Colorful Revolutions

by Hugh Rawson

The world has been blessed lately with a number of relatively nonviolent demonstrations by citizens of different nations that have led to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Some of these protests – in Tunisia and Egypt, for example – have amounted to revolutions.  But this has created a problem for the media: The word “revolution” implies violent, usually bloody change. Therefore, reporters and pundits have cast around for ways to qualify, or soften, the violent word, often by using the names of colors and flowers.

 The first of the recent series of popular uprisings came in Tunisia toward the end of 2010. Soon after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January of 2011, the foreign press began referring to Tunisia’s jasmine revolution. The name seemed appropriate, at least to outside observers.  Jasmine is Tunisia’s national flower. And the phrase had been used before. Mr Ben Ali came and went smelling of flowers: His original seizure of power in 1987 also was called a jasmine revolution.

The example of Tunisia inspired a wave of demonstrations in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. (Westerners initially called the protests that led to Egyptian president Hosni Murabak’s resignation in February of 2011 the lotus revolution after Egypt’s national flower.) These diverse events have since been lumped together by the foreign media as the Arab Awakening or, more commonly, the Arab Spring, even though many of the protesters are not Arabs and the uprisings have extended into the summer and beyond.

Other colorful revolutions of recent times include:

The blue revolution, Kuwait, 2005.  The demonstrators, who gave this movement its name by carrying blue signs, did not aim to overthrow the government. Their objective was to win the right to vote for women, which they did.

The carnation revolution, Portugal, 1974. The protesters, who succeeded in forcing the resignation of the military junta then in power, demonstrated their solidarity by wearing white carnations as badges.

The cedar revolution, Lebanon, 2005. Peaceful protests following the assassination of opposition leader Rafik Hariri led Syria to pull out military units that had been in Lebanon for thirty years.  Cedars have been associated with Lebanon since ancient times.

The green revolution, Iran, 2009.  Name given to widespread but unsuccessful protests over the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Green was the color adopted by the party of the opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

The orange revolution, the Ukraine, 2004. First called the chestnut revolution, after the trees along the main avenue in Kiev, the nation’s capital, the more vivid orange was adopted by backers of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, who finally gained office after two run-off elections.

The purple revolution, Iraq, 2005. The name was popularized by President George W. Bush to describe the elections that took place after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown. The purple referred to the use of ink to stain the forefingers of people who voted and thus prevent them from voting a second time.

The rose revolution, Georgia, 2003. Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili carried a rose into parliament when he demanded the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze and protesters in the streets gave long-stemmed roses to soldiers called out to stop them. The soldiers declined to respond with bullets and Mr Shevardnadze proceeded to resign.

The saffron revolution, Burma, 2007. Anti-government protests were led by Buddhist monks wearing saffron-colored robes.

The singing revolution, Estonia, 1989. The nation’s bid to gain freedom from Soviet domination was sparked by patriotic songs of defiance at a national song festival.

The tulip revolution, Kyrgyzstan, 2005. This revolution forced President Askar Akayev to flee the country after having served two terms longer than constitutionally permitted. More violent than the other uprisings, this one went through a series of names, with different groups of protesters referring to it variously as  the pink revolution, lemon revolution, silk revolution, and daffodil revolution.

The velvet revolution, Czechoslovakia, 1989. Not a color or floral revolution, but immensely significant to peoples in other nations as an example of how nonviolent demonstrations – gentle and velvet-like – can lead to the replacement of an oppressive regime, in this case  a Communist government with a democratic one.

The yellow revolution, the Philippines, 1986.  Also called the People Power Revolution, it swept President Ferdinand Marcos out of office. Protesters showed their peaceful intentions to soldiers by offering flowers to them.

As gentle as most of these revolutions have been, the very names may naturally cause offense to governments that feel threatened by them. Thus, Chinese authorities reacted forcefully when the wave of protests that began in Tunisia reached their nation, with pro-democracy activists calling first online and then on Twitter for a “jasmine revolution.” Besides deploying extra police in major cities to prevent demonstrations, the government blocked online references to Tunisia’s jasmine revolution. Even the single word jasmine was censored in text messages and on search engines – a backhanded tribute to the power of language.

13 thoughts on “Colorful Revolutions

  1. Prompt

    Well, it was a very interesting article.
    However, I think that you forgot to mention “the most nonviolent” revolution in Lybia.
    Would you be so kind and tell us the name of flower for that blessed nonviolent uprising?

    1. Hugh Rawson

      I mentioned Lybia in passing but did not include it in the list because (1) it was violent, not nonviolent, and (2) no color or flower was associated with it in media accounts of it,.

  2. Harry

    You can trace the language of flowers in protest movements at least to the 1960’s and 70’s in the US. Protesters against the war in Vietnam often gave flowers to police officers and soldiers, sometimes inserting them in the barrels of any guns displayed. Anti-war posters featured the image of a flower (typically a carnation) in a gun barrel. The movement against the war and in favor of social reforms (like the legalization of marijuana) was often called “flower power.”

  3. Hugh Rawson

    I thought about including flower power,” which dates to at least 1965 and was popularized by the hippies when protesting against U.S. conduct of the war in Vietnam, but did not do so because (1) no particular flower or color was associated with the anti-war movement, and (2) the anti-war protests in the U.S., as large as they were, remained smaller in proportion to the nation’s total population than the demonstrations in Tunisia, etc., and they did not have as much success. Also omitted from this post was the long struggle in English history known as the Wars of the Roses because this so-called war between the houses of York (whose insignia included a white rose) and Lancaster (with a red rose for a badge) was never referred to by that name as the time. The name of the “war” seems to have been invented long after the fact by Sir Walter Scott.

    1. Harry

      Since my grandparents lived in York, Pennsylvania, just 30 miles west of Lancaster, I can assure you that the “War of the Roses” continues on a commercial level. Will you buy from White Rose Ford or Red Rose Honda?

  4. bare-spoken

    You said that the protests extended to non-Arab countries, And also you mentioned Iran’s protests, But did not mention movements of European countries and the U.S. though they were much bigger in scale than Iran’s.

  5. Right — but this was an article about language, not about political movements generally. It was intentionally focused on the use of gentle words, mainly colors and names of flowers, to characterize recent mass uprisings and protests. Casting a wider net would have meant writing a much different kind of post for a different audience.

  6. mojtaba

    I completely Know that your article is a non-political one and it is concentrating on linguistic matters which we face with in our daily life. As a matter of fact, Iranian so-called post-election developments and uprisings were not “widespread” as western media described them. As a scientist, you are expected to be so precise and include real information in your article even if that reality was not considerable.
    I’m sorry

    1. Harry

      As a petty, pusillanimous propagandist for a shamelessly repressive regime, you lack all credibility. Go check your dictionary and get off your high horse.

  7. Pingback: Colorful Revolutions | ferreyratamara89

  8. I am reminded of a famous observation by the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Beware what you set your heart upon, for you shall surely have it.”

    He was writing in the era of quill and ink; the cyber age simply proves his wisdom, at a much faster speed.

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