Egypt as a Case Study in the Causes of Political Inertia

For LARB, Max Strasser has just reviewed (here) Thanassis Cambanis’ new book on the arc of Egyptian revolution (here). I haven’t read the book, but from Strasser’s review, it sounds like Cambanis’ account makes for a useful case study on the causal mechanisms of political inertia.

Here, for example, is how we are to understand how the military managed to retain and even strengthen its hold on political power in Egypt over the course of the past four years:

After the initial protests forced President Hosni Mubarak from power, a military junta known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took control of Egypt.

I think this sentence gets the sequence wrong—that the officers who formed SCAF played a direct role in forcing Mubarak’s departure to clear the way for their junta (source). That is no minor detail when we’re talking about how those officers managed to avert transformational change. Anyway, back to Strasser:

The generals vociferously claimed they were the defenders of the revolution, but they did everything in their power to stymy [sic] radical change. They fast-tracked constitutions and dissolved parliaments, they cut backroom deals and initiated prosecutions. Most of all, they sowed fear and chaos that ultimately served them perfectly.

The “men with guns” sowed that fear through violence—at Maspero, at Port Said, and in many other situations that challenged their claim to power. In this behavior, we see how entrenched hierarchical organizations deploy familiar routines that simultaneously protect and reproduce their established positions. The marginal costs of deploying these routines are relatively low, precisely because they are routinized. In their parts if not in their whole, they have been rehearsed and repeated, and their propriety is etched in the extant culture. Metaphorically speaking, no new software is required; instead, organizational leaders only have to hit ‘run’ on the scripts in place. When circumstances demand innovation, preexisting modules—parts of organizations and behavioral routines—can be reassembled or lightly tweaked and then employed in short order.

And what about the revolutionaries? They possess none of those advantages, and it shows. Back to Strasser:

The revolutionaries — the leftists and liberals who formed the core of the uprising and tried to keep its goals alive amid military massacres and Brotherhood backroom dealing — do not emerge blameless from the tumultuous 2011–2013 period. Cambanis is unabashedly sympathetic to them. (I was, and am, too.) But he can’t help but point out their foibles. The revolutionaries failed to take advantage of electoral politics; they neglected political organizing in the countryside and the small cities in favor of Cairo and Alexandria (and Tahrir Square in particular); they made demands on the government that were at times unreasonable; they squandered opportunities to have their voices heard by those who held power; far too often they fought among themselves. (Something that some — such as the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, of which Moaz, one of Cambanis’s central characters, was a member — came to admit only too late.)

Nothing exemplifies the revolutionaries’ pitfalls and failures as well as the ill-fated Tahrir Square sit-in of July 2011. Amid feelings that the revolution had stalled under military rule, the revolutionary groups repaired to their favorite tactic: a tent camp in the center of Cairo. But unlike the initial uprising demanding Mubarak leave the presidency, this time the goals were diffuse and hazy. Protesters called for prosecution of members of the former regime, including hanging Mubarak, but other arguments were presented poorly. The protesters gathered under the conveniently ambiguous slogan “The Revolution First.” Once they were stuck in the square — in the sweltering weather of Cairo in July — they couldn’t back down. Each group was concerned about looking somehow less revolutionary than the others. The sit-in lacked public support and petered out. The memory of the July sit-in, like so much from that decisive year, will likely wither into oblivion. It was one of many missteps. But by focusing a chapter around it (“Stuck in the Square”), by describing the way the revolutionaries argued among themselves and aimlessly checked social media on their iPhones from the center of Tahrir, Cambanis makes clear what exactly went wrong, giving a microcosmic preview of the ways the revolution would falter. Every political organizing meeting in Cairo that devolved into pointless bickering under a cloud of cigarette smoke feels like a tragic missed connection — what if that one had only worked out?

To gain power, the forces seeking deep change must act collectively and purposefully. Unfortunately for them, the organizations and routines through which they would do those things do not exist, and they are difficult and costly to create. Even when participants agree on the broad objectives, inevitable and frequent disputes over the details—and, crucially, the procedures by which those disputes will be resolved—hamper efforts to convert shared intentions into effective action. Absent prior routines for taxing and policing members, free-rider problems abound. Organizations that have already solved some of these problems—in Egypt in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood—enjoy significant advantages over their aspiring civic collaborators and rivals, but they rarely match the capacity of their bureaucratized rivals within state.

