The Jasmine Revolution: How did the Tunisian protests and other recent uprisings get such fanciful names?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 20 2011 7:04 PM

Garden Party or Uprising?

How'd the Jasmine Revolution get its name? And how about the Rose, Orange, and Tulip Revolutions?

Protests during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Click image to expand.
Protests during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia

Pundits are calling the mass demonstrations in Tunisia the Jasmine Revolution. In the last decade, we've had Rose (Georgia), Orange (Ukraine), Tulip (Kyrgyzstan), and Green (Iran) revolutions, among others. Why have so many recent uprisings been named after flowers or colors?

Branding. We used to refer to major revolutions by country: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution. Today's more fanciful names can be traced back to the Czech Velvet Revolution of 1989, a nonviolent (velvety-gentle) uprising that led to the overthrow of the Communist government. When the Georgians revolted in November 2003, forcing president Eduard Shevardnadze from power, the opposition leaders looked for an equally catchy name that might help their similarly peaceful movement. Initially, they copied the Czechs wholesale and called it the Velvet Revolution. After a week or so, they switched to the Revolution of the Roses, a reference to the flowers student protesters had given to soldiers and to the rose that opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili carried into parliament, where he demanded Shevardnadze's resignation. By mid-December, the media had settled on the more mellifluous Rose Revolution.

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Realizing that the Czechs and the Georgians were onto something, opposition leaders in other former Soviet states followed suit. When the Ukranians began rising-up in 2004, they took meetings with Georgian and American strategists, who stressed the importance of branding. The resulting Orange Revolution drew its name from the campaign color of its leader, Viktor Yushchenko. Kyrgyzstan's 2005 uprising ran through several names, including the Lemon Revolution ("because yellow is a colour of change—like on a traffic light," a youth-movement leader told the Times of London), the Pink Revolution, the Silk Revolution, and the Daffodil Revolution before the press settled on the Tulip Revolution. All of these monikers were intentional nods to the Rose and Orange uprisings, although—unlike these predecessors—they lacked clear referents.

Political scientists joke that the "color revolutions" are neither: They're more like "unplanned transitions" and rose, orange, and tulip could just as easily refer to fruits or flowers. Serbia's Bulldozer Revolution of 2000 is sometimes called a color revolution, despite its name, because of its similarities to the Georgian, Ukrainian, and Kyrgyz movements it influenced. Portugal's Carnation Revolution of 1974 is generally not grouped in with the other cutely named uprisings—despite the fact that carnation is both a flower and a color—because Portugal was never under Soviet control.

In any case, the Rose, Orange, and Tulip Revolutions unleashed a rainbow of imitators. In early 2005, Kuwati suffragettes started what some called the Blue Revolution. Around the same time, the assassination of Lebanon's prime minister triggered a Cedar Revolution. Even President George W. Bush jumped on the bandwagon when he tried to market Saddam Hussein's overthrow as the Purple Revolution (after the ink used to prevent fraudulent voting in the 2005 Iraqi elections). Belarusian protests in 2006 were dubbed, by turns, the Jeans Revolution the Denim Revolution and the Cornflower Revolution. In 2007, the press called the anti-government demonstrations in Burma the Saffron Revolution. In 2009, Mir-Hossein Mousavi's followers adopted his campaign color for Iran's Green Revolution.

Getting back to Tunisia: Who thought up the name Jasmine Revolution? A blogger, it seems. Zied El Hani, who is also a journalist at the Tunisian newspaper Essahafa, claims he coined it in a blog post published on Jan. 13, the day before President Ben Ali fled the country. Jasmine is Tunisia's national flower. In Tunis, the capital, markets and boulevards teem with vendors selling machmoum, stick-like bouquets of the flower.

Explainer thanks Lincoln A. Mitchell of Columbia University and Kenneth J. Perkins of the University of South Carolina.

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