How to spot the next revolution

Demographics, mobile phone penetration and the army’s disposition

Earlier this month, after the protests in Tunisia caused the reigning despot to fly to Saudi Arabia, this blogger said that the phenomenon is unlikely to spread. In the event this was proven wrong by Egypt. Bear this in mind as you read the rest of this post.

How can we tell which country is susceptible to political transformation brought about by “people power”? Here’s a rough guide:

First, look at demographics. Scholars such as Samuel Huntington, Jack Goldstone, Gunnar Heinsohn and Henrik Urdal argue that if there are a large number of young, healthy, educated and dissatisfied men, the stage is set for unrest. Of these Mr Heinsohn goes the furthest, predicting that when the population of 15 to 29-year-olds crosses 30 percent of the overall population, then, regardless of the cause, violence will ensue. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, Arab North Africa, the mainland Arabia and Pakistan meet this criterion. Turkey and Iran are exceptions. [Related link: The New Security Beat blog has a good discussion on this]

Second, look at mobile telephone and internet penetration. Mobilising large numbers of people in short periods of time requires ubiquitous access to mobile phones and the internet. This is important because state machinery can pre-empt large protests if they have enough time to identify, intimidate or imprison the field organisers. That is why Twitter (and to an extent Facebook) beat SMS text messages, and why text messages beat phone calls and pamphlets. A tweet is likely to reach any given fraction of the population orders of magnitude faster than a SMS text message. Most importantly, they work in combination—a tweet can be relayed on SMS, and vice versa.

(In fact, the failure to account for this factor might be one reason why I underestimated the likelihood Egypt will stir. Both Hosni Mubarak and I might have been stumped by the speed of the mobilisation.)

While technology allows faster mobilisation, it does not create leadership or an alternative political vision. It is not surprising that some of the recent “leaderless” uprisings do not have a clear idea of “what next?” beyond the toppling of the current regime. What this means is that organised political groups—like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—can wait for the uprising to oust the incumbent, even let a transition government operate for a while, before stepping in to take over. Not unlike what the Pakistani military-jihadi complex did following the ouster of General Musharraf.

Third, when it comes to the crunch, look at whether the security forces—specifically the army—will fire upon their own people. This is both a yes/no question, as well as a question of extent.

In countries with compulsory military service, it is less likely that the army will fire on its own people. In countries where the armed forces are insulated from the general public—culturally, socio-economically or ideologically—then it is more likely that the army will not have such compunctions. That is why Iran has a special revolutionary guard that is distinct from the army. This is also why the Pakistani army engages in massive domestic skulduggery, because its leaders do not want to be in a situation where they have to fire at Pakistanis from the Punjabi heartland.

Worked Examples

Demographics: median age 29, (borderline) check.
Mobile phone penetration 95.3%, check. Internet 4.5% no check.
Army: Didn’t fire

Demographics: median age 24, check.
Mobile phone penetration 77%, check. Internet 21.1% no check.
Army: ?

The rest is left as an exercise for the interested reader.