So, in most cases most of the time, even when incumbents are unloved and frustrations abound, the revolutionary moment never emerges. And in the rare instances that it does, incumbent power-holders usually manage to repress it or ride it out. These outcomes have less to do with the attraction of the underlying ideas and individuals than the power of prior organization. Routines are hard to create, and then hard to dislodge once created.

On Revolution, Theory or Ideology?

Humans understand and explain through stories, and the stories we in the US tell about why people rebel against their governments usually revolve around deprivation and injustice. In the prevailing narratives, rebellion occurs when states either actively make people suffer or passively fail to alleviate their suffering. Rebels in the American colonies made this connection explicit in the Declaration of Independence. This is also how we remember and understand lots of other rebellions we “like” and the figures who led them, from Moses to Robin Hood to Nelson Mandela.

As predictors of revolution, though, deprivation and injustice don’t fare so well. A chart in a recent Bloomberg Business piece on “the 15 most miserable economies in the world” got me thinking about this again. The chart shows the countries that score highest on a crude metric that sums a country’s unemployment rate and annual change in its consumer price index. Here are the results for 2015:

Of the 15 countries on that list, only two—Ukraine and Colombia—have ongoing civil wars, and it’s pretty hard to construe current unemployment or inflation as relevant causes in either case. Colombia’s civil war has run for decades. Ukraine’s war isn’t so civil (<cough> Russia <cough>), and this year’s spike in unemployment and inflation are probably more consequences than causes of that fighting. Frankly, I’m surprised that Venezuela hasn’t seen a sustained, large-scale challenge to its government since Hugo Chavez’s death and wonder if this year will prove different. But, so far, it hasn’t. Ditto for South Africa, where labor actions have at least hinted the potential for wider rebellion.

That chart, in turn, reminded me of a 2011 New York Times column by Charles Blow called “The Kindling of Change,” on the causes of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.  Blow wrote, “It is impossible to know exactly which embers spark a revolution, but it’s not so hard to measure the conditions that make a country prime for one.” As evidence, he offered the following table comparing countries in the region on several “conditions”:

The chart, and the language that precede it, seem to imply that these factors are ones that obviously “prime” countries for revolution. If that’s true, though, then why didn’t we see revolutions in the past few years in Algeria, Morocco,  Sudan, Jordan, and Iran? Morocco and Sudan saw smaller protest waves that failed to produce revolutions, but so did Kuwait and Bahrain. And why did Syria unravel while those others didn’t? It’s true that poorer countries are more susceptible to rebellions than richer ones, but it’s also true that poor countries are historically common and rebellions are not.

All of which makes me wonder how much our theories of rebellion are really theories at all, and not more awkward blends of selective observation and ideology. Maybe we believe that injustice explains rebellion because we want to live in a universe in which justice triumphs and injustice gets punished. When violent or nonviolent rebellions erupt, we often watch and listen to the participants enumerate grievances about poverty and indignity and take those claims as evidence of underlying causes. We do this even though we know that humans are unreliable archivists and interpreters of their own behavior and motivations, and that we could elicit similar tales of poverty and indignity from many, many more people who are not rebelling in those societies and others. If a recent study generalizes, then we in the US and other rich democracies are also consuming news that systematically casts rebels in a more favorable light than governments during episodes of protest and civil conflict abroad.

Meanwhile, when rebel groups don’t fit our profile as agents of justice, we rarely expand our theories of revolution to account for these deviant cases. Instead, we classify the organizations as “terrorists”, “radicals”, or “criminals” and explain their behavior in some other way, usually one that emphasizes flaws in the character or beliefs of the participants or manipulations of them by other nefarious agents. Boko Haram and the Islamic State are rebel groups in any basic sense of that term, but our explanations of their emergence often emphasize indoctrination instead of injustice. Why?

I don’t mean to suggest that misery, dignity, and rebellion are entirely uncoupled. Socioeconomic and emotional misery may and probably do contribute in some ways to the emergence of rebellion, even if they aren’t even close to sufficient causes of it. (For some deeper thinking on the causal significance of social structure, see this recent post by Daniel Little.)

Instead, I think I mean this post to serve as plea to avoid the simple versions of those stories, at least when we’re trying to function as explainers and not activists or rebels ourselves. In light of what we think we know about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, the fact that a particular explanation harmonizes with our values and makes us feel good should not be mistaken for evidence of its truth. If anything, it should motivate us to try harder to break it.

