Sonntag, 20. Februar 2011

Is the CIA stupid, and is Kim Jong Il now having sleepless nights?

Last week I tried to convince you that willing protesters in dictatorial regimes face a serious problem of coordination that may only be overcome if something happens that changes everyone’s expectations about each other, something that becomes a focal point, as academics like to call it. This is how one young Tunisian could overthrow Ben Ali, Mubarak and who knows next. This time, I want to discuss whether the CIA was stupid for not expecting the revolutions, whether Egyptians need to thank Mark Zuckerberg and whether Kim Jong Il is having sleepless nights.

If a focal event triggers a democratic movement, it can all happen very quickly: mass movements are the result of a jump from one equilibrium to another in this game of coordination. Just as cost of shouting for change decrease strongly with a rising number of protesters, expected benefits go up massively (Mubarak would have only laughed – not in a nice way, though – about a few thousand people holding banners). You, as a willing protester, will therefore only hit the streets if you are sufficiently sure that many, many others will do the same. Otherwise, you will keep your public mouth shut and may only mutter quietly amongst your best friends. Since everyone has the same individual strategy, there is nothing in between the seemingly peaceful quiet and mass protests. Once enough people expect others to protest, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It goes without saying, however, that “peaceful quiet” is much more likely in dictatorial regimes; a mass movement will therefore always happen suddenly and unexpectedly. Remember that it is about people’s expectations, their inner thoughts. Knowing about widespread discontent (which may already be a tall order in dictatorial regimes) is not enough. If you wanted to predict a mass movement, you would need to know that hundreds of thousands of people expect others to go out into the public at the very same moment! Billions of dollars spent on intelligence cannot give you this information. I am not sure that those billions of dollars are well spent, nor do I have much insight into how smart the CIA really is, but the CIA is certainly not dumb for not having expected the “Arab revolutions”.

Once the first revolution starts, things change. Then, of course, you don’t need the CIA or a degree in political sciences to tell you that the next revolutions become considerably more likely. You will often poetically read about the spark of freedom spreading – well, while I am not ruling out that Egyptians may have appreciated freedom more once Ben Ali was out, our analytic framework allows to see the chain of events in a different light. It tells us that the Sidi Bouzid revolution in Tunisia served as a focal event for willing protesters in other countries: the world was watching when cries of anger gave way to cheers of joy. Once Ben Ali was gone, Egyptians suddenly had very different expectations on their fellows’ behavior. This constituted a brief moment in history when protests became possible. The Egyptian people duly used it. Windows of opportunity have now opened up all over the wider region, in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and, interestingly, even beyond: women in Italy, while certainly not facing the same severity of a coordination problem, may well have been “inspired” (in an expectation-shifting sense) by Tunisia and Egypt in protesting against their own macho mini-dictator Berlusconi (who, I can’t resist from adding, I see as a huge shame for all of Europe).

Is Mark Zuckerberg a hero, too? The talk of Facebook revolutions is true in some sense. Social networks help enormously in coordinating in two ways: by helping stabilize expectations on other’s willingness to protest (thousands of mutual pledges being posted and twittered) and by facilitating to agree on a time and place. However, social networks can only help once an at least potentially focal event happened. Just imagine how futile (and risky) some single person’s efforts would be to start twittering for a revolution at a random moment in time. Without the vivid pictures from Tunisia, nothing would have happened in Egypt.

Some autocratic regimes may not be as stable as they seem. If expectations shift, the most potent regimes that have not experiences any sign of discontent can be blown away. Because of this, autocratic regimes fear those focal events, and the technological means to turn an event focal, much more than general discontent. Without focal points, no protests and no democratic threat to the regime. Think how tight security measures were in China at the 20-years anniversary of the Tiananmen bloodshed. The movie “V for Vendetta” also creates an interesting story around a focal event in a fictitious fascist Britain.

How else would a power-clinging regime stifle democratic movements? It would try to block all information that may raise people’s expectations that others will voice their discontent. You can safely bet that Mubarak is not a fan of Al Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter. A smart dictator would also make voicing discontent as difficult as possible by employing a network of undercover spies. This is important because in a non-free society, you may not be so certain who and how many are as fed up with the regime as you are. In Mao’s China and Hitler’s Germany, even muttering quietly within one’s family was risky as even a generally trustworthy person (a child for instance) may accidently let a wrong word slip somewhere. A dictator may also do well to be tough – or better still: to having a reputation for having a trigger-happy army at one’s disposal. This increases the expected cost of protesting and thereby raises the necessary threshold of people that any willing protester would need to expect to be on the streets to be safe to join herself; the coordination problem of protesters becomes more severe. Note that the carrot did not feature in the strategy of a smart dictator. North Koreans are most likely suffering more than Tunisians and Egyptians ever have (North Korea is repeatedly reported to suffer from famines), nevertheless Kim Jong Il does not need to worry about an uprising: North Korea is an isolated country without modern information technology. Gladly, most autocratic regimes are not.  

Can the outside world assist in democratic movements? Precisely predicting what actually constitutes a focal point is virtually impossible as it is to create one. For all we know, Mohammed Bouazizi of Tunisia could well have died in vain, and many similar events have probably passed unnoticed. One of the most important contributions, as this post should have made clear, is free media and modern communication technology. North Koreans are unlikely to ever hear of Mr Mohammed Bouazizi. 

If you want to read more (and see whose ideas the last two posts are based on), google for: Thomas Schelling: on focal or Schelling points (you see he is obviously the main guy); Mancur Olson and Gordon Tollock: on collective action problems, Paul Collier: on military coups, civil wars and also some bad news on democracy in developing countries.
For German readers, see here for a similar perspective on the revolutions (published yesterday) and also google for Thomas Apolte, who has written more on it. 


  1. Here's my 2 cents: while I generally agree with your line of argument, I do not agree with its exclusivity claim: a shift in "focal points" need not necessarily come suddenly. History tells us that some revolutions have grown steadily rather than jumping up in an all-or-nothing fashion - the demonstrations in the former GDR are but one example. Of course, not all protest marches that start small gain momentum; but they don't all end in massacres either, as the example of the "Madres de la Plaza de Mayo" shows. So, if you get rid of the "only" in the "only if" statements, I'll be happy to concur. :-)

  2. You might be interested Timur Kuran's work!

    especially: "The Inevitability of Future Revolutionary Surprises ," American Journal of Sociology, 100 (May 1995): 1528-51.


Please leave your comments here and have a little patience until they appear.