Seasons of Change: Arab Spring and Political Opportunities


The events that began in Tunisia with Mohamed Bouazizi’s dramatic suicide in December of 2010 and continue to develop throughout the Middle East challenge our politics and our political imaginations. The challenges to social science theories of movements, revolutions and social change are likely less pressing than those to contemporary politics, but they are the ones that we are better prepared to engage. The wave of political contention in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) brings, in addition to many other things, a raft of new data to use in testing and revising our theories about how the world works. We must begin by making a realistic assessment about what social science theory can and should do.

One problem is that social scientists expect too much of the analytical frameworks they build, and when they fall short, are too quick to criticize and dismantle them, particularly those advanced by other scholars. A better understanding of the utility and limitations of natural science can help provide more realistic expectations for how the social sciences can help make sense of the world around us. To start with the metaphor of Arab Spring, we know that climate scientists can identify with precision the date on which Spring will begin. They can’t, however, tell us very much about what the weather on that day will be like very far in advance. They can explain with analytical precision how wind and water interact with the Earth’s gravity and rotation, but can’t tell you whether you’ll need to carry an umbrella next March on the 20th.

Human affairs should be more complicated and contingent. In addition to all the physical variables, starting with gravity, there are many more that come into play; we each can exercise some greater degree of agency than physical objects like the Earth, and the way in which human efforts interact shape the world, including the context of subsequent interactions. People make history, to be sure, as Marx wrote long ago, but not as they choose, nor in the circumstances they choose.

We do not know of any psychologist who could have predicted the particular set of provocations that would lead Bouazizi to try to take his own life publicly, nor even to predict why an inspector would try to confiscate the vendor’s fruit on a particular day. We would hope, however, that a psychologist could offer some explanatory leverage in making sense of how people focus anger and frustration in making sense of their lives. As political scientists and sociologists, we are less concerned with this particular event, an individual tragedy, than in the collective responses to it. In this way, we are most concerned with the constellation of grievances, organizational resources, provocations, and institutions of social control, the kindling, containment, and climate, surrounding that individual choice.

We are analytically invested in a political process, or political opportunities framework (Meyer 2004), which places great importance on the contexts that surround contentious collective action. We believe that those ever-changing contexts, while certainly not predictive of any individual’s behavior, can provide analytical leverage in understanding if—and how—dramatic events generate responses. We also believe that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was not necessarily the single spark that would provoke an Arab Spring, but that the conditions across the Middle East and North Africa had made it possible for such sparks to create contagion at this time. The search for sparks may serve the need for simplicity and drama, yet runs the risk of overlooking the role of broader processes and developments that may explain insurgents’ ability to sustain mobilization even after the initial exhilaration abates.

The political opportunity framework promises to offer explanatory leverage on the emergence, development, and outcomes of contention by paying attention to the world outside a social movement. It posits that most people—though certainly not all—are most likely to engage in protest when they believe it is both necessary and potentially successful. Activists make these calculations with widely varying degrees of certainty and precision, and the decisions that those around them make matter tremendously. When authorities foreclose institutional means of redress, extra-institutional action appears to be the most promising route to influence. Fighting against injustice may not have a good chance of success, for example, but in a situation that is highly repressive or seems hopeless (see Alimi 2009; Boudreau 2004; Einwohner and Maher 2011), it may be the best that activists can do. When some people take to the streets, it can make repression appear more difficult and less likely, and collective action a little safer and its prospects for influence a little stronger (Granovetter 1978; Oliver and Marwell, 1988). Many elements are in play with opportunities, including organizations, emotions, and identities; the question is how much analytical leverage focus on any of those elements provides.

Tunisians took to the streets against the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, whose government had raised expectations by expanding higher education, but had failed to deliver economic performance. There were grievances about political freedom, to be sure, but there was also discontent about unemployment and inflation. Ben Ali attempted the time-honored strategy of splitting the opposition, with a mix of conciliation and repression, but was unable to muster the repressive capacity to break the opposition coalition. Under these circumstances, potential dissidents saw increased promise of change, and Ben Ali’s supporters had reason to reconsider their alliances. Ben Ali’s initial attempts to reconfigure his government and promise not to run for reelection were far too little, far too late, to appease the dissidents.

The fall of the Ben Ali government—and family—suggested possibilities to publics across the Arab world. People who could find in the Tunisian episode similarities between themselves and the governments they challenged emulated the protesters (see McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001; Furuyama and Meyer 2011; Tarrow 2005), copying tactics and rhetoric. Protests emerged in Bahrain, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt, and then Syria, Jordan, Yemen as well as Lebanon. Although the visible and dramatic protests in the streets, some peaceful, took most Western observers by surprise, people familiar with the Arab world knew that there were long standing dissident communities in all of these countries, including reformers committed to democratic reform and others committed to the primacy of religious law. The outcomes, certainly still in process, varied across all of the countries, reflecting the capacity of authoritarians to consolidate their bases of support and repress effectively, and the willingness of dissidents with very different aims to cooperate in their efforts and focus on a common enemy and share interim goals. Some dissident movements have been crushed, while a few regimes have been toppled, but it is certain that the developments are very much in progress.

