Thursday, 10 February 2011

Causality in History and the Egyptian Uprising

Did anyone predict the Egyptian uprising? Great question, but one with implications much wider than Egypt and the last 18 days. Can anyone predict anything in which so many different people take part, each with their own motives and their own assumptions, most of which are not even visible on the surface? 
    Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post on Wednesday says that the Egypt Working Group in Washington at least saw the signs. "The White House was warned, publicly and repeatedly, that Egypt was approaching a turning point and that the status quo was untenable - not by an intelligence agency but by a bipartisan group of Washington-based experts who pleaded, in vain, for a change of policy," he writes.
     Issandr El Amrani also touches on the subject, with his criticism of quantitive approaches in the poticial science establishment in the United States. "Quantitative analysis and the behaviouralist approach of most American PoliSci academics is a big steaming turd of horseshit when applied in the Middle East," he says, and I am inclined to believe him, after receiving a stream of meaningless quantitative analyses of Arab media in my part-time capacity as managing editor of Arab Media and Society.  
    Diehl fails to prove his case that the Egypt Working Group came close to predicting anything very specific. They did say that "Egypt is at a critical turning point" and they added: "The choice is not between a stable and predictable but undemocratic Egypt on the one hand, and dangerous instability and extremism on the other. There is now an opportunity to support gradual, responsible democratic reform. But the longer the United States and the world wait to support democratic institutions and responsible political change in Egypt, the longer the public voice will be stifled and the harder it will be to reverse a dangerous trend." But those are generalities that any sensitive observer could have made, confident that if nothing much happened, they could still say the system was untenable and heading in a dangerous direction. After all, nothing is tenable for ever and the future is always a little "dangerous".
    Historians by their very nature look back at events and describe the conditions that prevailed at the start of major upheavals, such as the French or Russian revolutions. But description alone is not explanation, and as long as we cannot do control experiments, we may never be able to identify which particular circumstances were essential and which were accidental. We cannot, for example, recreate France on the eve of the revolution and then finetune any of the factors that may or may not have contributed to the revolution - food prices, say, or the level of social mobility -- to see how the changes affects the outcome. 
     Historians would do well to read Tolstoy, in his appendix to War and Peace, when he looked back at the death and destruction wrought by Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. “I arrived at the evident fact that the causes of historical events when they take place cannot be grasped by our intelligence… Endless retrospective conjectures can be made, and are made, of the causes of this senseless event, but the immense number of these explanations, and their concurrence in one purpose, only proves that the causes were innumerable and that not one deserves to be called the cause.”
    After the uprising in Tunisia, one of my colleagues asked me whether the same might happen in Egypt. Cautiously, aware that too many people had predicted the defeat of the Tunisian uprising, I replied that such  successful uprisings (and the Tunisian revolution is not yet complete) were rare and quite unpredictable. To have two uprisings, with so many common features, within the space of two months, suggests that they may not be so rare as I thought. But I still maintain that until all our brains are wired to some central processor which can cloud-compute our inclinations they will remain essentially unpredictable.  


  1. Check out Timur Kuran's work on revolutions and why they are hard to predict, in part because in many places in the world there is mass discontent, but no popular uprising:

    He is talking about 1989, but the general idea could be applied to other situations. The whole thing is good, but on page 16, he talks about what makes people jump on the revolutionary bandwagon: the trade off between public and private preferences and individual capacity for "preference falsification" or keeping your personal dislike of the status quo to yourself.

    Kuran quotes de Tocqueville: "Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds."

    Interested to know your thoughts...

  2. Thank you! Amongst all the highflying blabla about the pros/cons of the hegemonic approach in the (North American) social sciences, the reference to Tolstoy is an eye opener.

    I would like to second the previous commentator. Kuran has touched upon a very interesting if not crucial point. A less technical treatment of the whole issue of what we might call “unexpectedly snowballing social processes” is Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

    What is the idea behind that?: Trying to explain (in fact, usually post hoc) social events, we are used to think of them in terms of a controlled experiment where a certain number of factors align and cause agents to adjust their behavior in a certain way and if we are lucky we might be able to pinpoint the one factor that most contributed to the outcome. Put otherwise, in the social world, individuals react to the sum of other individuals’ actions – the market is one of the most salient models of that approach today.

    However, what Kuran and others before him, most famously, Thomas Schelling, have suggested is that behavior is not solely determined by structural conditions but by the behavior of those next to us (often in a very physical sense). So I am doing something because the two next to me did it and they followed the example of a group of people they had met before, etc.
    The twist here is that the success of such a process to unfold cannot be predicted since the way we react to others’ actions in our environment is based on “preferences” which are not only private but also highly heterogeneous throughout a given group of people.

    For instance, what are the reasons to join a rally against a regime? Well, it might be a certain level of grievances held on average by the people and which have been insufficiently addressed by the regime – but, it could also be that many people who were aggrieved (to different extents) were simply not ready to go public unless a certain number of other people had already done so… for some the threshold to act lay lower, they went first; for others higher, they got there later. Many others though might still hesitate. Is it because they continue to be afraid to show their disapproval of the current regime or are they perhaps in favor of maintaining the status quo? We don’t know - and, even worse, we might never know.

    CIA boss Panetta said yesterday that one of the lessons of what we are witnessing right now is that they had to look more closely at potential “triggers”, the famous “spark” – well, if we follow Kuran, Schelling and other tipping point people, the famous “spark” can be almost anything, the most unsuspicious event. The whole point is that the explanation for what is going to happen lies in the complex interactions of real (!) people and their motives might remain unfathomable for the number crunching scientific wizards of our times.

  3. Thank you both, Ted and Alexandra, for pointing out Kuran's work. The snowball effect was transparently at work in the Egyptian uprising. The threshold for participation rapidly declined. As I noted in the early days, the media played a crucial role in this with their highly inflated estimates of the number of people on the streets. Al Jazeera was fairly wild in this regard, but by no means uniquely so. I'm torn between my recognition of its contribution to bringing Mubarak down and my reservations about the accuracy of its reporting on the size of the crowds and on some other aspects. Maybe the end really does justify the means, sometimes!