Observing and Understanding Social Unrest in Real Time

Game theoretic models of social unrest often represent governments and oppositions as unitary actors engaged in a sequence of moves involving binary choices. At any given time, an opposition can keep playing by the rules or choose to protest. If the opposition chooses to protest, the government can respond by conceding to protesters’ demands or repressing them. If the government represses, protesters can respond by dissipating or escalating. Ditto for the government on its next turn, and so on until either one side wins decisively or a bargain is struck that lets everyone get back to “normal” politics.

That class of models can and has produced important insights into the absence, occurrence, and dynamics of social unrest. At the same time, those models deliberately bracket some of the most interesting and arguably important aspects of social unrest—that is, the politics occurring within those camps. “Government” and “opposition” are shorthand for large assemblages of diverse individuals, each making his or her own choices under different circumstances and with different information. The interactions summarized in those formal models depend on—are constituted by—the actions and interactions occurring at this lower, or “micro,” level.

That micro level is harder to understand, but it’s what we actually see when we observe these eventful periods up close in real time. The ongoing occupation of parts of central Hong Kong—which, yes, is still happening, even if it has mostly fallen out of the international news stream—offers a case in point. As Chris Buckley and Alan Wong describe in today’s New York Times, protesters in Hong Kong right now are openly and self-consciously struggling to make one of those strategic choices. Here’s how Buckey and Wong describe the efforts to escalate:

Most mornings for weeks, in one of the pro-democracy protest camps here, Wong Yeung-tat has berated, mocked and goaded the government and, increasingly, the student protest leaders and democratic politicians he deems too timid.

“The occupy campaign needs to be taken to a new level,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable”…

Mr. Wong’s organization, Civic Passion, and a tangle of like-minded groups, Internet collectives and free-floating agitators have grown impatient with the milder path supported by most protesters. They argue that only stronger action, such as new occupations, can force concessions from the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile,

Mainstream protesters fear confrontational tactics could tear the movement apart and anger ordinary residents, many already tiring of the protest camps.

“It will be difficult to narrow the differences,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the pro-democracy Labor Party, who has been castigated by the movement’s more zealous wing. “We have already escalated to a high point. If it would further alienate public opinion, then that’s something we don’t want to see.”

Through Buckley and Wong’s eyes, we see the participants standing at the figurative fork in the road—or, if you like, the node in the decision tree. And, as protesters argue and experiment their way toward a phase shift of one form or another, the government does the same. We usually don’t get to witness much of the government’s internal debating, but their tactical experiments are easy to spot, and Hong Kong is no exception on that front, either.

We still aren’t very good at understanding exactly how those decisions get made or predicting how the larger process will unfold. We are, however, pretty good at recognizing some of the patterns that comprise these episodes (which are themselves figments of our theoretical imaginations, but still). In fact, the dynamic unfolding in Hong Kong right now is very much like what Sidney Tarrow described in Power in Movement (p. 24):

The power to trigger sequences of collective action is not the same as the power to control or sustain them. This dilemma has both an internal and an external dimension. Internally, a good part of the power of movements comes from the fact that they activate people over whom they have no control. This power is a virtue because it allows movements to mount collective actions without possessing the resources that would be necessary to internalize a support base. But the autonomy of their supporters also disperses the movement’s power, encourages factionalism and leaves it open to defection, competition and repression.

The similarity between that description and the evolution of the unrest in Hong Kong implies that we can sketch the causal terrain with some confidence, even if we can’t reliably predict exactly how social forces will flow through it each time.

Naturally, though, we still wonder: how will it turn out? Historical base rates imply that the factions advocating more aggressive tactics probably won’t tip the larger crowd toward escalation, and even if they do, that crowd will probably fail to achieve its objectives, at least in the short term. If I had to make a prediction, I would bet that this particular episode of unrest will conclude without having achieved any of its major demands. Still, base rates aren’t destiny, and if we already knew how this was going to turn out, it probably wouldn’t be happening in the first place.

Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

Yesterday, Marc Lynch posted a thoughtful and candid set of reflections on how political scientists who specialize in the Middle East performed as analysts and forecasters during the Arab uprisings, not before them, the subject on which most of the retrospectives have focused thus far. The background to the post is a set of memos Marc commissioned from the contributors to a volume he edited on the origins of the uprisings. As Marc summarizes, their self-criticism is tough:

We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

Social scientists and other professional analysts of world affairs should read the whole thing—if not for the specifics, then as an example of how to assess and try to learn from your own mistakes. Here, I’d like to focus on three points that jumped out at me as I read it.

