international analysis and commentary

Egypt and the political science crisis

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The recent events in Egypt remind us how hard it is to predict crucial events, and even to fully understand them as they unfold before our very eyes. This is an interesting test case for the social sciences in a very complex world. After Marta Dassù opened the debate with the following article, which appeared in La Stampa in Italian on January 31, 2011, Aspenia online continues the discussion on why political scientists and analysts have such a hard time predicting major change.

The crisis in Egypt is to political scientists what the collapse of Lehman Brothers was to economists. No one saw it coming; and this, in an environment in which people make a living out of (erroneous) forecasts on the “10 scenarios to avoid in 2011.” Of course, people will say that that is not true because, in a special issue of the Inane Information Center’s magazine, the issue of Hosni Mubarak’s succession was mentioned as being a critical turning point. But the fact of the matter is that political scientists, just like economists, find it hugely difficult to envision the timing and the manner in which a crisis will occur. This is nothing new, of course. Very few of them managed to predict the collapse of the USSR. I was reminded of this when Barack Obama referred to the Sputnik shock in his State of the Union address. To be honest, I was not overwhelmed by his quip: Half a century on, the Sputnik syndrome reminds us not of the United States’ solidity so much as of the fragility of the USSR. In any event, from the launch of the Sputnik to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, very few analyses had anticipated the scenario of the Soviet system’s implosion.

Not many people predicted what happened in Iran in 1979 either. Even more to the point, they totally failed to predict that the protests of the Communist Party and of the bourgeois and intellectual elites in Iran, combined with the wrath of the social outcasts, would lead to the triumph of the ayatollahs. Today, the Iranian precedent is being applied to Egypt. The prevailing forecast is that the collapse of Mubarak’s regime is likely to pave the way for the advent of Islamist forces disguised as Muslim Brothers. But can we really attempt to read the future of the largest country in the Arab world by looking back at the Iranian precedent?

That is another big problem, because one is always tempted, when engaging in international political analysis, to base one’s hypotheses on the previous crisis. The war in Iraq was handled on the basis of the manual regulating military operations in Kosovo in 1999, which certainly did not help matters much; the Afghan exit strategy is paying more than mere lip service to the Iraqi precedent, even though Afghanistan is a very different kind of theater from Iraq; and so on and so forth. And we should add that this is just one factor in the overall inability to make accurate forecasts.

One might counter this pessimistic vision by arguing that there are people capable of making accurate forecasts, we just do not notice them. He or she may be a professor who never gets invited to Davos, or an expert whose pieces are never published in the Financial Times. That is true, and it brings us back to the famous debate sparked by the errors of judgment over Iraq: Does anyone really want to listen to expert advice that does not confirm his or her political choices?  There is also the case of “dissidents” who believe, by definition, in the collapse of the regime oppressing them. It is a shame that we generally listen to them only after the collapse has actually occurred. As long as a regime is supported for reasons of realpolitik (and in Egypt’s case those reasons were, and still are, of crucial importance – it is the linchpin of the Arab world, it is at peace with Israel, and it is a US ally), then dissidents are experienced more than anything as an irritating inconvenience.

What should we conclude from all of this? In the same way as the financial crisis of 2008 sparked a debate among economists, so the Middle Eastern crisis of 2011 should trigger a reflection among political scientists. There is no doubt that the issue of political and social change is always tricky to decipher and to interpret, but I believe that this virtual inability to make accurate forecasts depends to a great extent on our habit of studying governments rather than countries. If we were to decide that countries count too (the people, the grass roots, not just the movers and shakers), our analyses would probably be better for it. And that, in turn, would improve foreign policy choices that have been based for too long on backing regimes that are friends of ours, but no friends to their people.

This article was originally published in Italian in La Stampa on January 31, 2011.

Read also:
The Architects, the Oracles and the Ones
by Pasquale Ferrara
The positivist illusion
by Michele Testoni
The shocks that always make a difference
by Ian O. Lesser
No prediction failure – but a lack of sound policy analysis
by Gregorio Bettiza
Reading the future: not our job
by Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Read also in Italian:
Previsioni e profezie
di Angelo Panebianco, Corriere della Sera
Per capire la crisi serve una laurea in buon senso
di Raghuram Rajan, Il Sole 24ORE