After the January 2011 Tunisian revolution, virtually every Arab capital city witnessed popular protest inspired by the Tunisian case. Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, pro-democracy activists coalesced in central city squares and called for political change and economic reform. Yet, despite the presence of similar political and economic grievances, the countries of the region experienced different degrees of revolutionary emulation. While localized acts of protest in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain quickly evolved into regime-shaking demonstrations, other cases of protest in Morocco and Algeria failed to grow into national movements and quickly fizzled within a few months.

In a paper published in the June 2014 issue of the International Studies Review, I argue that for localized acts of protest to take a national dimension, respected political personalities or groups need to be on board during the early acts of protest against the government. In order to make my argument, I use the large theoretical body of informational cascades and focus on four North African countries.

For informational cascade theorists such as Suzanne Lohmann, Timur Kuran, Bueno de Mesquita or Kricheli, Livne, and Magaloni, citizens living in authoritarian states face a major informational problem. Because the state controls access to local information and because people are afraid to voice their opinions of the regime, disgruntled citizens are largely cut-off from each other and are unable to evaluate the level of popular dissatisfaction with the authorities. An aggrieved citizen may be aware that close friends and family are unhappy with the regime, for instance, but he or she is unable to assess whether people in other parts of the country are also dissatisfied. Thus, before taking to the streets, disgruntled citizens need to receive a signal that large parts of the population are also unhappy with the regime and willing to mobilize against it. For Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer and Welsh, informational cascades occur when individuals receive new information that helps them update their beliefs and bandwagon around the actions of others.

In the early days of the Arab Spring in North Africa, respected political agents helped trigger informational cascades (and subsequent mass mobilization) by solving the informational challenge citizens faced in some authoritarian countries. In Egypt and Libya, the visible and largely unexpected involvement of groups or personalities traditionally close to the regime (or usually tolerated by it) transformed relatively small, isolated acts of protests into national events and helped signal to the rest of the population the presence of major opportunity for contestation. In contrast, protests led by marginal groups in Morocco and Algeria were unable to convince the rest of the population that there was an opening for demonstration.

Following the Tunisian revolution, mobilization in Egypt in early 2011 was nourished by an unexpected coalition between old and new activists. While a number of groups and personalities had been mobilizing for years against Mubarak’s regime, the unexpected involvement of new actors in the early protests alerted the rest of the population to the presence of a truly exceptional opportunity for contestation. In addition to traditionally vocal groups, such as al-Mahalla workers or dissident liberal parties, the protests that followed the Tunisian revolution were characterized by the unexpected involvement of youth, celebrities, or internationally respected figures. Many activists were from well-off families close to the regime, and their involvement brought exceptional visibility to the protests organized by the traditional political activists. The involvement of these new actors created a powerful informational cascade by giving the demonstrations the visibility and the respectability necessary to reach the rest of the population.

A very similar process occurred in neighboring Libya following the February 2011 Benghazi protests. While the city experienced popular protests in 2006 that were swiftly extinguished by the authorities, the 2011 protests were marked by the quick defections of a series of senior government officials and military leaders, some of whom were friends of Moammar Gaddafi. Their actions created a sense of exceptionality and helped the rest of the population realize that Libya was experiencing historic momentum. Within a few days, the defections broke the silence in the country and helped nourish a powerful informational cascade.

In Algeria, in contrast, demonstrations organized by the Coordination Nationale pour le Changement Démocratique (CNCD) in Oran and Algiers were unable to attract more than a few thousand sympathizers. The low turnout of the CNCD demonstrations was particularly puzzling in a country which experiences dozens, if not hundreds, of acts of protests every year. In the Algerian case, virtually all of the country’s political and economic actors firmly stood in defense of the regime. With the exception of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights and a number of small independent unions, all of the country’s relevant political agents refused to join the early demonstrations so that the local acts of protest did not gain the visibility necessary to spark an informational cascade.

The situation was similar in Morocco where locally relevant political agents also refused to join the protests organized by the youth of the February 20 movement. While a coalition of youth, human rights activists and Islamists demanded economic and political reform, virtually all of the country’s major personalities and institutional groups, including respected journalists and popular artists, refused to bandwagon on the protests. Not only did these actors refuse to join the demonstrations, they also worked to stop the process of revolutionary diffusion in the country. Religious leaders, former dissidents and respected writers called on their followers to support the monarchy. Even hip-hop artists helped stop popular mobilization. Don Bigg, one of Morocco’s most recognizable singers, dismissed the country’s pro-democracy activists by referring to them as a bunch of “brats” and “Ramadan eaters”.

The comparison of North African countries during the Arab Spring shows that a wide sense of popular disgruntlement with the authorities is not enough to trigger mass social mobilization. Local political agents have the ability to kill or inflate local acts of protests. The calculations made by these agents are critical for the development of informational cascades and it is therefore necessary to study their motivations more in detail.

Merouan Mekouar is an assistant professor in the department of social science at York University, Toronto, and a senior fellow at the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (ICAMES) in Montreal. He specializes in social movements, revolutions and authoritarian resilience.