A Palestinian activist in Jerusalem chats slogans at a rally supporting anti-government protests in Egypt, Photo: Ryan-Rodrick Beller, Shutterstock A Palestinian activist in Jerusalem chats slogans at a rally supporting anti-government protests in Egypt, Photo: Ryan-Rodrick Beller, Shutterstock

Chapter 2 – An emotional lens on the 2011 Arab uprisings

I became captivated by the languages, culture and history of the Middle East and North Africa during a college semester abroad in Morocco in 1995. Morocco was the center of the world for me for years thereafter … until I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Palestine.I studied at Birzeit University in the West Bank from January to June 2000 and never looked back. In the years that followed, I returned to Palestine nearly every chance I got. Three months into the second intifada, I conducted interviews with about two dozen Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These were published in 2003 as the book Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada.

I undertook that project both to help myself understand the experiences of ordinary people and to bring their voices to a larger audience.

When it was published, I gave book talks around the United States. I was surprised to find that the question and answer sessions repeatedly ended with the same query. People would tell me that they were moved by the personal stories of suffering under occupation, but they had trouble understanding why Palestinians carried out acts of violence against Israelis.

I heard the same questions again and again: Don’t Palestinians see that suicide bombings undermine sympathy for their cause? Why don’t they use nonviolence instead? Where is the Palestinian Gandhi? Some of these questions may have been disingenuous. Regardless, they raised a significant challenge that gave me pause.

I knew from my study of history that Palestinians had used nonviolent as well as violent forms of protest, but I lacked a convincing explanation of why they had done so to different extents at different times. By then I was in my third year of doctoral studies in political science. So I made these questions the topic of my dissertation:

  • Why do some self-determination movements use violent protest and others nonviolent protest?
  • Why does a movement use different protest strategies at different points over time?

I researched those questions in the case of the Palestinian national movement and published my findings in 2011 as the book, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement. In it, I argue that paths to violence are multiple, but there is one prevailing path to nonviolent protest: a path that demands that a movement have or create internal cohesion. Nonviolent protest requires coordination and restraint, which only a cohesive movement can provide. When, by contrast, a movement is fragmented, factional competition generates new incentives for violence, and authority structures are too weak to constrain escalation. This increases the likelihood that protest will become violent.

The book demonstrates this argument over nearly one hundred years in the history of the Palestinian struggle, from the 1918 Balfour Declaration through 2008. An additional chapter compares the Palestinian national movement to the South Africa anti-apartheid struggle and the Northern Ireland republican movement. I find that when the Palestinian movement used mass unarmed protest, such as during a general strike in the 1930s and the uprising of 1987, internal cohesion proved crucial. In those episodes, a legitimate leadership and grassroots institutional network helped people across social classes, religions and regions participate in demonstrations, boycotts, and acts of noncooperation and disengagement.

When the movement lacked strong central leadership, institutions or popular consensus, its organizational fragmentation contributed to the use of violent protest. Various forms of internal competition fed escalation in the armed revolt in the late 1930s, guerrilla warfare in the 1960s, and the militarized uprising beginning in the year 2000. At these junctures, weak authority structures invited the formation of militant splinter groups and obstructed efforts to reach ceasefires. Cracks in the self-determination struggle invited external actors to intervene and induce or coerce Palestinian parties to act in ways that furthered outsiders’ interests. Moreover, divisions left the movement without the institutional capacity to carry out nonviolent protest on a mass scale, even when popular support for such a strategy existed.

While the book focuses on the Palestinian movement, I do not at all wish to underestimate either fragmentation or the use of violence on the Israeli side of the conflict. Israel is a part of my story insofar as its repression of the Palestinian struggle has typically provoked or worsened its internal divisions. I criticize those policies by showing that efforts to fragment Palestinians have the effect of precluding a national strategy of nonviolent protest, while intensifying the tendency of protest to take armed forms.

I situate this research in a larger academic literature dedicated to investigating social movements. Since the 1960s, mainstream research in this field tends to view those who participate in protest movements as rational in the sense that they act on rational calculations of self-interest. People’s political or economic grievances with the status quo do not automatically lead them to participate in a protest movement.

