Small sparks, big bangs

Khaled Hanafi Ali , Tuesday 15 Dec 2020

Small events as well as large ones can sometimes act as sparks that can ignite immense fires, as the recent history of the Arab region has shown, writes Khaled Hanafi Ali

Arab region

Just as passing events can cause major and unexpected transformations in how people view themselves and impact on their behaviour, much the same thing can happen to societies as a whole but on a different scale.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has swept across the globe like wildfire, has greatly impacted policies and societies across the world due to social-distancing, closures, and health precautions. Looking back on human history, it seems that major pandemics are often followed by changes that correspond to their threat to human survival. Yet, what is more puzzling is how small events or even ordinary decisions by governments can also act as sparks igniting immense fires that can trigger unexpected consequences or major problems.

This idea has been on the mind of Arab governments over the past decade and has become a disturbing obsession. The 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions showed how a small individual incident, in this case the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in protest at the confiscation of his cart, led to major changes in the sentiments of society and caused people across the region to take to the streets to overthrow the regimes. The region then entered into a long period of instability.

Since then, a constant question has been to ask what other small events could trigger sudden major crises. Government decisions to raise taxes and prices? Repeated individual crimes that cause people to doubt the authorities’ ability to protect society? Perhaps an external event that incites society’s religious identity, such as drawings insulting the Prophet Mohamed in France?

It is difficult to answer such questions because the ability to predict crises relies on accumulation, continuity, and similarity among events when predicting the course of a trend. These factors are sometimes lacking in small events that unexpectedly spark major outcomes across society, and they may not be recurring. Even if they were, their outcomes and impact on society may be quite dissimilar.

Some approaches to explaining discrepancies between the input and output of a phenomenon — meaning a small event leading to major consequences — places us before a chaotic and unpredictable reality. For example, US scientist Edward Lorenz’s famous “butterfly effect” theory states that small changes in a dynamic system can lead to a small event that has ripple effects that lead to consequences and developments that exceed its size many times over. One famous idea is that the movement of a butterfly’s wings in China could cause a storm in Europe.

Similarly, Lebanese-American writer Nassim Taleb’s “black swan” theory asserts that rare events can lead to major and unexpected consequences because they are impossible to predict, since we usually focus on what we know (white swans) and not what we don’t know or are unfamiliar with (black swans). If the latter kind of event occurs, we usually patch together explanations.

SURPRISE CATALYSTS: In the light of the “black swan” theory, it is true that no one expected Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia to trigger a major crisis, but after it happened there were many theories about how it was linked to chronic political, economic and social problems.

Ironically, this same act of self-immolation had occurred repeatedly at different times in Tunisia and other countries suffering from much the same problems, but they had never led to the same outcomes. That could have been due to the experience of those in power and the specific context, or society’s fear of the cost of change. One need only look at the collapse of the state, civil war, and foreign interference that has taken place in Syria, Yemen and Libya to see that people are wary of widespread change.

In Hoceima in northern Morocco, the death of fishmonger Mohsen Fikri, crushed to death when he climbed into the back of a rubbish truck to save his livelihood after the police had confiscated his load of fish that day, sparked massive protests in 2016 that lasted for months in many rural areas. However, they failed to overthrow the regime. Much the same thing happened in Jerada in northeast Morocco when the death of three young men in a coal mine triggered protests and clashes with the security forces in 2018.

Despite the different courses of the major events triggered by such small events, another question comes to mind. Are the consequences of these small sparks truly unexpected, or are they the result of a lack of knowledge and understanding of what is going on beneath the surface of Arab societies? Is it how governments deal with events and facts at the beginning that leads to such crises? Sometimes, the authorities’ miscalculations and inability to predict how a decision will impact society plays a key role in paving the way for major troubles.

The Constitutional Declaration by the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in November 2012 sparked political outrage that was to end in the 30 June 2013 uprising that removed them from power. The Brotherhood were mistaken in thinking that a religious group could control a country such as Egypt, whose strength is fundamentally rooted in its national identity, cohesive society, and the legacy of its historically strong institutions.

On the other hand, some decisions by the authorities lead to major crises due to the cognitive inertia of the ruling elite and their reliance in policymaking on previous factors without realising that major social changes are taking place. When the ailing and wheelchair-bound former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika decided to run for a fifth presidential term in 2019, the ruling elite did not anticipate that this would trigger an uprising that would force him to resign. Their analysis was based on the fact that the people had not resisted Bouteflika’s re-nomination in 2014 despite his having been just as ill.

Another factor now emerges — namely that some governments lack political sensitivity to the pulse of the streets and do not realise that by taking certain decisions at certain times and under certain circumstances they could incite the masses. In 2018, the Jordanian government raised income tax, which sparked extensive protests; in October 2019, the Lebanese people rose up against their government after it imposed taxes on mobile-phone communications and the platform WhatsApp.

Surely, any decision-maker with even minimal awareness and proper early warning systems should have expected a backlash in the light of the worsening economic and living conditions in both countries.

FACTORS FOR FIRE: The paths of major crises in the region caused by passing or small events reveal that there are no consistent models that can enable governments to predict these crises.

Nonetheless, events in the Arab region over the past decade reveal four consecutive phases of events. First, there is an ignition point triggered by an event or government decision that the masses oppose, which is unlike their usual reaction. Second, there is the spread of this spark in a short time from a small area to become a blaze across society. Third, there is the ability of the authorities to confront these protests either by the cohesion of the elite, rapid reform, or their possessing the tools of appeasement. Fourth, there is the susceptibility of sparking major crises whether society has been suffering from accumulating problems or not.

