Social movement theory tells us that in order to take part in a political action a person needs to feel both outrage at the status quo and hope that it can change. But what tips the scales? What makes a complacent or apolitical person dissatisfied with the current system? What makes a cynical or fearful person believe that change is possible?
A series of dramatic mobilizations during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria indicate that successful mobilization may depend more on increasing outrage than in decreasing cynicism and fear. In these three cases we have seen stories of brutally unjust human rights abuses on individuals bring people into the streets in dramatic fashion.
The three stories are well-known to us by now. The Arab Spring began with the Tunisian Revolution and the Tunisian Revolution began with the self-immolation of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. In Egypt, the murder of Khaled Said by the police served as a rallying point for dissent that later shifted and grew into a call for regime change. In Syria, the torture and murder of 13 year old Hamza Al-Khateeb by Airforce Intelligence brought thousands into the streets despite a vicious government crackdown and gave new energy to a protest movement.
All three were young men, somehow killed by the government, even when it was by a suicidal act of desperation. Their stories expressed the daily indignities of life in an unfree society in the most graphic terms: in each case the body was violently disfigured and these shocking images were seen by many of the countries’ citizens on the Internet and on cable channels like Al Jazeera.
Why did these stories move so many people to risk their own lives by demanding freedom? What makes this narrative powerful?
- Mixes the personal with the universal: The three young men reminded every old man of his grandson, every woman of her son, every child of her brother, every young man of himself. In this way, the stories affected each individual at a personal level and also affected every individual at a personal level. This is what revolutions are made of.
- Symbolically threatens the apolitical: The fact that police tortured prisoners unjustly was well-known in Egypt. In fact, the country had a well-developed anti-torture movement before the revolution. The regime tortured activists, yes, trouble-makers. But if you keep your head down, if you ignore the injustices you see, if you never take any political action, you can get by. These three stories demonstrated a symbolic threat even to citizens who were apolitical, to people just trying to live their lives. When the apolitical feel there they cannot be safe in the status quo, their desire to protect it decreases and pent-up grievances seem more salient. All this makes participation in a political action more likely.
- Fits a powerful cultural frame: Most of what works about these stories is universal: kinship, injustice, innocence, outrage. Yet relevant cultural frames also increase the resonance of a story for a given audience. All three of these young men were called “martyrs” (shahid,???? ). In the Middle East the term is frequently used for political mobilization to position the departed as part of a greater fight against injustice, as someone who died for a cause. In Arabic, the same word is used for “martyr” and “witness” because in Islam a martyr is said to have died as an act of witnessing truth and righteousness, and is thus blessed. Linking these stories to powerful religious beliefs and political narratives gave them even more power.
- Visual and shocking: To a population accustomed to state corruption and violence, even news of atrocities cease to shock. What made the stories of Bouazizi, Said, and Al-Khateeb resonant was not only that they were unusually brutal – self-immolation, a public beating, a child murder by torture – but also that the unusual brutality was visible through photos and video of the bodies after the fact. This made the atrocity credible in countries of official lies and propaganda and also had a visceral emotion effect. Seeing the pictures is far more painful than hearing about them and this also increased grievance against the regime to a fever pitch.
- Mass awareness: Finally, because of digital and independent international media, vast numbers of people were exposed to these images and stories. Even a decade ago, these stories would have moved the few people that heard of them from a neighbors, but would not have been capable of mobilizing nations. Today that is possible. The plot is not complicated. The image speaks for itself, and in a world where a piece of content can “go viral,” that is all that is needed.
It is also important to note that these stories not only aided the cause of dissidents, they are backfired on repressive governments. Repressive governments are not brutal by chance, they are brutal by choice. They are brutal because they seek to intimidate, because they hope to balance outrage with fear. No matter how unhappy a citizen is with the current system, he will be too afraid to take action. Yet these actions backfired against the regimes: they increased outrage more than they increased fear. They made the status quo seem so intolerable that the average individual became more fearful of the status quo than he was of change. This is the key shift from the apolitical to the political mindset: the status quo becomes more intolerable than the risk of trying to change it.
Unfortunately – or fortunately – these stories are hard to manufacture. They arise in the violence of repressive regimes and it is up to activists to be aware of them and to use them. There is of course the question of exploitation: was the memory of Bouazizi, Said, and Al-Khateeb used for the selfish purposes of political dissidents? Certainly this is an ethical issue to be aware of. Yet, in these three cases, by making these young men symbols of revolution and freedom their respective movements did not depersonalize them. They reaffirmed the dignity and humanity that repression had tried unsuccessfully to take from them.