Monday, February 21, 2011

Contagion? Yes, Please [updated]

The spread of protests from Tunisia to Egypt and now to Libya and Bahrain raise lots of questions about how contagious are political events like protests.  And these questions force to re-consider some of my oldest and dearest publications.  I argued long ago (here and here) that the outbreak of ethnic conflicts and of separatism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union only seemed to be part of a contagious process.  But the ethnic conflict in each was not directly related to the secessionist conflicts in the others.  Instead, these countries faced a similar shock, the de-legitimation of communism and the onset of political competition, which then, because of similar institutions and divides, caused independent separatist efforts in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

So, to come to a region about which I know little, what does seem to be the case is not so much that there are concrete dynamics that move from one state to another* , but rather there are common issues of unemployment, sclerotic leadership, and corruption. 

* Refugees are the classic pathway by which one ethnic conflict can trigger another.

 This time, the shock is something like the end of Communism--the collapse of a set of ideologies/beliefs that legitimated and perpetuated the rule of these folks: "better me than the Islamist alternative" and other opiates that the dicators used to quell the populace.*

*Again, I am not a Mideast expert, so I am just postulating here.

What Tunisia did and then Egypt was show to the publics that the army might not shoot, that the dictators have been wearing no clothes, and that it takes a lot of guts and mobilization, but then it can work.  But people have to die in the process.  We do not have a body count yet for Egypt but it was supposed to be more than a hundred.  The bodycount in Libya will be far higher, I am afraid.

Getting back to my old arguments about contagion and demonstration effects, I have always believed that demonstration effects do not matter so much because any event will be read in different ways by the various actors, just confirming their existing beliefs.  But these events are so shocking--that the strongest, most apparently stable leader in the Mideast (this would be Mubarak) can fall after 18 days--that it simply cannot be fit into the old boxes in people's heads.  Instead, it opens up those boxes and makes people re-imagine what is possible.  Tunisia may have tipped and influenced Egypt, but it is the Egyptian example that will have the most powerful effect.  But remember this, a spark can only set off a forest fire if the conditions are right.  You are seeing the spread of something in the Mideast precisely because many of these countries are facing very similar economic, political and demographic pressures.

We have not seen the end of this, but if one knows what the economic, political and demographic patterns are in the countries that have faced much dissent, we can probably figure out the limits of this wave of dissent.  It might not be 1989 all over again, but then again, it might be more like 1968 or 1848.

More ducking, covering and re-thinking as events compel.

[Update]  I am not the only one thinking about 1848.  And there has been some twittering about the US doing something about Libya.  The US cannot use Egypt as a base these days due to recent events, so the only thing that NATO/US can really do is a no fly zone enforced by planes from whichever US carrier is in the Mediterranean.  The US Sixth fleet is a significant actor, but its role in a Libyan civil war or repression is limited.  We live in interesting times.


Chris C. said...

FYI, there is a carrier in the near area. The USS enterprise is near Turkey I believe and the rest of the 6th Fleet should be available.

Steve Saideman said...

Yep, I came to the realization that the 6th fleet can get there. But there is only so much it can do to a civil war in Libya. I suppose it could enforce a no fly zone, bu probably only for a short time. Carriers have a finite capability. And we can no longer count on Egypt for basing stuff, can we?

Lukas Neville said...

In terms of the 'opening boxes' argument, I saw an interesting talk a while ago that talked about our a sort of 'alarm system' -- we try to ignore information that would cause us to revise our beliefs, but there is a point beyond which our 'alarm' is triggered and we are forced to revise our beliefs. The talk was about justice perceptions, but you could see the same thing playing out here.

The issue, as with other contagious changes, is that social movements to overturn a political system are easier to build than social movements to create new political structures and institutions. That's kind of a 'duh' point, I know, but I think it's a clear way that you can predict a pile of regime changes without real institutional changes.

Steve Saideman said...

Thanks. I would probably know more of this if I didn't get all of my cognitive psychology from Jervis's work in the 1970s.