The other day Slate posted a data visualization to help understand “Which Middle Eastern countries are most susceptible to revolution?”
The visualization was neat, because it cleverly brought in four different factors (unemployment, median age, GDP per capita, and oil exporter or not.) But it also did not provide much of an obvious pattern. Libya had, by far the highest unemployment while Tunisia and Egypt (although this seems low) were more towards the middle of the pack. Tunisia has one of the highest median ages, while Egypt and Libya are again in the middle. As for GDP per capita, Libya is a substantially higher then Egypt and Tunisia (although lower then Bahrain). In short, the graphic does not point to an obvious next domino, although it does indicate that almost everyone in the region is a possible candidate.
But knowing that the nations in the Middle East are ripe for turmoil is hardly news, but the critical questions are when, where, and why. To model that problem requires a lot more variables. In one of my own efforts to model terrorist group behavior I cited Tolstoy who stated:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.The same goes for troubles nations (and is there any other kind.) Since I work on this sort of thing for my bread and butter, I thought I’d kick in some thoughts on the kinds of variables needed.
The first thing I wanted to know when Sheikh Qaradhawi landed in Egypt was his family’s longevity. Qaradhawi is 84 so statistically he is not likely to be around for too much longer and his energy levels are likely to diminish. But, the same could be said about Khomeini (who Qaradhawi is consciously imitating.) Khomeini returned to Iran at 76 and ran the country for the next decade.
It is tough not to notice that octogenarians headed the two regimes that have fallen, Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s Qaddhafi, who is only 68, is showing far more fight. Taking a quick scan around the region, the rulers of Morocco, Jordan, and Syria are all young. The rulers of Saudi Arabia are not.
Age is not the killer variable that can explain all. It is related to a number of other issues. I am fascinated by organizations. Imagine a government agency or a business as a giant machine with people as the key parts. How does one evaluate if parts have broken, if the machine will do or is doing what is expected of it. Age relates to this, in that an 80 year-old dictator has been dictator for quite a while and has gotten used to his position. Since authoritarian regimes are often heavily personalized, if the dictator is not regularly engaged, then maybe the lackeys get lazy. Of course, on the other hand in Egypt and Tunisia it appears that strong institutions that had some initiative and standing independent of the president played a key role in forcing them out. Libya on the other hand doesn’t seem to have much in the way of institutions and is dominated by tribes.
Regardless, much of the information about institutions is anecdotal and not systematic. Better metrics are needed to understand organizational effectiveness and priorities. I don’t mean to denigrate anecdotes – but they need to be compiled and coded not adopted haphazardly.
In The Republic Socrates asks if one would rather be the tyrannical head of the house or the tyrant of the city. The other characters agree being the tyrant of a city is preferable, but Socrates disagrees, observing that the head of a household can rely on the city to support him if the household turns against him. The tyrant of the city can turn to no one.
Syria would appear ripe for overthrow, but things have been fairly quiet. Two explanations leap out. First is that by placing itself in the vanguard of the opposition to Israel the Syrian regime has some justification for its citizens sacrifices, whereas Egypt – which has both economic decline and peace with Israel – cannot offer a justification. The other explanation is that Syria is the only Sunni majority country ruled by non-Sunnis. The ruling Alawite clan has to stay on its toes in order to avoid being overthrown. Mubarak may have been able to convince himself that the Egyptian people loved him – Assad would have few such illusions. With this clarity, the secret services would not slack off and the president’s attention would not wander.
In that sense, weak regimes are strong because they need to be flexible and alert to stay in power in the face of ongoing challenges. This may apply to Jordan as well.
This is only a first stab at possible variables for a comprehensive model. Other questions might be how recently the nation suffered through internal violence, the level and nature of the oppression, and – perhaps crucially – if the leaders have somewhere to go if things fall apart. (Qadhafi doesn’t – he has long been an international pariah.)