launched not one but multiple insurrections. As the population aged, however, the idea of revolution became less tenable. Tamil Tiger Leader Prabhakaran’s penultimate humiliation was the release of pictures of him playing in a swimming pool with his children. Hardly the image of the young and unattached revolutionary.
In Tunisia, Egypt and Iran, there are masses of young people who have not yet bought into the system. Indeed, many have never been offered a job. In the Arab world as a whole, nearly 65% of the population is under 30. Those young people are also often over-educated and unemployed, like the Computer Science graduate who lit himself on fire in Tunisia, sparking the broader Arab revolt. When governments can pay them off with oil revenues they can survive, but many Arab governments either don’t have or mismanage oil money. These governments are now finding themselves subject to revolt.


Another characteristic of modern revolutions is that they are efficiently coordinated via social networks like Twitter and Facebook and cellular technology like SMS. While aging dictators have been adept at censoring mainstream media and obstructing public assembly, they have been slow to crack down on social media. By the time they do, like Egypt shutting off the Internet, it is often too late. Social networks by themselves cannot ignite revolutions, but they do seem able to catalyze the street protests that ultimately do.
What is being coordinated is a piercing of the veil, the illusion of power that dictatorships must maintain. No dictatorship can possibly coerce an entire population. All they can do is set a few symbolic and suitably violent examples, control the media and perpetuate the illusion that their strength is unbreakable. They can also use the tools of democracy to perpetuate illusion, asking opposition to go through channels they control, or by supporting a dummy opposition (like Ranil Wickremesinghe). Like a bank rush, however, they cannot coerce large masses if they simply walk onto the streets.
One trait these revolutions seem to have shared is that they were sparked by a few people piercing the veil through dramatic acts, like lighting themselves on fire. This is a unique act in that it is neither violent nor non-violent. It commands attention without killing innocent bystanders. These are not suicide bombers, they’re simply suicides. In the Arab world, they become martyrs, without the baggage of terrorism. This spark in a vacuum will not spread, but in regions inundated with social media and satellite TV, the news spread like wildfire. Someone was not afraid to oppose the regime, and they were not afraid to die for it. That led to Facebook groups, to conversations and then street protests that gain a momentum of their own.


Underneath all of these rebellions there is also a common thread. It is not anti-colonialism, religious fervor, or support for any particular leader. The protests in Tunisia and Egypt have not been identified with any particular party or ideology. The protesters are more broadly calling for democratic representation, jobs, and better economic prospects. The first demand seems expendable, but if a nation can’t provide jobs for a growing youth population, they should probably brace for trouble.


Another trend seems to be that these protests are taking place in places that are American allies, places where the military tools of oppression are propped up by American money. Street protests in America’s enemy Iran did not overthrow the government despite obviously rigged elections, perhaps in part because protesters could be identified as unpatriotic.
In countries like Tunisia and Egypt, however, the US was and is on the side of the dictators, their allies in the war on terror. Ironically, the protests gained momentum from the third-party release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, enabling locals to see what the US genuinely thought of the regimes. That information could also be used without protesters being branded unpatriotic, indeed, it was the dictators who looked foreign by contrast.

What This Means

The trend spread by the Tunisian revolution seems to be that coordinated youth protests can destabilise governments without the resources to pay them (or a large military) off. In Tunisia, a country without a strong military, the government fell in less than a month. In Egypt, a country with a strong military backed by billions in US aid, the outcome looks far less clear. In Yemen, it is unclear whether the protests have much momentum at all. The broad trends seem to be coordinated youth with economic grievances, untainted by foreign affiliation. In a more rigorous approach, scientists at Kansas State University have assembled a data-based Domestic Political Violence Model that has already predicted unrest in Peru, Ireland, Ecuador, Italy, and Tunisia. The broad factors they identify are coercion, coordination and capacity. The general algorithm is that human rights abuses can fuel protest by a coordinated opposition, especially if the government doesn’t have the capacity to project power nationally, and if there has been unrest in the past.
The next country they predict unrest in is Iran. Number two is Sri Lanka. Personally, I think the geopolitical and economic situation here is less prone to revolution than in years before, but those tending towards dictatorial tendencies should take heed. It seems that the recipe for revolution can be made at home.

