Egypt protest

The Arab world is in transition. The Tunisian president - in essence a corrupt dictator - has been forced out of office and into exile. The authority of Egypt's president, 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, confronted with today's general strike, weakens by the hour. It is an old truth but a frequently forgotten one: there are no leaders without followers. If followers decide to take a different route then the individual at the front ceases to be the leader. It is also infrequently acknowledged by historians that democracy did not start in Athens or Rome (or Britain) but on the African Savannah, where our ancestors evolved.

The Democratic Ape

In the fiercely egalitarian bands of our ancestors there was no place for vast power differences between individuals because such power differences threatened the survival of the entire group. Only much later on in history, in the last few millennia, as communities grew with the advent of agriculture, that such differences in wealth and power arose. This paved the way for a succession of kings, warlords, and despots, who were able to control their people by creating a group of dedicated followers -- a bunch of cronies -- and an army to protect them. It is Darwinian logic that leaders in such positions abuse their power to serve their own interests and those of their cronies. Such corrupt regimes can only be maintained through force but as we have seen throughout history and now in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen such systems are fundamentally untenable because, simply, they are at odds with human nature. Interestingly, when the Egyptian army stated it would not attack "honorable citizens" during today's strike, it was seen as the final nail in Mubarak's political coffin.

A Study in Democracy

It is possible to demonstrate the instability of a dictatorship in the lab, with the simplest of experiments. we asked a group of players to perform a collective task under either an autocratic leader, a democratic leader, or a laissez-fair leader. although the group performed as well under an autocratic leader as under a democratic leader, when we gave the players in the autocratic group the option to leave and take their earnings with them, almost half of them did. As a result, these groups collapsed because they needed a minimum number of players and the experiment could not continue.*

STOP the Dictator

Democracy is ingrained in our DNA, because it has helped us to survive. We have lived for most of our evolutionary history in small bands, and this has shaped our psychology today. Upstarts would occasionally try and dominate others -- dominance is part of our primate heritage -- but our ancestors had a number of effective means to keep these irritants under control. Traditional societies still use these techniques - we call them STOPS or strategies to overcome the powerful -- with much success. The most effective weapon that a group can deploy is to desertion, by simply leaving a dominating leader behind. Of course, this is easier on an empty savannah, where being abandoned has perilous consequences, than in a country with borders and border police. Moreover, desertion today requires leaving behind valuable possessions such as money, land, and a house and this is a serious disincentive for leaving.

The Power of Coalitions

Another powerful STOP, more effective today, is forming a coalition to overthrow the dominant. We see the power of these coalitions on the streets of Tunis, and we are now seeing it all over Egypt, where masses of disenfranchised people, from workers to students to militant Muslims stand side by side in the hope of forcing a regime change. These coalitions are frequently fronted by frustrated and angry young men, again, this is nothing new. In chimpanzee colonies, two young males will team up against the bullying alpha to overthrow him. This is why despotic leaders do everything to prevent the masses from forming coalitions, by controlling the media, banning protests, or implementing a street curfew.

Despots of the world, witnessing a widespread uprising against bad government, must be sleeping nervously in their guarded beds: Not only do we naturally organize ourselves into democracies but we are a social species - and disaffection is contagious.

 * Van Vugt, Jepson, Hart, & De Cremer (2004). Autocratic leadership in social dilemmas: A threat to group stability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,  40. 1-13

Mark van Vugt & Anjana Ahuja

About the Author

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D.

Mark van Vugt, Ph.D., is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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