The first is the power of motivated reasoning—”the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood. After noting that he and his colleagues over-predicted democratization, Marc observes:

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment.

That pattern sounds a lot like the one I saw in my own thinking when I realized that my initial forecasts about the duration and outcome of the Syrian civil war had missed badly.

This tendency is probably ubiquitous, but it’s also one about which we can actually do something, even if we can’t eliminate it. Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Second, Marc’s reflections also underscore our tendency to underestimate the prevalence of inertia in politics, especially during what seem like exceptional times. As I recently wrote, our analytical eyes are drawn to the spectacular and dynamic, but on short time scales at least, continuity is the norm. Observers hoping for change in the countries touched by the Arab uprisings would have done well to remember this fact—and surely some did—when they were trying to assess how much structural change those uprisings would actually produce.

My last point concerns the power of social scientists to shape these processes as they unfold. In reflecting on his own analysis, Marc notes that he correctly saw how the absence of agreement on the basic rules of politics would complicate transitions, but he “was less successful in figuring out how to overcome these problems.” Marc aptly dubs this uncertainty Calvinball, and he concludes:

I’m more convinced than ever that moving beyond Calvinball is essential for any successful transition, but what makes a transitional constitutional design process work—or fail—needs a lot more attention.

Actually, I don’t think the problem is a lack of attention. How to escape this uncertainty in a liberal direction has been a central concern for decades now of scholarship on democratization and the field of applied democracy promotion that’s grown up alongside it. Giuseppe di Palma’s 1990 book, To Craft Democracies, remains a leading example on the kind of advocacy-cum-scholarship this field has produced, but there are countless “lesson learned” white papers and “best practices” policy briefs to go with it.

No, the real problem is that transitional periods are irreducibly fraught with the uncertainties Marc rightly spotlighted, and there simply are no deus-ex-machina resolutions to them. When scholars and practitioners do get involved, we are absorbed into the politics we mean to “correct,” and most of us aren’t nearly as adept in that field as we are in our own. After a couple of decades of closely watching these transitions and the efforts of various parties to point them in particular directions, I have come to believe that this is one of those things social science can help us understand but not “fix.”

On the Consumption of Protest Art in Real Time

Today’s New York Times carries a story describing efforts by “preservationists, historians and art lovers” to capture and share art produced by the ongoing occupations in Hong Kong:

Because most of the art is still on the streets, the archiving is largely digital. Some digital renditions and objects are already running alongside the “Disobedient Objects” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Umbrella Movement Visual Archives and Research Collective, led partly by academics, is creating open-data platforms and Google maps to mark the locations of art pieces.

A new group—Umbrella Movement Art Preservation, or UMAP—has “rescue team members” on the ground, armed with cellphones and ready to mobilize volunteers to evacuate art on short notice. They have received offers of help from sympathetic truck drivers and about a dozen private galleries…

“It is all installation art,” said Mr. Wong of UMAP.

This process strikes me as unavoidably exploitative. The objects of this preservation campaign are art, but it is art that is meant to serve a specific and immediate political purpose. Removed from its original context and displayed online or in galleries, protest art becomes a form of found-object art. The “discovery” and display of these objects produces aesthetic and, in some cases, commercial value for its conveyors and consumers, but those returns are not shared with the original producers. Preservers, gallerists, and viewers inevitably engage in appropriation as well as appreciation.

More important, these preservation efforts give onlookers a way to enjoy the art without getting enmeshed in the politics. They treat the demonstrations as a creative performance, a kind of entertainment—”It is all installation art”—for the benefit of the viewer. In so doing, they implicitly ignore the strong political claims that this “performance” and the objects it generates are meant to produce.

The location of the original production is an essential part of its political meaning. The fact that it is confrontational and therefore dangerous to produce and display that art in those places is precisely what imbues it with any political power. By removing the art from that location, preservationists give distant onlookers a chance to enjoy the show without directly engaging in those politics. Politics is suffused with symbolic expression, but in situations like this one, the symbols are meant to serve a political purpose. When you try to separate the former from the latter, you implicitly ignore—and thus, in a fashion, reject—that purpose.

This rejection becomes less problematic, or at least less consequential, with the passage of time. When done in the moment, though, the decision to consume the aesthetic without engaging in the politics can have political consequences. “Wait, let me just move this sculpture out of the way before you smash everything to bits…” could imply that you care more about the sculpture than the people who produced it. More likely, it implies that you feel powerless to help defend those producers. I imagine that neither of those messages is particularly encouraging to the protesters or discouraging to those who would do the smashing.

