Why ‘Colour’ Revolutions are Multi-shaded


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

Adding to the galaxy of ‘colour’ revolutions such as rose, tulip, orange, and many others is the recent jasmine revolution in Tunisia. The North African country suddenly gained worldwide attention in the second week of January as the ruler of country for the last 23 years fled to Saudi Arabia after massive protests. The perplexity of the matter revolved around the question how the immolation of a 26 year old could trigger such a massive unrest in Tunisia and consequently in the almost whole Arab world with protests in countries like Algeria, Syria, Yemen, Jordan are gaining shape. More importantly, how the north African country, which never earned a name for violent terrorism or religious fundamentalism or any such global concerns but rather enjoyed relative peace and stability, could slide into crisis of such a proportion? And, whether these revolutions, called ‘colour’ revolutions are real harbingers of democracy and development, or are preludes to further crises (as, for example, the Tulip revolution in Kirgizstan unfolded)?

The argument that ‘colour’ revolutions are multi-shaded is put forth here in a sense that these revolutions cannot be analysed in a straight jacket fashion or in a black and white way. It will be too simplistic and naive to say that colour revolutions are always for better, or even always for worse. It is also dubitable whether there is any such terminology such as ‘colour revolution’ which can be applicable to disparate events and developments spanning across continents such as Asia and Africa or Europe, and with political systems having different societal structures and cultures. The recent protests in Tunisia brings this to the point that the terms like jasmine revolution has more puzzles added to these terminologies such as colour revolutions rather than adding clarity to them.

In political terms, it is difficult to arrive at a general notion that the colour revolutions bring democracy, development and promote human rights. Kyrgyzstan is a stark example. In the case of Kyrgyzstan the Tulip revolution of 2005 vaulted the Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power on the platter of a corruption free, democratic and transparent government. But gradually within a span of five years the revolutionary proclamations gave way to the same degradations against which the Tulip revolution was supposed to fight. The massive strikes and toppling of the Bakiyev government last year brought to the realisation that Tulip revolution as such was more or less a misnomer, as the revolutionary thrust from the top failed, without the mass taking part in it. Interestingly, and perhaps wisely, the overthrow of the Bakiyev government did not earn the name of another ‘colour’ revolution!

The so called Jasmine Revolution hence has brought forth the question how one deals with this concept of colour revolution. If colour revolution simply indicates the overthrow of corrupt regimes, which deprive the subjects of basic human rights, then perhaps there are more opportune places in the world than in Tunisia to have a colour revolution. Perhaps a country like North Korea, or another country like Myanmar, or a country like Afghanistan may be a suitable candidate for this kind of revolution, but which is unlikely at present. All these countries are more popular in international circles than Tunisia and that too not for their success stories but for their undemocratic actions, or actions beyond the purview of international law. But in the case of Tunisia, it was a relatively stable country in the Arab world. Among Muslim countries it provides more freedom to its citizens that some of the other rigid countries the Arab world. Interestingly, Tunisia is the country in the Arab world in which more than 20 per cent seats in both chambers of its parliament were held by women. Contrast this to another Arabic country Kuwait, in which women got the right to vote only in 2005. Tunisia is a relatively secular country – neither of the terrorist organisations are popular or having bases in that country. If mere unemployment is the reason for the colour revolution, then many of the well known democracies in the world are fit cases for a colour revolution. The argument that the Wikileaks revelations last year about corruption and dictatorship in Tunisia might have prompted the ‘colour’ revolution holds little value, as the reports revealed much nastier things about many other countries.

Hence, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate from Sidi Bouzid, in front of the local administration building adds further to the complexity of the Jasmine revolution rather than demystifying the whole scenario. It may be a trigger to fuel popular discontent. It is true that in the case of dictatorships (most of the Arab countries are ruled by a single leader for decades) the legitimacy is drawn from sheer force. The dictatorship, if the Tunisia case is held as a prototype, survives on a huge edifice based on a fragile base which can collapse at any time. While dictators appear formidable, their hearts always beat with fear. And as in the case of Tunisia, the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia within a few days of massive protests. It may be a matter of conjecture, had Ben Ali withstood the massive protests with the help of army (here army did not support him fully) the case could have been different. Contrast this case to the massive protests in Iran in 2009, which was much wider and prolonged in scale, the Ahmedinejad government could manage the protest without the loss of power.

True, media plays a role in this era of information technology and communications. It appears, at times, media impacts a situation beyond ordinary comprehension. Wikileaks is a case in point. In this age, when social networking sites like face book and twitter and other communication technologies are widespread to almost every corner of the world, it is possible at times this power of technology may dent the power of an established regime as in the case of Tunisia, in which the protestors also used social networking sites to communicate with each other.

But, terming the events in Tunisia as another ‘colour’ revolution may be debated. And if the ‘colour’ is meant only for better prospects of a state, then the debate can be further complex and prolonged. Interestingly, the free web encyclopaedia Wikipedia has already added the jasmine revolution as another colour revolution in its list of colour revolutions. But how far this is tenable is a matter of debate.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Jan 2011.

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