Examining coups, protests, and the ups and downs of democracies: the Arab Spring

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Political scientist Jay Ulfelder blogs about the use of statistical analysis to predict political events and turmoil like coup attempts, mass atrocities, and other phenomena related to political (in)stability. Though I am not a statistician and most of the finer points are way over my head, I find a lot of what he covers to be really fascinating. Here, he offers reflection on a recent piece that discusses why some Arab Spring movements resulted in government overthrows while others didn't.
Last week, the online magazine Muftah ran a thoughtful piece by Scott Williamson and Caroline Abadeer about “why Arab Spring protests successfully produced regime change in some countries but not in others.” As they see it,

Understanding the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings requires answering the three interlinked questions about the region’s unrest posed here. First, where did protests transform into uprisings that could sufficiently threaten the regime’s hold on power? We have argued monarchies and oil-wealthy regimes can erect more barriers to prevent protest escalation, and thereby protect the government. Next, we asked why militaries abandoned regimes in some countries where uprisings occurred, but cracked down violently on the opposition in others. We have suggested that a military tied to the regime by familial, tribal, ethnic, or sectarian connections would be more likely to support the regime. Finally, in cases where the military repressed the opposition, we asked why such repression was successful in some countries but not in others. Because resources are important in this regard, we have argued that oil-wealthy regimes were more likely to successfully repress their opponents, and that resources brought to bear by foreign powers for or against the regime could also have a significant impact on the outcome.

Their essay is grounded in careful study of relevant theory and the societies they describe, and the array of contingent effects they identify all seem plausible. Still, I wonder if the authors are too confident in the explanatory power of their discoveries. As it happens, the Arab Spring has largely followed gross patterns in democratization from the past century or so. Popular uprisings rarely occur in consolidated authoritarian regimes, and when they do, the regime usually survives. When authoritarian regimes break down, another autocracy usually ensues. In cases where an attempt at democracy does happen, it usually fails, either by military coup or by the ruling party’s unfair consolidation of power.
The bit in italics is a section that he quotes from the article he referenced. I got kind of "Inception"y for a moment there.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading the whole piece (and following his links) for a discussion of assumptions made by scientists, where they serve and where they fall short, and the utility of examining these types of political phenomena.

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