Explaining the Arab Awakening

What Fanned the Flames of Revolution?

Translated from the original French by Jamie McLennan© 2011 Gaston Murdock

It began with a spark, as many revolutions do. A Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, for years the victim of police corruption, doused himself with gasoline in front of a local government building and set himself on fire. With this act of protest, he ignited a blaze of rebellion that engulfed the presidential palace and swept Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power. Dissent quickly spread to Egypt, precipitating the fall of the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Moubarak. And now, the flames of revolution burn with varying degrees of intensity in Libya, Oman, Morocco, Bahrain, and Yemen. As for the kind of governments that will rise from the ashes – this remains to be seen.

While I am by no means an expert on the Middle East, these uprisings fascinate me. While the consequences for stability in the region are uncertain, there is no doubt of the outpouring of empathy from the West for these long-oppressed peoples. We can only hope for a non-violent and democratic outcome.  Clearlythese events raise some important questions. How do we make sense out of such sudden and profound social change? Could the conditions in the Middle East be replicated elsewhere (such as China), spurring other oppressed democratic movements to action? Is there a chance these popular uprisings could actually establish real and stable democracies?

At the moment, the media isn’t offering much guidance.. With some exceptions, reporters have described the phenomenon either as a kind of undiagnosed “contagion” or as a miracle of social media. So far, the analysis has focused on triggering factors and contingent mechanisms, ignoring the complex social mechanisms at play. No doubt, Facebook has had a hand in facilitating the activists’ mobilization. But there must be a particular social context that led to the uprising, that made it possible to occur in the first place and that will ultimately determine its outcome (cf. Lehmann, 2011). So what do we know about this context? What factors are at work? Social science theory can guide us to some answers.

Deconstructing the revolution

Like light, which is both a wave and a particle, the mobilization of the Arabic world is manifesting itself in seemingly contradictory ways. It could be described at once as a revolution, a passing rebellion, a social movement or as a revolt against the ruling coalition.

(1.) Approached as a revolution, large-scale social and institutional factors take precedence. Prompted by Moore (1966) and Skocpol (1979, 1994), we might conclude that international military and economic pressures imposed on the Middle East led to a profound crisis in its state institutions. This in turn created divisions within the elite’s administrative, military and religious factions, leaving the door open for oppressed social classes to mobilize and seize power. In this scenario, a revolution is deemed successful if the emerging middle class wrests the reins of power from the dictators and establishes modern, democratic states.

(2.) Seen as a form of rebellion, the uprising is a visceral reaction, a spontaneous explosion of overwhelming frustration. The analysis becomes more psychological and the scale is microscopic. According to Ted Gurr, people rebel when a sudden and sizeable gap appears between their expectations and their day-to-day reality. They compare their present situation with the past or with their neighbours’ more favourable conditions, and their sense of deprivation compels them to act. “The potential for collective violence varies strongly with the intensity and scope of relative deprivation among members of a collectivity” (Gurr, 1970: 24). The riots in Tunisia and Egypt spread quickly because the expectations of the average Arab citizen were suddenly changed. Tyranny, stoically endured for years, becomes intolerable the instant revolt seems feasible. But rebellion can be short-lived, and it doesn’t always transform social and political structures. It is quite easy for one dictator to be replaced by another.

(3.) The Arab awakening can also be seen as a social movement, analogous to May 1968 in France, the civil rights struggle in the U.S. or the feminist and environmental movements in the West. This approach focuses on informal interaction and on networking between participants with shared beliefs, values and identities. This non-conventional style of opposition eschews traditional institutional channels, creating new forms of protest.

Taking a page from Smelser (1960), Touraine (1981), Offe (1985) and Melluci (1982, 1989, 1996), one could argue that protest movements spring up when major social change occurs. In the Middle East, unequal development, an extractive economy, chronic unemployment and the large Arab youth demographic created a situation ripe for protest. Under these conditions, political entrepreneurs can recruit participants to train new collective actors who behave in rational ways.

According to Resource Mobilization Theory (Zald & Ash, 1966; Zald & McCarthy, 1987; Oberschall, 1973; Tilly 1978), social movements evaluate the costs and benefits of action by considering their incentives, the obstacles in their way, and the resources at their disposal. The Arab insurgents have benefited from the new “structure of political opportunity” (Tarrow, 1983, 1989) created by the Tunisian template, Obama’s foreign policy, international support, their dictators’ advancing age and discord among the nations’ elite. This unique situation allowed protesters to successfully mobilize information resources (cell phones, the internet, Al Jazeera), and exploit a new range of activist tactics. Largely dependent on tourism, the Egyptian economy has a multilingual labour force that is worldly, well informed, and therefore easier to mobilize.

