What has been termed as the first successful toppling of a president by Twitter, or, alternatively, the first government to collapse as a result of Wikileaks, the events in Tunisia were given a new name over the weekend: The Jasmine Revolution. Somehow it feels that merely bestowing the mass mobilization is the same as issuing its death certificate – like the Saffron Revolution in Burma or the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Democracy advocates are prone to projection on these events, with dreams of contagion spreading to Egypt and other unfree dictatorships of the world (Boris Nemtsov has already drawn his comparisons with Russia). But what is happening in Tunisia, for a variety of reasons, already seems to have been preemptively discarded as a step forward for democracy. On Foreign Policy Stephen Walt argues why it won’t spread:
There are three other reasons why the Tunisian example is unlikely to lead to similar upheavals elsewhere. First, as Timur Kuran and others have shown, the actual revolutionary potential of any society is very difficult to read in advance, and a rising revolutionary wave often depends on very particular preferences and information effects within society. Put differently, whether a genuine upheavel breaks out and gathers steam is a highly contingent process. Second, Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge. Third, Tunisia’s experience may not look very attractive over the next few weeks or months, especially if the collapse of the government leads to widespread anarchy, violence and economic hardship. If that is the case, then restive populations elsewhere may be less inclined to challenge unpopular leaders, reasoning that “hey, our government sucks, but it’s better than no government at all.”
Anne Applebaum also makes a good point about gradual version sudden transitions to democracy:
While watching Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” unfold,remember this: Street demonstrations can unexpectedly bring extremistsinto power, as they did in Iran in 1979. They can create unrealisticexpectations and then unravel, as did the Orange Revolution that beganin Ukraine in 2004. And they can end badly, with reactionary violence,like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.
By contrast, the most successful transitions to democracy are oftenundramatic. Consider Spain, after the death of Franco; Chile, after theresignation of Pinochet; Poland, which negotiated its way out ofcommunism; all of these democratic transitions dragged on, created fewspectacular photographs – and ultimately led to stable politicalsystems.
It’s all a very interesting debate, but it seems somewhat beside the point to argue whether or not such events are isolated or parts of trends before we even understand with better clarity how it came about, and which direction it is headed in. It’s easy to point out a number of reasons why revolutions are not trends, but the arguments don’t do much to explain why it wouldn’t be possible to replicate. Further, for as much as the pundits will enjoy shooting down all the hyperbole, certain foreign leaders watching this kind of mass mobilization and uncontrolled anger over the deprivation of rights and state corruption is going to cause a lot of lost sleep.