Why Are Uprisings Spreading in the Arab World?

Tunisians' sacrifices have created a new moral climate in the region. If Tunisians were willing to make this sacrifice, why shouldn't I also be willing?
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Co-written by Julia Choucair

The astounding events in Egypt this week, coming on the heels of the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, create unprecedented excitement about the spread of democratic change across the Arab world.

Skeptical observers caution against such optimism (or wariness, depending on one's vantage point) and highlight unique features of each country. Before January 25 most of these voices would have bet against what we are now seeing in Egypt. But the escalation of Egypt's protests, the protesters' rejection of Mubarak's "concession" to step down in the future, and the spread of demonstrations to Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, and Yemen lend credence to the possibility of sweeping change.

The position the United States should take depends critically on understanding how and why the uprisings spread. A focus solely on the domestic conditions surrounding them is not sufficient. Instead, particular attention must be paid to what drives the contagion effect of the demonstrations.

Alongside Egypt, demonstrations calling for changes inside the government or of the regime itself have shaken Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, and Sudan. Protesters are not the only ones watching events in other countries. Algeria's government slashed food prices, Jordan's King Abdullah appointed a new government and charged it to take "practical, quick and tangible steps to launch true political reforms, enhance Jordan's democratic drive and ensure safe and decent living for all Jordanians." Syria's President Bashar al-Assad sent a signal of resolve and emphatically denied that similar protests could happen in his country.

Observers now explain the possibilities for contagion based on whether other Arab countries share the socioeconomic challenges and political grievances of Egypt and Tunisia, or have access to new technologies that helped the demonstrators organize. But these factors have all been present for years, and the regimes that are now apparently shaken by them were thought resilient only weeks earlier.

What, then, lies behind these unpredictable events, and what does it tell us about the possibilities of contagion to other Arab countries?

Two potential links between the collapse of Ben Ali's regime in Tunisia and the current wave of demonstrations in the Arab world stand out. These connect the cost-benefit analyses of protesters in other countries and their assessments of the repressive capacity of their governments to what they observed about Tunisia. First, the uprising in Tunisia was a focal point for demonstrations in other countries, providing a way for individuals who desired change to coordinate their actions, signaling a time to act, and even suggesting a form of protest to be replicated. Especially as signs of its success became clear, demonstrations in other Arab countries became stronger and drew larger numbers. Individuals in Algeria, Egypt, and Mauritania copied the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Now, the chant of the Tunisian demonstrations, "The people want to topple the regime," has resounded loudly throughout the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and other Egyptian cities.

Second, Ben Ali's departure sent a signal about the strength of authoritarian regimes in the region. When the Tunisian military refused to turn on the people and instead confronted and subdued the police, citizens in other countries may have recalculated the ability of their own regimes to successfully repress them. Given the foreign backing many regimes receive, the lack of external interference to prop up Ben Ali may also have created a belief that uprisings elsewhere stood a better chance of success.

But a third mechanism is also at work, and one that is worth paying more attention to because it does not involve cost-benefit analysis: Tunisians' sacrifices have created a new moral climate in the region. If Tunisians were willing to die for the future of their country, then citizens of other countries have to ask a new question about facing down their regimes. Rather than calculating the risks and rewards to participating in uprisings, the question now is: If Tunisians were willing to make this sacrifice, why shouldn't I also be willing? Continuing sacrifices, now on the streets of Egypt, underscore it.

The dynamics of contagion mean that the United States government now faces a historic opportunity. Its management of the Egyptian crisis so far has been cautious and reactive. The difficulty of anticipating how developments in Egypt will likely ripple through other Arab countries seems to justify that approach. But it also necessitates thinking more broadly, beyond Egypt, and about the long-term relations between the U.S. and the region. The U.S. should not ignore the new moral climate and tie itself to the mindset of an era that is coming to an end in the Arab world.

Julia Choucair is Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. She was formerly an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where she focused on political reform trends in the Arab world. Her book Beyond the Façade: Political Reform in the Arab World (co-edited with Marina Ottaway) was published in January 2008. Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl is also Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale. In 2009 he was a doctoral research fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut. Both are associates of Yale's Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence.

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