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Structural Factors and Arab Revolt

Photo by Wikimedia user Rais67.

Photo by Wikimedia user Rais67.

By Taylor Marvin

One of the prevailing views of the Arab protests, as well as those in Iran in the aftermath of 2009’s rigged election, is that increased connection to the internet was the change that made mass protest in the Middle East possible. There’s a lot of truth to this- Facebook and Twitter have been extremely important means of communication between demonstrators, and the Mubarak’s regime made a huge mistake in shutting the internet, forcing Egyptians to air their grievances in the street rather than online. But calling internet penetration the main factor that made unprecedented social uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt happen for the first time in decades is likely mistaken. Why? Because these countries aren’t that out of the ordinary- but both Tunisia and Egypt rank fairly low in Internet use among Arab countries:

Interestingly, Tunisian internet penetration is just above the world average while Egypt’s is is far lower. Iran, another site of recent large, if unsuccessful, pro-democracy demonstrations, is also fairly middle-ranking compared to the rest of the region.

How about availability of mobile phones, another valuable communication tool?

Something similar seems to be going on here. Again, Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran aren’t fairly high ranking. Communication technology is certainly important to the success of protest movements, but it isn’t a magical switch that suddenly makes large social movements possible. There’s something else in Tunisian and Egyptian society that made the events of last month possible for the first time in recent history. Interestingly, Yemen’s protesters have been much more successful than either of these technological indicators would seem to suggest.

On a different note, high Egyptian unemployment is also being offered as a root cause of urban Arabs’s discontent. Unemployment is high throughout the Arab world, but probably isn’t the sole motivation for Egyptian protest because unemployment actually isn’t particularly high in Egypt. Interestingly, while Tunisian unemployment is particularly high, Egypt’s rankings are actually fairly low for the region. Fewer countries are shown in this graph because of scarcer data for this indicator:

You can’t read too much into these statistics- clearly, the sudden emergence of large protests in the Arab world are an immensely complex phenomenon it will take a very long time to fully understand. But a lot in the internet prevalence and unemployment narratives is wrong, simply because if you look only at communication technology penetration statistics the revolution shouldn’t have been led by Tunisia and Egypt. While structural trends are clearly important to the emergence of protest movements, I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the effect of public confidence in the regime. For authoritatian governments public recognition of their durability is legitimacy, and when the self-immoliation of Mohamed Bouaziz led to the completely unexpected and sudden fall of Ben Ali’s regime the effective, if not formally defined, legitimacy of all Arab rulers collapsed. In many ways the Arab uprising is most similar to the democratization of Argentina in 1983. The legitimacy of the Argentine military dictatorship was based on its presumed military competence, and when the Argentine military publicly failed in the Falklands War this legitimacy failed. It was immediately obvious to all Argentines that if the military government wasn’t able to defend the country then it wasn’t competent at any sphere of governance. Like the Arab protests, Argentines’ disgust with their government was motivated by its atrocities, economic incompetence, and obvious failure to improve the life of ordinary citizens. But it took a firm demonstration of the regime’s vulnerability to permanently remove its legitimacy. Authoritarian regimes try to cement their legitimacy by creating a narrative of competence, whether assuring stability in Egypt, military prowess in Argentina, or economic growth in China. When this competence faces a test and fails the legitimacy it provides can collapse. Structural factors are important, but they aren’t everything.

If it seems like I’m doing a lot of graph posts it’s because Google public data explorer is awesome.

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