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The axes of revolution

Recent events in Tunisia will have come as a surprise to many. In fact, if one goes by two of the dominant theories about the conditions necessary for an uprising, they seem downright anomalous.

Recent events in Tunisia will have come as a surprise to many. In fact, if one goes by two of the dominant theories about the conditions necessary for an uprising, they seem downright anomalous. Picture a graph which dips as you move along the X-axis, then rises gradually to finish higher than it started. It looks like a letter J about to fall on its back. This so-called J-curve has been said to describe all kinds of things: the relationship between blood pressure and risk of heart disease, for instance, or the profitability of private equity funds over time. It is also supposed to predict revolution.

In the early 1960s The American sociologist James C Davies observed that "revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal". He came up with a version of the J-curve that was upside-down and back-to-front, rising slowly and then falling off at the end. The quantity it tracked was prosperity. When times are good, so the theory goes, life gets steadily better and the public expects the trend to continue. When things take a turn for the worse, expectations continue to rise and a gap forms between what people have and what they feel they should get. It is that gap, according to Davies, which creates unrest.

So we turn to the 2010 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, where we learn that Tunisia has the most competitive economy in Africa. It was the only MENA country outside the Gulf to hold its position amid the downturn, also outpacing Italy, Spain, Portugal and, by a great distance, Greece. The WEF praised Tunisia's efficient government, good education system and manageable public debt. "This result," it concluded, "is commendable in light of the recent global deterioration…" Only two issues gave cause for concern: inefficient labour markets and low public confidence in the banks, neither of which could be said to have altered sharply in the recent past. Back to the drawing-board.

Another J-curve theory was put forward in 2006 by the political scientist Ian Bremmer. In his version of the graph, the J is the right way around but the Y-axis indicates political stability and the X-axis tracks a variable which Bremmer calls "openness." This, he writes, "is a measure of the extent to which a nation is in harmony with the crosscurrents of globalisation - the processes by which people, ideas, information, goods, and services cross international borders at unprecedented speed". Very closed states (Communist dictatorships, for example) are stable, and very open ones (Sweden, say) are even more robust. Half-heartedly oppressive ones, however, are liable to revolts.

Does Tunisia fit the curve? It has been a brutal police state for two decades. Elections are rigged and dissidents jailed. According to Reporters Without Borders, it censors the internet more tightly than any country besides China. Moroccans used to call any authoritarian turn in their own polity "Ben-Alisation", in honour of Tunisia's president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. All of this ought to place Tunisia in the dismal security of the far left of the graph.

There are, admittedly, complicating factors. Tunisia has a large percentage of women in its judiciary, for example, and has taken the notionally progressive steps of banning polygamy and the hijab. These policies will have endeared it to the European Union, with which it has an association agreement. But none of them are incompatible with a high degree of state oppression; indeed, any of them might be claimed as evidence of the same.

Even so, might they have been enough to expose Ben Ali's rule to the perilous "crosscurrents of globalisation"? Or is it simply that Bremmer's theory is wrong? "May you live in interesting times" is a curse, of course, but political scientists will be watching Tunisia avidly all the same.

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