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.

11 thoughts on “Egypt: the only thing that is certain will be our future sense of certainty

  1. my, what a negative review of such a wonderful event. can’t we simply celebrate the moment?

  2. Hm. I might say yes if I had any confidence that the average newspaper or newsreader would give even a fraction as much attention to Egypt in the coming weeks. This is the first and symbolic victory. Will you and I and others be paying attention by next Friday?

  3. I can’t help thinking that the ‘we’ you referred does not apply to us Africans who are much less fearful of the uncertianties of the future than being subjected to tyranny. There surely is a risk that Egypt might not be a vibrant democracy a few years down the line. The fact that events occur with some probabilities does not mean the possible outcomes are open-ended. We take comfort from knowing that if it was Tunisia yesterday and Egypt today it will be — tomorrow. We also take pleasure from the loss of sleep affecting autocratic regimes in Africa and the Arab world. If people in the west keep paying attention, it is great. If not, it is still great. Whichever, ALUTA CONTINUA!!

  4. I’ve been reading “For Whom the Bell Tolls” for the past few weeks which is set in the Spanish civil war, an ultimately unsuccessful and bloody revolution, also fought as a proxy war. It seems to me, though, that the recent revolutions have been different because of the greater availability of information. In a bygone era, Mubarak may have been able to convince the general public that the protesters were a violent bunch of anarchists and turn public opinion against them. It seems that the reality of today is that the facts speak for themselves, over the web.

    Maybe this is just evident from my limited point of view as an American, though. I don’t know the true extent that the internet has played a role in Egypt.

  5. I agree completely. A strong hold on reality is necessary for this revolution to come to a meaningful democratic end. Seeing this as the end only lends itself to forgetting the revolution before it has had a chance to revolutionize anything. A situation similar to Iran in 1979 isn’t a revolution to change anything for the better.

  6. I agree with you Chris, the deterministic view sometimes narrows our judgment. However, I believe it is possible to hypothesize different actions and events in the short run today that will bring to different likely scenarios, and this is possible only through a cause-effect logic, i.e. we can guess that keeping high the public opinion attention on Middle East events could accelerate the route to a smoother transition.

  7. I think the post 1970 world has seen tons of – if not entirely velvet – revolutions that have caused significant permanent improvements in political rights and civil liberties, and that’s what matters.

    I’m thinking of:

    Portugal (Carnation revolution 1974)
    Spain (after the death of Franco in 1975)
    South Korea (1987 and the June Democracy Movement)
    Taiwan (mid 80s)
    Phillipines (Corazon Aquino and the People Power movement driving Marcos into exile in 1986)
    Czechoslovakia (Velvet revolution 1989)
    Poland (end of communism 1989)
    East Germany (end of communism 1989)
    Hungary (end of communism 1989)
    Romania (end of communism 1989)
    Bulgaria (end of communism 1989)
    Mali (toppling of the Traore regime 1991)
    South Africa (end of Apartheid 1994)
    Senegal (end of authoritarian rule and election of Abdoulaye Wade 2000)
    Georgia (Rose revolution 2003)
    Ukraine (Orange revolution 2004, even if Janukovich is in power Ukraine is a lot freer now than during Kutjma’s rule)

    And revolutions that did not improve things that I can think of:

    Iran (The Ayatollah actually made things worse 1979)
    Kyrgyzistan (Tulip revolution 2005, Bakiyev was almost as bad as Akayev, but they have gotten rid of him now though)

    And the jury is still out on:

    Guinea (Toppling of Dadis Camara 2010)
    Tunisia (2011)
    Egypt (2011)

    I have probably missed plenty of revolutions, but I think the ratio of “good” was “bad” revolutions is clearly tilted towards the good ones.

  8. The chances are always infinite about the course of future. But, we have to make a theory for predicament of the upcoming events. So we choose few parameters of critical importance and draft a hypothesis. Such parameters are taken on the basis of past events already happened in different part of world.

    Still, I agree with you that to discredit uncertainty in a documenting rules of the process with acquired knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to do much harm. Predictions can be falsified and which therefore are of empirical significance. Trial and error is only way to the growth.

  9. This post captures my emotions exactly regarding the Egyptian revolution. Those in Egypt have been oppressed and separated from reality for 30 years now because of Mubarak. They’d been completely deprived of an identity and because of the democratic protests of thousands there’s no turning back. We’re at a trivial part in the history of the Middle East, as seen through the domino effect in other countries, and I just hope these revolutions make positive and impactful changes. It’s easy as an American to question the revolution as an undermining of the stability and superficial “peace” in the region, but I assure you those Egyptians who have been kept down for decades are excited for change. And while democracy is not always suited or necessary for each country, I think the citizens of Egypt taking hold of democratic ideals and leading the revolution, indicate they’re more than ready and capable to implement a democratic system. They’ve taken ownership of their country and its future.

  10. I could not agree more that real, lasting democratic change has to come from within. I mean the Egyptian people were able to accomplish in a week, what America has had an agenda of accomplishing (in the Middle East) for years to no avail. I also believe that a certain degree of doubt is appropriate in the aftermath of the events in Egypt. The Egyptian people demanded a democracy (which they have not known for 30 years) and forced the resignation of their oppressor=success… but then what? There was no considerable cohesion in terms of who they might want to lead next and now there is a whole array of people vying for the position in a country that hasn’t had a fair election in decades. You were right to say that at this point it literally could go either way; a huge success or an epic failure.

  11. Should we really be surprised at the current situation in Egypt?
    Isaiah 19 1 A prophecy against Egypt: See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear. 2 “I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian– brother will fight against brother, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom. 3 The Egyptians will lose heart, and I will bring their plans to nothing; they will consult the idols and the spirits of the dead, the mediums and the spiritists. I will hand the Egyptians over to the power of a cruel master, and a fierce king will rule over them,” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.

    We need to be patient because it sounds like its going to be a long ride for Egypt to get back on their feet. I totally agree that their success and strength must come within instead of our outside forces. I hope Egypt implements some democratic ideals but it will take time for them to realize what works for them.