These stages mirror the sequence of ignition in natural phenomena despite differences between natural occurrences and human ones. Any ignition requires a high temperature and flammable material (fuel and oxygen, for example) before a spark can become a fireball moving from one area to the next, depending on wind speeds.

Bouazizi’s “spark” ignited outrage in society about the decades-long inability of the Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali regime in Tunisia to address chronic socio-economic problems such as poverty, marginalisation, unemployment, and inequality. Much the same sequence triggered protests in Morocco at Haceima and Jerada. By the same token, despite the different circumstances, the nomination of the ailing Bouteflika for another term in office insulted the people’s dignity in Algeria. Meanwhile, the regime’s inability to contain its steadily diminishing resources after the price of oil dropped in 2014 and the introduction of austerity measures that provoked factional unrest also fuelled the uprising against the Algerian regime.

As for transforming an individual spark of protest into a fully-fledged epidemic, this can be explained by principles made famous by Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell, who has talked about a “tipping point” by which a small event has major consequence. The three agents of change, according to Gladwell, are the “law of the few” (the influential elite), the “stickiness factor” (the ability to spread), and the “power of context” (wider relevance).

In Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Iraq and Lebanon, there were elites who promoted popular protests outside the framework of the traditional political parties that usually make deals with the regime. Second, there were tools for propagation and networking within society through social media. Third, there was the “power of context” as more voices demanding political change came together, forming “alliances of the suffering” such as the poor and middle classes coming together in Sudan, where protests began outside the capital in the poverty-stricken areas of Port Sudan in the east and Atbara in the north.

Unrest then spread to the centre in Khartoum, the stronghold of the middle classes, whose own livelihoods had suffered after the regime lost most of its oil revenues in 2011 after the secession of South Sudan.

EXPOSURE OR STEADFASTNESS: The steadfastness of a regime or its exposure can be a key factor in determining whether a spark will grow into a raging fire or not.

The Algerian military did not support the protests in the beginning, but as the demonstrations gained momentum it later turned against Bouteflika and supported the streets. The army pushed to activate Article 102 of the country’s constitution to declare the vacancy of the presidential post due to the president’s inability to carry out his duties, and this was a key factor in forcing Bouteflika to resign.

However, the ability to exercise proactive control by the security agencies may not always succeed in stamping out small sparks if the powers that be face unexpected changes. Al-Bashir’s regime withstood even more violent confrontations in 2013 and 2016 in Sudan, but fell when protests broke out over another hike in the price of bread in December 2018 and left power in April 2019. At the time, there were disagreements between the country’s security and military institutions about how best to deal with the Sudanese protesters.

Some monarchies such as Jordan were more flexible and accommodating. The government of Jordanian prime minister Hani Al-Mulqi resigned after the 2018 protests, and King Abdullah II suspended the price hikes of electricity and fuel to appease the people. Morocco also moved to contain the unrest in rural areas through dialogue, the resignation of prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s government, King Mohamed VI’s criticising the government’s performance in development projects, and the simultaneous arrest of some activists and the release of others.

A general characteristic of crises in Arab countries, depending on their context, is an atmosphere susceptible to igniting collective anger. Since young people make up the majority of Arab populations, this atmosphere increases the political tensions due to young people’s growing expectations. Meanwhile, decades of governments failing to address chronic social and economic problems compound the small sparks of collective grievances, especially if the media then mobilises and motivates the masses by linking the tragedy of one young unemployed man setting himself on fire or committing suicide to the government’s inability to address unemployment.

The susceptibility to anger increases if we include changes in collective memory, which could dilute fears of change. The collective memory of most of the Algerians who rose up against Bouteflika was far removed from the demons of the bloody 1990s when civil conflict raged across Algeria, since it is the 20-year-olds who had only known Bouteflika as president since 1999.

For these young people, the sum of the rewards and the costs of change could sometimes be rooted in sentimental and emotional motivators rather than in wisdom. If some believe that societies have avoided change due to revolutions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen deteriorating into chaos, these societies may still criticise incidents speaking of derision, humiliation, and a lack of appreciation irrespective of their consequences.

There is also the factor of innate models of change in the political culture of each country. Sudan has a legacy of change, and it has experienced cycles of military rule and democracy since its independence in 1956. More importantly, the susceptibility to anger is always ready to trigger crises in the future, even if it is contained in the present, because it accumulates in society, awaiting a spark before it re-ignites again.

In Lebanon, the government of former prime minister Saad Al-Hariri resigned after the October 2019 uprising against corruption and deteriorating living conditions in the country. The protests ignited again after the explosions at the Port of Beirut in August 2020 and overthrew the government of subsequent prime minister Hassan Diab.

In Iraq, a revolt bringing together all the religious sects in the country began in October 2019 in protest against widespread corruption, unemployment, deteriorating public services, and Iranian interference in Iraq. Although the spark began when the country’s security forces violently dealt with sit-ins by unemployed university graduates in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, in time the demonstrations grew, dozens died, and the demands evolved towards overthrowing the government of then prime minister Adel Abdel-Hadi.

Although the uprising did not achieve its goals, it did produce pressure for political change, and the government was forced to resign after two months. This created a way for the new government of new prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to gauge sentiments on the street, as he sought to appease the masses by promising to prosecute the killers of protesters, combat corruption, and put forward political and economic reforms.

The lesson from events in the Arab region over the past decade is that addressing problems such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, and corruption, and prioritising the dignity of people and creating public space as an outlet to air grievances that may be festering below the surface of society can prevent the accumulation of tensions and resentment.

Building such a proactive environment reduces the likelihood of major unforeseen consequences resulting from small sparks.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: