The Arab uprisings of 2011 challenge received wisdom concerning Arab political dynamics. The character of the movements at the heart of the revolts, and the speed with which they despatched four autocratic leaders from office, raise questions of the most basic kind about the relationship between ruler and ruled in North Africa and the Middle East. This article explores such questions following events in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. It argues that the closure of political systems combined with socio-economic distress to stimulate broad demands for regime change. New movements mobilised largely without formal institutional structures, using new communication tools, and evaded the repressive apparatus of the state. However, the novel character of these movements limited their potential to exploit the political openings they created. Indeed, the post-revolutionary setting is one in which the dominant theme is the return of the ‘old’: established elites, including Islamists, who are reasserting their interests and are well-positioned to secure advantage.