Popular outbursts protesting objectionable conditions or policies and seeking to change them often move quickly from one location to another. The diffusion within a society where people share distressed circumstances and suddenly believe they can overcome them is more readily explained than is diffusion from one society to another. However, the processes for the spread of popular uprisings and the risks and challenges of such movements within and among societies have some similarities.

The Processes of Diffusion

A powerful expression of outrage and a cry for change, particularly if it appears to be effective, gives hope to other people elsewhere who feel some of the same grievances. They dare believe that if they similarly rise up they can achieve their aspirations. In 1968, numerous riots and major protests erupted within many countries around the world. They included the student-led uprising in Paris that spread across France, the student occupation of several buildings at Columbia University in New York, the killing of hundreds of protesting students in Mexico City, the Prague spring's suppression by Soviet troops and the numerous riots in American cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some of those severe conflict episodes were linked between nations because some of them inspired belief in possible ways to fight against oppressive circumstances and also ways to suppress the challenges. Others were similar because they were responding in part to common world events, such as the U.S. war in Vietnam. Still others were relatively independent and isolated from such connections.

The term "Arab Spring" suggests a single phenomenon in one region. Of course, that is misleading, since each Arab country is unique.1 Nevertheless, the popular uprisings in many Arab countries reverberate and mutually influence uprisings and repressions in many other countries. The links among the events in various Arab and non-Arab countries in 2010 and 2011 should be briefly surveyed to discern the many aspects of the diffusion.

The non-violent demonstrations starting in December 2010 in Tunisia were soon followed by the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. The Tunisian and Egyptian eruptions, however, had been preceded by two years of collaborative discussions and reflections by many civil groups in those countries.2 The success of the nonviolent Otpor uprising in Serbia was studied as well as the writings of Gene Sharp, who has directly and indirectly influenced many nonviolent actions.3

Within many other countries, in the following months, demonstrations calling for governmental reform in some cases or for the ousting of autocratic rulers in other cases erupted. In most countries there was little development of civil society organizations and citizens had not participated in discussions about the uses of nonviolent actions. In Libya the quest for change quickly took the form of a civil war, ending the life and rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The responses of the government authorities varied considerably, with government leaders perhaps drawing different lessons from the experiences in neighboring countries. For example, in Morocco, soon after demonstrations in February 2011 calling for government reforms, King Mohammed VI promised comprehensive constitutional reforms and proposed some changes. They were ratified in September and, in accord with them, a parliamentary election was held in November. On the other hand, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad initially expected that his rule would be supported by Syrian citizens thanks to its strong anti-Israel and anti-American stance. However, demonstrations against his leadership began in March and have continued despite ruthless efforts to suppress them.

The relatively swift success of massive nonviolent protests removing Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from office in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, raised expectations of dissatisfied people in many neighboring countries and beyond. Concerns about economic stagnation, corruption, political repression and other matters were widespread. Even in the United States, the notion of massing in some location, as was done in Tahrir Square, was attractive to some of the people who initiated the Occupy Wall Street movement.4

Clearly, what may be passed on from the example of popular protests that effectively challenge authorities or their policies varies from demands for specific reforms to the ouster of a few leaders or the overthrow of an entire regime. What also may be passed on are various tactics and strategies to bring about such changes or to co-opt, oppose or defeat them. Who is attending to the lessons of mass protests also varies, including possible or actual leaders of such protests, autocratic rulers or their immediate supporters, or heretofore non-engaged citizens in other countries.

The Risks of Misguided Diffusion

As revolutionary challenges and efforts to control them gain high visibility, there are dangers for people elsewhere who adopt some of the goals and methods that seemed to work. They may infer inappropriate lessons. They may err about what accounted for the success of particular efforts elsewhere, or misjudge the differences between the circumstances where the efforts succeeded and their own circumstances.

For example, in 1959 , Fidel Castro and a small group of revolutionaries succeeded in driving Fulgencio Batista, the dictatorial president of Cuba, out of the country. They had provoked Batista into a massive, broad repressive effort to destroy the revolutionary band. This response was counterproductive so that he became isolated and was defeated. Che Guevara and some other revolutionaries believed that Castro's strategy created a revolutionary situation and that strategy could be successful in other countries.5 It was not. Che Guevara attempted it in Bolivia, but the government avoided a broad overreaction. Che remained somewhat isolated and was captured and killed in 1967.

In the current circumstances, some rulers resisting popular demands for significant social changes may believe that any concessions will be taken as signs of weakness and place them on a slippery slope to oblivion. They may underestimate the backlash that reliance on violent suppression will arouse among the people in their own country and outside as well.

