Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on 14th January 2011 after mass protests and demonstrations calling for his immediate resignation and demanding freedom and jobs. In Egypt, President of thirty years Hosni Mubarak was forced from office on 11th February after protests in Cairo and other cities, leaving the military in temporary control. Muammar Gaddafi, leader of Libya since 1969, is currently struggling to hang onto power through the wave of protests that has seen the second city, Benghazi, and much of the Eastern part of the country fall to opposition groups. Most commentators suggest that he will be forced out eventually. In Yemen, demonstrations have taken place and the President has announced he will not stand again nor will power pass to his son, and protests have also taken place in Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco. So far, Syria and Saudi Arabia seem to have escaped this wave of unrest. [See here for a BBC event timeline.]
No one can fail to be surprised by the rapid spread of the protests across North Africa and the Middle East and the removal of long-established autocratic leaders and the collapse of governments. Who in 2010 seriously thought that by March 2011 Mubarak and probably Gaddafi would have been forced to stand down? But why now? Simmering resentment and desire for political change in this region have been reported by scholars for quite some time, but until recently there had been no triggering event that is almost always needed to turn those grievances into concerted action.
Although there are some important differences between the national cases, there are also some similarities. The single act that tied the economic and political grievances together and set off the Tunisia protests was that of a young unemployed man – Mohamed Bouazizi – selling vegetables on the street in the town of Sidi Bouzid. When police stopped him from selling vegetables, in a desperate act Bouazizi set fire to himself and died later in hospital. However, the general underlying cause looks to be economic. Shrinking employment prospects, rising prices (particularly of food) and very visible inequality in a time of global economic recession and cutbacks have all been prominent amongst the protesters’ demonstrations. Decades of corruption, political exclusion and economic inequality seemed to be symbolized in a single suicidal act, which resonated right across the whole region.
In social movement theory terms, the Tunisia protesters were the ‘early risers’ in this cycle of political contention, taking the big risk of mounting a challenge. But once it became clear that the authoritarian regime had no legitimacy and the protest was more than a short-term outburst, other countries found themselves in a similar position. In some, such as Egypt, leaders were ousted without violence on the promise of free and fair elections. In Libya, though, Gaddafi’s regime fought back and estimates suggest more than 1,000 people have died in the fighting. The outcome in Libya and several other countries is unclear. However, the region as a whole has undoubtedly been changed forever and the placards and slogans of the whole movement are instructive, framing the protest as the pursuit of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’.
One argument I’ve heard numerous times during this wave of protest is that no one predicted it. This is a line I’ve used myself in teaching. In spite of all the research and theorizing about communism, I used to say, we were still surprised at the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and East European communism and nobody forecast it. Human action is changeable and unpredictable, and prediction is just not possible. But is this correct?
Consider the following passage from a much-maligned and criticized book that was seen by many as an apologia for aggressive American hegemony and neo-conservative US politics:
“The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships … From Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe.”
I admit, this is not a prediction of current events with dates and places attached, but its central contention has improved with age. This was Francis Fukuyama in the Introduction to his 1993 (p.xiii) book The End of History and the Last Man. In it, amongst other things, Fukuyama argued that we are at the end of history because the evolution of political systems has found its final, universal form in liberal democracy, which gives ordinary people something they crave: recognition. The remaining issue is when and how those societies that are not liberal democracies will become so. The current revolutions and protests in North Africa and the Middle East lend support to the thesis. [You can see Fukuyama’s original 1989 paper here.]
Fukuyama’s thesis is an excellent general forecast of current events, but where it falls down is precisely the suggestion that political history is at an end. There is a growing body of evidence in established democracies that liberal democracy no longer fulfils people’s basic desire for recognition. Low turnout in elections, disinterest amongst young people for the formal democratic process, loss of trust in politicians and the growth of direct action amongst those seeking social change, all of these suggest that liberal democracy is a convenient staging post rather than an endpoint to the desire for recognition. The main issue for the established democracies is whether existing systems can be reformed and reinvigorated or whether a different form of politics lies beyond the end of history.
Chapter 22 on Politics, Government and Social Movements is the logical place to start reading around these issues, though Chapter 23 on War, Nations and Nationalism also covers nation-building and internal conflicts. Other places of interest are: pp. 41-6 on scientific sociology and pp. 542-64 on the prospects for economic development around the world.
Also of interest is a recently published book that offers a concise and accessible overview of theories of protest, why protests arise and how they go about changing societies: Hank Johnston’s States and Social Movements.