Published Feb 22, 2011

It’s been really exciting watching the revolutions in the Middle East — change in Tunisia and Egypt has opened up the possibility of living in an exciting new world. It’s been particularly intriguing for me, since I specialized in revolutions as an undergrad. Sadly, I had little to say about the whole Tahrir Square deal, since said specialization pretty much included studies of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, but not much time at all on the Middle East. So I just didn’t know a lot about the specifics. However, now things seem to be spreading. And I know quite a great deal about spread of revoulution!(Mmm, spread. Makes me want bread and butter.)So, why the revolutions now? And, will they spread?

Let Me Pimp Myself Here

I was a double major in college — Poli Sci and Psych — and merged the two by writing a senior thesis asking “why do individuals join revolutionary groups?” There were two parts to that thesis — the thesis itself and the literature review that drove the experiment outlined in the thesis. Unfortunately, all I learned in the thesis was that you should figure out if your best friend has a raging methamphetamine addiction before asking them to blind-code your data. However, I did learn a ton writing that literature review. For this here blog entry, I’m going to draw on the perspectives outlined therein.So I have this diagram — sadly only available in very-low-quality format — that kind of explains how these things work. Here is my information design achievement:
Yeah, sorry again about that quality. And the hyphenation on the first decision point.Anyway, let’s walk through this for your typical resident of the Middle East and North Africa:
  1. The individual begins to perceive themselves as deprived, relative to comparable others. This is exactly what we saw happen in Egypt — Egyptians had their (subsidized) cost of living go up, and felt they were doing worse compared to others that they saw on Al Jazeera and also themselves, just a few months previous.
  2. Existing — and, in some states, worsening — poverty made the cost to join the revolution fairly low. At the same time the authoritarian state’s aggressive response to that revolution actually increased the cost of exit — or, maybe better said, decreased the benefit of exit — by making the individual vulnerable to retaliation for past participation in the revolutionary group.
  3. Citizens of Arab states have 50 years of practice with being extrapunitive — they’ve been taught to blame all their ills on Israel. This may have been convenient to those who ran their states for that time, but it also meant that, when things got bad, those citizens wouldn’t think “I need to work harder,” they’d think “things outside me need to change”
  4. Again, the rulers of Arab states have inculcated their populace with collective orientation, under the badge of Arab Nationalism. They worked together to throw out the colonizers; they worked together to fight the Israelis; they even worked together to collectively own large businesses and key assets like the Suez Canal.
  5. And there’s been a withdrawal of legitimacy. The existing governments of most Arab states drew legitimacy from past acts — resistance to colonizers, wresting power from feudal rulers, fighting Israel (and, for Egypt, winning in 1972), monopolizing the oil industry — but none of these are new, and none took place in the last two decades. For Arabs in their teens and twenties, they’ve never actually seen their governments do any of the things that they’re supposed to be proud of their governments for doing.
Follow that down the diagram and you get revolution!

So What’s Next?

What’s next depends on a lot of things. Our leaders worried about the “domino effect” in Southeast Asia through the 1950s and ’60s. The theory was that these countries all shared a set of traits that ensured that, as soon as one went Communist, that would destabilize the non-Communist governments in the other states and result in them adopting Communist governments.Does the Arab world contain just such dominoes? Well, again, we have a low-quality diagram from my senior thesis that explains it all:
And again, let’s walk through it:
  1. The individual identifies not just as a solitary person but as a part of a larger group. This needs to be a strong, meaningful, primary identification.
  2. The group frames reality in a manner that defines and explains the current situation as unjust.
  3. This leads the individual to become discontent with the current power structure and their role in that structure
  4. The group challenges the description of reality that gives legitimacy to the existing powers. (Typically, they frame reality in a way that gives legitimacy to some other power or organization.)
  5. The regime loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
  6. If the individual is collectively-oriented, and the individual perceives membership in the group as at least as important as the things the group frames as just and valid, then they participate in revolution.
So, what will happen next? Well, that really depends on the legitimizing frame for the existing regime, the injustice frame communicated by the group, and the degree to which the average citizen of a given state identifies with, and is oriented towards, that group.Let’s take it state-by-state. Traveling vaguely from west to east, we have:
  • Morocco
  • Algeria
  • Libya
  • Syria
  • Jordan
  • Yemen
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Bahrain
  • Iran


Morocco’s an interesting case. The ruling dynasty successfully aligned itself with Arab nationalism in the ’50s — in fact, you could say that they defined Arab nationalism starting in the 16th century — and have cultivated the perception of a progressive, liberal, capitalist state. To the extent that frame is perceived as accurate, it can’t be effectively challenged by frames stressing personal rights, empowerment, an end to corruption, and Islamic law, like those seen in Egypt. The disjunction of Islamic law vs. non-Islamic-centered law is not strong enough to prevent those two frames from overlapping, unless the citizens begin to identify as Muslims or Muslims of the Maghreb, rather than Moroccans.


