The Inescapable Uncertainty of Popular Uprisings

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in the streets of Ouagadougou to protest a plan to remove terms limits ahead of next year’s presidential election in Burkina Faso. Blaise Compaore has held that country’s top office for 27 years by way of a 1987 coup and four subsequent elections that have not been fair, and his party dominates the legislature for the same reason. Tuesday’s protests are part of a wider and ongoing wave of actions that includes a general strike and stay-aways from schools and universities. A similar wave of protests occurred over several months in 2011. The state’s efforts to repress those challenges killed several people on at least two occasions, and virtually nothing changed in their wake.

Protesters in Ouagadougou on 28 October 2014 (Photo credit: Issouf Sanogo/AFP)

So, will the latest protests in Burkina Faso coalesce into a sustained campaign, or will they soon peter out? If they do coalesce, will that campaign spur significant reform or even revolution, or will it dissipate against repression, redirection, and resistance from incumbent power-holders?

The truth is, no one really knows, and this uncertainty is not specific to Burkina Faso. After decades of thoughtful research, social scientists still can’t reliably predict which bouts of unrest will blow up into revolutions and which won’t.

We can say some useful things about which structural conditions are more conducive, and thus which cases are more susceptible, to sustained popular challenges. A study I co-piloted with Erica Chenoweth (details forthcoming) found several features that can help assess where nonviolent campaigns are more likely to emerge, but the forecasting power of models based on those features is not stellar. Efforts to develop predictive models of civil-war onset have achieved similar results.

Once unrest starts to burble, though, we still don’t understand and can’t model the ensuing process well enough to reliably predict which way it will tip. Across many cases, a simple base-rate forecast will produce very accurate results. Keep betting on the persistence of the status quo, and you’ll almost always be right. If you’re trying to predict what will happen in a specific case at a specific juncture, however, it’s still hard to improve much on that crude baseline.

This persistent uncertainty can be maddening. Lots of smart people have spent a lot of time studying and thinking about these processes, and it feels like all that effort should have yielded bigger gains in predictive power by now.

That failure is also enlightening. If we believe that our efforts to date have been thoughtful and thorough, then the lack of progress on predicting the dynamics of these situations is telling something important about the nature of the underlying process. Uncertainty isn’t just a consequence of these political behaviors; it’s a prerequisite for them. As Phil Arena said on Twitter:

And it’s not just uncertainty about the potential for harsh state repression, which is what I took Phil to mean by “violence.” Uncertainty about who else will turn out under what conditions, what forms that violence will take and exactly whom it will directly affect, how challengers will organize and adapt in response to those events, what changes in policy or institutions those actions will produce, and who will benefit or suffer how much from those changes are all relevant, too.

In short, the rare political “events” we wish to predict are shorthand for myriad interactions over time among large numbers of heterogeneous individuals who plan and learn and screw up in a changing environment in which information is inevitably incomplete and imperfect. The results are not random, but they are complex, in both the conventional and scientific sense of that term. If we could reliably foresee how things were going to go, then we would adapt our behavior accordingly, and the whole thing would unravel before it even started.

Under these conditions, central tendencies can and do still emerge. A small but growing body of work in political science shows that we can use structural patterns and observations of leading-edge activities to smudge base-rate forecasts a bit in either direction and achieve marginal gains in accuracy. Systems that properly elicit and combine forecasts from thoughtful crowds also turn out to have real predictive power, especially on short time horizons.

Still, the future trajectories of individual cases of incipient revolution will remain hard to foresee with accuracy much beyond the banal prediction that tomorrow will most likely resemble today. That persistent fuzziness is not always what politicians, activists, investors, and other interested or just curious observers want to hear, but on this class of events, it’s probably as clairvoyant as we’re going to get.

Refugee Flows and Disorder in the Global System

This

The number of people displaced by violent conflict hit the highest level since World War II at the end of 2013, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, António Guterres, said in a report released on Friday…

Moreover, the impact of conflicts raging this year in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine and now Iraq threatens to push levels of displacement even higher by the end of 2014, he said.

…is, I think, another manifestation of the trends I discussed in a blog post here last September:

If we think on a systemic scale, it’s easier to see that we are now living through a period of global disorder matched in recent history only by the years surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and possibly exceeding it. Importantly, it’s not just the spate of state collapses through which this disorder becomes evident, but also the wider wave of protest activity and institutional transformation to which some of those collapses are connected.

If that’s true, then Mr. Guterres is probably right when he predicts that this will get even worse this year, because things still seem to be trending toward disorder. A lot of the transnational activity in response to local manifestations is still deliberately inflammatory (e.g., materiel and cash to rebels in Syria and Iraq, Russian support for separatists in Ukraine), and international efforts to quell some of those manifestations (e.g., UN PKOs in CAR and South Sudan) are struggling. Meanwhile, in what’s probably both a cause and an effect of these processes, global economic growth still has not rebounded as far or as fast as many had expected a year or two ago and remains uncertain and uneven.

In other words, the positive feedback still seems to be outrunning the negative feedback. Until that turns, the systemic processes driving (and being driven by) increased refugee flows will likely continue.