(4.) Finally, the uprisings in the Middle-East and Maghreb can be understood as a realignment of the ruling coalition. The Selectorate Theory of Bueno de Mesquita and colleagues (2003) applies here. According to this theory, collective action results from the aggregation of many individuals’ rational decisions (cf. Olson, 1965; Schelling, 1978). These individuals can be divided into three groups, each possessing distinctive interests. First, there are the disenfranchised: those who are excluded from politics and denied a say in how their country is run. Then there are the selectors, a group that includes everyone involved in choosing a leader. Finally, within the selectorate are members of the winning coalition – those who make up the inner circle of power. This small group of people props up the country’s leader, but they also rely on him for support.

A person’s interests vary depending on how they fit into these groups. They also vary depending on the size of the winning coalition in proportion to the entire selectorate. The smaller the coalition, the easier it is for the leader to buy loyalty with private goods: kickbacks, commendations, black market access, sinecures and special privileges. In this context, kleptocracy becomes entrenched and political oppression runs rampant. Conversely, in a larger and more inclusive coalition, the leader is more likely to provide public goods to the entire selectorate (which encourages good governance). The size of the ruling coalition is therefore a crucial institutional variable. It explains the context in which disenfranchised citizens and selectors can share a common interest in overturning the established order.

“(…) protest, civil war, and revolutions are tactics in the domain of the many who are deprived of private goods in small-coalition systems. Members of the selectorate who are not in the winning coalition and who have poor odds of getting into the coalition  (…) can increase their prospects of future coalition membership if they throw the rascals out.” (Bueno de Mesquita and colleagues, 2003: 361-2).

For this Middle Eastern Springtime of Peoples to have any long-term, positive impact, it won’t be enough for one authoritarian president to replace another, or to have the presidential palace keys handed to a military junta. Activists must insist on the kind of state reforms that will enlarge the winning coalition. Specifically, the Arab republics (Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Syria) have to hold real elections, instead of sporadic, rigged referendums that suppress any and all opposition. The single-party formula could then be replaced by a true multi-party system, providing a larger and more open space for the formation of governing coalitions. Within the region’s monarchies (Marocco, Oman, Bahrain, etc.), the powers of elected officials must be strengthened and constitutional amendments adopted in order to limit the rulers’ responsibilities. According to Selectorate Theory, these types of institutional changes are essential in order to ensure the well-being of a population.

So what now?

This blog entry has looked at the events in the Middle East through four different theoretical lenses. There are of course other possible approaches, but these well-known categories help to illuminate the forces at work on the streets of Cairo and Tripoli. They take us from sound bite to analysis, from random event to overall pattern. Despite their important contribution, however, these theories cannot predict the final outcome. Will Gaddafi be defeated? Will the oil monarchies adapt or fall? Will tyranny yield to liberty? Only the rebels can provide the answer. The future of the Middle-East is in the hands of its people.


  • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson & James D. Morrow (2003). The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Diani, Mario &  Doug McAdam. (2003). Social Movements and Networks. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Gamson, William. (1968). The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood: Dorsey.
  • Goodwin, Jeff & James M. Jasper. (2009). The Social Movement Reader: Cases and Concepts. 2e édition.  Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Gurr, Ted Robert. (1970). Why Men Rebel. New Haven: Princeton University Press.
  • McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy & Mayer Z. Zald, dir. (1996). Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structure, and Cultural Framing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Melucci, Alberto. (1989). Nomads of the Present. Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Moore, Barrington. (1966). States and Social Revolutions: a Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Oberschall, Anthony. (1973). Social Conflicts and Social Movements. Englewood: Prentice Hall.
  • Olson, Mancur. (1965). Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Scalbert, Augustin. (2011). « Olivier Roy: Comme solution politique, l’Islamisme est fini. » Rue89.
  • Schelling, Thomas C. (1978). Micromotives and Macrobehavior. New York: Norton.
  • Skocpol, Theda. (1979). States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Skocpol, Theda. (1994). Social Revolutions in the Modern World. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Smelser, Neil J. (1962). Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press.
  • Tarrow, Sidney. (1994). Power in Movement: Collective Action, Social Movements and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tilly, Charles. (1978). From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
  • Tilly, Charles. (2004). Social Movements, 1768–2004. Boulder:  Paradigm Publishers.
  • Tocqueville, Alexis. (1840). De la démocratie en Amérique.
  • Tocqueville, Alexis. (1856). L’Ancien régime et la révolution.
  • Zald, Meyer & R. Ash. (1966). Social Movements Organizations: Growth, Decay and Changes. Social Forces (44): 327-40.
  • Zald, Meyer & John D. McCarthy, dir. (1987).  Social Movements in an Organizational Society. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.


Une réflexion sur “Explaining the Arab Awakening

Laisser un commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:

Logo WordPress.com

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte WordPress.com. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Google+

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Google+. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )


Connexion à %s