Lindsay Benstead

Date of Award

Winter 1-8-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Political Science


Political Science

Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 163 pages)


Arab Spring (2010-), Tunisia -- Politics and government -- Public opinion -- 21st century, Morocco -- Politics and government -- Public opinion -- 21st century, Democratization -- Arab countries -- 21st century




Why do revolutions happen? What role do structures, institutions, and actors play in precipitating (or preventing) them? Finally, What might compel social mobilization against a regime in the face of potentially insurmountable odds? These questions are all fundamentally about state-society (strategic) interactions, and elite and societal preference formation over time. The self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, served as a focal point upon which over twenty years of corrupt, coercive authoritarian rule were focused into a single, unified challenge to the Ben Ali regime. The regime's brutality was publicized via social media activism and satellite television, precipitating mass mobilization across Tunisia and, eventually, throughout the region and beyond. In light of the rapid and unforeseen nature of these events, scholars writing about the causes of the Arab Spring have focused their critiques on scholarship that they felt overemphasized the role of institutions and elite-level actors over 'under the radar' changes within society. This paper essentially agrees with this point of view, but is not content to simply 'throw out' institutionalism. As Timur Kuran (1991) argued in the wake of the unforeseen collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, one cannot understand revolution without understanding the 'true' preferences of social actors. In this way, the inevitability of revolutionary surprises seems a given so long as analysts continue to look from the top-down. Yet, this paper contends that institutions do still matter. They matter because different institutional arrangements incentivize and constrain regime strategies, which, in turn, inform the strategic calculations and preference orderings within society. These two societal variables are determined - in part - by the degree of regime flexibility, and they affect whether, how, and where social actors choose to vent their dissent.

This paper proposes a model for the development of contentious social mobilization under authoritarianism. In order to do so, two models - one game-theoretic, and the other rooted in the contentious politics subfield of political sociology - are synthesized toward elucidating how altered societal preferences affect strategic interactions between the regime and society over time and during acute contentious episodes. The synthesized model is then illustrated through narrative case studies of two North African states that experienced divergent outcomes in the wake of the Arab Spring: Tunisia and Morocco. The limited spaces and institutions for the expression of dissent in Tunisia gradually changed societal preferences over time. In 2010, Tunisians' preferences shifted from various socioeconomic demands and other issue-specific grievances toward a galvanized demand for the fall of the regime. In Morocco, on the other hand, social actors, by and large, continued to prefer limited reforms to a complete upheaval of the political system. This paper contends that this divergence in preferences and therefore outcomes was in part determined by the variation in the two regimes' respective strategic mixes of concessions and/or coercion. To the extent that such strategies and institutions were more flexible - i.e. were more permissive of (limited) political contention and contestation - social movements were less likely to become emboldened against the regime.

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