Addendum: The quote at the start of this post contains what I think is an error. A lot of the news stories on this report’s release used phrases like “displaced persons highest since World War II,” so I assumed that the U.N. report included the data on which that statement would be based. It turns out, though, that the report only makes a vague (and arguably misleading) reference to “the post-World War II era.” In fact, the U.N. does not have data to make comparisons on numbers of displaced persons prior to 1989. With the data it does have, the most the UNHCR can say is this, from p. 5: “The 2013 levels of forcible displacement were the highest since at least 1989, the first year that comprehensive statistics on global forced displacement existed.”

The picture also looks a little different from the press release if we adjust for increases in global population. Doing some rough math with the number of displaced persons in this UNHCR chart as the numerator and the U.S. Census Bureau’s mid-year estimates of world population as the denominator, here are some annual statistics on displaced persons as a share of the global population:

1989: 0.65%
1992: 0.84%
2010: 0.63%
2014: 0.72%

In no way do I mean to make light of what’s obviously a massive global problem, but as a share of the global population, the latest numbers are not (yet) even the worst since 1989, the first year for which UNHCR has comparable data.

China and Russia and What Could Have Happened

Twenty five years ago, I was strolling down Leningrad’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, with a clutch of other American undergraduates who had recently arrived for two months of intensive language study when Professor Edna Andrews dashed up to us with the news. “They’re shooting them,” she said (or something like it—who can trust a 25-year-old memory of a speech fragment?) with obvious agitation. “They’re shooting the students in Tiananmen Square!”

Had Edna not given us that news, we probably wouldn’t have heard it, or at least not until we got home. In 1989, glasnost’ had already come to the USSR, but that didn’t mean speech was free. State newspapers were still the only ones around, at least for those of us without connections to the world of samizdat. Some of those newspapers were more informative than others, but the limits of political conversation were still clearly proscribed. The Internet didn’t exist, and international calls could only be made by appointment from state-run locations with plastic phones in cubicle-like spaces and who-knows who listening while you talked. Trustworthy information still only trickled through a public sphere mostly bifurcated between propaganda and silence.

What’s striking to me in retrospect is how differently things could have turned out in both countries. When she gave us the news about Tiananmen, Edna was surely agitated because it involved students like the ones she taught being slaughtered. I suspect she was also distressed, though, because at the time it was still easy to imagine something similar happening in the USSR, perhaps even to people she knew personally.

In 1989, politics had already started to move in the Soviet Union, but neither democratization nor disintegration was a foregone conclusion. That spring, citizens had picked delegates to the inaugural session of the Congress of People’s Deputies in elections that were, at the time, the freest the USSR had ever held. The new Congress’ sessions were shown on live television, and their content was stunning. “Deputies from around the country railed against every scandal and shortcoming of the Soviet system that could be identified,” Thomas Skallerup and James P. Nichol describe in their chapter for the Library of Congress’ Russia country study. “Speakers spared neither Gorbachev, the KGB, nor the military.”

But the outspokenness of those reformist deputies belied their formal power. More than 80 percent of the Congress’ deputies were Communist Party members, and the new legislative body the deputies elected that summer, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, was stuffed with “old-style party apparatchiks.” Two years later, reactionaries inside the government mounted a coup attempt in which President Gorbachev was arrested and detained for a few days and tanks were deployed on the streets of Moscow.

Tank near Red Square on 19 August 1991. © Anatoly Sapronyenkov/AFP/Getty Images

That August Putsch looks a bit clowny with hindsight, but it didn’t have to fail. Likewise, the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 uprising didn’t have to happen, or to succeed when it did. In a story published this week in the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley describe the uncertainty of Chinese policy toward the uprising and the disunity of the armed forces tasked with executing it—and, eventually, the protesters in Tiananmen Square.

“At the time,” Jacobs and Buckley write, “few in the military wanted to take direct responsibility for the decision to fire on civilians. Even as troops pressed into Beijing, they were given vague, confusing instructions about what to do, and some commanders sought reassurances that they would not be required to shoot.” Seven senior commanders signed a petition calling on political leaders to withdraw the troops. Those leaders responded by disconnecting many of the special phones those commanders used to communicate with each other. When troops were finally given orders to retake the square “at any cost,” some commanders ignored them. At least one pretended that his battalion’s radio had malfunctioned.

As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan show in their study of civil resistance, nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to succeed when they prompt defections by security forces. The Tiananmen uprising was crushed, but history could have slipped in many other directions. And it still can.

Ukraine’s Just Coup

As Ukraine’s newly appointed government confronts a deepening separatist challenge in Crimea, Viktor Yanukovych continues to describe his removal from office as a “coup d’etat” (here). According to a recent poll by a reputable firm, roughly one-quarter of Russians agree. A month earlier, 84 percent of respondents in a similar poll saw the protests against Yanukovich as a coup attempt.

But that’s all spin and propaganda, right? Yanukovych is a friend of Moscow’s, which presumably views his ouster as part of a broader Western plot against it, and state-guided Russian media have been peddling this line from the start of the EuroMaidan protests a few months ago.

Well, pedantically, Yanukovych is correct. Academic definitions of coups d’etat generally include four criteria: 1) they replace the chief executive; 2) they do not follow constitutional procedure; 3) they are led or facilitated by political insiders; and 4) they involve the use or threat of force. Sometimes we attach modifiers to signify which political insiders strike the blow—military, palace, parliamentary, or judicial—and the criterion regarding the use or threat of force is often interpreted broadly to include arrest or even credibly menacing statements. When political outsiders topple a ruler, we call it a successful rebellion, not a coup. When political insiders remove a sitting leader by constitutional means, we call it politics.

