What Science Teaches Dictators About the Likelihood of Revolution

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Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian demonstrators gather at Cairo's Tahrir Square on Feb. 1, 2011

Pity the poor despot. Just when he thinks he's got the whole President-for-life thing figured out, someone comes along and changes the rules. For autocrats around the world watching Hosni Mubarak's accelerating fall from power, the lesson seems simple: loosen the reins before it's too late, and you can avoid all the marches, placards and effigy hangings. That, more than anything, is the thinking behind Jordan's King Abdullah pre-emptively sacking his government as nearby Egypt boils.

But as a study soon to be published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution (yes, there is such a thing) shows, things are subtler than that. It's not so much how much freedom a country has that determines whether its people will rise up and say "Enough!" It's how much freedom they have compared with how much freedom they expect to have. It's that gap — giving people more or less democracy than they realistically aspire to — that really determines a strongman's grip.

The study, conducted by political scientists Tamir Sheafer and Shaul Shenhav at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was a detailed survey of 90 different countries, factoring together such variables as press freedom, free elections and civil liberties on the one hand, and the countries' history of repression and democracy on the other. That balance is never the same in any two places, and even subtle differences can have a powerful impact. The U.K., for example, is an open democracy by almost any measure, but its newspapers still labor under a strict set of libel laws, placing the burden of proof on the press to show it has not defamed someone. Apart from that, the press is extremely free. Implement the exact same system in China — where the government maintains tight control over the media — and there would be huzzahs at the new openness. Implement it in the U.S. and there would be howls.

As Sheafer and Shenhav crunched their numbers, they measured whether each country's reality exceeded its citizens' expectations (which they called a positive democratic gap) or if the expectations exceeded reality (a negative democratic gap). They then calculated the size of that difference and looked back through history to see how societies with similar scores fared in the past. Based on that, they believe, it was possible to predict as long ago as 2008 that Egypt was heading for trouble by 2011 and that Iran would react with the explosion of demonstrations that occurred after last year's fraudulent elections. Belarus, similarly, could have seen its recent election-related unrest coming if it had had access to Sheafer and Shenhav's data.

The scientists are not revealing their 90-country scores yet, pending the actual publication of the study, but they are tipping their hands a little. Watch your steps, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and, yes, China. Your negative democratic gaps are growing dangerously wide — partly as a result of the Internet, which provides your people with a window on the way things are done in other, freer parts of the world. Algeria and Malaysia, alas, your system of government will probably hold. The positive gap created by the relative cupful of democracy you allow your people is already more than what they had come to expect.

Former President George W. Bush liked to speak of a flowering of freedom across the Arab world, and in Tunisia and Egypt that may be happening. Like all flowering things, however, democracy depends entirely on the quality of the local soil.