This is the paradox of collective action: A protest movement, such as a nationalist movement or uprising against authoritarianism, seeks public goods that will benefit all members of society and from which none can be excluded. At the same time, the impact of every individual contribution is small. In consequence, a rational individual will seek to “free ride” on the efforts of others. Rather than sacrifice to make a contribution to a collective effort, he or she will do nothing as others take the lead, and then enjoy the benefits when others attain the shared goal. Collective action is a paradox, however, because people do participate, and in doing so, they sacrifice not only time, money and energy, but sometimes risk arrest, injury or their very lives.

How do theorists explain why rational individuals make the seemingly irrational choice to participate in mass movements for change? Tackling this puzzle, most American scholars hold to the rationalist paradigm, and many adopt a focus on organizational factors, as I did in my work on the Palestinian national movement. This leads them to try to identify the various factors that reduce the costs of mobilization or increase its benefits. One dominant idea holds that social movements emerge when a political environment becomes more vulnerable or receptive to resistance. This might occur when an opposition’s access to power expands, influential allies become available, or ruling alignments split. These and other changes shift an existing structure of political opportunities in ways that encourage challenges to authority. Another widespread argument holds that social movements emerge when pre-existing social networks or organizations grow strong.

These can serve as vehicles encouraging and coordinating participation under conditions in which individuals are otherwise hesitant to take action.

As both a student and a teacher of social movement theory, I found these theories persuasive. The uprisings that swept across the Arab world in 2011, however, inspired me to rethink those assumptions. That year saw anti-regime uprisings even where organization was minimal and political conditions unfavorable. Moreover, it entailed protestors’ participation despite the risk of death and highly uncertain probabilities of success. In some cases, the gap left by unfavorable structural factors has been filled by an intensity of emotions – hence, I put emotions at the center of my current research.

This research both compliments and diverges from my earlier work. In Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement, I focused on the organizational aspects of mobilization. In my investigations of the current uprisings, however, I have been drawn to explore the role of emotions. I know from my own personal experience, as well as years of bearing witness to and speaking with people about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that this topic also inspires intense emotions. Nevertheless, my first project completely bracketed the emotive experience in order to focus on how the structure of decision-making within a movement shapes what a movement does. Intellectually, I was simply skeptical about emotions as a factor explaining political action.

One expression prevalent throughout the Middle East and North Africa during the 2011 uprisings was particularly important in motivating me to rethink my previous assumptions: “The barrier of fear has broken.” To me, and to the many citizens who invoked variations of this saying, it reflected something of the essence of what occurred during that revolutionary year, and what rendered it such a profound turning point. Something fundamental had changed, regardless of the outcomes of the uprisings. Indeed, as of this writing, those outcomes remain uncertain. Elements of old regimes retain power in many countries, and civil violence rages in others. The euphoria of revolutionary victory is an increasingly distant memory. Still, something fundamental has changed in Middle East society and politics. That something, I believed, was not organizational as much as emotional.

I wondered what we might be able to learn about revolutionary collective action in general, and the Arab uprisings in particular, by analysis of the expression “the barrier of fear has broken” from a social science perspective.

To this end, I began reading from a vast academic literature, much of it grounded in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. This research offers a wealth of knowledge about how people experience emotions and how emotions affect societal relationships on the one hand, and individuals’ thinking, decision-making and behavior on the other.I am currently working on several academic articles that link these general theories of emotions to the specific case of the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. My goal is to explore what insight these theories can offer about how it came to be that millions of people rose up against authoritarian regimes.

In the remainder of this paper, 
I offer a preliminary sketch of a theory that outlines how emotions were an irreducible component of the recent uprisings in two ways: as an outcome resulting from the macro-character of political systems, 
and as a cause at the micro-level of individual motivations and decision-making. I paint these arguments with very broad strokes. 
It does not capture the nuance, diversity and many exceptions either within countries or between them. Nonetheless, such generalizations are a useful foundation for theory building.