I arguably engage in a related form of exploitation in my own work. My trade is explaining and forecasting political calamities that often involve substantial human suffering. To make my work more credible, I avoid public advocacy or activism on the topics and cases I study. So, I am finding and exploiting commercial value in the actions and suffering of others while adopting a public posture of indifference to that suffering. I’m not sure what to do with that fact right now, but I thought it only fair to acknowledge it in a post that scolds others for the same.

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.

Two Tidbits on Social Unrest

1. We like to tell tidy stories about why social unrest happens, and those stories usually involve themes of grievance or social injustice—things like hardship, inequality, corruption, discrimination, and political repression. One or more of those forces probably plays a role in many bouts of unrest, especially the ones that emerge from or evolve into sustained action like we’re seeing right now in Hong Kong and Ferguson.

Still, a riot over the weekend at a pumpkin festival in semi-rural Keene, New Hampshire, reminds us that you don’t need those big issues or themes to get to social unrest. According to the L.A. Times, in Keene,

Young people chucked beer cans and cups at each otherjumped off roofstore down, kicked and smashed road signsset a large fire and chanted profanitycelebrated on top of a flipped cartook selfies in front of lines of riot policegot the attention of a police helicopterchanted “U-S-A!”pushed barricades and threw a street sign at policethrew bottles at the police after the police threw tear gas, and left behind a huge mess.

Why? Who knows, but the main ingredients in this instance seem to have been youth, alcohol, numbers, and the pleasure of transgression:

The description of the scene in Keene reminded me of the riots that sometimes erupt in college towns and sports-mad cities after big games, some of which have proven extremely destructive. These riots differ qualitatively from the rallies, marches, sit-ins, and the like that social scientists generally study. For two things, they usually aren’t planned in advance, and the participants aren’t making political claims. Still, I think our understanding of those ostensibly more political forms of collective action suffers when we make our causal narratives too tidy and ignore the forces that also produce these other kinds of outbursts.

2. Contagion is one of those forces that seems to operate across many forms of unrest. We’re sure that’s true, but we still don’t understand very well how that process works. Observers often use dominoes as a metaphor for contagion, implying that a given unit must fall in order for the cascade to pass through it.

A new paper on arXiv proposes another mechanism that allows the impulse to “hop” some units—in other words, to pass through them without producing the same type of event or effect. Instead of dominoes, contagion might work more like a virus that some people can catch and transmit without ever becoming symptomatic themselves. The authors think this mechanism could help to explain the timing and sequencing of protests in the Arab Spring:

In models of protests and revolutions, populations can have two stable equilibria—the size of the protest is either large or negligibly small—because of strategic complementarities (protest becomes more attractive as more people protest). During the Arab Spring, each country had unique grievances and agendas, and we hypothesize that each country had a unique proximity to a tipping point beyond which people would protest. Once protests began in one country (Tunisia), inspiration to protest spread to other countries via traditional media (such as newspapers) and via social media (such as Twitter and Facebook). This cross-border communication spread strategies for successful uprisings, and it increased expectations for success. Consequently, the uprisings began within a short window of time, seemingly cascading among countries more quickly than earlier revolutions did.

In coarse-grained data on the number of Facebook friendships between countries, we find evidence of the “cascade hopping” phenomenon described above. In particular, Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear to play the role of an intermediate country Y that propagated influence to protest from protesting countries to non-protesting countries, thereby helping to trigger protest in the latter countries, without themselves protesting until much later. Attributes of these intermediate countries and of the countries that they may have influenced to protest suggest that protests first spread to countries close to their tipping points (high unemployment and economic inequality) and strongly coupled to other countries via social media (measured as high Internet penetration). By contrast, we find that traditional measures of susceptibility to protest, such as political freedoms and food price indices, could not predict the order in which protests began.

As with the structural and dynamic stuff discussed around this weekend’s riot in Keene, this hopping mechanism will never be the only force at work in any instance of social unrest. Even so, it’s a useful addition to the set of processes we ought to consider whenever we try to explain or predict where and when other instances might happen.

Thoughts on the Power of Civil Resistance

“People power” is a blunt and in some ways soft instrument. Activists engaged in mass protest are usually seeking formal changes in the rules or leadership of organizations to which they do not belong or in which their votes are not counted. Unfortunately for them, there is no clear or direct mechanism for converting the energy of the street into the production of those changes.