On the other hand, challengers, feeling the strength of numerous supporters, may set out overly ambitious goals. Rather than seeking to divide the forces they oppose, they may regard them all as opponents who should be destroyed or driven from power. In doing so, the resolve and unity of the opposition will be strengthened.

As conflicts escalate, antagonisms intensify, dehumanization of the opponents may occur, and the bases for some accommodation in the future made may become extremely difficult. The costs of the struggle rise for nearly everyone, even as the stakes of a loss seem to increase.

Reducing Destructive Consequences and Maximizing Constructive Benefits

Useful lessons can be drawn from prior experience in other places by people trying to bring about positive social change. Empirically grounded literature on how to conduct conflicts constructively and maximize constructive outcomes is growing.6 In this literature, attention is often given to possibly achieving some mutuality in benefits for all the adversaries. However, the changes being sought in many of the Arab countries would seem to signify that the conflicts are largely zero-sum: What one side gains is at the expense of the other side. That might seem inevitable when power and economic benefits are to be redistributed more equally. I offer some reflections about how such zero-sum framings of a conflict can be overcome.

First, it is necessary to point out that in many struggles for greater justice and well-being, all sides may suffer great losses. There are joint losses that may take decades to overcome, if only materially.7 Hence, members of each side should conduct themselves so as to avoid mutually destructive consequences. One primary approach to this end is to affirm inclusive identities, which entail common interests and concerns. Consider the shared pride of blacks and whites of South Africa in having overcome apartheid relatively peacefully. It was a glorious achievement, accomplished with great thoughtfulness, mutual consideration and a vision of new rainbow nation.

For challengers and dominants alike, it is important to avoid stressing exclusive religious, ethnic or other communal identities that can evoke fears and hatreds. Such identities and feelings lend themselves to fueling disparaging stereotypes and even demonization.

Certainly minimizing and even entirely avoiding recourse to violence is an important conflict method for all parties. Nonviolent actions and the use of non-coercive inducements such as persuasive appeals and contingent benefits connote some regard for the opponents. They are based on shared values and interests. Furthermore, they reduce the hazards for ultimate cooperation.

It is important for each party in a conflict to keep a long time horizon in mind. Conflicts ultimately do end, but the harms done leave legacies. Also, a long time horizon enables people to make progress incrementally without undue despair.

Finally, outsiders can play important roles in minimizing the destructiveness of conflicts regarding the advancement of social, political and economic equity.8 They can help set parameters that channel the means used in a struggle, by applying positive as well as negative sanctions. They can also provide assets and counsel to foster reliance on constructive forms of conflict engagement and help envision productive conflict outcomes.

Governments and many non-governmental groups in countries other than the one that has experienced a large-scale civic conflict have interests and concerns relating to the opposing sides in that conflict. As a new accommodation is worked out within that country, outsiders can help influence the nature of the accommodation. In the case of many of the Arab countries undergoing political and economic transformations, their citizenry will be absorbed in internal concerns, but not inattentive to external conduct and influences.


There are no simple formulas that are universally valid for waging conflicts and producing broadly positive outcomes. Guidelines can be useful, as discussed in this article. But almost any principle can be pushed too far with unfortunate consequences. Choosing the best combination of moderated principles requires close attention to a particular situation and thoughtful reflection on alternative policies.

How conflicts are waged and what their outcomes will be are not predetermined by impersonal social forces. The course of a conflict is shaped by the persons engaged in the conflict and also by those who choose not to be engaged. Given that multitude of people, no one person or group can completely determine what occurs, no matter who they are or what they believe.


1 For excellent analyses of many cases, see the reports of the International Crisis Group:
2 Kirkpatrick, D. D. and D. E. Sanger, "A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History," The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2011.
3 See: Stolberg, S. G. (2011, February 17). Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution. Sharp, G., From Dictatorship to Democracy, (Boston: The Albert Einstein Institution, 2010).
4 Greenberg, M. "In Zuccotti Park," The New York Review of Books, Nov. 10, 2011. Kristof, N. D., "The Bankers and the Revolutionaries," The New York Times, Oct. 2, 2011.
5 Debray, R. Revolution in the Revolution? (New York: Grove Press, 1967). A more general analysis, at that time, of the value of violence in bringing about major social change was articulated in Fanon, F., The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1966).
6 Kriesberg, L. and B. W. Dayton, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 4th Ed. (Lanham-Boulder-New York-Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)..
7 Goldstone, J. A., Ed.. Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).
8 Ury, W., The Third Side, (New York: Penguin, 2000).