How Could We Have Missed These Uprisings?

This is a question that has been asked numerous times over the past three weeks as, first, Tunisia, and, then, Egypt exploded in the streets with thousands demanding freedom.  The US’s intelligence agencies were faulted for not anticipating these events.  I think that this judgement is a bit unfair.  To know something is going to eventually explode is not the same as knowing the precise time.  Think of our ability to predict volcanoes.  We know where they are, which ones are most likely to blow, but not when.  Similarly, we know that societies that have large, young, educated, and unemployed populations with minimal political and economic freedoms are powder kegs.  Depending upon the ruthlessness of the regime uprisings are more (Tunisia) or less (Iran) likely.

Professor Timor Kuran, currently at Duke University, wrote a book, “Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Harvard University Press: 1995)” that explains how this toppling of the regimes came so quickly and unexpectedly.

I want to quote from his book, p. 250-251.

Imagine a ten-person society featuring the threshold sequence

A: Individual a b c d e f g h i j
Threshold 0 20 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 100

Person a, whose threshold is 0, supports the opposition regardless of its size, just as person j always supports the government.  The remaining eight people’s preferences are sensitive to the expected size of the public opposition.  Depending on its level, they will opt for one camp or the other. Initially, as in the geometric illustration [p.249], the opposition consists of 10 percent of the population, so Y=10 [where Y is represents the size of the opposition to the government].  Specifically, person a supports the opposition, and persons b through j support the government.  Because individuals other than a have thresholds above 10, a public opposition of 10 is self-sustaining [implying the regime maintains power].

Suppose now that person b has an unpleasant encounter at some government ministry [such as, for instance, the street vendor in Tunisia, or the person beat up by the cops in Egypt].  Her alienation from the regime deepens, pushing her threshold down from 20 to 10. The threshold sequence becomes

A’: Individual a b c d e f g h i j
Threshold 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 100

The new threshold of b happens to equal the existing Y of 10.  So she switches sides, revealing her decision by tossing an egg at the country’s leader during an official rally [or self-immolating oneself as the Tunisian did].  Y thus becomes 20.  The new Y is not self-sustaining but self-augmenting, as it drives into opposition.  The higher Y of 30 then triggers a fourth defection, raising Y to 40.  And the process continues until Y reaches 90 – a new equilibrium.  Now the first nine individuals are in opposition, with only j supporting the government.  A slight shift in one individual’s threshold has generated a revolutionary bandwagon.


I believe that this analysis succinctly captures exactly what has taken place in northern Africa.  Once one individual shook his fist at the government other realized that they weren’t alone in their discontent.    Gone are the days when opponents of a regime could be locked away and the only means of communication with the outside world was on purloined sheets of toilet paper.  In the US, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement got started because decent-minded citizens saw on TV scenes that they never thought could happen in the US.  In the 1980s, the VCR brought news of freedom to the communist bloc.  Today, cell phones and the internet have all but eliminated a regime’s ability to suppress the news of their treatment of their citizenry.

The various intelligence agencies can only guess at the thresholds of the citizens of other countries.  They could only engage in some scenario exercises of the “what-if” variety.  It is doubtful that any of them would have been able to predict these topplings much less the speed, any more than they could have predicted the collapsing of the Soviet puppet states, one by one, in the late 1980s.  We must learn that no one is omniscient and that not every event can be forecasted with precision.  We shouldn’t look for a scapegoat. Instead, the lesson here is that the desire for freedom is innate in all human beings.  America needs to give moral support to those who stand up and defy the regimes.

Posted by Jim


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