30 Comments for “Recipe For Revolution”

  1. reza

    dictatorship should be abolished.

    • Mayday Magay

      Reza,,,,Correction please…. Corrupt and Immoral Dictators should be abolished.

  2. Democrat

    In the new social network world order, there is no place for a dictator. You can only govern by the consent of the people, not by fear of kidnap and murder.

  3. raymond

    Headlines in a foreign newspaper – “The Egyptian government shut down Internet, cut cellphone access, imposed a curfew and deployed the military against its own people….Last night tens of thousands rose up in spirited DEFIANCE”

  4. Mahinda Rajapakse

    Don’t worry. It would not happen in Sri Lanka.

  5. Nissl

    Well written, balanced summary, thanks.

    I want to highlight that the success of these movements seems to come down to the position taken by the army and, for lack of a better term, the (often culturally conservative) working classes. If either is willing to violently sweep protesters off streets, the movement is likely to be derailed. In Egypt, the working classes are fed up with lack of economic opportunity, and the army, if I understand correctly, is largely a conscript army without much governmental sentiment. This explains the current status of the protests.

    The solution for the youth opposition in countries where the army and/or working classes are not ready to come along seems to be something that has yet to be fully worked out. My suggestions are that the opposition attempt to expose those elements of society to uncensored information (TV/internet) as much as possible, and if necessary perhaps infiltrate the ranks of the army and police over a few years.

    It also remains to be seen if the growing intranational operations on the internet to circulate effective revolutionary information and backup communications to protesters increases the future success rate of these movements. I was quite impressed with the sample protest manuals I found on the internet, and I wonder whether they might have had a difference-making impact on e.g. the Green revolution a few years back.

    • Frankly, I don’t think things have to get this ugly. The beauty of a democracy is that you can bring change at the ballot box; not at a revolution. But before that one has to get educated and educate other about what’s important when selecting the leaders (i.e. Economic know-how, ability to handle foreign policy etc). You don’t have to be an expert in these fields to gauge if a candidate’s capabilities in these fields (i.e. a manager need not be an expert in engineering to hire a good engineer)

      Before all that though, people have to realize their ballot is worth more than a packet of buriani or a free hat and a t-shirt. And they have to realize that public office is not something you gift to some like a birthday present.

      Let’s see, we’ve got 6 years to learn and teach.

  6. girigoris appu

    Indica, I think your nose is too long. Look closer to home and stick to home-grown (and growing) problems. The man in the street cannot be worried about whats happening in Tunisia or Egypt or anywhere else for that matter when he cannot afford his basic necessities and day to day living is almost impossible..

  7. P.L.J.B.Palipana

    Thanks lot Indi for your valuable analysis. My main problem is the Revolutionary Governments all over the world during the past 100 years failed to deliver the requird goods for their respective populations. At this moment we could speak positive things only for Singapore and Malasia under true dictatorships. What happend to Chile, Cuba ete…..?.

  8. Afzal - Colombo

    But adding Iran’s name to the picture is not right as we witnessed how the present governing body doused the uprising after the presidential election mainly because there was a leader and supporters like Rafsanjani, whereby the government identified and dealt with them accordingly. What fascinates me with the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples revolution is that there are no leaders and I also have to say that I like the phrase used in this article “or by supporting a dummy opposition (like Ranil Wickremesinghe)” which is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The other fact is that the US knows that their voices will not have an effect after new governments like the “brotherhood” in Egypt and the opposition in Tunisia will come to power, hence, now Obama and Hillary are making some decent comments with a minor support to the demonstrations. The US and UK should now understand that Iraq would have been a better place if military wouldn’t have been exercised rather people were empowered to stand against the dictator.

  9. Kaput Silva

    Just a matter of Time when we will see the same riots and unrest In Sri Lanka UNLESS the president has a genuine interest in teh welfare of the people and the country.
    If not, this regime Must go or will be booted out.’
    It is almost impossible for the common man and masses to bear and tolerate this ridiculaous cost of living coupled with the corrupttion and wastage by the Bossm,the ministers and MPs and all the corrupt and immoral stooges that go as leeches at the expense of the state funds .

  10. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    A vital ingredient in these fascinating developments is the long duration (2-3 decades) of incumbency.