The unity of the ruling elite is a critical variable in virtually all political process analyses of social movements and revolutions. The willingness of presumed supporters of the challenged regime to defect and throw their support to elements of the challenging coalition—or at least to refuse to cooperate in violent repression, was one critical factor in shaping these political outcomes. And of course, each event affects the constellation of possibilities in the future: as the numbers and diversity in the streets grew, repression would be more difficult and costly; as the visibility of regime defectors increased, more diverse elements in society saw their interests served by throwing in with the protesters. When Egypt’s President Mubarak realized that he could not count on the Army to stand with him against the protesters, he sought an exit strategy. In contrast, Libya’s Qadaffi, who saw no safe personal exit, could depend upon the personal loyalty of substantial armed forces, and was determined to mobilize them in an effort to crush the opposition.

For analysts concerned with understanding the emergence, development, and outcomes of unrest, it makes sense to start by paying attention to the states that are challenged. This means taking care to assess the unity of the ruling coalition and the opportunities for defection or exit available to those within it. Although episodes of unrest appeared in more than a dozen countries, sustained, visible and disruptive activism that threatened the government emerged in only about half of them. Where the state could depend upon repression (Iran), dissidents could be stifled. Where activists could find other ways to make claims (Algeria), protests fizzled and institutionalized.

We would add that the stability of those ruling alignments is nested in a larger international structure of political alliances, based on interests, values, norms, or prejudices (Rothman and Oliver 1999; Meyer 2003). A generation ago, insurgents in the Middle East would have tried to look for outside assistance from one superpower or the other, and the regime would have depended upon a superpower to protect it for reasons that had little to do with democracy or justice. Since the end of the Cold War, this is no longer the case. Dissidents routinely look beyond their governments and make judgments about the likelihood of support from outside their state.

In authoritarian regimes, which offer dissidents no meaningful access to the policy process, the dissatisfied are likely to seek international venues for making their claims. Government supporters look not only to the character and size of the dissident coalition, but also to the likely support they can find internationally in assessing their own personal opportunities, in power or not. The few regimes that care little about international legitimacy (e.g., North Korea) pay a social and economic price for their indifference.

Authorities and challengers then, make judgments about the varying and dynamic opportunities and constraints they face at different levels of authority (i.e. national, regional or international). The specific nested configuration at any given time, and its relative tightness or looseness, suggests a great deal about the stability of the state, its space of action and, in turn, dissidents’ prospects for influence. A useful way to approach this is by keeping in mind that the chances of dissidents in authoritarian regimes to attract international support and intervention for their cause by marketing their rebellion internationally (Bob 2005) is, to varying degree, a function of their state’s political opportunity structures. These structures are themselves nested in a larger regional as well as international environments that constraint or facilitate particular kinds of opportunities for state authorities.

To see how this nesting affects the range of possible alliances and responses available to state authorities and challengers, we can examine the nature of nested institutions along two interrelated dimensions. The first structurally-laden dimension is exclusivity, by which we mean the degree to which a state is dependent on a particular nesting institution (think about the high degree of exclusivity of claim exerted by NATO on Mubarak-led Egypt as a major non-NATO member ally). The second agency-laden dimension is autonomy, by which we mean the degree to which the larger institution needs the service of the nested state and the resulting maneuvering space the latter enjoys (think about, for example, the high degree of autonomy Assad-led Syria has given its geopolitical strategic value for western powers, Iran, and Russia). It follows then that the tighter the integration of a given state into a larger nesting institution the less autonomy it will have in responding to dissidents’ challenge, and vice versa.

This approach increases our analytical leverage in explaining variation in the development and outcomes in the still ongoing Arab Spring. Note the striking differences in outcomes (despite apparent similarities) between the Syrian and Libyan cases in terms of UN/NATO level of intervention. In the backdrop of the Egyptian case where the national political opportunity structure eventually leaned favorably towards the dissidents, this was certainly not the case in both Qaddafi-led Libya and Assad-Led Syria. The striking differences in the level of UN/NATO intervention is revealing. A possible solution to the “puzzle”, we argue, is found in differences in the level of autonomy each regime enjoyed. While Libya controlled valuable economic assets (oil and gas), Qaddafi’s Libya enjoyed far less wiggle room in responding to dissent than Syria. Even the Arab League joined the calls for a no-fly zone in late March. UN/NATO intervention, ostensibly to protect civilians, strengthened the insurgents against the regime. In contrast, Assad’s Syria enjoyed far greater maneuvering room due to its robust ties with a vast array of powerful countries, including Russia and China, both of which resolutely opposed any UN resolution against Syria.

To conclude, while there are certainly many factors and mechanisms affecting the emergence, development, and outcomes of the recent revolutionary wave of contention throughout MENA, we believe that focusing on the multilevel nature of political opportunity structures increases our analytical leverage. Examined through the interrelated dimensions of exclusivity and autonomy, this kind of analysis promises to enhance understanding of why under specific political circumstances domestic dissident groups may have greater leverage in promoting their claims. Given the great risks and costs of insurgency, it’s important to recognize how the world outside the rebels’ camp influences their prospects for success.