Stephen M. Walt

What I got wrong about the Arab revolutions and why I’m not losing sleep over it

I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and for the most part I’m satisfied with what I’ve had to say. But no social science theory is 100 percent accurate, and no social scientist is right 100 percent of the time, especially when reacting to rapidly moving events. Anybody who writes a ...


I’ve been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and for the most part I’m satisfied with what I’ve had to say. But no social science theory is 100 percent accurate, and no social scientist is right 100 percent of the time, especially when reacting to rapidly moving events. Anybody who writes a blog and sticks their neck out is going to get a few big things wrong, which is why I tell prospective bloggers to start with a thick skin.

Case in point: My post on why the revolution in Tunisia would not spread. To say my prediction was wrong is an understatement, and some of the usual critics have seized on this opportunity to take a shot or two. Fair enough, but when I look back at what I actually wrote, I don’t feel particularly embarrassed. After all, I began by noting that revolutionary events are inherently hard to forecast (for reasons that other scholars had already identified), and the actual post (as opposed to the provocative headline) made it clear I didn’t think contagion was impossible, just unlikely.

Moreover, I still think my reasons for being skeptical about the possibility of contagion were cogent, even if my forecast was clearly wrong in this instance. Large-scale protests are hardly a rare occurrence in many parts of the world, but the vast majority of them do not lead governments to fall. And when a government is toppled, most of the time this does not lead to similar upheavals elsewhere, and certainly not within a few days or weeks. My original prediction was off the mark, but it would have been correct in most cases.

But not this time, which raises the obvious question: Why was this case an exception? What did I miss? Because we still don’t know exactly why and how the upheaval in Tunisia caught fire so quickly, what follows is inevitably speculative. But with that caveat in mind, here’s where I think I blew it.

First, although everyone knew that authoritarian regimes like the Mubarak government in Egypt were unpopular, I underestimated the degree of internal resentment. Of course, as Timur Kuran and others have shown, that is precisely why it is impossible to predict the timing of a revolutionary upheaval: Citizens in an autocracy won’t express their true preferences (and especially their propensity to rebel) openly because doing so is dangerous. This tendency for what Kuran calls "preference falsification" makes it impossible for anyone to know exactly how likely a revolution might be. But with hindsight, it’s clear that resentment against some of these governments was deeper and wider than we recognized.

Second, it now seems likely many commentators — including yours truly — were unaware of the level of anti-government organization that had already taken place in places like Egypt, and it seems clear that the Mubarak government didn’t know about it either. Massive yet disciplined street demonstrations don’t occur entirely by accident, and we now know that young activists had been quietly mobilizing and organizing long before the Tunisian revolt lit the fuse. Given Egypt’s central place in Arab politics, Mubarak’s unexpected ouster fueled the perception that change was possible elsewhere, thereby fueling similar responses elsewhere.

Third, the role of the media — and especially new media — cannot be discounted, if only because it facilitated that pre-revolutionary organizing just discussed. Even a smart Internet skeptic like Evgeny Morozov has acknowledged this point, though he questions how widespread this tendency will be. Here I think a lot more research and reportage will be needed before we know exactly what role the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, etc. really played, along with cell phones and Al Jazeera. I’d still be wary of generalizing too much, if only because other dictatorships may be more adept at managing these technologies than Mubarak & Co. were. Nonetheless, I now think my initial skepticism reflected an inadequate appreciation for how these technologies could facilitate revolutionary contagion, at least under some circumstances.

Fourth, one of the most surprising aspects of these various revolts has been the brittleness, indecision, and lack of resolve displayed by many of these ruling regimes, including their security forces. Egypt’s security police were withdrawn from the field after a day or two of inconclusive violence, and the armed forces quickly decided they were unwilling to use force majeure against the demonstrators in order to keep Mubarak in power. More force was used in Bahrain, but only briefly. In other words, the demonstrators have not been dealing with the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or even a Hafez al-Assad, all of whom were willing to shed buckets of their own countrymen’s blood in order to retain power. The partial exception thus far is Libya, but Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown seems to be backfiring and if anything may have accelerated the disintegration of his regime. Does this suggest that the so-called "rights revolution" has begun to permeate the institutions of coercion in more and more countries? I don’t know, but it’s a fascinating possibility.

Finally, I underestimated the sense of common identification and cultural resonance that made events in one Arab country significant for many people in others. Despite the many differences between these various states, a certain broad sense of cultural identification (i.e., as Arab) seems to have made each country more responsive to what people was seeing in other countries. I suspect that Al Jazeera amplified this sense of identification in various ways, and while I can’t prove it, there is some survey evidence that supports that view. For Arabs, the fact that the initial spark was struck in Tunisia made it far more significant than a similar event in Bolivia or Burma would have been.

All that said, I don’t think I got everything wrong. As noted above, I emphasized that these sorts of events are inherently unpredictable, and so are their ultimate outcomes. I’ve also stressed that it will take time before we know how these events will turn out or what the broader implications for the region (and for U.S. interests) will be. I’m still inclined to think that the outcomes are going to vary considerably because the contending forces in each case are far from identical. And we should remain open to the possibility that 2011 could be, to paraphrase Trevelyan, "a great turning point in [Arab] history, at which history fails to turn" (at least in some of these countries).

So while I’m not boasting about my clairvoyance (which would be pretty silly in this case, though not in some others), I’m not losing any sleep either. As my favorite Yogi said: "Prediction is very hard. Especially about the future."

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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