Once nonviolent action begins, however, state repression becomes a blunt instrument, too. The varied and often discreet routines states use to prevent challenges from emerging become mostly irrelevant. Instead, states must switch to a repertoire of clumsier and less familiar actions with larger and more immediate consequences.

The awkwardness of this response turns out to be the mechanism that converts people power into change, or at least the possibility for it. States thrive on routines around which they can build bureaucracies and normalize public expectations. Activists who succeed at mobilizing and sustaining mass challenges force the state onto less familiar footing, where those bureaucracies’ routines don’t apply and public expectations are weakly formed. In so doing, activists instill uncertainty in the minds of officials who must respond and of the observers of these interactions.

Responses to that uncertainty don’t always break in favor of the challengers, but they can. Insiders who comfortably played supporting roles before must consider what will happen to them if the challenge succeeds and how they might shape that future in their own favor. Other observers, foreign and domestic, may become newly energized or at least sympathetic, and even small alterations in the behaviors of those individuals can accumulate into large changes in the behavior of the public writ large. Importantly, these responses are more likely to break in favor of the challengers when those challengers manage to sustain nonviolence, even in the face of state repression.

Activists cannot control the reactions catalyzed by this uncertainty, but neither can the state. The result is an opportunity, a roll of the dice that would not have happened in the absence of the public challenge. And, really, that’s the point. That opportunity is not a sufficient condition for deep change, but it is a necessary one, and it almost never arises without a provocation.

How the Umbrella Revolution Could Win

I’m watching Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” from afar and wondering how an assemblage of unarmed students and professionals might succeed in wresting change from a dictatorship that has consistently and ruthlessly repressed other challenges to its authority for decades. I have already said that I expect the state to repress again and think it unlikely that China’s Communist regime will bend sharply or break in response to this particular challenge at this particular moment. But unlikely doesn’t mean impossible, and, like many observers, I hope for something better.

How could something better happen? For me, Kurt Schock’s Unarmed Insurrections remains the single most-useful source on this topic. In that 2005 book, Schock compares successful and failed “people power” movements from the late twentieth century to try to identify patterns that distinguish the former from the latter. Schock clearly sympathizes with the nonviolent protesters whose actions he describes, but that sympathy seems to motivate him to make his analysis as rigorous as possible in hopes of learning something that might inform future movements.

Schock’s overarching conclusion is that structure is not destiny—that movement participants can improve their odds of success through the strategies and tactics they choose. In this he echoes the findings of his mentors, who argued in a 1996 book (p. 15) that “movements may be largely born of environmental opportunities, but their fate is heavily shaped by their own actions.” Schock’s theoretical framework is also openly influenced by the pragmatic advocacy of Gene Sharp, but his analysis confirms the basic tenets of that approach.

So, which strategies and tactics improve the odds of movement success? On this, Schock writes (p. 143, emphasis added):

The trajectories of unarmed insurrections are shaped by the extent to which interactions between challengers, the state, and third parties produce shifts in the balance of power. The probability that an unarmed insurrection will tip the balance of power in favor of the challengers is a function of its resilience and leverage. By remaining resilient in the face of repression and effecting the withdrawal of support from or pressure against the state through its dependence relations, the state’s capacity to rule may be diminished, third-party support for the movement may be mobilized, and the coherence of the political or military elite may fracture, that is, the political context may be recast to one more favorable to the challenge.

Resilience refers to the movement’s capacity to keep mobilizing and acting in the face of attempts to repress or disperse it. Leverage refers to the movement’s ability to get constituencies on whose support the regime depends—security forces, local business and political leaders, labor groups, sometimes foreign governments and markets—to support their cause, either directly, through participation or the provision of other resources, or indirectly, through pressure on the regime to reform or concede.

On makes movements resilient, Schock’s analysis points (p. 143) to “decentralized yet coordinated organizational networks, the ability to implement multiple actions from across the three methods of nonviolent action [protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention], the ability to implement methods of dispersion as well as methods of concentration, and tactical innovation.”