Algeria rode the Arab nationalist wave to eventual victory in a long, bloody war that separated that country from colonial ruler France (and brought down the French 4th Republic). From the ’60s to the ’90s, the revolutionary, nationalist FLN ran the country as a one-party state. In the early ’90s, the FLN attempted to bring the country to multiparty democracy, but the military took over government after Islamist parties seemed headed to win the elections. (Ironically, the Islamist parties seemingly proposed to end democracy if they won and establish a unitary Islamic state.)Since that time, the Algerian government has effectively liberalized and used various military and social tools to marginalize the radical Islamists, and has built a multiparty or, depending on one’s outlook, somewhat-more-than-one-party state. Nonetheless, continual violence since the War of Liberation and continued economic mediocrity certainly must create a perception of relative deprivation, which some parties translate into an injustice frame. Whether or not the limited multiparty structure of the state means that power discontent is translated not into the withdrawal of legitimacy of the state but, instead, political change within the system, depends on the perceived legitimacy of the state and the frame of its leaders.


One of the challenges of revolution is that meaningful revolutions tend to eat their young — in Russia, France, Cambodia, India, and other major revolutions, the structure and momentum of the change that was created led to the increasing empowerment of radicals and the concomitant disempowerment and assassination of moderates. Libya under Gadhaffi has tried to avoid that fate by opting for “perpetual revolution,” or a political structure that attempts to concentrate agents of philosophical change in centralized positions while continually breaking down and rebuilding peripheral organizations using varying levels of violence, in order to continually advance society and prevent the creation of power bases outside the central presidium while, by successive approximations, increasing the reach and actualization of the basic philosophy of the key central agents.This strategy worked well in Mao’s China, but it requires the leadership to continuously create a frame that delegitimizes the status quo. Mao was prepared to arrest change and insert a new frame by killing, between 1 and 20 million Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. The legitimizing frame that Mao was able to reintroduce by stages during the Cultural Revolution ensured his own power and required others’ use of violence and excess. It’s not clear if the members of the Libyan armed forces are susceptible to accepting such a frame; reports of defections suggest that they’re accepting a frame that challenges Gadhaffi’s legitimizing frame.If the people with the tanks and the airplanes perceive the current situation as potentially illegitimate philosophically and illegitimate in that it’s unable to protect their status as they protect the state, then change is rapid. (See: Egypt.) It appears that Libya is quite vulnerable to this kind of situation. Couldn’t happen to a nicer Socialist People’s Arab Jamahiriya


Syria has two things going for it:
  • The answer to “what did you do for me lately” is “we de facto absorbed Lebanon, and kind of beat Israel in doing it.” That’s not a bad thing to have in your back pocket if your legitmizing frame has to do with struggle vs. Israel and the greater glory of Greater Syria.
  • The shift to Bashar Assad, after his father Hafez passed away, gave the regime the opportunity to shift policy without having to delegitimize the previous legitimizing frame, à la Libya.
Together, I suspect those, plus the strong degree to which residents of Syria identify as members of a group called Syrians, should keep Syria the way it is now… at least for a while.


Jordan also has a lot going for its current regime, although a completely different package of things than its neighbor Syria. Jordanians already established, a long time ago, what it means to be Jordanian, and that fairly strong group identification — with the concomitant identification of the Hashemites as at least a philosophical leader — should militate against Jordanians identifying with an anti-regime group, and also ensures that the regime’s legitimizing frame is not associated too strongly with any specific state of affairs.


Yemen’s a tough one, particularly because, in many ways, the residents of Yemen seem to have a weak identification as members of the group of Yemenis — especially for rural Yemenis, local allegiances are much stronger. This certainly makes it easier for individuals to identify with outgroups that possess frames that challenge the regime’s legitimizing frame.However, with so much of the state run through personal relationships, that provides a lot of mechanisms for local leadership to manipulate identification with the local group and provide locally-relevant frames that perpetuate the status quo. This is a frequent tool of one-party states and one of the big advantages of such states in delivering legitimacy. Whether or not this is enough for Yemen is hard to say, but certainly Saleh’s power rests not on the acceptance of the masses but on the assent of the state’s traditional, quasi-feudal power structures. Yemen’s a different game than elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Islamic state structure should effectively cut revolution off at the pass — no outgroup can adopt a frame that delegitimizes the state based upon insufficient application of Islamic law, as they can in most other states. This means that only a more liberal group could challenge state legitimacy, and, frankly, that doesn’t strike me as the trend.


