Egypt: the only thing that is certain will be our future sense of certainty

I have two reflections on events this week and last.

Five years from now, there will either be a very stable or a very unstable regime in Egypt. The regime may be relatively open and secular, or it may look like a theocracy. Anything seems possible.

My first thought is that only one thing is for sure: analysts will look back at events today and say “such-and-such event caused the mess we’re in today” or “we can thank so-and-so’s action for what we see now”.

We like to see the world from a deterministic view, where causes lead to effects. We seem to be hardwired to think in narratives. A probabilistic world, where outcomes are driven by invisible or chance events, is somehow unfathomable.

This is our biggest political fallacy. In my mind, in moments like these, any outcome is possible. There are a dozen possible equilibria to which the system might move. Impalpable and improbable acts will push Egypt in one direction or another. That is the terrible and amazing character of these moments. Egyptians and Americans and anyone else with a stake in this contest will do well to remember this in the coming weeks and years.

A few weeks ago, reacting to Cote d’Ivoire and outsiders’ ambitious plans for regime change, I wrote that democratic change has to come from within, not without. I pointed to Claude Ake, a Nigerian political scientist, who reminded us that democracy is never given, it must be seized.

Protesters in Egypt have done some seizing today. This brings me to my second reflection: It remains to be seen how soon the seizing will translate into democracy. The shortest distance between autocracy and democracy is not necessarily a straight line.

Don’t read this as disapproval of events. As much as I fear for Egypt’s near future, I don’t see any other path to emancipation than the one they’ve taken.

We just need to remember that the world has seen very few velvet revolutions. The more usual path is windy, bloody, and full of backtracks. Today the fight was not won. It was just begun.