When considering the Arab uprisings, it is necessary to examine two ingrained and regressive tendencies in Arab political life: the absence of meaningful change and the persistence of the ancien regime. Comparisons of the uprisings in Syria and Egypt reveal connections to classical European revolutionary politics. The Syrian revolution is also reminiscent of Arab revolutionary politics of the 1950s and 1960s. Traditional Arab nationalism is absent in the current uprisings, but there are commonalities in the uprisings and the regime reactions across the various states. The remarkably charismatic nature of the uprisings is a new and important development: Islamism has ‘returned’ to the debate, and the definition of Islam is fiercely contested between the religious/state establishment, middle-class commercial Islam and militant insurrectionary Islam. The middle-class model is the AKP in Turkey, while militant jihadist groups can be compared to European armed factions in the 1970s. Even if only partially successful, the uprisings will usher in a new era in Arab politics.