08/28/2013 06:15 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

The Irony of Revolutions

How many times has the following story appeared in the news cycle? In a certain country, a political movement organizes to protest state injustices, topples a ruthless dictator, and makes headlines worldwide celebrating the triumph -- only to emerge again in future news about the difficulties of moving beyond this initial success. It is thus with some irony that the term "revolution," which typically means "to come full circle" or "to make a complete rotation," is so often applied to political change, when such change may also contain the seeds of its own undoing.

With Egypt the focus of continuing news attention this past month, it's worth reflecting on the hard work that accompanies political reform. Many Egyptian citizens and international activists rightly saw the events of the Arab Spring as foreshadowing what more democratic conditions could look like in their respective countries. Yet one theme has stood out in my recent research on social movements: to try to persuade both national and international audiences to their causes, many activists create forms of communication whose very features hold the potential to both innovate and preserve the status quo.

As one example, in a recent article in the journal Communication Studies, "(Trans)national Advocacy in the Ousting of Milošević," I found that in the current political environment, social movements across the planet appear to be imitating one another's tactics to an unprecedented degree. The April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt took many of its cues, for instance, from the Serbian youth movement "Otpor," which was instrumental in overthrowing former Serbian President Milošević back in 2000. Over the past decade, a remarkable number of movements worldwide have also followed Otpor's tactics in creating their own revolutions. But just what types of communication strategies have been imitated?

In Otpor's case, I found that two factors evidence some of the current problems movements may face in creating change. One involves the way in which borders are increasingly crossed for political purposes. Otpor had a great deal of financial backing from the U.S. government and other benefactors in its activities, implementing new Western polling techniques to test its messages with local citizens, for instance. Toggling between the global and the indigenous, such persuasive schemes can create more effective, focused political actions, but may also backfire with local populations when what seemed like a purely national movement is found to be working with transnational interests.

At the same time, a second difficulty involves the extent to which nationalistic or similar appeals may be needed to make radical messages more palatable for local audiences. To a certain extent, all forms of communication have to work within the boundaries of what audiences perceive and know. But appeals to narrow ideological stories or events as grounds for new changes may also make broader democratic discourse less accessible in the long-term. Activists during the Serbian uprising used symbols well regarded by local populations, such as images of the Stalinist fist and quasi-mythical narratives about the need for strong, uncompromising leaders. Such rhetoric might win support in the short-term, but may simply perpetuate ideologies that forgo the idea that more citizens should have a voice in the political process. Fast-forwarding nearly a decade later, much of the excitement over the Serbian revolution subsided, with one former Otpor member even claiming disappointment that the Serbian administration has merely come to resemble the previous dictatorship.

Only time will tell how the Egyptian case will turn out, and there are, of course, many other factors involved in revolutions, like the economic and institutional realities activists face. Political changes also tend to defy linear or causal explanations. It's best to take multiple perspectives on the complex conditions under which revolutions take place, including many of the cultural and social forces that easily escape analysis. But examining movements' communication offers one angle on the difficulties of political reform, showing how "revolutionary" rhetoric always ironically struggles against the possibility of coming full circle.