Schock concludes his study with a list of six lessons that nonviolent challengers might draw from successes of the past about how to improve their own odds of success. Paraphrased and summarized, those six lessons are:

  • Set clear and limited goals. “The goals of movements should be well chosen, clearly defined, and understood by all parties to the conflict. The goals should be compelling and vital to the interests of the challenging group, and they should attract the widest possible support, both within society and externally… Precise goals give direction to the power activated by a movement and inhibit the dispersion of mobilized energies and resources.”
  • Adopt oppositional consciousness and build temporary organizations. “Oppositional consciousness is open-ended, nontotalizing, and respectful of diversity, and it facilitates the mobilization of a broad-based opposition.” Oppositional consciousness also “rejects permanent, centralized organizations and vanguard parties, opting for united front politics, shifting alliances, and temporary organizations that engage in struggles as situations arise.”
  • Engage in multiple channels of resistance. Here, Schock focuses on the value of pairing actions through institutional (e.g., elections) and non-institutional (e.g., street demonstrations) channels. In other words, attack on as many fronts as possible.
  • Employ multiple methods of nonviolent action. “Struggles for political change should not depend on a single event, however momentous, but rather should focus on the process of shifting the balance of political power through a range of mutually supporting actions over time.”
  • Act in multiple spaces and places of resistance. In addition to public rallies and demonstrations, activists can employ methods of non-cooperation (e.g., strikes and boycotts) and try to create “liberated areas” outside the state’s control. (Nowadays, these areas might exist online as well as in physical space.)
  • Communicate. “Communication among the challengers, accurate public knowledge about the movement, and international media coverage all increase the likelihood of success.”

Looking at the umbrella revolution through that lens, I’d say it is doing all of these things already—self-consciously, I would guess—and those actions seem to be having the desired effects of expanding local and international support for their movement and improving its resilience. Just today, the movement reiterated an ambitious but clear and limited set of goals that are positive and broadly appealing. Activists are working cooperatively through an array of organizations. They have built communications networks that are designed to withstand all but the most draconian attempts to shut them down. Participants are using the internet to spread knowledge about their movement, and a bevy of foreign reporters in Hong Kong are amplifying that message. The possible exception comes in the limited range of actions the movement is using. At the moment, the challenge seems to be heavily invested in the occupation of public spaces. That may change, however, as the movement persists or if and when it is confronted with even harsher repression.

More important, this uprising was not born last Friday. The longer arc of this challenge includes a much wider array of methods and spaces, including this summer’s referendum and the marches and actions of political and business elites that accompanied and surrounded them. As Jeff Wasserstrom described in a recent interview with Vox, the Occupy Central movement also connects to a longer history of pro-democracy dissent in Hong Kong under Beijing’s rule and beyond. In other words, this movement is much bigger and more deeply rooted than the occupations we’re witnessing right now, and it has already proved resilient to repeated attempts to quash it.

As Schock and Sharp and many others would argue, those shrewd choices and that resiliency do not ensure success, but they should improve prospects for it. Based on patterns from similar moments around the world in recent decades and the Communist Party of China’s demonstrated intolerance for popular challenges, I continue to anticipate that the ongoing occupations will soon face even harsher attempts to repress them than the relatively modest ones we saw last weekend. Perhaps that won’t happen, though, and if it does, I am optimistic that the larger movement will survive that response and eventually realize its goals, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Occupy Central and the Rising Risk of New Mass Atrocities in China

This is a cross-post from the blog of the Early Warning Project, which I currently direct. The Early Warning Project concentrates on risks of mass atrocities, but this post also draws on my longstanding interest in democratization and social unrest, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Activists have massed by the thousands in central Hong Kong for the past several days in defiance of repeated attempts to disperse them and menacing words from Beijing. This demonstration and the wider Occupy Central movement from which it draws poses one of the sharpest public challenges to Communist Party authority since the Tiananmen Square uprising 25 years ago. In so doing, it clearly raises the risk of a new mass atrocities in China.

Photo credit: AP via BBC News

Photo credit: AP via BBC News

The demonstrations underway now are really just the latest surge in a wave of activism that began in Hong Kong earlier this year. Under the “one country, two systems” framework to which China committed when it regained sovereignty over the then–UK colony in 1997, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a great deal of autonomy over local governance. This summer, however, Beijing issued a white paper affirming the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and it blocked plans for open nominations in local elections due in 2017. Those actions spurred (and were spurred by) an unofficial referendum and a mass pro-democracy rally that eventually ebbed from the streets but left behind a strengthened civic movement.

The ongoing demonstrations began with a student boycott of classes a week ago, but they escalated sharply on Friday, when activists began occupying key public spaces in central Hong Kong. Police have made several forceful attempts to disperse or remove the protesters, and official channels have said publicly that Beijing “firmly opposes all illegal activities that could undermine rule of law and jeopardise ‘social tranquility'” in Hong Kong. So far, however, the occupations have proved resilient to those thrusts and threats.

