Equation for a Modern Revolution

Such is the speed of the rolling revolution across the Arab world that many are struggling to remember how it all came to be. Although political science can offer no guaranteed formulae that can act as a means of predicting future events, it can provide us with a better understanding of the variables that got us to where we are today. Of critical importance is the undefined nature of revolution that the equation comes up with. It is a reminder that although events appear to have fundamentally changed the relationship between governments and their people, they cannot yet be said to be revolutions.

My equation offers an attempt at a stripped down examination of the factors and determinants that have led to such unprecedented events across the region. However, it is simply the tip of the iceberg, for the formula to be truly effective a huge number of variables would have to be plugged into each category:

Denselow's Revolutionary Theory

(SC plus T) × (I plus GM) = PA plus DP
(I plus GM plus DP plus PA) ÷ (GR plus SR × EI) = R?

The logic works as follows: Firstly, the state of the country (SC) will determine the likelihood of it being susceptible to revolution. Factors that have been widely discussed by organisations such as the Economist's Unrest Index include population demographics, levels of unemployment, a ruler's time in office (despite the contrast between the three decades of Mubarak and Saleh's terms compared to the five years of Iraq's Maliki) and rates of poverty.

The "X-Factor" of any revolution is clearly the trigger (T) which sparks subsequent events. An underlying trigger to explaining the "why now?" question may have been the fact that levels of poverty across the world have accelerated due to rising food prices. In February, World Bank president Robert Zoellick said that food prices had risen by almost 30% in the past year and that an estimated 44 million people had been pushed into poverty since last summer by soaring commodity prices.

More specifically however, once the dust has settled, historians may look to the actions of Mohammad Bouazizi as the most direct trigger of events. Indeed, when the 26 year old set fire to himself in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on December 17 he can have had little idea of the chain of events his death would inspire. Following events in Tunisia one revolution appears to have triggered a daisy chain that has exploded and spread across the region.

The movement of this revolution both across the region and within countries has been accelerated by developments in communications technology (I). In the internet sphere, social networking has allowed protestors to circumnavigate traditional state modes of control, while the transparency agenda of WikiLeaks has revealed that the region's Emperors have no clothes. For example, the US Ambassador wrote that "he [Ben Ali] and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power."

Global media (GM) coverage of the WikiLeaks revelations was followed by the coverage of the actual protests as the new organizing tools and the unsustainable state of affairs triggered public action (PA) which took the form of the capture of public squares and demonstrations against the infrastructure of government. Today, we are all now familiar with localities such as Tahrir Square and Pearl roundabout. Indeed the authorities Bahrain's decision to use force to clear Pearl roundabout on the night of the 16 February was evidence of their awareness of the enduring symbol that such protests can be, acting as a rallying point for the population that is extensively covered, and therefore reinforced, by the 24-hour news media.

Once the unmanageable scale of their actions is clear, protestors are able to begin the process of consolidating their demands (DP). Although the range in demands vary from country to country, agreement over a change in the country's leader / leadership appears to be unanimous as does demands for the start of a rapid, if in exact details unknown, reform process.

This explains the first part of my equation whereby:

(SC plus T) × (I plus GM) = PA plus DP

(SC) State of the country plus (T) Triggers × (I) Internet Tools plus (GM) Global Media Coverage = (PA) Public action plus (DP) Demands from population

Of course a major part of the equation is missing as, while the regimes affected have not been able to manage the state of their countries, they have been able to react to the protestors.

Therefore the following equation links the two sides towards possible revolution.

(I plus GM plus DP plus PA) ÷ (GR plus SR × EI) = R?

(I) Internet Tools plus (GM) Global Media Coverage plus (DP) Demands from population plus (PA) Public action ÷ (GR) Government Response plus (SR) Security Forces Response × (EI) External Involvement = (R) Revolution?

Government response (GR) describes the political reaction to the protests and their demands. In Egypt, Mubarak attempted to placate the crowds by delivering incremental gifts of reform before his rule became untenable. In Algeria, the government ended the state of emergency, while in Yemen and Iraq the government offered pay rises for government officials and food and other subsidies for the poor.

Governments have also responded by attempting to control either the entire internet (I) in Egypt, or to restrict certain parts of it like Facebook in Syria and Libya. Restrictions on information have also seen media professionals targeted for arrest, beatings and equipment theft.

The more traditional response takes the form of response from security forces (SR) which again was varied in levels of brutality, with traditional crowd control measures such as tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets being augmented by the use of police in mufti and reported use of snipers. Restrictions on the global media (GM) saw journalists targeted for arrests and attacks.

A final layer to the equation is external involvement (EI). In recent weeks, the West's involvement is characterised by its absence. Attempts by Mubarak to blame Egypt's troubles fall on deaf ears as all were aware of his reliance on Washington. By contrast, in Iran, Chatham House's Robin Niblett is correct when he argues that "if the West wants to help the Iranian opposition the best thing it can do is stay well away." Of all the variables EI perhaps covers the largest numbers of factors, it is a huge umbrella which covers a host of activity ranging from UN statements, private conversations between government officials or less predictable actions such as Syria's purported role in helping Hezbollah operatives break out of a Cairo prison.

The next step is to understand what R? will actually mean. News of deaths in Bahrain are a reminder that today's revolutionaries are competing against powers that may have lost their aura of invulnerability but will look to extreme lengths to salvage their system of control.