Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Why does the spread of protest follow regional and cultural lines?

One of the things I find interesting about the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt is the fact that protest tends to spread along regional and cultural lines. Though there is some evidence that the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and the huge demonstrations in Egypt are making authoritarian leaders nervous in China (which has apparently started to censor searches on Egypt), Cuba, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and many other countries, their main effect has been on other Middle Eastern countries – Jordan in particular, which has also seen large demonstrations and where the king just fired his entire government. The same phenomenon was seen in 1989, where protest spread primarily in (mostly European) communist countries, and in the early 2000s, with the original “color revolutions,” where protest spread among post-Soviet competitive authoritarian regimes and resulted in regime change in four of them (Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan). And we could go further back in time: there is an age of guerrilla insurrection in Latin America in the 50 and early 60s catalyzed in part by the Cuban revolution, a wave of European revolutions in 1848, and so on (see also the maps of political change below). But why should protest spread primarily along cultural and geographical lines? Why shouldn’t the fall of an autocrat randomly impact all other autocrats, as people update their beliefs in the efficacy of protest?

In a 2007 piece in Perspectives on Politics, Mark Beissinger pointed out that a similar cultural or political context seems to be important for people to update their beliefs in the efficacy of protest. Suppose that citizens in country A successfully manage to overthrow their autocratic government. How should citizens of country B, also under an autocratic government, process this information? If they think the situation in A is very similar to their own, they might think that overthrowing their own autocrat is easier than they thought, and hence be more willing to run the risks of protest, even if, objectively speaking, nothing has changed in their situation. But if people in B believe that their situation – their political institutions, culture, etc. – is very dissimilar from the situation in A, the information provided by the overthrow of the government in A will not be as relevant to their decision regarding whether or not to risk protesting against their own government. As a consequence, protest will tend to spread in regimes that appear to be in culturally and politically similar situations: Soviet satellite regimes, post-Soviet competitive authoritarian regimes, and now apparently non-oil-rich Arab regimes experiencing economic stagnation and high levels of corruption.  This does not mean the protests in B will be successful – many color “revolutions” failed (in Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere) in part because the situation was not actually as similar as people in B believed. But the beliefs of people in B regarding the similarity of the situation in A could, so the argument goes, affect their chances of success in B. Until recently, few people really thought Mubarak was going to be shaken from power by popular revolt (see, for example, this long and well informed piece by Adam Shatz in the LRB); but the success of the revolution in Tunisia actually increased the chances of success in Egypt by lowering the thresholds for protest of many people (leading to a bandwagon or snowball effect of the sort described by Timur Kuran); and it lowered the thresholds of many people in part because people in Egypt saw enough similarities between their situation and that of the Tunisians to revolt.

There is more to Beisinger’s piece than this. He also notes that explicit person to person connections among activists are also very important in ensuring the spread not only of protests but of specific tactics of contention (e.g., what to do in case of a fraudulent election): activists in Serbia, for example, were in contact with activists in Georgia and Ukraine, and many of them were also in contact with people in other post-Soviet regimes like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and so on. Cultural context mattered here as well: many of these activits could talk to each other in Russian, and they could find many similarities among their different regimes. I assume that similar connections will be found among Arab activists. And he has a very interesting discussion of how autocratic learning interacts with the spread of protest, a topic which I discussed briefly below. But let’s just talk about the implications of the first part of the argument for current events.

First, the argument implies that protest will spread in the Middle East but not necessarily elsewhere, and will become progressively less effective, not just because autocrats will learn to counter such protest, but because people in other regimes will find less and less in their situation that is analogous to the situation in the Middle East. The Chinese and Cuban regimes thus would seem to be safe for the moment, for example.

Second, the argument implies that the more citizens of a country think their situation is unique and without parallel, the less likely they are to follow the lead of protests in other countries. Bad analogical reasoning might actually increase the chances of revolutionary success elsewhere. Even if the situation in Libya, for example, is quite different from the situation in Egypt, if enough people in Libya believe otherwise, they might actually increase their chances of overthrowing their own government. (What are the chances of Qaddafi becoming the Arab Ceausescu?). By contrast, if people in North Korea, for example, (wrongly) believe their own situation and culture is especially unique, they might be less likely to take advantage of a wave of protest. 

What do people think?


  1. I see the importance of person-to-person connections among activists of similar cultural/linguistic background, but I'm more skeptical of the analogical reasoning point, at least as outlined here (though I haven't read the Beissinger piece). Would anti-Qaddafi Libyans ask how similar Libya is to Egypt and act (or not) according to their belief about the answer? Is this really how mass movements get launched or triggered? I'm not sure.

  2. Hi LHC, I would imagine though that people in Egypt looked at Tunisia and thought things like "We are also Arabs - why could they do it and not us?" or "Why could they get rid of a corrupt government and not us?". They would not necessarily explicitly consider the similarities, but they would be more likely to protest etc if they feel some connection to the other country leading the protests.

    (Incidentally, there was a good NYTimes piece recently that makes explicit the activist connection between Egypt and Tunisia:

  3. Thanks for the link to this NYT article.