Kebab and Riots

By Daan Schouten

In Habit, Charles Duhigg recounts how an American major struggled with the many riots in the small Iraqi city of Kafu. More and more people would start assembling at the plaza as the day progressed. The crowd would grow restless and turn violent in the evening, at which point the Iraqi army had to intervene. After watching videotapes of the riots, the major identified the crucial role kebab vendors played: at dusk they would provide people with food. He suggested keeping them from the plaza. A week later, people assembled in the center of Kafu as they had done countless times before. However, around dusk hunger drew them home and no riots ever occurred again under the command of this major.

In Politics in Time, Pierson stresses the importance of timing in determining outcomes. Timing is important relative to the other factors that influence the outcome. In Kafu, only the actual presence of kebab vendors seems relevant. Yet here too, timing matters, but in a much simpler way: if vendors show up early, people will be hungry later on; if they arrive late, the square is already empty.

Also, the American major can evaluate his solution to the riots in much the same way Mahoney determines the importance of a strong military apparatus in Central America. Similar countries that varied in this aspect ended up with vastly different regime types. However, Mahoney needs to demonstrate that at some point, Guatemala and Costa Rica were almost identical in other relevant aspects that could also have a potential influence on the current regime type. The major’s claim that the presence or absence of kebab vendors can radically alter the outcome is much easier to support. He only needs to point out each riot is essentially a copy of the former one.

 Then, the absence of food vendors credibly preserves the peace at the plaza of Kafu.