Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reflections on the Revolution in Tunisia

I know basically nothing about Tunisia. (It seems that few people do: I tried a search for articles on Tunisia in Google Scholar and a few other places, and there are really only a handful of recent ones that shed any light on Tunisian politics. Perhaps the best thing I read was this piece by Hibou and Hulsey, despite some excessive Foucauldian jargon. I assume most of the important scholarship is in books or in French and Arabic). If you want informed analysis of the events in Tunisia or now Egypt, you should be reading Juan Cole or Mark Lynch. But I do have a professional interest in dictatorships, revolutions, and similar things, and like Joshua Tucker, I think that a comparison of the events in Tunisia to the fall of Eastern European communism in 1989 suggests that Tunisia will not be an isolated event:
...While undoubtedly important for the Tunisian people, the larger question is whether Tunisia could turn out to be the Poland of the Arab world: the first transition away from a regime long thought to be immutable that sets in motion a path of regime change throughout the region. At first glance, this would seem to be extremely unlikely. Prior to Tunisia, it is difficult to remember the last Middle Eastern regime to fall outside of an external invasion (Iran in 1979?). And yet, a quick glance at a Google News search for Tunisia reveals articles linking protests in Tunisia to events in Egypt,AlgeriaJordan and even Gabon and Indonesia.

As I have previously noted, I know next to nothing about Tunisian politics. I have, however, studied the collapse of Communism in East-Central Europe in 1989 in some detail, and so would like to offer the following observations about what lessons 1989 might have to offer those prognosticating about 2011.

1) Almost nobody saw the collapse of communism coming. Despite a plethora of scholarship after the collapse suggesting that it was inevitable, you would be hard pressed to find analysts in the 1980s who thought the Iron Curtain was about to come down. So as unlikely as a serious of democratic revolutions spreading through the Middle East might seem from our current vantage point, the chances that the Cold War would come to a (practically) bloodless conclusion so swiftly seemed equally unlikely.

2) One of the most interesting theoretical pieces I ever read about the collapse of communism was a 1991 World Politics article by Timur Kuran (gatedungated). In this article, Kuran posits that even people living within a regime that is perched on the edge of collapse may not realize it. The mechanism here is to assume that different people have different thresholds for when they will be willing to publicly oppose the existing regime. Imagine a country with 10 people, one person who will protest if there is at least 1 other protesting, 1 if there are 2 other protesting, 1 if there are 3, etc. It is a stable equilibrium for no one to protest. However, if something happens to put just one person out on the streets (say, a particularly difficult interaction with the authorities, or, hypothetically speaking, an emotional response to someone setting themselves on fire), then suddenly everyone ends up protesting. Person 1 comes out because now there is 1 person on the streets. Once person one comes out, then person 2 comes out because there are 2 people on the street, and onward up the chain. The lesson of the story - in my opinion - is that as long as regimes are repressive and we can assume that citizens have accumulated grievances against the regime, then there is always the possibility that the regime could tumble precipitously.

3) While there clearly was a snowball effect during the collapse of communism - with the collapse in one country giving rise to the collapse in other countries - we sometimes forget just how long it took for the first revolution to come to fruition, and how long it then took to spread to the second country. Timothy Garton Ash has this wonderful line in his book The Magic Lantern where he reports having said to Vaclav Havel that "in Poland it took ten years; in Hungary 10 months; in East Germany 10 weeks; perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take 10 days!". (Rumor has it some subsequently amended this rule to include that in Romania it would take 10 hours.) So one important lesson from 1989 is the fact that snowballs take a while to pick up steam. Events in Tunisia are still unfolding, and may continue to unfold for sometime. This does not necessarily mean they will not eventually spread elsewhere.

4) One fundamental difference that I can not help noting between 1989 and 2011, however, is the lack of a powerful external actor enforcing the non-democratic regimes in the Middle East. East-Central European communist propaganda notwithstanding, few probably doubted by the 1980s the most of the region would throw off communism if Moscow ever gave them the opportunity to do so. Thus perhaps the most crucial information transmitted by the success of the Polish and Hungarian revolutions was precisely the fact that the Russians were not planning on intervening. I'm not sure there is anything analogous in place in the Middle East.

5) There were also direct effects of one revolution on another in the post-communist context, most specifically involving the flow of people. Here the key example is that when Hungary opened its borders, it paved the way for East Germans to get to West Germany. Again, I'm not sure there is anything analogous in the Middle East.
I would add a couple of things:

1. Some people have suggested that since Arab dictators learn from each other, it is unlikely that they will make the same mistakes that Ben Ali made. And there is evidence from other cycles of protest (the so-called color revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan) of "elite learning" [gated link]: dictators learn the right tactics to suppress or disarm certain forms of contentious politics (e.g., protests after fraudulent elections). "Color" revolutions have not worked in Belarus, Russia, and many other post-soviet regimes.

