Thursday, 17 February 2011


In the previous post I suggested a couple of political factors centred on regime legitimacy and the unity and willingness to risk instability of populations that help explain why certain countries and not others have seen major protests. I also suggested that based on these factors, the Libyan regime looks pretty vulnerable.

One issue with this model, if it can be called one (OK it can't), is that it doesn't have much predictive power, as a lot of these factors have existed in places like Tunisia for a long time without major upheaval being unleashed until very recently. I think that's one reason why people are attracted to the food price inflation theory, because there has been a notable rise in food prices recently and it therefore helps explain why these uprisings are happening now (though it doesn't really explain why they didn't happen in 2008, when there was some scattered rioting in places like Mauritania but not much else, or why they didn't happen 20 or 30 years ago when food actually accounted for significantly higher proportions of expenditure in a lot of these countries than it does now even despite recent inflation).

More generally, there's been a lot of discussion about which political and economic models and sub-disciplines have the most predictive power and whether or not intelligence services for example should have seen this coming, or more generally why nobody did. In response to this, I'm going to make two mutually-contradictory comments:

One is that noone and no model can really predict the future of extremely complex societies. It's hard enough to predict what one person will do, never mind millions interacting in complex ways. Even if the problem weren't so complex, the mere fact of successfully being able to predict the future can itself change the future (as people will act on their foreknowledge - eg if Mubarak could have predicted what was going to happen he might have tried to placate people earlier), which may in turn result in a different outcome than the predicted one. It's a pretty obvious and well-established (in the field of economic forecasting, for example) point that futurology is really just a parlour game.

The second is that, actually, some people did predict what happened in Egypt, more or less. Less than two years ago John Bradley published a book called Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharoahs on the Brink of A Revolution. Obviously he didn't predict events exactly, but from what I remember of the book (I read a borrowed copy) he basically argued that Egypt was a total mess of a society that, as was, er, "on the brink of a revolution." (I think if I remember correctly he may have argued for a likely Islamist revolution, which this hasn't been so far, but I'm not sure). I'm surprised that I haven't seen anything in the way of citations of the book or interviews with Bradley recently (I may have just missed them, of course). Some Egypt specialists I know were sniffy about it, and it was more of a (sometimes sensationalist) journalistic work than a work of political science - but to be fair to Bradley, he seems to have been broadly correct in his assessment. Meanwhile another book has just been published (but obviously must have been written at least several months ago) entitled Egypt on the Brink, though I haven't read it and don't know what it's actual argument was.

Now, I actually think that these writers were probably fairly fortuitous in their timing rather than having been really able to predict with high confidence that Egypt would rise up in the very near future - though kudos to them all the same. But I think a more important point is that in cases like this, in many ways it doesn't really matter whether you could predict them or not. Egypt and Tunisia under their ousted leaders were both horribly repressive and corrupt regimes with major socioeconomic problems. Whether or not they were about to revolt didn't really matter in the sense that, either way, major change was clearly needed - change for its own sake, and not for the sake of avoiding instability or upheaval. If Obama really was annoyed that his intelligence people didn't see this coming, not only is he living in a fantasy world, he's missing the point that the US should have been pushing much harder for change in its Middle Eastern allies years ago, for the sake of the people living there if nothing else. Perhaps it's a naive point, but surely having disastrously-run, corrupt and repressive countries dominating a key region (or any region) is just a bad thing in itself, and bound to lead to no wider good in the long run. Who cares about the (unknowable) future when the present is already a total mess?

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