Stephen Walt is simply amazing. I hardly ever agree with him but his latest post on Tunisia is worthwhile reading if only to see a hero of international relations theory making kind of a problematic argument. Here's the deal: The question all political scientists and historians have in front of them right now is whether or not the ouster of Ben Ali in Tunisia marks the beginning of a wave of democratic revolutions in the Arab world, whether or not, to put it differently, revolution can be contagious (obvious candidates would include Egypt and Syria – hows that for an Arab vanguard, anyway?). Now, Walt believes that it is unlikely that the revolution will spread. I tend to disagree (and I mean it, I tend to). But, lets look at Walt's argument:
First, argues Walt: “(...) the actual revolutionary potential of any society is very difficult to read in advance, and a rising revolutionary wave often depends on very particular preferences and information effects within society. Put differently, whether a genuine upheaval breaks out and gathers steam is a highly contingent process.” The revolution probably isn't going to spread because revolutionary settings are complex? Despite being complex they are also contingent and therefore it won't spread? (And notice the last assertion is just that an assertion, not an argument).
The second—Arab governments will be inclined to crack down harder and earlier on—I find somewhat compelling, whereas the third—Tunisia might experience some turmoil or some kind of anarchy and the revolution might therefore be less attractive for other disenfranchised populations to be repeated—I find irritating.
So, here is what I think should be taken into account:
First, contingency and sophistication are indeed important in judging any historical event, but the period we live in is different to others before for the changing nature of the way history tends to unfold. Links between different societies are today more real than ever before and though that leads to an even more sophisticated picture, contingency no longer trumps interdependence (and it appears to me that this is perhaps the real meaning of globalisation).
Second, if the Tunisian case illustrates anything than its this: Revolutions cannot be predicted, something I've argued for quite a while, now. However, it also shows that revolutions can be sparked by seemingly minor events, petty episodes might set an entire country aflame. That is hardly anything new, its seems to me that this innate to any revolution.
Which leads me to argue that third, the decisive factor is whether or not a regime has managed to enact enough reform to counteract revolutionary settings. The Tunisian case reinforces what historians have argued in all sorts of different cases: That reform is the minimum of change necessary to prevent the accumulation of revolutionary potential. When I look into Iran or Syria or Egypt for that matter, I do not get the impression that any of these regimes has followed that line of thinking.
But again that does not mean that Tunisia is going to be the spark that ignites the fume, the jury is literally still out on that. But what it does mean is that the regimes in Syria, Iran and Egypt are going to fall.