Bahrain has been the site of substantial violence, a lot of which comes from the fact that the ruling class identifies as being as members of a different group than do the residents of the country. Currently, the ruling class is perceived as being legitimate, even as specific policies are seen to be wrong. We’ve progressed up to Power Discontent and stopped there. The most likely outcome is the elevation of a younger family member to the throne in fairly rapid order, which will shift the state’s legitimizing frame just slightly and leave some room to decrease the discontent. Eventually, a structure will be created that ensures the wealth of the ruling family and the power of the citizens, much as in Britain. If everyone’s smart about it.


Ahh, Iran. Everyone hopes that we see a return of the people to the streets, the destabilization of the state, a liberal, democratic regime. Sorry, not this year. Did you miss the revolution they had already? The one where they switched from an (odd, halfway) parliamentary democracy to a fascist regime? Oh, you did because we liked to call their weird partly-democratic state “Islamo-fascist” for propaganda purposes. Well, they weren’t fascist, now they are — military, quasi-military, nationalist, corporatist, aggressive. There’s no power discontent among in-power groups, no injustice frame except for among the people who just lost power. And that’s nothing new. The legitimacy of the regime remains.

And Obama Fiddled While Rome Burnt

There’s a message in the popular press that Obama should “do something” to “encourage democracy.” Good luck with that! All of the important inputs to these crises were created over the past 30 years. If we’ve learned anything about the politics of the Middle East, it’s that we can’t change the enmities built up over 5000 years in three decades, why should we be able to address three decades in just a few days?Really, all the groups are formed, what discontent exists is there and has been created by policies that have existed for years, frames have been communicated over years and dozens of group interactions… there’s nothing we can do about the revolutionary groups.The only lever Obama has is over the incumbent leadership there: if some of the key benefits of power are derived from the support of the US, as with Egypt, then he can make it clear that we’d never support leaders who used violence against their people. This could work on, say, Egypt, or possibly even Bahrain. It wouldn’t work on Libya or Syria, which don’t need us, and, at the end of the day, I’d be shocked if the Saudis care.So what should we do? I guess make sure that Facebook keeps running. That’s about all we can do. This is one of those times when we’re not the center of the world, when we can’t make anything happen.

The Real Problem

Like I said at the beginning, in the ’50s and ’60s we all thought that Communist victory in Vietnam would bring all of Southeast Asia into the Soviet orbit. And it did cause the fall of royalist regimes in Laos and Cambodia; but it stopped there. Why? Because the Thais loved their King. Because, in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos either bought or killed his opponents. Because, in Indonesia, Suharto didn’t worry about that buying option and just straight up killed everybody who was even slightly Red.Is there a Suharto in the Middle East today, somebody who has the strength of will to destroy a popular movement? And would that even be good for us?That’s the real problem — we’re just along for the ride. We have no Suharto because we didn’t create one (we created Suharto). Who knows if the awful things that happened in Southeast Asia in the ’50s and ’60s at the behest of our government were worth it, but they certainly were part of a larger strategy to arrest Communism. But we have no Middle East strategy.No, “support Israel” isn’t a strategy, it’s an activity. A strategy is a plan to get you somewhere, and includes a detailed description of that somewhere. The last time we had a Middle East strategy was when Carter brought Sadat and Begin to Camp David. “Support Israel” says “we’re here, we like how things are, let’s keep them this way.” Well, as they say, changes aren’t permanent, but change is.Sure, there’s a vague concept that the Future Middle East is filled with democratic, states. Unfortunately, when we get one of those, we actually don’t like it so much. We kept our armed forces in Iraq until we’d destroyed the structures behind the radical Islamic parties there, and only then gave power back to the country’s residents. And when the Palestinians held free and fair elections and put Hamas in power, well, we just cut off aid and let them starve and die of disease. Nope, democracy apparently isn’t our cup of tea when it involves empowering groups with agendas different from ours.Unfortunately, while we’ve been passively defining our goals as not-things-we-hate, the radical Islamists have been actively reshaping the Middle East. They’ve set up circumstances and group structures that will tend to empower them. And we — let’s be honest — fear that.Fortunately, we needn’t fear it so much. Sure, there’s the threat of terrorism, but the Rooskies had nukes, which make a much bigger boom. And we have secret weapons: Hollywood and McDonalds’. If there’s one thing that even the post-industrial America is good at, it’s cultural imperialism. It’s not just the Russians who want to be us these days — even the French do! We just need to continue to preach not a religion but the gospel of prosperity and indulgence (not the prosperity gospel). Heck, we’ve already started winning — all the Arabs watch Al Jazeera, and who knew they needed a 24-hour cable news network? (The lesson here is that Ted Turner may be the great modern American imperialist.)So this is an exciting month, and it will mean great things for the Middle East and for the average Arab, but, as we see changes happen now — and much scarier, much slower changes happen over the next couple of years — we need to remember: we’re in this for the long haul. We can fight for 50 years to win again if we have to. Because we’d better be at least that patient, China’s got a 500-year plan and they’ll take us to school out in the 2400s unless we start to step it up.