Recipe For Revolution
Tunisia is proof that revolutions can happen. Egypt is proof that they can spread.
Throughout the Arab world, aging dictatorships are being challenged by young people simply marching in the streets. Shocking to many observers, they seem to be succeeding. The question is how, and why.
It takes young men to fight wars, and it also takes young people to stage revolutions. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Sri Lanka had a mass of young people that launched not one but multiple insurrections. As the population aged, however, the idea of revolution became less tenable. Tamil Tiger Leader Prabhakaran’s penultimate humiliation was the release of pictures of him playing in a swimming pool with his children. Hardly the image of the young and unattached revolutionary.
In Tunisia, Egypt and Iran, there are masses of young people who have not yet bought into the system. Indeed, many have never been offered a job. In the Arab world as a whole, nearly 65% of the population is under 30. Those young people are also often over-educated and unemployed, like the Computer Science graduate who lit himself on fire in Tunisia, sparking the broader Arab revolt. When governments can pay them off with oil revenues they can survive, but many Arab governments either don’t have or mismanage oil money. These governments are now finding themselves subject to revolt.
Another characteristic of modern revolutions is that they are efficiently coordinated via social networks like Twitter and Facebook and cellular technology like SMS. While aging dictators have been adept at censoring mainstream media and obstructing public assembly, they have been slow to crack down on social media. By the time they do, like Egypt shutting off the Internet, it is often too late. Social networks by themselves cannot ignite revolutions, but they do seem able to catalyze the street protests that ultimately do.
What is being coordinated is a piercing of the veil, the illusion of power that dictatorships must maintain. No dictatorship can possibly coerce an entire population. All they can do is set a few symbolic and suitably violent examples, control the media and perpetuate the illusion that their strength is unbreakable. They can also use the tools of democracy to perpetuate illusion, asking opposition to go through channels they control, or by supporting a dummy opposition (like Ranil Wickremesinghe). Like a bank rush, however, they cannot coerce large masses if they simply walk onto the streets.
One trait these revolutions seem to have shared is that they were sparked by a few people piercing the veil through dramatic acts, like lighting themselves on fire. This is a unique act in that it is neither violent nor non-violent. It commands attention without killing innocent bystanders. These are not suicide bombers, they’re simply suicides. In the Arab world, they become martyrs, without the baggage of terrorism. This spark in a vacuum will not spread, but in regions inundated with social media and satellite TV, the news spread like wildfire. Someone was not afraid to oppose the regime, and they were not afraid to die for it. That led to Facebook groups, to conversations and then street protests that gain a momentum of their own.
Underneath all of these rebellions there is also a common thread. It is not anti-colonialism, religious fervor, or support for any particular leader. The protests in Tunisia and Egypt have not been identified with any particular party or ideology. The protesters are more broadly calling for democratic representation, jobs, and better economic prospects. The first demand seems expendable, but if a nation can’t provide jobs for a growing youth population, they should probably brace for trouble.
Another trend seems to be that these protests are taking place in places that are American allies, places where the military tools of oppression are propped up by American money. Street protests in America’s enemy Iran did not overthrow the government despite obviously rigged elections, perhaps in part because protesters could be identified as unpatriotic.
In countries like Tunisia and Egypt, however, the US was and is on the side of the dictators, their allies in the war on terror. Ironically, the protests gained momentum from the third-party release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, enabling locals to see what the US genuinely thought of the regimes. That information could also be used without protesters being branded unpatriotic, indeed, it was the dictators who looked foreign by contrast.
What This Means
The trend spread by the Tunisian revolution seems to be that coordinated youth protests can destabilise governments without the resources to pay them (or a large military) off. In Tunisia, a country without a strong military, the government fell in less than a month. In Egypt, a country with a strong military backed by billions in US aid, the outcome looks far less clear. In Yemen, it is unclear whether the protests have much momentum at all. The broad trends seem to be coordinated youth with economic grievances, untainted by foreign affiliation. In a more rigorous approach, scientists at Kansas State University have assembled a data-based Domestic Political Violence Model that has already predicted unrest in Peru, Ireland, Ecuador, Italy, and Tunisia. The broad factors they identify are coercion, coordination and capacity. The general algorithm is that human rights abuses can fuel protest by a coordinated opposition, especially if the government doesn’t have the capacity to project power nationally, and if there has been unrest in the past.
The next country they predict unrest in is Iran. Number two is Sri Lanka. Personally, I think the geopolitical and economic situation here is less prone to revolution than in years before, but those tending towards dictatorial tendencies should take heed. It seems that the recipe for revolution can be made at home.