The Tunisian and Egyptian political eruptions were pretty much totally unexpected by the governments of the United States and of other countries, and by the vast majority of experts on Egypt and the Islamic world. To be sure, experts were aware that the government of say Egypt was not popular among many segments of the population, including The Muslim Brotherhood, most intellectuals, and many members of the growing middle class. However, the timing and speed of the uprising there (and in Tunisia) was rather a complete surprise since Mubarak and Ben Ali were in power for over 20 years, and seemingly in rather complete control.
I was first impressed by the unexpected and speedy nature of the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in 1979 when a combination of religious and leftwing groups forced the Shah of Iran from power. Until very close to the end he looked invulnerable: he seemed to be in full control of a strong and well-equipped army, and had an active and dreaded secret police, the SAVAK, that imprisoned anyone who vocally attacked the government. That the overthrow was unexpected is objectively measured by the stability of the international value of the Iranian currency, the rial, until just a few weeks before the Shah was ousted. Had the overthrow been anticipated, the value of the currency would have plunged as Iranians and others tried to get out of rials into dollars and other hard currencies. The rial did plunge in value shortly after the revolution appeared to be succeeding.
The rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union is another telling example. In 1989 my wife and I took a train from West Berlin through East Germany to go to Warsaw. The customs agents in East Germany were unpleasant, and the East German government headed by Erich Honecker seemed totally in charge. Much to my surprise, less than six months later, close to one million younger men and women were demonstrating in the streets, and the government was soon quickly gone, along with most of the Russian empire.
The unexpected nature and the speed of the overthrow of these and other authoritarian regimes is what is so glaring and challenging to theories of authoritarian rule. Analytically, what happens is that over time such a regime may be shifting in unnoticed ways from stable equilibrium positions, where the government is in rather complete control, to an unstable equilibrium where seemingly small events trigger massive changes, including the ouster of the government. The overthrow of the government may be quick and without much violence, as in the East German and Tunisian cases, or involve considerable violence, as during and especially after, the Iranian revolution.
Such unstable equilibria are sometimes called “tipping points”. This term was first used to describe rapid changes in housing neighborhoods from being mainly white and Christian to “tipping”, and then rapidly becoming mainly black or Jewish. A neighborhood may remain basically say all white until a few black families move in. If more black households move in over time, their fraction may become large enough that many white residents begin to panic, and put their houses up for sale. After that the neighborhood quickly “tips” into becoming a mainly black neighborhood.
The basic underlying reason that authoritarian regimes fall quickly, with or without violence, is that, as Posner emphasizes, they do not have any natural succession process. A strong man like Mubarak would be in power, but as he ages and gets weaker who is to succeed him? His son or confidants? Opposition groups may begin to see opportunities, or the unhappiness and frustration of young people and others may spontaneously erupt into mass demonstrations, as in Egypt, or in Iran after frustration over the outcome of the presidential elections two years ago. Sometimes these demonstrations succeed, as in Tunisia and apparently now in Egypt, and sometimes they fail, as in Iran after those elections, and in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China.
Will similar demonstrations spread to the rest of the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East that without exception have non-democratic regimes? Already the Jordanian government and a few others have started to make concessions to the opposition, including giving greater representation to various disaffected groups. I do not know how many of these governments will change radically and speedily. The theory offers little guidance on the timing of major political changes, but I do believe that large changes in this region toward freer elections and greater representation will occur before very long.
The Internet, Facebook and other online social networks, are changing the dynamics of the political landscape in all countries, including Islamic countries. In addition, the middle classes are growing in importance throughout Middle East and North Africa. As a result, these countries will experience the same aspirations for greater freedom of expression and greater representation in the government, as is found in other parts of the world. Eventually, these aspirations will force a conversion of the political institutions of these Islamic countries into something that may not be the same as Western democracies, but will offer more contested elections, greater political and social freedoms, and probably also greater economic freedom.