It all went so quickly: Mohammed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian, burned himself in front of a local municipal office and less than two months later not only has former dictator Ben Ali swapped power for an international arrest warrant, but out is, amid euphoric jubilations, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the very same Mubarak who had ruled Egypt with an iron fist for almost 30 years.
We don’t know what really motivated Mr Bouazizi, but I believe that not even in his wildest dreams would he have imagined to be the start for a revolution on a scale not seen since the fall of the Iron Curtain. I do want to show, however, that it is indeed possible for this one man to have caused this chain of events, irrespective of this martyr’s true motives. How can the act of surrendering one’s life, and one’s life only, be so powerful?
After the mass protests against long-standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, it is safe to assume that public discontent was widespread and simmering for some time already. Both regimes were dictatorial and notoriously corrupt (both Mr Ali and Mr Mubarak are alleged billionaires, making them a little richer than most heads of states). The protests also show that many people are willing to bear the individual cost of being part of a mass demonstration for the possible benefits of change. Assume for the sake of the argument that this holds for the majority of citizens. Even though the citizens would then be better off if a true mass protest happened, no one would be willing to do their bit unless they were sure that everyone else would be on the streets, too. The reason is that the cost of being a lonely protester are large – you may be arrested, beaten up or even disappear in the hands of the secret police – and the benefits nil – since you on your own can do nothing at all; unless, that is, your sacrifice can trigger the masses hitting the streets. We (that is economists) are not very good at predicting mass movements (as the financial crises forcefully demonstrated), but we know about the type of coordination problem willing protesters face.
How do you make sure that when you hold up your banner you are not the only one? How do you coordinate with a large enough number of protesters to be on the streets the very same moment? Sure, internet and mobile phones help a lot technically, but even if you could convince all of your friends and your friends all of theirs, you would still be arrested and not make a single bit of a difference. You need hundreds of thousands of people! And since everyone knows how difficult it is to coordinate with thousands of people, the promises of your friends may not be so trustworthy after all. This explains why a hated dictator can survive for a long time and why grass root movements are so rare. That said, the military has a significant advantage in coordinating as it already has an established structure of communication and command. Of course, is also has weapons. This may explain why military coups are so much more frequent than grass root movements.
Now, the seeming stable unloved regime can come under threat very quickly if something happens that for some reason raises everyone’s expectation that others will join a protest. Game theorists think of this something as a focal point. It is something that sticks out, that helps people coordinate as if by an invisible hand. A focal point or in this case a focal event may not necessarily enter a “rational” process of forming your expectation. I believe that an emotional event that triggers more deep-rooted psychological responses along the lines of anger is the more likely candidate to be a focal point of a mass movement than some technocratic attempt of making an “appointment” (think also of the 1992 Rodney King Uprising in Los Angeles and several other cities in the US after white policemen were acquitted after a video-taped beating up of black Rodney King). Emotions add fire and make it easier, to borrow from chemistry, to overcome the necessary “activation energy”, or in more economic terms, to make at least a few people ignore the cost-benefit relation of expressing their views. Once enough people do join in (the first possibly for emotional reasons), the expectations of the masses with respect to what the others will do may switch. If, and this was our starting point, the majority actually wants to be part of a mass movement, this change in expectations becomes self-fulfilling. To sum up: what is needed for a revolution is changing people’s expectations about each other’s behavior. This is how one young Tunisian could overthrow Mubarak.
Read soon why changing people's expectations is harder than it seems, why the CIA looks dumber than it deserves for having been caught be surprise and whether the outside world can help in democratic revolutions.