    • ben-ali fun-ali

      Time is of no consequence here. It only aggravates the inherent fury . The Rip Van Winkle of Tunisia are even more vengeful now when they realize how long theyve been Ripped off.

    • Justitia omnibus

      Interesting red herring, as usual, from this source!

      How about factoring in the matter of ACTVE long-standing U.S. support for the corrupt Middle Eastern regimes something that appears to be lacking in the Sri Lankan case where the behaviour of the government has been tolerated by “the West” because of the “war against terrorism?”

    • Yeah, but is it necessary to take that long for the people to get frustrated?

  11. kiss me mubarak

    i was tough
    I was rough
    but i was good
    to myself
    my ministers
    they were corrupt
    they let me down
    but they were good
    coz they propped me up
    my people
    they wept
    and asked for bread
    and cheaper food
    and didnt they dare
    ask me to share
    so i gave them
    bullets and prisons
    instead of bread
    and cheaper food
    now i think its time
    to go beacuse
    i hear them in the streets
    asking for my blood

    • Mudiyanse

      Replica of Sri Lanka………………………

      Very Nice and Inspiring…………….

  12. Insider

    All the symptoms that exist in Tunisia and Egypt can be seen in Sri Lanka very clearly. They were there more than thirty years in Sri Lanka. But Sri Lankans are so gullible to believe everything that the politicians broadcast in Sri Lanka. so it is highly unlikely to expect a “peoples revolution” in Sri Lanka to send the present and past leaders into exile.

  13. muzammil

    A huge challenge for champions of democracy.People are on the streets
    awaiting delivery.

  14. muzammil

    In many parts of the world people have started to question the fairness of application of justice through democracy.There’s a strong sense of fear in the
    minds of western democracies that democracy in the hands of their rivals is
    counterproductive to their aspirations.The whole world is watching the
    hypocracy of preaching and practicing.

  15. Sree

    Its amazingly naive to see what is happening in Egypt or Tunisia as being a Peoples’ revolution. US backed puppet rulers in these countries are being changed by US backed ‘revolutions’ staged by CIA. Look at Al Baradei! He is the new puppet US wants in Egypt. This has nothing to do with ‘People”- it has everything to do with the strings US is pulling. The difference between SL and these Arab- African countries is that SL does not allow itself to be pulled on strings! Sorry to dissappoint the LTTE rump- no revolution looming for SL!

    I have problems with this Govt ie corruption, COL etc; but on the whole we are on right track. Cost of living isn’t limited to SL- it has risen out of control throughout the world. Europe is a classic case of that!

  16. Derik

    My understanding is that the GoSL used Worldbank money to pay the Chinese to build the Internet kill “switch” in SL. It does seem that a free media is one means to ensure the people feel happy. It does not seem that SL has a free media and I do not think the poeple are happy.

    I believe the people are complacent and “genetically” need a “king” to run their complacent lives. Thus, there can be no revolution.

    Additionally, it takes old people to leverage young people to fire up a strategy for a revolution. The old people seem to be complacent too.

    So, in my opinion, nothing will change and the people will just chug along in their complacent state.

  17. There are few places in the Arab world in dictatorship. Most of them are elected from corrupted election. I also working in Arab country. People are enjoying more freedom. Good example Al Jazeera operating from Qatar. Media freedom is more. Tax free life. Law & order is very fair. Just west media is showing wrong information.

  18. No matter how hard DJ tries to diffuse the topic, by mentioning the number of years,
    Your days are numbered. In the mean time enjoy your paid holiday!!!!!!!

    • My Lanka

      corrupt leaders tha we have..A shame to all Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka..Total disrepute.

  19. Bruz

    Let us see the number game. Egypt & Tunisia were/are ruled by the respective
    presidents for decades, but now only people are revolting, after many years of rule.
    AS Dr DJ points out, our president is ruling the country for the past 6 tears. So there is no rush for any change I guess. The JVP revolt & the LTTE revolts are things of the past, may be. The fact is people are not in a mood to start any type of fights or revolution in SL today.They are mostly tired & hungry with floods & natural disasters . MR & co can have it all, their way .
    Poor silly lankans !

  20. Anon

    Correction for reza and Mayday Magay:

    Government should be abolished.

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