Cite as:

Alexander S. Gard-Murray, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Complexity and the Limits of Revolution: What Will Happen to the Arab Spring? arXiv:1212.3041, December 11, 2012. Re-released July 16, 2013.

Download PDF

(also on arXiv )


The recent social unrest across the Middle East and North Africa has deposed dictators who had ruled for decades. While the events have been hailed as an "Arab Spring" by those who hope that repressive autocracies will be replaced by democracies, what sort of regimes will eventually emerge from the crisis remains far from certain. Here we provide a complex systems framework, validated by historical precedent, to help answer this question. We describe the dynamics of governmental change as an evolutionary process similar to biological evolution, in which complex organizations arise by replication, variation and competitive selection. Different kinds of governments, however, have differing levels of complexity. Democracies must be more systemically complex than autocracies because of their need to incorporate large numbers of people in decision-making. This difference has important implications for the relative robustness of democratic and autocratic governments after revolutions. Revolutions may disrupt existing evolved complexity, limiting the potential for building more complex structures quickly. Insofar as systemic complexity is reduced by revolution, democracy is harder to create in the wake of unrest than autocracy. Applying this analysis to the Middle East and North Africa, we infer that in the absence of stable institutions or external assistance, new governments are in danger of facing increasingly insurmountable challenges and reverting to autocracy.

New Press Release

Egypt's "Re-revolution": Complexity and Governmental Structure

CAMBRIDGE, MA (July 15, 2013) — The Egyptian army has hit the reset button after thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets calling for a do-over of last year’s elections. Why was a second revolution necessary? A report published by NECSI in the wake of the Arab Spring explained how hastily formed governments following violent revolutions fail due to a lack of institutions. Egypt’s “re-revolution” validates these predictions.

In their paper, “Complexity and the Limits of Revolution: What Will Happen to the Arab Spring?” Alexander Gard-Murray and Yaneer Bar-Yam propose a general theory of governmental change through the lens of complexity. Predictions based on this model have been verified by subsequent events.

Their main argument states that violent revolutions are fundamentally disruptive, and that transitional governments are more likely to revert to autocracy than construct a democracy due to the trauma inflicted on public institutions.

The authors compare the dynamics of government to the dynamics of evolution; when a revolutionary event is violent, it destroys the complex structures that have been built up to that point and the new government must start from scratch. Since a democracy has an extremely complex political structure, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to reinvent itself from scratch. Less complex forms of government such as autocracy or dictatorship are much more likely. If the revolutionary event is non-violent, however, the government can still use existing structures to construct a successful democracy — as in the cases of the Philippines in 1986, South Korea in 1987 and across Eastern Europe in 1989. At the time of the writing of this paper, the researchers backed this claim with historical data from 1945 – 2000, but the trend has continued to the present day.

“Being able to tell what is going to happen should help us make better decisions the first time” said Bar-Yam. “Science predicting social unrest is an important advance in this effort.”

What sorts of regimes grow out of revolutions? As more and more countries around the world are experiencing uprisings and protests this old question gains new significance and urgency.

Was the Arab Spring a False One?

CAMBRIDGE (December 11) — The Arab Spring has turned to winter. A year after protests, demonstrations and uprisings rocked the Arab world, hopes for peaceful transitions and free elections are fading in Egypt, Libya, and especially Syria, while elsewhere repression is the rule.

In Benghazi, Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo, the students, teachers, farmers, merchants and rebels who embodied the Arab Spring are wondering if they’ve only succeeded in trading one evil for another: militias that cannot and will not stop the sectarian violence that killed an American ambassador; an elected president who has suddenly and shockingly placed himself above the law; and a brutal regime willing to commit whatever atrocities it takes to hold onto power. How can this be?

The New England Complex Systems Institute explains how in a new paper, "Complexity and the Limits of Revolution: What Will Happen to the Arab Spring?" While the ongoing unrest encompassed by the Arab Spring has triggered long-awaited reforms and toppled dictators who ruled for decades, the authors insist immediate change is neither easy nor guaranteed. Hopes that repressive regimes will quickly be followed by democracies is unreasonable at best.

Authors Alexander S. Gard-Murray and Yaneer Bar-Yam provide a complex systems framework, validated by historical precedent, to help explain the dynamics of government change in the region. Their empirical support makes use of data on the outcomes of unrest and governmental changes from 1945 to 2000.

"What is happening now is not unlike biological evolution," said NECSI president Yaneer Bar-Yam, "in which complex organizations arise by replication, variation and competitive selection. Without a simpler organism to build on, a more complex one can't form."

Revolutions may disrupt existing complexity, limiting the potential for building new complex structures quickly. In fact, the authors argue, democracy is harder to create in the wake of unrest than in the wake of autocracy. Revolutions disrupt the complex web of dependencies within governments and between them and other institutions, making it more likely that simpler systems — such as autocracy — will result, rather than complex ones such as democracy.

"Constructing a theory of governmental change from the perspective of complex systems," said Bar-Yam, "can explain and perhaps anticipate the outcomes of revolutions, as it is an added perspective that synthesizes and extends existing theories about the role that violence, institutions, and time play in revolutions."

The authors express hope that a better understanding of the difficulties that revolutions create for post-revolutionary governments can guide regional and global responses to social unrest. "Building a successful government begins, rather than ends, with the revolution," said Bar-Yam.