Ukraine unambiguously satisfies at least a few of these criteria. The sitting chief executive was removed from office in a vote by parliamentarians, who qualify as political insiders. Those parliamentarians were encouraged by a popular uprising that represents a form of coercion. Even if we assume, as I do, that most participants in that uprising would not have physically harmed Yanukovich had they captured him, their forceful attempts to seize and occupy government buildings and their clashes with state security forces are clearly coercive acts.

And, crucially, the vote to remove Yanukovych doesn’t seem to have followed constitutional procedures. Under Articles 108-112 of Ukraine’s constitution (here), there are four ways a sitting president may leave office between elections: resignation, incapacitation, death, and impeachment. None of the first three happened—early rumors to the contrary, Yanukovych has vehemently denied that he resigned—so that leaves the fourth, impeachment. According to Article 111, impeachment must follow a specific set of procedures: Parliament must vote to impeach and then convene a committee to investigate. That committee must investigate and report back to parliament, which must then vote to bring charges. A final vote to convict may only come after receipt of a judgment from the Constitutional Court that “the acts, of which the President of Ukraine is accused, contain elements of treason or other crime.” Best I can tell, though, those procedures were not followed in this case. Instead, parliament simply voted—380 to 0, in a body with 450 seats—to dismiss Yanukovych and then to hand executive authority on an interim basis to its own speaker (here).

The apparent extra-constitutionality of this process gives us the last of the four criteria listed above. So, technically speaking, Yanukovych’s removal checks all of the boxes for what we would conventionally call a coup. We can quibble about how relevant the threat of force was to this outcome, and thus whether or not the label “parliamentary coup” might fit better than plain old coup, but the basic issue doesn’t seem especially ambiguous.

All of this should sound very familiar to Egyptians. Twice in the past three years, they’ve seen sitting presidents toppled by political insiders while protesters massed nearby. In both instances, the applicability of the “coup” label became a point of intense political debate. People cared, in part, because perceptions affect political outcomes, and what we call an event shapes how people perceive it. We shout over each other until one voice finally drowns out the rest, and what that voice says becomes the history we remember. In a world where “the will of the people” is seen by many as the only legitimate source of state authority, a whiff of illegitimacy hangs about “coup” that doesn’t adhere to “revolution.” In a peculiar twist of logic and semantics, many Egyptians insisted that President Morsi’s removal in July 2013 could not have been a coup because millions of people supported it. The end was right, so the means must have been, too. Coup doesn’t sound right, so it couldn’t have been one of those.

It’s easy to deride that thinking from a distance. It’s even easier with the benefit of a hindsight that can take in all the terrible things Egypt’s ruling junta has done since it seized power last July.

Before we sneer too hard at those gullible Egyptian liberals, though, we might pause to consider how we’re now describing events in Ukraine, and why. Most of the people I know personally or follow on social media believe that Yanukovych was a rotten menace whose removal from office was justified by his corruption and, more recently, his responsibility for the use of disproportionate force against activists massed on the Maidan. I agree, and I’m sure the documents his accomplices dumped in the Dnipro River on the way out of town will only clarify and strengthen that impression. Yanukovych’s election win in 2010 and his continuing popularity among a large (but dwindling) segment of the population weighed in his favor before 19-20 February, but the shooting to death of scores of unarmed or crudely armed protesters undoubtedly qualifies as the sort of crime that should trigger an impeachment and might even win a conviction. That is, those shootings qualify as an impeachable offense, but impeachment is not what happened.

As moral beings, we can recognize all of those things, and we can and should weigh them in our judgments about the justice of what’s transpired in Ukraine in the past week. Moral and analytical thinking aren’t the same thing, however, and they don’t always point in the same direction, or even occur on the same plane. I’d like to believe that, as analytical thinkers, we’re capable of acknowledging the parallels between Yanukovich’s removal from power and the things we usually call coups without presuming that this acknowledgement negates our moral judgment about the righteousness of that turn of events. Those two streams of thought can and should and inevitably will inform each other, but they don’t have to move deterministically together. Let there be such a thing as a just coup, and let this be an instance of it.

PS. For an excellent discussion of the philosophical issues I gloss over in that final declaration, see Zack Beauchamp’s “The Political Theory Behind Egypt’s Coup” (here).

The Arab Spring and the Limits of Understanding

Last week, the online magazine Muftah ran a thoughtful piece by Scott Williamson and Caroline Abadeer about “why Arab Spring protests successfully produced regime change in some countries but not in others.” As they see it,

Understanding the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings requires answering the three interlinked questions about the region’s unrest posed here. First, where did protests transform into uprisings that could sufficiently threaten the regime’s hold on power? We have argued monarchies and oil-wealthy regimes can erect more barriers to prevent protest escalation, and thereby protect the government. Next, we asked why militaries abandoned regimes in some countries where uprisings occurred, but cracked down violently on the opposition in others. We have suggested that a military tied to the regime by familial, tribal, ethnic, or sectarian connections would be more likely to support the regime. Finally, in cases where the military repressed the opposition, we asked why such repression was successful in some countries but not in others. Because resources are important in this regard, we have argued that oil-wealthy regimes were more likely to successfully repress their opponents, and that resources brought to bear by foreign powers for or against the regime could also have a significant impact on the outcome.

