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 authoritarian rule.
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 forces.
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 movements.
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 show up.
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 system proactively.
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 (Brandeis University)
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