The Macro-Level: Political Systems

Various studies explore how the structure of social relationships constructs emotive experiences. I extend this view of emotions as social and cultural practice to consider how they also function as political practice. In the Middle East, authoritarian regimes were both produced and reproduced in part by the emotions that they generated in their populations. The affective foundations of citizenship in these regimes were feelings of fear and futility. The intensity of these political “feeling rules” varied across populations by class, generation and gender, and likewise varied across regimes.

In dictatorships such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, repression generated mortal fear. In hybrid autocracies such as Egypt, political cultures of fear were multifaceted. Regimes approached their populations through a combination of 
co-optation and punishment, while allowing controlled pluralism and limited freedom of expression.

Those who benefited from the system feared losing those benefits. Those who did not knew that, to expand their life chances and meet everyday needs, they were probably best to defer to those with power. Most ordinary people thus feared that pushing the limits of tolerable opposition could end in arrest or torture or, more commonly, could endanger access to employment, contracts, licenses, school admission or other myriad opportunities in which regime elements could impose or remove otherwise insurmountable obstacles.

These fears were enforced by monitoring and physical coercion by powerful security apparatuses, as well as state discourses that warned that the alternative to the status quo was a worse fate of chaos or radical Islam. No less, they were often self-enforced by the belief that the system was unchangeable and societally enforced by norms that regarded those who tried to make change as foolish, if not reckless. To go against the grain risked incurring others’ judgment, with consequences of loss of esteem and feelings of shame or guilt. People in some social strata might experience emotional gratification in defiance; most of society, however, went along with the system most of the time.

Regimes that were too fierce to oppose, yet too illegitimate to accept, bred cynicism. Basic distrust of others’ motives was a strategy by which ordinary people eked out some moral distance from a rotten system even as they resigned themselves to it. This obstructed the emergence of protest movements in two ways. On the individual level, feelings of cynicism defused hope of the possibility that the system could ever be reformed, much less Within society, such affects encouraged distrust. In a system built on distribution of unfair advantages, it was reasonable for citizens to suspect that everyone else was somehow dishonestly profiting from the status quo – or would if the opportunity arose. Such an emotional orientation – rather than simply a lack of organization or political opportunities – atomized citizens.

It impeded them from discovering their common interests and collective capacity to challenge those in power.

Nevertheless, the very despondency that discouraged collective dissent generated a reservoir of resentment that might fuel it. Resentment, defined as “an emotional apprehension of departure from … rightful outcomes and procedures,” 1 could be mobilized as 
a resource for collective action. It provided a long-term foundation 
for righteous anger, which gives energy to defiance because it “puts 
fire in the belly and iron in the soul.” 2 A latent revolution was thus just below the surface. To activate it, however, individuals’ self-defeating emotions needed to be transformed into new, assertive ones. 3 This transformation focuses attention on the role of emotions as an explanatory variable affecting change in individual-level cognition 
and behavior.

The Micro-Level: Individual Motivations and Decisions

Emotions shape individual cognition and decision-making in several ways that encourage either political resignation or resistance.

First, emotions affect citizen’s attribution of blame. Research finds that sadness is associated with a tendency to blame situations, and anger corresponds with blaming people.4

Second, emotions influence appraisals of events and subsequent actions. Whereas fearful or depressed people tend to be pessimistic in their judgments about the future, angry or exuberant people are more optimistic. Correspondingly, fear makes people more risk-averse, and anger more risk-accepting. 5

Third, individual-level emotions can become generalized across groups due to “emotional contagion” – the tendency of a group to converge in sentiment. Fourth, the more intense any of these emotions, the more likely they are to supersede individuals’ deliberative decision-making and exert a direct effect on behavior.6

These findings about emotions shed light on the micro-level mechanisms contributing to the Arab uprisings. Under authoritarian regimes, despondent cynicism imbued citizens’ sense that government is inevitably corrupt and corrupting – that it always had been and always would be. Feelings of futility encouraged resignation. As hopelessness gave way to anger, however, people shifted their attribution of blame from an amorphous “system” that could not be targeted to specific heads of state, whose ouster became a concrete goal.