Their essay is grounded in careful study of relevant theory and the societies they describe, and the array of contingent effects they identify all seem plausible. Still, I wonder if the authors are too confident in the explanatory power of their discoveries. As it happens, the Arab Spring has largely followed gross patterns in democratization from the past century or so. Popular uprisings rarely occur in consolidated authoritarian regimes, and when they do, the regime usually survives. When authoritarian regimes break down, another autocracy usually ensues. In cases where an attempt at democracy does happen, it usually fails, either by military coup or by the ruling party’s unfair consolidation of power.

The rules of thumb I just described overlook a lot, including virtually all of the features that people who live in or closely follow politics in those societies would care deeply about. That gross simplification doesn’t make them wrong, though. In fact, their absurd simplicity may be a more accurate representation of the limits of our knowledge than the more elaborate maps we draw with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes we can grasp the generalities but still struggle with the specifics.

This state of affairs is not unique to the social sciences. A while back, the Guardian carried a story about the problem of limestone rot in historic British buildings. As the piece described,

The gargoyles at York Minster are losing their grimaces, pinnacles are turning to powder at Lincoln Cathedral and Wells Cathedral in Somerset has already lost most of its beautiful statues on the west face. Hundreds of years worth of grime and British weather are taking their toll on these treasured historic buildings, with the limestone they are made from simply being eaten away.

Because these structures are treasured, scientists set to work on trying to learn more about this rot in hopes of finding ways to slow or stop it. Even in the supposedly more predictable world of the “natural” sciences, though, this puzzle turns out to be quite a challenge.

[Researchers] already know what makes limestone decay. Chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from air pollution react with the stone to make it dissolve. This sometimes creates a hard, black, gypsum crust on the outside, leaving a soft, crumbly stone underneath. Road salt is a modern-day scourge, spraying on to the base of walls and eating into the stone. And rain, wind and snow can also cause problems, with winter freeze-thaw cycles forcing open cracks.

But the manner in which limestone erodes is puzzling. “We often see a single block of limestone get hollowed out, while others around it remain fresh,” said Dr Viles. It is not clear what makes one block more vulnerable than another.

The struggles of these researchers who understand the relevant causal mechanisms much better than we political scientists do remind us that we should remain open to the possibility of constrained randomness. The odds of a revolutionary moment vary in grossly visible ways, but they are still just odds. As sailors and cyclists can tell you, sometimes a squall hits when the weatherman said it would almost certainly stay dry. That doesn’t mean the models behind that forecast were fundamentally flawed, and our ability to see in retrospect how that storm arose doesn’t always make future ones any more predictable. Maybe the scientists studying limestone rot have finally figured out what makes one block more vulnerable than another and can now accurately predict which stones and statues will go soonest. Given the limited state of our knowledge about human social dynamics and the extreme complexity of the systems involved, I am not optimistic that social scientists will soon achieve a similar level of understanding, and thus foresight, about the transformation of political institutions.

To be clear, I do not think that the kind of post hoc analysis in which Williamson and Abadeer engage is fruitless. On the contrary, after-the-fact process-tracing and comparative analysis, be it narrative or statistical, is fundamental to the development of new ideas about what causes the phenomena we study. We may not understand a lot, but we certainly understand a lot more than we did a few hundred years ago, and this repetitive and meandering interplay of deduction, prediction, and observation is why. We just need to be careful not to get too cozy with the stories we spin when we look backwards, to succumb to what Daniel Kahneman aptly calls “the illusion of understanding.” The real test of our discoveries’ explanatory power isn’t their ability to make sense of the cases from which they were constructed; it’s their ability to help anticipate the occurrence and outcomes of the next batch. If authors like Williamson and Abadeer really want to test the inferences they’re drawing from the Arab Spring, they should start telling us what those inferences foretell about the prospects for, and outcomes of, future tumult in that part of the world.

Personally, I remain optimistic about broad trends and uncertain of the details. Many of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa may still look firm, but that doesn’t mean their foundations aren’t rotting. When those blocks do visibly crumble, the same meso– and macro-level systemic forces that have been driving the spread of democratic institutions for a while will probably drive these societies in that direction, too. As with the Arab Spring, we can expect a lot of variation in the timing and details, and we can expect some reversions to authoritarian rule to follow, but nothing yet leads me to believe that the now-familiar rules of thumb have stopped working.

Why Yanukovych Has the Advantage

This is a guest post by Lucan Way, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Lucan originally posted this on Facebook, and I am reproducing it here with his permission.

I am in Kyiv right now. It is truly an inspiring scene. The level of spontaneous self organization is truly unprecedented. No one who is here can avoid rooting for those on the street fighting for their ideals. The protesters have been far less violent than other protests in the world – including the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. Simultaneously, Yanukovych is weak. His support has plummeted such that just about any opposition candidate wins against him in polls inthe 2nd round. His oligarchic support is also soft – as evidenced by the relatively balanced coverage on oligarchic TV channels. In 2004, only channel 5 was presenting protests in a positive light. Now it is many channels. This suggests that oligarchs are reluctant to put all their chits behind Yanukovych.

