Commentators have offered numerous theories for what caused the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and who participated in them. They range from youth and their chronic unemployment, to liberal activists and their demands for civil rights, to workers and absolute levels of material deprivation. Stories of individual participants and analyses of specific groups taking part in the uprisings have provided much insight into this question, but only a representative sample of participants can help weigh the importance of different factors driving protesters. The latest wave of the Arab Barometer, a nationally representative survey administered in the wake of the protests, provides some answers.
Conducted in over the spring and summer of 2011, the Arab Barometer surveyed 1,220 people in Egypt and 1,196 in Tunisia using area probability sampling techniques. Findings from the surveys suggest that the recent Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings were disproportionately middle class, though the Tunisian Revolution was slightly more diverse in age and occupational background. In Egypt, eight percent of the sample reported participating in demonstrations surrounding the revolution, compared to 16 percent of those surveyed in Tunisia. This difference in rates of participation may seem puzzling at first glance, but differences in population size and geographical dispersion provide some basic insight about the divergent rates of participation in these two countries. The Tunisian protests began in a small provincial town (Sidi Bouzid) and slowly made their way to the capital over the course of several weeks. The Egyptian protests, by contrast, began in the country’s two major cities, Cairo and Alexandria, and had millions on the street within four days of the first protest. The fact that Egypt has over 80 million inhabitants to Tunisia’s roughly 11 million means that, in spite of the differing rates of participation, the absolute number of protesters was far higher in Egypt.