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.