Nevertheless, in my view a sober analysis of the situation suggests that Yanukovych has the clear advantage—despite reports that momentum is on the opposition’s side. He has the advantage (at least until 2015) for the following reasons:

1. The opposition lacks a plausible politician who can clearly claim leadership of the movement.

Most opposition is fairly close in the polls to Yanukovych. But first round polls are still fairly close to Yanukovych – who in many polls has a plurality of support. The important thing is that there is no clear consensus on who is dominant – the way that Yushchenko was sufficiently dominant in 2002/2003 to convince Tymoshenko to back him. This creates a situation in which too many cooks spoil the broth. Many complain that the opposition lacks a clear strategy. But this is not the opposition’s fault – there is simply no way any one of them can dictate such a unified strategy.

2. Civil society as great traffic cop but not a powerful mobilizer of crowds:

The opposition has limited control over the crowds. The opposition/civil society has done a miraculous job of organizing food etc. for the protests. But a survey of protesters by Democratic Initiatives suggests that a full 90% of protesters came to Kiev on their own – not as part of an initiative by civil society groups or parties. In other words, civil society is clearly good at organizing those who make it to Kiev. But it is less obvious that civil society is able to actually bring them here.

Partly as a result, the “leaders” of the protests seem to have limited central control over the crowds. Thus, an initiative by leaders to protest the Central Election Commission tonight (over 5 obviously fraudulent by-elections by the regime) resulted in a miserly 150-200 protesters maximum (I just came back from there).

3. Rats will only jump a sinking ship if there is another boat to go to.

In a nutshell, there is no viable force for the Party of Regions to defect TO. Right now, the oligarchs are obviously not enthusiastic about Yanukovych. Most people here think that oligarchs would jump ship. But the opposition is not a clear bet the way Yushchenko was in 2002/2003. History shows that autocrats can survive for a long time in this situation – when the regime has weak support within but the opposition is even more fragmented.

4. Yanukovych was democratically elected.

It is sometimes forgotten that Yanukovych was elected in a relatively fair election – and was in the opposition in 2010 – which meant that he had far less access to administrative resources as in 2004. This puts the opposition in a far less advantageous position than in 2004. Of course, Yanukovych has engaged in all sorts of serious abuse. But (as many admit), the opposition does not have a clear legal rationale for holding early elections This puts Western actors in a somewhat difficult position regarding the opposition and Yanukovych.

5. There is no obvious clear majority for Europe in Ukraine.

Polls vary but the most optimistic ones show just above 50% for the EU. Most recent respected polls (by Razumkov and the Kyiv Institute for International Sociology show about 40% for the EU and 30% for the Customs Union – an advantage for the EU but hardly a clear majority.

6. Protests can’t go on forever.

Protesters have been brought to the streets mainly by Yanukovych’s stupidity – violently clearing protesters on Nov 30 etc. However, in principle there is nothing stopping Yanukovych from sitting on his hands, not giving anything serious and letting the protests peter out. Right now, it seems impossible to imagine this happening – but comparative cases suggest that protests are likely to peter out if they aren’t either provoked or obtain clear victories. (think Serbia 1996/1997; Iran 2009)

In sum, I sincerely hope I am wrong. And this thing is clearly not over. But I think there are unfortunately a lot of reasons to be pessimistic.

One Outsider’s Take on Thailand

Justin Heifetz at the Bangkok Post asked me this morning for some comments on the current political situation in Thailand. Here is a slightly modified version of what I wrote in response to his questions.

I won’t speak to the specifics of Thai culture or social psychological theories of political behavior, because those things are outside my areas of expertise. What I can talk about are the strategic dilemmas that make some countries more susceptible to coups and other breakdowns of democracy than others. Instead of thinking in terms of a “coup culture”, I think it’s useful to ask why the military in the past and opposition parties now might prefer an unelected government to an elected one.

In the case of Thailand, it’s clear that some opposition factions recognize that they cannot win power through fair elections, and those factions are very unhappy with the policies enacted by the party that can. There are two paths out of that conundrum: either seize power directly through rebellion, or find a way to provoke or facilitate a seizure of power by another faction more sympathetic to your interests—in this and many other cases, the military. Rebellions are very hard to pull off, especially for minority factions, so that often leaves them with trying to provoke a coup as their only viable option. Apparently, Suthep Thaugsuban and his supporters recognize this logic and are now pursuing just such a strategy.

The big question now is whether or not the military leadership will respond as desired. They would be very likely to do so if they coveted power for themselves, but I think it’s pretty clear from their actions that many of them don’t. I suspect that’s partly because they saw after 2006 that seizing power didn’t really fix anything and carried all kinds of additional economic and reputational costs. If that’s right, then the military will only seize power again if the situation degenerates enough to make the costs of inaction even worse—say, into sustained fighting between rival factions, like we see in Bangladesh right now.

