The 2011 popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that removed long-standing autocrats occurred in rapid succession, with Egyptian demonstrators explicitly drawing inspiration from the example of their Tunisian counterparts. This caused some observers to locate the cause of the uprisings in trends common to both societies and the Arab world more generally, such as the growth of social media or a “youth bulge” in the population. However, the post-revolutionary divergence between Egypt and Tunisia — to say nothing of the violence in places like Libya and Syria — has made implausible the notion that some shared characteristic is driving the countries of the “Arab Spring” along a common, upward trajectory.
The contrast between Egypt and Tunisia today is stark; while the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize last week for shepherding the country towards democracy, the Egyptian government is dominated by the military and its first democratically elected leader sits in jail, awaiting his death sentence.
How, then, are we to understand the divergence between these revolutions, which occurred in the same region, at roughly the same time and made essentially the same demands?
On the one hand, it is impossible to read post-revolutionary outcomes directly from economic or social circumstances preceding an uprising. Revolutionary processes regularly overwhelm and sideline their progenitors, a fact of which the liberals and leftists initiating the Iranian revolution in the 1970s are sorely aware.
On the other hand, the societal groups participating in a revolution do not emerge out of thin air, but in response to social conditions and political opportunities. Understanding which social groups lead the challenge against a standing government can provide insight into how toppled leaders ruled (or misruled) their populations and help identify the segments of society that leaders of post-revolutionary governments must focus on to address the needs of their citizenry.
In a recently published article, we investigate which segments of society participated in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and the conditions impelling their participation. The participants differed in many respects across the two countries and we have developed a historical argument to explain this divergence. The Egyptian uprising was a relatively narrow middle class revolt, whereas the Tunisian uprising constituted a broader cross-class coalition. The ways in which Egyptian and Tunisian leaders managed domestic and international pressures in the 1990s and 2000s created the grievances and opportunities to act on them that fueled both revolts.
Our research suggests that neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian revolution resulted directly from the flowering of new democratic ideals, as economic issues were more important than political freedoms for participants in both uprisings. Using unique survey data available from the second round of the Arab Barometer study — a set of nationally representative surveys about political life, governance, and political, social, and cultural values administered in 2011 in eleven Arab countries — we show that most Tunisians and Egyptians who participated in the uprisings identified demands for improving the economic situation as the most or second most important reason for the uprisings, with desires for political freedoms coming in a distant second place in both countries (see Table 1).
Despite their similar motivations, the segments of society propelling each revolution differed. A full 55 percent of Egyptian protesters came from middle class occupations, compared to only 30 percent in Tunisia. Workers, students and the unemployed constituted 57 percent of the Tunisian demonstrators but only 19 percent of the Egyptian demonstrators. Moreover, participants in the Tunisian Revolution were considerably younger than the disproportionately middle-aged participants in the Egyptian Revolution, with the youngest age group (18 to 24 years old) overrepresented in the Tunisian uprising relative to their share of the total population, while those nearing middle age (35 to 44 years old) were most overrepresented in Egypt. Finally, civil society association members had a greater presence in the Egyptian Revolution than the Tunisian Revolution, while Tunisian revolutionaries were significantly more likely to rely on the internet as a coordinating device than Egyptian revolutionaries.
These differences in the social composition of protesters can be explained by the different strategies taken by the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes in the decades preceding the revolutions. Both regimes were forced by fiscal crises to reform their public sectors and by international pressure to take steps towards political liberalization. The ways in which they did so shaped popular grievances and the capacity of citizens to act on them, in turn shaping the different patterns of individual-level participation in the revolutions that eventually broke out in both countries.
In Egypt, the regime dismantled welfare protections for the middle class and co-opted rather than overtly repressed the opposition. This created conditions conducive to an urban revolt by the established middle class, fueled by economic grievances and led by civil society organization.
In Tunisia, by contrast, the regime adopted a more repressive approach to its opposition that, combined with neo-liberal economic policies, undermined civil society organization and activated regional and generational grievances. These techniques created the basis for a cross-class alliance that was spearheaded by the young and began in the provinces, slowly spreading to the capital.
Our analysis may be something of a disappointment for believers in the power of democratic ideals to chart a nation’s course. Who participated in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions was more a function of how state policies impacted different social categories than individuals’ ideological orientations or ideals. What’s more, participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were united in identifying economic grievances, rather than demands for more political freedom, as the primary reasons for participation in the uprisings.
However, our conclusions are consistent with most social science findings about the political trajectory of countries that have successfully democratized. Writing almost 50 years ago on the paths taken by Western democracies, political scientist Dankwart Rustow observed that, “Democracy was not the original or primary aim; it was sought as a means to some other end or it came as a fortuitous byproduct of the struggle.” The demands Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators placed on their governments, and the ways each state responded, were paramount in determining the course of the revolutions. That the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators held similar views — while one state has made major steps towards democracy and the other looks as autocratic as ever — underscores the fact that the ideals of the citizenry are not the primary factor impelling or sustaining democratization.
Major trends affecting the entire Arab world, such as the rapid increase in the youth population and the diffusion of social media, have proven no panacea for ridding the region of autocratic rule. Though consistent with most democratization studies, this fact offers little solace to observers of the Egyptian political scene or to the vast majority of Egyptians hoping for a more responsive government. A slightly more optimistic reading of our results suggests that the policies states put in place can prevent societal demands from spilling into open conflict. The government of Tunisia, so far at least, appears to be channeling the struggle of their citizenry in this manner.
Mark R. Beissinger is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Politics at Princeton University and Director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS). Amaney A. Jamal is the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics at Princeton University and director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice. Kevin Mazur is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.