But communist dictators in Europe also tried learning from each other, and nothing much worked! East Germans first tried repression, and then ditched their hardline leader (Honecker) for a slightly less hardline one (Krenz) and then for a true moderate (Modrow): didn't work. Ceausescu tried just repression: it backfired (and Ceausescu was killed). In general, it will not be obvious to a dictator exactly what combination of repression and concessions will extinguish a protest wave, for reasons that Timur Kuran makes clear in the work cited by Tucker: the dictator does not really know the true distribution of preferences in society. Moreover, factions within the elite might also take advantage of events to undermine the dictator from within. So "liberalizers" in East Germany, Bulgaria, and Hungary seized the opportunity provided by popular mobilization to push aside aging hardline leaders (even if it didn't turn out very well for some of them in the end). The dictator is not the only person that matters when a wave of protest starts: when the revolution constraint binds, so does the coup constraint. (This is the "autocrat's calculation problem," [gated link] and it is nontrivial). So the "learning" process for the dictator should take time, and it is not guaranteed to make him safe.

Furthermore, opposition activists can also learn from and support each other [gated link]. This, it seems to me, is one of the things that social media makes easier: not so much coordinating protests (most people in Egypt or Tunisia are not on Twitter or Facebook), or even getting information out to the public (though there might be something to this), but sharing tips about forms of contention (e.g., ways of avoiding the police, useful media strategies, etc.) across activist networks, propping up morale, etc. (I assume that opposition activists are far more capable of getting around internet censorship, and far more connected across the borders of the Arab world, than other people).

So all in all, it is not clear that the fact that dictators across the Arab world might learn from one another means that they will be safe. they may, eventually, but the "eventually" spells bad news for people like Mubarak.

2. Some people (the link goes to a piece by Josef Joffe that makes this argument better than most) have argued that Tunisia is special: it has a relatively high income among Arab countries (excluding major oil exporters), a highly educated population, a large middle class, etc. Hence, they suggest (going back to the old modernization theory of Lipset and others), Tunisia was "ready" to transition to democracy in a way that poorer countries (like Egypt, for example) are not.

The problem with modernization theory, however, is that it appears to be false. The best systematic evidence we have (see, e.g., here [gated] and here [gated link]) indicates that when appropriate statistical adjustments are made, there is little or no association between the level of income and the likelihood of transition to democracy. A good way to see this is by using two figures from a paper by Acemoglu and Robinson. In the first, we see that cross-nationally, countries with higher incomes do appear to transition to democracy at higher rates:

In the second, however, we look at the variation in income within a country (expecting that, as income increases in a given country, it should be more likely to transition to democracy), and the picture changes: "within-country" variation in income appears uncorrelated with transitions to democracy:

To be sure, this work is not uncontroversial. Other people claim to find more support for the modernization hypothesis (e.g, Boix and Stokes, Epstein et. al; both links gated), but I find these tests less convincing; there is too much variation in income and education levels among countries that do become democratic even for short periods of time (consider, among others, India, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Portugal, Spain, etc.). And this does not mean that Tunisia's advantages count for nothing. But if they do so, they are more likely to be advantages for the consolidation of democracy in Tunisia (if democracy ever emerges there), as Przeworski and his collaborators argued here and elsewhere, than for mere transitions to democracy. In other words, if Mubarak falls and democracy is established in Egypt, it may be less likely to last than any democracy that might emerge in Tunisia (again, not a sure thing).

3. There is also some concern that so far, the Tunisian "revolution" has not been much more than a coup. Members of the old regime are still in charge, the fall of Ben Ali was precipitated by the actions (or lack of action) of general el-Ammar, and at any rate the whole business need not result in democracy, however conceived. There is also precedent for this sort of thing in the revolutions of 1989: the fall of Ceausescu was basically a coup that took advantage of popular mobilization, and it did not immediately result  in a democratic regime. Though Ion Iliescu's National Salvation Front was an improvement over Ceausescu, almost anything would have been, and it was hardly a democratic regime, even in the most minimalist sense. Yet the more liberalized regime of Ion Iliescu, along with various incentives to join the EU, did eventually push Romania in a more democratic direction. "Revolutions" - however defined - take some time, even if they are not guaranteed to lead to democratic outcomes, and the fact that a more liberal faction of the old Ben Ali regime has taken control of Tunisia is no reason to think that they will stay there (see: Krenz, Egon, and Modrow, Hans), especially if the more liberal environment results in a sustained upsurge of mobilization and organization from opposition actors (as has happened time and again: "liberalizers" always think they can remain in power with a few concessions, but often enough they are either displaced in coups by hardliners or forced into fuller negotiations with the opposition. They also fail to have good knowledge of the true distribution of preferences in society).

More generally, if we follow the "democratization" literature of some 25 years ago (summarized in O'Donnell and Schmitter's classic little book of 1984), the key factor here seems to be whether the hardliners control military forces (they do not seem to in Tunisia, at least judging from what I read in the news) and whether liberal elements in the regime can be forced into tacit alliance with the opposition to prevent the return of hardliners to power (I am in no position to judge this).

All in all, though nothing is certain, I would not easily discount the possibility that we will see lots more political change in the Arab world this year, much of it potentially positive. Political change does tend to come in waves (see the posts below).

{Update 1/27: fixed embarrasing mistake referring to Ben Ali as Zine el Abidine]

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