So far, Pheu Thai and its supporters seem to understand this risk and have mostly avoided direct confrontation in the streets. According to Reuters this morning, though, some “red shirt” activists are now threatening to mobilize anew if Suthep & co. do not back down soon. A peaceful demonstration of their numbers would remind the military and other fence-sitters of the electoral and physical power they hold, but it could also devolve into the kind of open conflict that might tempt the military to reassert itself as the guarantor of national order. Back on 1 December, red shirts cut short a rally in a Bangkok stadium after aggressive actions by their anti-government rivals led to two deaths and dozens of injuries, and there is some risk that fresh demonstrations could produce a similar situation.

On how or why this situation has escalated so quickly, I’d say that it didn’t really. This is just the latest flare-up of an underlying process of deep socio-economic and political transformation in Thailand that accelerated in the early 2000s and probably isn’t going to reach a new equilibrium of sorts for at least a few more years. Earlier in this process, the military clearly sided with conservative factions struggling to beat back the political consequences of this transformation for reasons that close observers of Thai politics surely understand much better than I. We’ll see soon if they’ve finally given up on that quixotic project.

Whatever happens this time around, though, the good news is that within a decade or so, Thai politics will probably stabilize into a new normal in which the military no longer acts directly in politics and parts of what’s now Pheu Thai and its coalition compete against each other and the remnants of today’s conservative forces for power through the ballot box.

China’s Accumulating Risk of Crisis

Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer has a long piece in the new issue of The National Interest that foretells continued political stability in China in spite of all the recent turbulence in the international system and at home. After cataloging various messes of the past few years—the global financial crisis and U.S. recession, war in Syria, and unrest in the other BRICS, to name a few—Bremmer says

It is all the more remarkable that there’s been so little noise from China, especially since the rising giant has experienced a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, slowing growth and a show trial involving one of the country’s best-known political personalities—all in just the past few months.

Given that Europe and America, China’s largest trade partners, are still struggling to recover their footing, growth is slowing across much of the once-dynamic developing world, and the pace of economic and social change within China itself is gathering speed, it’s easy to wonder if this moment is merely the calm before China’s storm.

Don’t bet on it. For the moment, China is more stable and resilient than many realize, and its political leaders have the tools and resources they need to manage a cooling economy and contain the unrest it might provoke.

Me, I’m not so sure. Every time I peek under another corner of the “authoritarian stability” narrative that blankets many discussions of China, I feel like I see another mess in the making.

That list is not exhaustive. No one of these situations seems especially likely to turn into a full-blown rebellion very soon, but that doesn’t mean that rebellion in China remains unlikely. That might sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t.

To see why, it helps to think statistically. Because of its size and complexity, China is like a big machine with lots of different modules, any one of which could break down and potentially set off a systemic failure. Think of the prospects for failure in each of those modules as an annual draw from a deck of cards: pull the ace of spades and you get a rebellion; pull anything else and you get more of the same. At 51:1 or about 2 percent, the chances that any one module will fail are quite small. If there are ten modules, though, you’re repeating the draw ten times, and your chances of pulling the ace of spades at least once (assuming the draws are independent) are more like 20 percent than 2. Increase the chances in any one draw—say, count both the king and the ace of spades as a “hit”—and the cumulative probability goes up accordingly. In short, when the risks are additive as I think they are here, it doesn’t take a ton of small probabilities to accumulate into a pretty sizable risk at the systemic level.

What’s more, the likelihoods of these particular events are actually connected in ways that further increase the chances of systemic trouble. As social movement theorists like Sidney Tarrow and Marc Beissinger have shown, successful mobilization in one part of an interconnected system can increase the likelihood of more action elsewhere by changing would-be rebels’ beliefs about the vulnerability of the system, and by starting to change the system itself.

As Bremmer points out, the Communist Party of China has done a remarkable job sustaining its political authority and goosing economic growth as long as it has. One important source of that success has been the Party’s willingness and capacity to learn and adapt as it goes, as evidenced by its sophisticated and always-evolving approach to censorship of social media and its increasing willingness to acknowledge and try to improve on its poor performance on things like air pollution and natural disasters.

Still, when I think of all the ways that system could start to fail and catalog the signs of increased stress on so many of those fronts, I have to conclude that the chances of a wider crisis in China are no longer so small and will only continue to grow. If Bremmer wanted to put a friendly wager on the prospect that China will be governed more or less as it is today to and through the Communist Party’s next National Congress, I’d take that bet.

Watch Locally, Think Globally

In the Central African Republic, an assemblage of rebel groups has toppled the government and installed a new one but now refuses to follow its writ. As those rebels loot and maraud, new armed groups have formed to resist them, and militias loyal to the old government have struck back, too. All of this has happened on the watch of a 2,000-person peacekeeping force from neighboring states. With U.N. backing, those neighbors are now sending more men with guns in hopes that another 1,500 soldiers will finally help restore some sense of order.

This is what full-blown state collapse looks like—as close to Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” as you’re ever likely to see. As I wrote at the start of the year, though, CAR is hardly the only country in such shambles. By my reckoning, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia still, and maybe DRC and South Sudan qualify as collapsed states, too, and if Mali doesn’t anymore, it only just squeaked back over the line.

As the very act of listing implies, we often think of these situations as discrete cases. In our social-scientific imaginations, countries are a bit like petri dishes lined up on a laboratory countertop. Each undergoes a similar set of experiments, and our job is to explain the diversity of their outcomes.

