It has widely been claimed that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 took all the experts by surprise because none of them predicted it. It goes to show, say those who make the argument, just how little experts in general know and especially how little Middle East experts know. In some exceptionally annoying versions it is suggested that Middle East experts, sometimes said only to be “self-proclaimed” as in a recent article on the Democracy website, saw democracy as a system alien to the supposed cultural “DNA” of the system.
The only problem with this particular discursive meme is not just that it’s wrong but that it’s exactly (180 degrees) wrong. The problem with the experts wasn’t that they didn’t predict the downfall of the Mubarak regime; the problem was that they’d been predicting it for so long that the idea itself became discredited.
In 1986, only six years after Husny Mubarak assumed power, Hamied Ansari published a book whose title was “Egypt: the Stalled Society.” The government, Ansari argued, could ameliorate but not resolve the stresses that its contradictory economic and social policies were generating. He did not expect it to survive for very long. Three years later, in 1989, Robert Springborg subtitled his book on Mubarak “the fragmentation of the political order.” He saw a regime sinking into chaos which did indeed occur 21 years later but as a result of mass demonstrations not political fragmentation.
In 1995 the pseudonymous Cassandra published “The Impending Crisis in Egypt” in the Middle East Journal and concluded with the ominous warning that in the absence of significant but not particularly far-reaching reforms (which were never carried out if they were indeed even contemplated), “a political crisis of significant magnitude is likely to occur” and that it would occur too late for Washington to avert it. Exactly on the money although about 15 years early. In 2000, Jon Alterman posed the question “Egypt: Stable But for How Long?” Alterman noted that the regime had successfully crushed the Islamist insurgency that seemed so threatening to Springborg and Cassandra and that it had established links with a rent-seeking business community through Gamal Mubarak. While Alterman’s editor at The Washington Monthly might have inquired about an actual answer, it seems unlikely that glossy magazine would have published an essay whose answer would have been “about eleven years.”
And so it went. After years during which predictions of imminent collapse came and went, scholars finally resigned themselves to understanding how Mubarak had remained in power for 20, 25, and then nearly 30 years. Finally when Marsha Posusney and Eva Bellin addressed the mysteries of “Enduring Authoritarianism” in a book of the same name in 2007 they nevertheless predicted a serious crisis for the Mubarak regime although they expected it to come from the Muslim Brothers. Not surprisingly there were even books published in 2009 and 2010 that suggested a crisis was brewing and that the regime was soon to run into trouble. These books, of course, look a lot better but it would be hard to argue seriously that they were different from the earlier accounts. Their authors were just luckier and none of them ventured guesses about how long the regime would last.
So it is simply not true that experts did not predict a crisis in Egypt. They predicted crisis continuously and nearly interminably. It took decades for them to realize that, critical as the situation appeared to be to them, the Mubarak regime as well as others found ways to manage crisis after crisis and to remain in power. What no one predicted, it is true, was that the collapse of the regime would come from what appears to have been a massive and spontaneous uprising rather than armed confrontation with Islamists or electoral confrontation with the Muslim Brothers.
Much work will no doubt be done to explain the revolution as well as to understand politics in the new and still unfolding political order. What what would also be interesting for students of revolution as it is for Egyptians is to consider various ways to place the Mubarak regime. To what extent is it unique. If it is unique was it so from the moment Mubarak came to power after the assassination of Sadat? Was it, on the contrary, a regime that developed in the 1990s during the period of conflict with armed Islamists? Or was it a period of crony capitalism that flowered in its full authoritarian corruption after 2000? These possibilities make Mubarak and the socalled “symbols” of the regime the cause of Egypt’s ills and their removal the primary step to recovering a healthy political environment. More problematic for both Egyptians and the political scientists I mentioned above is to consider whether the Mubarak regime was simply the final product of the Sadat period. And still more problematic is the degree to which Mubarak was simply the final inheritor of the authoritarian state formed by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1954. So far although Egyptians have begun to consider all of these questions, political scientists have been unwilling to follow their lead.