By Nader Habibi
Just as the Iranian revolution surprised the world three decades
ago, the events in Tunisia came as an unexpected shock to many experts and
intellectuals. Those who follow the political and economic developments of the
Middle East generally believed that Tunisia was more stable than other countries
in the region. It was even showcased as an example of economic success under
Now that the Tunisian people have been able to force President
Ben Ali to leave the country after only four weeks of mass protests all eyes are
focused on Tunisia. Millions of people in the Arab world are wondering if they
might be able to change their political fortunes in a similar manner. The Middle
East experts are speculating about the demonstration effect of Tunisian
revolution in the Arab world. Similar questions were raised in 1979 about the
aftermath of the Iranian revolution.
A potential contagion effect of Tunisian uprisings is not
without precedence. In 1989-1990, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of
the Soviet Union led to rapid political change in Eastern Europe as millions of
people came to the streets in one country after another.
These street demonstrations were spontaneous. They often began
with a small group of political mavericks which were able to energize large
segments of the population.
Although many articles and commentaries have been written on
the Tunisian uprisings in the past few days most of these writings focus on
political causes or consequences of these uprisings. Yet it is important to also
look at the mechanics and the dynamics of such a spontaneous uprising. Surely
lack of political freedom, inequality and unemployment, have encouraged the
Tunisians to come to the streets.
But these conditions exist in many other countries which
remain politically stable for years. Discontent does not automatically translate
into political action. And even when the people come into the streets the
balance of power between the anti-government demonstrators and the security
forces does not always result in political change as was clearly demonstrated in
the 2009 uprising in Iran.
What determines the course of events and the direction of a
mass political riot is the political calculations of millions of dissident
individuals who must decide every morning whether they like to join the street
protests that day or not. This is a personal cost-benefit evaluation. The
benefit of joining the protesters is the perceived benefits of fighting for
political change. The individual would benefit from ending the political
oppression and gaining the right to participate in the political process. For
some individuals the promise of personal economic and political gain (such as
the likelihood of having a government post in a new political regime or
redistribution of wealth) will also serve as a motivating factor.
On the cost side of joining the political protests the
individual will be worried about the danger of being punished by the security
He might be arrested, injured or even killed during the
protests and the chaos that is often associated with them. In addition to these
direct costs he might think about the opportunity cost of time and energy that
he must put into protest activities such as staying away from his work and
business. A potential protester will assess the risk of each of these outcomes
and come up with an implicit assessment of the cost of joining the protests. He
will then compare the costs and benefits of participation and decide to join the
protests that day or not.
It is because of these calculations that some social groups
(university students, and the impoverished) are more willing to participate in
political protests than others. One of the most important signals that affect
each individual's calculations is the number of other people who are already
protesting. Political scientists that studied the Iranian and Eastern European
revolutions have offered an explanation as to how this factor affects the
behavior of potential protesters and plays a crucial role in the outcome of mass
When a political regime is unpopular and political discontent
is prevalent, fear of punishment is the main deterrent that prevents most
individual from joining a political protest. People vary in their political
courage and the amount of risk that they can tolerate. One factor that matters
to each protester is the number of others who have already joined the protests.
A person who supports the cause of the protest might say to himself, I will join
the protest tomorrow if I observe that at least 10,000 protesters came out in
the streets today.
Another more conservative dissident might say I will join the
protests if at least 50,000 protesters come out in the street. And off course
there are always some political activists in every society who will stand up for
a cause before everyone else and without waiting for a large crowd.
The reason people are concerned about these thresholds is
that the larger the number of protesters the smaller is the probability that
each one of them will be injured or arrested. So a highly risk averse individual
figures that if he joined a mass protest where already half a million people are
chanting death to the dictator, he is less likely to be harmed than a small
protest where he is in a crowd of 100 or 1000.
The distribution of these thresholds plays an important role
in creation and success of mass movements under authoritarian regimes.
Imagine if majority of people are so conservative that despite
their frustration they all want to see at least 100,000 protesters in the
streets before joining in. If in this society the number of political radicals
who are willing to be the first protesters never exceeds 10,000, occasional
small protest will never evolve into larger protests over time. On the other
hand if the distribution of thresholds is more even and widespread, it is more
likely that small events can ignite larger protests.
For example imagine another oppressed society in which an
initial group of 1,000 political activists (with zero thresholds) will come to
the streets to protest against an unpopular ruler. Let's assume that in this
society there are 10,000 individuals whose threshold for joining the protests is
900. There are also 100,000 persons with a 9,000 threshold and another two
million more conservative dissidents whose threshold is 90,000. In the first day
of the protests 1000 people come to the streets. Their presence meets the
threshold for the second group and the next day another 10,000 protesters will
Since the number protesters in the second day is larger than
9,000, the third group of dissidents (100,000 people) will join the protests the
third day. By the same logic, more than two million dissidents will join the
protests by the fourth day and a street revolution will be born.
The protest dynamics that were described in the previous two
paragraphs can help us understand what happened in Tunisia. Although there were
always political activists and dissidents in Tunisia, their number and their
activities were not large enough to meet the protest threshold of the majority
of people. The society appeared stable under an authoritarian regime while
millions of people were unhappy with the status quo. The tragic suicide of a
college graduate who was humiliated by the police in December 2010 so outraged
the public that there was an instantaneous mass protest in Tunis. The number of
people who came out in the streets in this initial protest was so large that it
met the threshold for many others and as a result hundreds of thousands of
people joined the protests in the following days.
Unexpected tragic events can play a crucial role in sudden
formation of mass protests.
The contagion effect of Tunisian revolts in other Middle
Eastern countries is a possibility that cannot be ruled out because mass
discontent with current authoritarian regimes is undeniable in many of them.
Both ruling regimes and citizens in Arab countries (and Iran) are mindful of
what has happened in Tunisia. These events can change the mood of many people
from hopelessness and fatalism into hope and political energy, which will
increase their desire for political activism. The governments might react by
strengthening their security forces or they might decide to open the political
In this environment of high expectations one should not
underestimate the role of unexpected tragic events that can serve as focal
points for people's anger and political energy.
About the author: Nader Habibi is Henry J. Leir
Professor of Middle East Economics in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies
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