The longer I watch world affairs, though, the less apt that experimental metaphor seems. We can only really understand processes like state collapses—and the civil wars that usually produce them, and the regime transformations that  often precede and succeed them, and virtually everything else we study in international studies—by thinking of these “cases” as local manifestations of system-level dynamics, or at least the product of interactions between local and global processes that are inseparable and mutually causal.

If we think on a systemic scale, it’s easier to see that we are now living through a period of global disorder matched in recent history only by the years surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and possibly exceeding it. Importantly, it’s not just the spate of state collapses through which this disorder becomes evident, but also the wider wave of protest activity and institutional transformation to which some of those collapses are connected. These streams of change are distinct in some ways, but they also shape each other and share some common causes.

And what are those common causes? The 2007 financial crisis surely played a significant role. The resulting recessions in the U.S. and Europe rippled outward, shrinking trade flows and remittances to smaller and poorer countries and pulling down demand for commodities on which some of their economies heavily depend.

Those recessions also seem to have accelerated shifts in relative power among larger countries, or at least perceptions of them. Those perceptions—see here and here, for example—may matter even more than the underlying reality because they shape governments’ propensity to intervene abroad, the forms those interventions take, and, crucially, other governments’ beliefs about what kinds of intervention might occur in the future. In this instance, those perceptions have only been reinforced by popular concerns about the cost and wisdom of foreign intervention when so many are suffering through hard times at home. This amalgamation of forces seems to have found its sharpest expression yet in the muddled and then withdrawn American threat to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, but the trends that crystallized in that moment have been evident for a while.

The financial crisis also coincided with, and contributed to, a global run-up in food prices that still hasn’t abated by much (see the chart below, from the FAO). As I mentioned in another recent post, a growing body of evidence supports the claim that high food prices help produce waves of civil unrest. This link is evident at the level of the global system and in specific cases, from the countries involved in the Arab Spring to South Africa. Because food prices are so influential, I think it’s likely that climate change is contributing to the current disorder, too, as another force putting upward pressure on those prices and sometimes dislodging large numbers of people who have to pay them.

As Peter Turchin and others have argued, it’s possible that generic oscillations in human social order—perhaps the political analogue of the business cycle—are also part of the story. I’m not confident that these patterns are distinct from the forces I’ve already mentioned, but they could be, at least in part. In any case, those patterns seem sufficiently robust that they deserve more attention than most of us give them now.

Last but not least, the systemic character of these processes is also evident in the forms of negative and positive feedback that arise to try to reverse or accelerate the slide into entropy. Powerful players with a stake in extant structures—mostly states, but also private corporations and even transnational NGOs—work to restore local forms of order that reinforce rather than challenge those structures. At the same time, other actors try to leverage the entropy to their own advantage. Governments less invested in the prior order may see new opportunities to weaken rivals or husband allies. Transnational criminal enterprises often find ways to expand revenue streams and develop new ones by smuggling arms and other contraband to and through societies that have fallen apart. Since the late 2000s, for example, “there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks on vessels by pirates,” Interpol claims, and I don’t think this concurrence of this trend with the spikes in popular unrest and state collapse is purely coincidental.

This system-level view finds linkages between a host of recent trends that we usually only consider in isolation from each other. It also suggests that this, too, shall pass—and then occur again. If Turchin & co. are correct, the current wave of disorder won’t peak for another several years, and we can expect the next iteration to arrive in the latter half of the current century. I’m not convinced the cycles are as tidy as that, and I wonder if the nature of the system itself is now changing in ways that will produce new patterns in the future. Either way, though, I hope it’s now clear that the miseries besetting CAR aren’t as disconnected from the collapses of Libya, Syria, and Yemen or the eruptions of mass protest in a host of countries over the past several years as our compartmentalized reading and theorizing usually entices us to think.

More Shots Fired in Egypt’s Transitional “Truel”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets on June 30 to press for the resignation of President Morsi and his government, and the impending confrontation between these protesters, the government’s supporters, and state security forces has lots of people on edge. Here’s how Tarek Radwan set the scene in a recent post on Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel blog:

What began as a humble attempt to translate countrywide discontent with the way President Mohamed Morsi has governed Egypt, the Tamarod — or “Rebel” campaign — has mobilized millions of Egyptians for a protest that promises to be epic on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Although opposition forces initially kept the signature drive that demands Morsi’s removal from office and early elections at arms length, nearly all of the relevant players in Egypt’s transitional drama now recognize the campaign’s significance and potential to affect change. Movement within the political opposition, including coordination meetings with the campaign and youth groups for a post-Morsi transition plan, suggests a fundamental belief that the June 30 protests could realize Tamarod’s goal of replacing the president.

Islamists who support Morsi’s government, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with a counter-signature drive of their own called Tagarrod — or “Impartiality” — to reiterate their faith (no pun intended) in the political system and the elections that brought him to power. Supportive Islamist groups have also called for a June 21 protest against violence. However, the counter-campaign’s attempt to balance the scales only seems to accentuate the country’s deeply divided polity.

