Diffusion Mechanisms as Stepping Stones: Qualitative Evidence from Syria

By Wendy Pearlman, Northwestern University

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes,” held on June 8–9, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany

At the macro-level, the sudden and rapid spread of protest across the Middle East in 2011 leaves little doubt about the importance of transnational diffusion in the making of what came to be known as the Arab spring. At the micro-level, however, questions remain about the mechanisms through which that diffusion occurred. In this essay I pull upon original interviews with Syrian oppositionists to call attention to mechanisms that are emotional or behavioral more than strictly rationalist and thus encourage us to think about diffusion as operating through gradualist processes other than rationalist updating.

This argument diverges from a conventional approach to protest cascades that focuses on how early risers make available new information that alters followers’ utility calculations. Applied to the Arab uprisings, this perspective suggests that the forced resignation of an authoritarian president in Tunisia led citizens elsewhere to rationally rethink the probability that anti-regime protest could be mobilized and/or succeed in their own countries. Kurt Weyland adapts this approach with the important caveat that individual rationality is distorted by reliance on cognitive shortcuts.[1]Heuristics such as availability and representativeness thus led those who went to the streets after Tunisia’s revolt to overestimate prospects for replicating its success.

These arguments, building from deductive principles about human decision-making, go far in explaining diffusion dynamics. Research that proceeds inductively from Arab oppositionists’ reflections on their experiences, however, brings other processes to the fore. This is what I find based upon open-ended interviews that I have conducted with more than 250 displaced Syrians in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon from 2012-16, the overwhelming majority of whom are opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. My interviews affirm the critical impact of precursor revolts for Syrians’ path to protest. Yet my results yield mixed support for claims about (boundedly) rationalist updating. I frequently asked Syrian rebellion supporters if, upon learning about uprisings in other Arab countries, they believed there would be an uprising is Syria, as well. Some voiced opinions that directly resonated with Weyland’s argument, as did this then-recent college graduate from the Damascus suburbs:

When the events happened in Tunisia and Ben Ali fled, it looked so easy. Then Egypt happened – only 17 days! Our path was open in front of us. Freedom and dignity were going to come. I predicted 30-60 days. Tunisia took one day. Egypt took 17 days. Let Syria take 60 days.[2]

Others expressed an adamantly contrary opinion. Another recent graduate from a different Damascus suburb insisted:

I said, it’s impossible, impossible, impossible to have a revolution in Syria, because I know the meaning of the oppression and fear inside people. The oppression we had in Syria didn’t exist in any country where they had revolutions. Not in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya … We couldn’t even say the president’s name in any conversation, even in a positive way. No one dared to talk about him.[3]

In my conversations, I found that even people close to each other sometimes expressed divergent views on the likelihood of Syria’s emulating other countries’ example. One married couple from Daraa recalled:

Husband: When the revolutions happened in Tunisia and Egypt, I immediately thought that the same would happen here. Because we are all under pressure – in every Arab country, and especially Syria. (To his wife), Do you remember when I said that?

Wife: Yes. And I thought the opposite. I said it’s impossible to have a revolution here. People are simple. They just want to live. And we know that [if there were demonstrations], the regime would react with violence. There would be blood.

Husband: And I said no. People won’t be silent … People are going to go out.[4]

These individuals, far from showing an unthinking bias toward exaggerating the applicability of the Tunisian or Egyptian models, engaged in a keen reading of opportunities and risks much closer to home. A man who left Syria as a child provided further illustration of this attention to local circumstances:

It started with the Tunisian Revolution. We felt that … something big was happening because we know that there are a lot of similarities between Tunisia and Syria. We said everything that is causing the revolution in Tunisia also exists in Syria.

But I also felt that we have two things that could delay revolution in Syria. One is what I call the memory of blood: the memory of what happened in the ’80s. We still feel it. We don’t want to get back to that time. The other thing is the sectarian problem. That complicates everything. The army in Tunisia and in Egypt played a big role in making the change. But in Syria, we felt that army would not do that … Most of the generals and the high ranking [officers] are from the Alawi community, and most of them are loyal to the Assad family. And nobody wants to get into a sectarian war.[5]

If it was not strictly a recalculation of costs and benefits that propelled transnational diffusion to Syria, what did? One pattern emerging across my interviews is oppositionists’ sense that they felt actively engaged in the Arab uprisings that preceded their own, and this engagement served as something of a stepping-stone in their path to public protest against their own regime.

For some, this stepping-stone was primarily emotional. Emotions are noninstrumental, subjective, evaluative experiences that infuse how people define interests, influence how they assess information, and trigger particular action tendencies. Elsewhere I argue that emotions such as anger, joy, and pride played an important role in driving individuals’ participation in the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.[6] The displays of defiance in those countries likewise triggered emotional reactions among citizens in other Arab countries, including Syria. Many Syrians with whom I spoke described how the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt helped them “break through” the barriers of fear that theretofore had discouraged them from political criticism. A man from rural Idlib describes:

It started with Bouazizi. We can consider the kids of Daraa a spark, but they are not the foundation. Bouazizi is the foundation.

