Ever since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in 2010 in Tunisia, the Middle East has been roiled by the "Arab Spring," a series of uprisings against the established order. The Arab Spring has progressed fitfully, sometimes backtracking on the professed opposition to dictatorship and the desire for freedom and religious harmony.
Some countries — Syria and Libya, for instance — are now less safe than they were before. Syria is actually in the midst of a bloody civil war. And in Egypt, the same military that supported and then deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak has now ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who was democratically elected (but ruled as an Islamist), so that the end result is that the Egyptian military still calls the shots.
But remember that most revolutions — even ones that result in the creation of democratic governments that respect human rights — are violent, slow, and convoluted. Two of the more orderly shifts to democratic rule of law happened in Japan and (West) Germany, not by revolution but by the U.S. and the Allies (well, except for the USSR) after WWII. (Maybe that bodes well for Iraq, which got democracy from a U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Though, lately, violence in Iraq has been getting worse).
Religious bloodletting, military intervention, and the undermining of self-proclaimed ideals: This is what revolutions are often like. To get some perspective, take a look at seven other revolutions motivated, at least in part, by liberty.
It's fascinating history, but can you imagine what it was like living through it?
When Marxist revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro began the Cuban Revolution in 1953, the country was ruled by Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt and oppressive military dictator. Castro was captured and imprisoned, but was granted amnesty and went on to overthrow Batista in 1959. Much of the economy was nationalized, many political opponents were arrested or executed, and a sizable chunk of the population fled to avoid one-party, communist rule. Although access to things such as education and medical care has been equalized, Cuba's communist economy is known for its frequent shortages, just like the Cuban government is known for its repression of dissent. Fidel Castro recently stepped down from power, officially, at least, handing the reins to his brother, Raúl.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the second monarch in the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran for more than 50 years. But he was ousted in 1979 for political oppression, a failing economy, and for allowing un-Islamic, Western practices. But those who hoped the new Iran would embrace political liberties were soon outmatched by Islamists. With the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran became an Islamic republic in name, but the world's preeminent Shiite state in fact. The Muslim theocracy stifled dissent, and thousands of political prisoners were executed in 1988. International isolation over its nuclear program and support for terrorism have hamstrung Iran's economy, and the ruling clerics have severely restricted who can stand for election.
Uprisings overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911, ending roughly 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. But the Republic of China that replaced it had trouble maintaining control over the enormous territory and population. Civil war broke out between nationalists and communists, who briefly united in the face of invasion by imperial Japan. With Japan's defeat at the end of WWII, civil war reignited, and Mao Zedong led the communists to victory. While uniting the country, they instigated horrible political repression, and the callous ineptitude of Mao's economic policies — the Great Leap Forward — killed tens of millions. The Communist Party of China has since liberalized its economic policies, though Mao's photo is prominently displayed in Tiananmen Square, where strict one-party rule was also on display in the 1989 massacre of student protesters.
4. Great Britain
Charles I of England, a fan of the divine right of kings, wound up in a bloody civil war with the English Parliament over (among other things) taxes and religion. Parliament won, Charles I was executed in 1649, and the monarchy was abolished. Oliver Cromwell, who had led the parliamentary army, soon became dictator-for-life and gained a reputation for brutality toward the Irish and Roman Catholics. Upon his death, he was succeeded by his son, who the army ousted, re-instituting the old monarchy under Charles II. Charles II also had a rocky relationship with Parliament (though not to the point of being beheaded), and his successor, James II — deemed to be dangerously Roman Catholic — was tossed out and replaced with William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. A bill of rights was soon passed that became a model for the U.S. Bill of Rights.
While there had long been popular opposition to the absolutist monarchs of Russia, that opposition came to a head in 1917 during World War I, a war which devastated Russia. Bolshevik (i.e., communist) revolutionaries overthrew the Tsar, executed him and his family — the Romanovs — and made peace with Germany (though it didn't come cheap). The communist Red Army won the ensuing civil war against the anti-Bolshevik White Army, securing the existence of a socialist state, the USSR. The death of leader Vladimir Lenin in 1924 paved the way for Joseph Stalin, who was even more of an absolutist ruler than any tsar. Political oppression, purges, famines, and WWII followed, and the USSR postwar led a group of communist countries known as the Warsaw Bloc. The Iron Curtain fell in 1989, and the USSR soon after. Now, Russia has no tsar and no Stalin — just former President, former Prime Minister, and now President (again) Vladimir Putin.
What started out in 1789 as an attempt by Louis XVI to fix the national debt resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the overthrow of the French monarchy in favor of the French Republic. But the revolutionaries soon fractured, declaring other factions to be "enemies of the revolution." Maximilien Robespierre was famously guillotined mere months after having his rivals executed. The infighting was stopped in 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte, a military dictator who ended the Republic and proclaimed himself emperor. Napoleon led his Grande Armée throughout Europe, but was eventually deposed, only to return from exile and be re-defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The Bourbon monarchy was reinstated, then re-deposed in 1848. France instituted a Second Republic, but got another Napoleon in 1852. France is now on its Fifth Republic. Messy, but we did get the Rosetta Stone and the metric system. Well, other countries got the metric system too.
I know, we're not supposed to take shots at our own revolution. But it was really a secession from British rule, Britain at the time being one of the more human rights-respecting nations on the planet (they passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833). Slavery was preserved in the U.S. in spite of the American Revolution's ideals of freedom, and wasn't abolished until almost a century later, following the horrific U.S. Civil War, which still left us with segregation and Jim Crow. Many Founding Fathers didn't even set the personal example of not owning slaves. Women and Native Americans didn't make headway in the revolution, which was convoluted in other ways, too. The Constitution was only adopted in 1787 after ditching the Articles of Confederation, the latter government being so weak it could barely raise revenue or negotiate trade deals. Less than a decade after passing the Bill of Rights, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, stifling free speech. The U.S. has made great strides in human rights and liberty since 1774, but a lot of them happened well after the actual revolution.