Meanwhile, the army has responded ominously to the planned mass protests, issuing a public warning that it will “not allow an attack on the will of the people” and a calling instead for dialogue and (ha!) consensus.

tamarod.campaign.in.action

In a recent column for Egypt’s online Daily News, activist and one-time candidate for parliament Mahmoud Salem sketched three scenarios for how this latest confrontation ends: 1) a clear victory for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), 2) a clear victory for the Tamarod campaign, or 3) a military coup. The forms the latter two outcomes would take are clearest: the government resigns and fresh elections are held, or the military tosses out the government and installs itself or a government of its choosing in power. It’s less clear to me what an “outright victory” for the MB would look like, but Salem seems to have in mind a violent routing of the organized opposition with the cooperation or at least complicity of the military. Salem sees the third scenario (military intervention) as the most likely one but acknowledges that the situation is highly uncertain.

For reasons that are probably narcissistic but I’d like to think are intellectual, I’m struck by how closely Salem’s scenarios and outcomes match up with the game-theoretic model I use to analyze the politics of democratic consolidation and breakdown. This model portrays politics in newer democracies as a kind of “truel“—a lousy neologism for a three-way version of a duel—involving two rival political factions and the military. In principle, any of those three groups can usurp power at at any time. Election winners can rig the game to ensure that they keep winning; election losers can overthrow the government by revolutionary means; and the military can carry out a coup.

In the metaphor of a truel, attempts to usurp or defend power are like shots fired at different rivals. As in a real gunfight, those shots don’t always hit or kill, and rivals can also choose not to fire. In many new democracies and other “transitional” cases, it’s easy to imagine one or two or even all three of these actors attempting to hoard or usurp power (i.e., take a shot) at almost any time, and it’s also easy to imagine most of those attempts failing.

Democracy is effectively consolidated when all of those actors routinely abide by and uphold democratic procedures, especially but not limited to fair elections and freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The risk of these usurpations of power never gets to zero, but in some long-standing democracies it’s awfully close to it. That’s the truel equivalent of everyone agreeing to put their guns away and resolve their disputes in other ways. In the real world, military coups have become less common than they were during the Cold War, and revolutions rarely succeed in overthrowing elected governments. Consolidations of incumbent advantage aren’t hard to find, though, and attempts at all three forms of usurpation are still common in the “life courses” of newer democracies.

So what can the truel metaphor tell us about Egypt? First, it’s evident that Salem’s three scenarios exclude an important fourth scenario in which everyone either misses or holds his fire. If the June 30 protests don’t force out the Morsi government, inspire a military coup, or lure MB supporters into widespread counterrevolutionary violence, this latest round could come and go without producing dramatic changes in the political landscape. Based on the outcome of the last couple of confrontational moments in Egyptian politics and the fractiousness of the Tamarod coalition, I’d say this is probably the most likely outcome.

The truel metaphor also raises some questions about the wisdom of the opposition’s decision to press revolutionary demands through mass unrest. This is the political equivalent of shooting at the incumbent, but game theorists will tell you that the optimal strategy for the weakest player in a truel is often to hold fire or to miss on purpose. That’s because the dominant strategy for the two strongest players is usually going to be to try to eliminate the other, so the weakest player can often do well by letting that confrontation play out, leaving him in a showdown with the lone survivor, possibly even with the advantage of getting to shoot first at a now-damaged rival.

In Egypt right now, I’d say the MB and the military are clearly the two strongest players, while the groups behind the Tamarod campaign are still the weakest. If that’s right, then the maximalist strategy Salem and his cohort are pursuing is probably quixotic. As Salem acknowledges, this attempt to oust the MB is unlikely to succeed, but the act of trying is probably increasing the risks of both a military coup and a deeper consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power by strengthening those groups’ fear of a revolution, and thus their incentives to preempt or respond to that threat with a crackdown or coup of their own.

Of course, that might be exactly what some of the participants in the Tamarod campaign are hoping for. Some of the MB’s rivals have openly called for a military coup against the Morsi government as their best hope for a “reset” of Egypt’s transition, and the occurrence of sustained mass unrest is, at this point, probably the only thing capable of making that happen. By attempting another revolution—or a counter-counterrevolution, depending on whom you ask—these factions are probably looking to draw the Brotherhood’s supporters into a fight that would, in turn, lure the military into a coup. What looks a little crazy on the surface may turn out to be crazy like a fox.

Last but not least, careful consideration of the current moment in Egyptian politics shows how the truel metaphor elides the possibility of bargaining among the players. After writing a draft of this post yesterday, I discussed it with Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. As Michael pointed out to me, there’s really a fifth scenario here, too, in which the military uses the credible threat of a coup to compel the MB government into a political deal designed to halt the spiral of polarization that keeps producing these showdowns. The military seems like it really doesn’t want to be responsible for governing Egypt right now, but it probably wants even less to see the country descend into a period of sustained mass violence. One way to try to achieve both of those goals would be to give the government an ultimatum: accept a compromise with the opposition or get shot at from two sides at once. If I had to lay odds, I’d say this is probably the second-most-likely outcome, after the “everyone misses or holds his fire” scenario described earlier.

So that’s what my analytical self makes of this remarkable moment. All the while, my emotional self continues to marvel at the courage and tenacity of the many people who keep struggling to make the most of this historic opportunity to democratize Egypt, and to sympathize with the fatigue and frustration this seemingly endless transition and its accompanying economic woes must be producing. Honestly, I have no idea what that’s like, and it’s infinitely easier to comment from afar.

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