Predicting social revolutions?

Should social scientists have been able to predict the chaos in Tunis and Egypt? After someone at AEI decided that someone should’ve, then went on to slam scientists for not doing so, Dan Drezner and Phil Arena had some interesting thoughts in rebuttal. I’ve got nothing to add, strictly speaking, to what they said, because the AEI post demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of science. I’ve got another answer to the question—well, at least another reason to say “no”—that has to do precisely with insights gained from political science about things live social revolutions. In short, things like this can’t happen unless they are unpredictable.

The events in Tunis and Egypt had to be fairly unpredictable if they were to happen…otherwise, the repressive organs of the respective states, or the governments through preemptive concessions, would’ve tried to head them off (which, anticipating some unrest, Jordan and Yemen are trying to do right now). This is probably true of anything like a social revolution, a coup, putsch, etc., because they begin with one side—the people or a batch of upset colonels—at a serious bargaining disadvantage with respect to the state, a disadvantage that can only be overturned, even temporarily, through some sort of surprise.

So in the end, we’ve seen how surprisingly these things can spring up: governments in Tunis and Cairo caught off guard, the first unsuspecting of unrest and the second skeptical that it would spread across the border into a traditionally stable Egypt. Then, sensing that things might get rough in their own countries, Jordan and Yemen’s governments start promising reform, hoping to head off popular pressure once it becomes predictable. I don’t know about you, but that’s some fairly useful insight gained from social science theories—especially rigorous logical models of the kind our friend at AEI disparages—wouldn’t you think?

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What does bargaining theory have to say about Mubarak’s decision?

So Hosni Mubarak promised not to seek a new term once Egyptian elections roll around in September, but the crowds of protesters have stayed in place. The question is: should we be surprised? I say no, and here’s why: unless he steps down, and soon, Mubarak’s promise is pretty incredible. If he promises to step down 7, 8 months from now, yet the crowds go home, they’ve lost their leverage over him. He’s free to renege on the promise, because with the populace once again demobilized and uncoordinated, the repressive apparatus can take steps to make a repeat more difficult…and without people in the streets, the pressure to step down when September rolls around won’t be as great. Returning to their homes means that the protestors lose their leverage, so Mubarak’s promise is just that—a convenant without the sword—and it’s no surprise that the crowds remain in the streets, despite the costs of maintaining a country-crippling protest.

What’s the endgame? Who knows? Revolutions have to be unpredictable to some extent if they’re to get off the ground (otherwise they’d be headed off by the state’s repressive organs), but it’s now become a waiting game, of sorts…but the only way to guarantee that the crowds get what they want is for Mubarak to blink first…

…and, at this point, we’re watching either history or one really big tease.

What worries me long term about Egypt?

Several things, to be honest, but I’d say that whether the Egyptians come out the other side of this with a government that will honor or repudiate the peace treaty with Israel will have a lot to say about international relations in the region in the coming years. For decades, Egypt’s been repressive at home and pragmatic towards Israel, but who knows what the relative balance between those two will be when the dust settles?