The contradictory consequences of fear and anger fed a similar transformation in people’s sense of efficacy. Under the old order, many citizens saw their own power as minimal and the power of the regime as all-encompassing. Fear encouraged them to withdraw from confrontation with threat rather than assail against it.

It also redoubled their wariness of the risks that protest entailed and their skepticism that protest could come to any good. As fear turned to anger, however, people became more willing to face danger. They also became more hopeful about the potential for revolution, intensifying their demands from reform to the once-unthinkable overthrow of the regime.

It is important to emphasize that the meanings of fear and anger invoked here are intertwined with feelings of futility or empowerment.

Emotions theorists conceptualize fear not primarily as dread of danger, but as insufficiency of power to confront a threat. Fear is the sense of a lack of control that renders it “of no use to stick your head out” in effort to regain control.7

Similarly, anger implies not only an urge to fight, but also a sense that fighting is meaningful. It is the mobilization of energy to regain freedom of action. A subjective sense of efficacy is thus critical in distinguishing fear from anger. It was a crucial part of the undoing of the “barrier” that had to be broken in order for mass resistance to develop.

Beyond the emotions involved in initially pushing people to participate in protest, the social experience of acting collectively generates still other emboldening emotions. Those who join public protest often gain confidence from finding the support of others in an emergent identity as a movement, as well as joy in being able to express more fully their own identity as political agents. These sentiments can become generalized due to emotional contagion. Moreover, they intensify as the police clash with the demonstration, whether or not particular members sought confrontation.

Activists also deliberately sought to activate certain emotions as a way of empowering protest. They thus sought to build opposition by associating it with such affects of solidarity, unity and patriotic pride. To that end, they averted divisive issues and emphasized national symbols such as the flag. At the same time, a kind of collective effervescence arose organically.

It was indisputable in the enthusiasm and resolve with which groups chanted and marched, braved repression, occupied public spaces for days or months, and claimed the popular will in the universal slogan, “The people want the overthrow of the regime.” Many who joined these movements did so to advance not only their freedom as individuals, but also their hope to create a new society built on better values. In joining with others, some felt exhilaration that they were already doing so, from the ground up.

The implication for rationalist and structurally oriented social movement theory, as I describe it in the beginning of this paper, is that “subjective” emotions are not mere byproducts of the “objective” factors typically cited to explain collective action. Rather, it may be shifts in emotions that give rise to shifts in political conditions for protest, rather than vice versa. In the Arab uprisings, many people came into the streets not because they were recruited through pre-existing networks or because changes in domestic political alignments indicated regime vulnerability.

Their decision to protest was part of an experience of personal and collective transformation – of crossing an emotional barrier when they became just too “fed up” with the status quo. Citizens arguably began to feel differently in advance of any concrete alteration in the balance of power between regime and opposition. Indeed, it was these feelings that inspired sweeping numbers to protest, and thereby changed that balance – 
and with it, the face of Middle East politics.


1 Jack Barbalet, Emotions, Social Theory, and Social Structure 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 138.

2 William A. Gamson, Talking Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 32.

3 Helena Flam, “Emotions’ Map: A Research Agenda,” in Emotions and Social Movements, ed. Debra King (London: Routledge 2005), 19 – 40.

4 Dacher Keltner, Phoebe Ellsworth, and Kari Edwards, “Beyond Simple Pessimism: Effects of Sadness and Anger on Social Perception,”
 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64. 5 (May 1993), 740 – 752.

5 Jennifer S. Lerner and Dacher Keltne, “Fear, anger, and risk,”
 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8.1 (July 2001), 146 – 159.

6 George Loewenstein and Jennifer S. Lerner, “The role of affect in decision making.” 
In Handbook of Affective Science, edited by Richard J Davidson, Klaus R. Sherer and H. Hill Goldsmith (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2003), 619 – 642.

7 Nico H. Frijda, The Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1986), 429.