People in our Arab countries are scared of the president more than God … But when … I saw Zine al-Abdine tell the Tunisian people, “I understand you” and then run away … I can’t forget that. That’s when the barrier of fear started to break for me. When I saw that, there was no more fear. Because he was humiliated. We didn’t see the tyranny in him anymore.[7]

This sense of breaking through fear was a crucial part of a process of increasingly defiant action. Though this emotional reaction might have existed alongside a rational updating about the utility of protest, it was not reducible to it. An engineer of Golani origin recalled how early Arab uprisings set in motion a gradual process of emotional emboldening in his community:

The forced resignation of Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali from Tunisia was like a fantasy. It was a dream. I was one of the people in Syria who had tears in his eyes. People just couldn’t believe it … It seemed like a miracle from God … We wondered: could a revolution happen in another country, too? Most people thought it was impossible. Tunisia did not have as big a psychological impact as Egypt did … There were some guys who didn’t sleep at night. They followed the news nonstop. All day long: Egypt, Egypt, Egypt. When it was announced that Mubarak had resigned … Wow, I remember that day … People in Syria were so happy inside. The state did not want to make any conflicts in the street. So people went outside, and they walked around and started to talk … People didn’t talk about Bashar. But inside, they wanted their own revolution, too. Outwardly, they just talked about Egypt. Inside they were moved, and had other thoughts. And then there began other revolutions, in Yemen and Libya, for example …

And the push became even bigger for something to happen in Syria … I’d be sitting with five or six people and we’d say, “What is the situation? What are we going to do?”[8]

For these individuals, engagement with other Arab revolts generated an enthusiasm and hopefulness that prepared or propelled them in the direction of protest at home. A writer from Aleppo articulated a different emotional mechanism through which those uprisings motivated him toward open dissent against his own regime:

When the revolution began in Egypt, we lived it day by day. We were on Facebook giving Egyptians advice and sharing revolutionary songs, and things like that. We felt like we were in the Square with them.

Then the first protest occurred in Daraa. I wrote a Facebook status in support of the protest, but didn’t hit “enter” to share it. I was scared. My fingers were on the keyboard. Finally, I told myself that it was shameful that I was sharing stuff to support revolution in Egypt, but when the same things were happening in my country, I was too afraid to do anything. So I finally hit “enter.” I went to bed sure that the regime’s people were going to arrest me the next morning.

Whether colored by exuberance or shame, long-distance engagement with other uprisings thus may have served as an emotional stepping-stone in some Syrians’ personal route to protest. Apart from this, engagement with those uprisings could induce behavioral changes that increased their network-embeddedness and protest-readiness in other ways. One of the speakers cited earlier suggested this from his experience:

For me, that time [after the revolt in Tunisia] … was when I got involved in social media. Before that, I had refused … I’m in my thirties and [Facebook] was more for the younger generation. But at that moment, I started to use my Facebook account and I opened a twitter account. I started to use them actively and get a lot of my news from that medium.[9]

Finally, apart from triggering emotional shifts or expanding online networks, uprisings in other countries also sparked actual protest events that functioned as critical stepping-stones in the Syrian groundswell. In February 2011, some Syrians held vigils outside the Egyptian and Libyan embassies in solidarity with those countries’ revolts. One young Damascene describes the significance of these gatherings for him personally, and for what he saw as the launch of rebellion in Syria:

My brother went to the protest at the Egyptian embassy … So when the Libyan embassy protest happened, I decided to go. I came a little late. There was this girl holding a candle. It was melting all over her hand, but she just kept chanting against Qadhafi. I thought, Wow! [The regime] didn’t want us to protest … The embassy was surrounded by security guards and they were recording everyone’s faces. I was a little afraid, but at the same time, I was so happy, because I wasn’t running away. Later, I called my brother in Saudi Arabia. I told him that we went to the protest and I was chanting “Freedom, Freedom.” I was so happy, I felt like I needed to tell him about it. [I said]: “You have to experience this.” I can’t describe it … It was like letting all the energy out of you, all the things you’d kept hidden for so many years…

Some people say the start of the revolution was March 15th. But by then … protest wasn’t a new thing for me. I don’t think about that as the beginning. Because before that, there was the Egyptian embassy and the Libyan embassy.[10]

The testimonials discussed in this essay affirm that the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere were indispensible in activating revolt in Syria. Yet in the wake of those events, some Syrians came to believe that revolution was imminent in their country while others remained convinced that mass protest was impossible. Rather than immediately impelling people to change their forecasts about the probability or utility of protest, therefore, uprisings elsewhere might have had their greatest impact by emboldening Syrians emotionally, opening them to new information networks, or pushing them to engage in new forms of dissent online or on the streets. I have conceptualized these shifts as psychological or behavioral stepping-stones and propose that they represent micro-mechanisms distinct from rationalist updating.

The qualitative data interpreted here is admittedly anecdotal. Still, open-ended interviews with those who have participated in or witnessed uprisings can build our understanding of the mechanisms by which protest diffuses across borders, helping us both think critically about existing arguments and generate new ones. Deductive approaches to research are irreplaceable for translating theory into hypotheses and testing them against empirical data. Yet inductive approaches such as the one used here are also critical for uncovering complex motivations and nuanced relationships that abstract generalizations about human behavior often overlook.



[1] Kurt Weyland, “The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848?” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 10, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 917-934.

[2] Author interview, Gaziantep, Turkey, October 4, 2013.

[3] Author interview, Amman, Jordan, August 16, 2013.

[4] Author interview, Ramtha, Jordan, October 6, 2012.

[5] Author interview, Amman, Jordan, October 16, 2012.

[6] Wendy Pearlman, “Emotions and the Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings,” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 387-409.

[7] Author interview, Reyhanlı, Turkey, September 16, 2013.

[8] Author interview, Amman, Jordan, September 16, 2012.

[9] Author interview, Amman, Jordan, October 16, 2012.

[10] Author interview, Istanbul, Turkey, March 22, 2016.