Rather than discussing the events currently underway in Libya, Algeria, and Yemen, I will structure my comments around two basic questions.
(1) How do the current events in the ME and North Africa look to those who specialize in other regions?
(2) What do current events tell us about how we’ve been studying large-scale collective protest and (qualify; reluctant) social movements?
I’m going to do two things. First, I’ll put on my Africanist hat and talk about a comparable wave of protests that occurred in the early 1990s in SSA. Secondly, I’ll put on a theory hat and talk about what these recent protests might suggest about the way we study and think about social movements and collective protest. Because we have so little time, there will be very little time to develop these points in any great detail.
As you will see, I think the largest and most interesting questions suggested by the current wave of protests center on the dynamics of diffusion (i.e., how events in one country affect individuals in another country) and the role of emotions in explaining social movement recruitment (i.e., whether rationalist accounts of participation fully apply in high-risk settings).
Collective Protest and Diffusion Processes
In the past few months, to a very large extent, we’ve seen the cascades toward protest in the Middle East and North Africa as if they were a watershed or highly unusual process. This perception is driven in part by where we are in what political scientists sometimes call “world time.” In other words, in this particular moment in time, we have access to media and to other kinds of networking that makes diffusion processes occur more quickly and more visibly than in the past. However, if we look back, these kinds of diffusion processes or “cascades” have occurred in the past.
As an Africanist, I have been strongly reminded over the past months of a similar wave of popular protests that occurred in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s. From 1990 to 1994, political reforms were undertaken in 28 of 42 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Often, political scientists have seen this as part of a larger post-Cold War “wave of democratization,” perhaps motivated by contemporaneous changes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But in all 28 of the cases of political opening, reform was preceded by large-scale collective protest. These protests were usually urban. Economic grievances were often central to the protesters’ demands. Finally, students and other young people played a very central role in organization and recruitment. Put simply, there are a number of parallels between Africa in the early 1990s and the Middle East and North Africa today.
There are three points that emerge from looking at these two waves of protest together:
1) Material grievances are very important in motivating action. In Sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, structural adjustment had resulted in austerity measures and massive increase in food prices. Food riots then turned political. This is not to suggest that food riots will necessarily lead to large-scale collective action, like we see in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, we should see global shocks in food prices as creating “perturbations.” Increased food prices or other shocks to living conditions shift individual calculations regarding protest participation, making more people willing to engage in risky protest than had previously been the case.
Very briefly, I think this issue of food prices is important as scholars continue to think about how diffusion works. We’ve assumed that the protests began in Tunisia, and then the rest of the region “saw” Tunisia. But this is a problem with diffusion: we don’t pay adequate attention to other factors that are felt simultaneously. In other words, it may not be solely imitation that creates cascades: it may be that a group of countries are exposed to similar shocks, which then make protest more likely in each member of the group.
2) In both the current wave of protests and in Africa in the 1990s, we saw the self-conscious claiming of models from elsewhere. This was true both for what protesters thought of as “possible” outcomes and in terms of day-to-day tactics. But, in Africa, influences from abroad were uneven. Regimes that were more isolated from international networks and media were able to retain greater control over protests and reforms. This does not seem to be the case in the ME and North Africa.
But it is not just protesters who borrow and respond to influences from abroad. For an earlier historical example that speaks to the current situation in the ME and North Africa, I recommend Kurt Weyland’s recent piece in CPS (2010). He looks at the wave of revolts that occurred across Europe in the wake of France’s February Revolution in 1848. His basic point is that states are also dynamic actors, which can adjust and respond to transnational dynamics, in the same way that protesters do. States also have different resources, and, even in the midst of protest, regimes may develop effective means of minimizing change. Syria springs to mind here.
3) In terms of the medium-term outcomes of the wave of protest in sub-Saharan Africa, there was incredible indeterminacy in terms of effects. Of the 28 countries that undertook political reforms, only 16 resulted in minimalist democracy. Even in these cases, few of these lasted (state institutions too weak). Those that have survived to the present without interruption remain flawed. In Africa, the quality of regime outcome was not well-correlated with the size of protests. Mauritania (strikes) v Mali. Zambia v Kenya. This would suggest that there is a greater need for caution regarding the Middle East and North Africa. As protests continue in Syria and Yemen, we should remind ourselves that democracy is highly unlikely. This is true even in Egypt, which is, in many ways, better equipped for a successful transition. If we look to countries like Libya, where state power has been personalized and society flattened for so many decades, there is even less reason for optimism. Rather than Kenya or Zambia, the parallels here are Zaire, Gabon, and Madagascar.
Collective protest and emotions
Let me close with a quick comment on how the current wave of protest might inform social movement theory. Social movement theory does structure well. It is largely built around the concept of “political opportunity structures,” in which protesters respond to shifts in political opportunity or in perception thereof.
But watching recent footage, one is consistently struck by the role of emotions in motivating individual action. Where emotion is talked about by scholars, it operates at the individual level. We speak of “breaks in rationality” or “moments of madness.” More generally, however, social movement scholars – with a few exceptions – neglect emotion.
I would suggest that emotion might be an interesting way of getting at the relational aspect of protest mobilization and recruitment. Currently, political science approaches relational dynamics through the lens of information: individuals influence one another by providing one another with information about the level of grievance in a given society, etc. Thus, we see protest cascades in situations where the size of a protest conveys information about how many people actually oppose the regime. This dynamic is certainly at play in the current protests in the Middle East, but it still seems somewhat thin … and perhaps even the wrong way of thinking about what is going on with cascades.
Consider instead EP Thompson’s model of why riots or protest occur: crowds share expectations about contracts between state and society, and they share anger at the violation of those contracts. Individuals do not calculate when joining protests; instead, they join because they feel their action is just. For social movement scholars, we talk about these kinds of expectations and appeals when we talk about framing. But framing often has an intentionality built into it that seems different from the language that today’s protesters are using in the Middle East and North Africa. This interaction between expectations, emotions, and framing seems to be one of the most interesting and neglected terrains in social movement theory – and it is something that the current protesters might be able to illuminate for us.
 Kurt Weyland, “The Diffusion of Regime Contention in European Democratization, 1830-1940.” Comparative Political Studies.August/September 2010 43: 1148-1176.
About Adrienne LeBas
Professor Adrienne LeBas(PhD, Columbia University) joined the Department of Government in the fall of 2009. Prior to joining American University, LeBas was a Prize Research Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, and Assistant Professor of Political Science and African Studies at Michigan State University. Her research interests include social movements, democratization, and political violence. Her work has been published in the journals Comparative Politics and Politique Africaine, and her first book will soon be forthcoming from Oxford University Press. LeBas has also worked as a consultant for Human Rights Watch in Zimbabwe, where she lived from 2002 to 2003.