Many observers are now openly wondering how this confrontation will end. For those sympathetic to the protesters, the fear is that Beijing will respond with lethal force, as it did at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

As it happens, the Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessments do not identify China as a country at relatively high risk of state-led mass killing this year. Partly because of that, we do not currently have a question open on our opinion pool that covers this situation. (Our lone China question focuses on the risk of state-led mass atrocities targeting Uyghurs.)

If we did have a relevant question open on our opinion pool, however, I would be raising my estimate of the risk of a state-led mass killing in response to these developments. I still don’t expect that one will occur, but not because I anticipate that Beijing will concede to the protesters’ demands. Rather, I expect violent repression, but I also doubt that it will cross the 1,000-death threshold we and others use to distinguish episodes of mass killing from smaller-scale and more routine atrocities.

State-led mass killings as we define them usually occur when incumbent rulers perceive potentially existential threats to their authority. Following leading theories on the subject, our statistical analysis concentrates on armed insurgencies and coups as the forms those threats typically take. Authoritarian governments often suppress swelling demonstrations with violence as well, but those crackdowns rarely kill as many as 1,000 nonviolent protesters, who usually disperse long before that threshold is reached. Even the Tiananmen Square massacre probably fell short of this threshold, killing “only” hundreds of activists before achieving the regime’s goal of dispersing the occupation and setting an example that would frighten future dissenters.

Instead, violent state crackdowns usually push countries onto one of three other pathways before they produce more than 1,000 fatalities: 1) they succeed at breaking the uprising and essentially restore the status quo ante (e.g., China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005Burma in 2007, and Thailand in 2010); 2) they suppress the nonviolent challenge but, in so doing, help to spawn a violent rebellion that may or may not be met with a mass killing of its own (e.g., Syria since 2011); or 3) they catalyze splits in state security forces or civilian rulers that lead to negotiations, reforms, or regime collapse (e.g., Egypt and Tunisia in 2011). In short, nonviolent uprisings usually lose, transform, or win before the attempts to suppress them amount to what we would call a state-led mass killing.

In Hong Kong right now, the first path—successful repression—appears to be the most likely. Chinese Communist Party leaders have spoken openly in recent years about trying to learn from the mistakes that led to collapse of the Soviet Union, and the mixed signals that were sent to early risers in the USSR—some protests were repressed, but others were allowed to run their course or met with modest concessions—probably rank high on their list of things to avoid. Those Party leaders also know that activists and separatists elsewhere in China are closely watching events in Hong Kong and would probably take encouragement from anything short of a total defeat for Occupy Central. These considerations generate strong incentives to try to quash the current challenge.

In contrast, the second of those three trajectories—a transformation to violent insurgency in response to state repression—seems highly unlikely. Protesters have shown a strong commitment to nonviolence so far and have strategic as well as ideological reasons to continue to do so; after all, the People’s Liberation Army is about as formidable a foe as they come. Brutal state repression might radicalize some survivors and inspire other onlookers, but Hong Kong is a wealthy, urban enclave with minimal access to arms, so a turn toward violent rebellion would face tall structural obstacles.

The third of those trajectories also seems unlikely, albeit somewhat less so than the second. The Communist Party currently faces several profound challenges: a slowing rate of economic growth and widespread concern about a looming financial crisis; an escalating insurgency in Xinjiang; and an epidemic of local protests over pollution, to name just a few. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is creating new fissures within the country’s ruling class, and rumors of dissent within the military have swirled occasionally in the past two years as well. As I discussed in a recent blog post, consolidated single-party regimes like China’s usually weather these kinds of challenges. When they do break down, however, it almost always happens in times like these, when worried insiders start to fight among themselves and form alliances with emboldened popular challengers.

Put those considerations together, and it seems that Beijing is most likely to respond to Occupy Central with a crackdown that could be lethal but probably will not cross the 1,000-death threshold we use to distinguish episodes of mass killing from more routine political violence. It seems less likely but still possible that the prospect or occurrence of such a crackdown will catalyze the kinds of elite splits that could finally produce significant political reform or sustained instability in China. Under none of these circumstances would I expect the challenge in Hong Kong to evolve into an armed rebellion that might produce a new wave of atrocities of its own.

No matter what the immediate outcome, though, it seems increasingly clear that China has entered a period of “thickened history,” as Marc Beissinger calls it, in which national politics will remain more eventful and less certain for some time to come.

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