It’s been 10 years since the Arab Spring. Why did people protest then — and not now?

Egyptians celebrated the fall of President Hosni Mubarak's regime in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011. (Ben Curtis/AP)
Egyptians celebrated the fall of President Hosni Mubarak's regime in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011. (Ben Curtis/AP)

In February 2011, Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s leader after more than 29 years in office — a resignation prompted by unprecedented mass uprisings. Across the region, millions of Arabs brought down dictators who had been in power for decades, such as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. In Egypt, masses celebrated Mubarak’s resignation, chanting, “We have brought down the regime”.

Ten years later, a new military leader governs Egypt with an iron fist: President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. While economic grievances and political repression remain high, my research on the reasoning processes underlying decisions to join the Arab Spring suggests that masses will not soon pour onto the streets again. Research finds that emotions, not grievances alone, are critical to decisions about whether to protest. And right now, the dominance of cold reasoning over hot emotions will keep people at home.

The psychology of protest

Many studies of the Arab Spring focus on external factors like social media, the region’s security apparatus or economic grievances. Emotions are just as critical in individuals’ decisions to join the uprisings, as shown by the broader psychology literature associating protest behavior with negative emotions of anger.

To find out how people decided to join the Arab Spring, I organized ethnographic interviews with people who did and did not participate in the uprisings. Resembling friendly conversations, these interviews involve nonintrusive questions that invite interviewees to elaborate on their behavior in their own words. In the summer of 2014, I interviewed 93 people in Egypt and Morocco and collected 19 Facebook posts in which individuals described intentions about joining the Arab Spring.

To identify reasoning processes from people’s descriptions of their behavior, I applied qualitative methods. In this analysis, I systematically coded each sentence to show the factors that individuals considered relevant to their protest decisions — for example, poverty, state repression or emotions. I also systematically identified how individuals connected these factors to their decisions, which was visible from linguistic connectors, such as “because” or “therefore”. In this way, I identified 121 individuals’ reasoning processes related to protest decisions.

To analyze the reasoning processes, I developed a computational model. The model finds that decisions to protest are based on hot, emotionally laden reasoning processes, whereas decisions to stay home involve cool, safety-based reasoning processes. Protest decision-making involves what psychologists have identified as hot and cool cognitive systems. The hot system is known as the “go” system, with emotion motivating fast decision-making. Its cool counterpart constitutes a “know” system, in which strategic and self-controlling considerations lead to slow decisions.

Some previous scholarship has suggested that protest is driven by anger. However, my research found that decisions to protest were often based on “hot”, positive emotions, particularly hope that protest would bring change, solidarity with other protesters, courage to face the government and national pride.

Decisions to stay home were primarily based on “cool” safety concerns. Surprisingly, nonprotesters thought significantly more about economic grievances than the protesters did. This finding contrasts with research suggesting that economic hardship motivated much of the Arab uprisings and plays a major role in civil conflict more generally. My research suggests that people suffering from economic grievances refrained from protesting because they valued their safety more.

The role of hot, emotion-based reasoning supports research on the social contagion of protest. According to this literature, protest behavior spreads in waves, in which people observe and subsequently follow others’ decisions to protest. My findings show that positive emotions that brought people into protests were triggered by seeing mass protests in neighboring Tunisia, unprecedented numbers on Egyptian streets, and some sacrificing themselves to violent state authorities.

Why Egypt’s repression is working … for now

Few emotional triggers for protest can be seen in Egypt today. Since taking power in a coup on July 3, 2013, Sissi has shown no intention of stepping down or allowing genuine democratic elections. His regime has been committing grave violations of human rights: Over the past year, state authorities arrested 60,000 citizens on political grounds. Thousands were detained arbitrarily. Torture and enforced disappearances are a common form of repression, while the security forces enjoy unchecked power. The economic and political grievances of Egyptians may be “possibly even stronger” than a decade ago, according to one observer.

But the emotional context suggests that this situation will most likely not lead to new uprising. Cool safety concerns rather than hope dominate. Consider some of the explanations for not joining the protesters I heard 10 years ago: “When people are killed, we must be careful. There are more important things than protest: safety and stability”, one nonparticipant said. “Most of us are very poor. We need to improve poverty. We need to improve social justice. I agree with these demands”, another nonparticipant said, but added, “Most people prefer stability, even if they are poor”. Another nonparticipant who watched the Arab Spring protest pass by his street shop said: “I had to be here [knocks on the counter]. I only work and go home to my family, that’s my life”. When thinking about protest, he worries about the consequences, saying: “They [the protesters] want higher salaries. So one demonstration leads to the next. This brings killing, war and blood”.

Today, similar safety concerns and the absence of hope probably prevent the spark of protest from igniting. However, this does not mean that people have given up for good, or that there will be no future uprisings. Emotional triggers will most likely occur again, and emotion-based decision-making happens fast — potentially becoming sudden waves of mass protests that bring down long-standing dictators. While Sissi may appear strong at the moment, the same was true of Mubarak. On Jan. 25, 2011, the U.S. secretary of state said Mubarak’s regime was “stable”. Two weeks later, he was forced to resign.

Stephanie Dornschneider (@dornschneider) is an assistant professor at University College Dublin and author of “Hot Contention, Cool Abstention: Positive Emotions and Protest Behavior in the Arab Spring” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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