The fog of the analytical class

When asked last September about a title for a talk I was to give at Yale University, where I am currently a Fellow at the MacMillan Center, I suggested “The Fog of Revolution in Egypt.” I spoke about three types of fog — the fog of the analytical class, of the political players and of the future.

My concern, here, is the fog of the analytical class. No expert had predicted the Egyptian revolution, not to mention the entire upheaval engulfing the Arab region. Popular revolutions were few and far between in history, it was maintained, and we just had one in Iran. The region itself was exceptional, others held, and authoritarianism was deep-rooted in the mind and culture of the people. Even after the Tunisian revolution, it was said that Egypt, unlike Tunisia, had a strong state, with a robust army and security forces.

Did observers have any inkling as to how the Armed Forces would react in the case that there was a popular revolt? Did analysts fathom that the judiciary would play such a key role in the shaping of subsequent events? Had scholars of Islamist politics foreseen that Salafis would emerge as a main political force? Even after Mohamed Morsy became president, pundits surmised that he would be a pliant tool in the hands of the military, only to soon see the two top army chiefs sent into gentle retirement.

How did this happen? Did Morsy or the junior officers end the generals’ service? Or was it the SCAF and not the president that was really shaky? How did the weak Morsy suddenly appear as a pharaoh?

Even today, the analytical class is divided about the nature of what happened in the 18 days that ended the Mubarak era. Some insist that it is not a revolution, but a “spring” or an “uprising.”

And with the constitution passed, no one seems to know what lurks behind the closed doors of the future. Serious instability or civil war? A military coup? Islamist dictatorship? Gradual building of a pluralist political system?

My point when I gave the talk was to warn my audience to keep a critical eye on what they read and hear. The occurrence and pathways of revolutions are hard to predict; it is equally difficult to determine which course of action to advocate in order to give your ideas and the interests dear to you a chance to prevail. Much will be known in retrospect, if ever; historians still discover new things and disagree about past revolutions.

My point is not to discourage analysis or understanding; it is only a plea for intellectual humility and against dogmatism while in the middle of great social upheaval.

It may all be foggy, but one thing is clear: The 25 January revolution has unleashed a new spirit among the people of Egypt against inequality and tyranny, a spirit I suspect will not be easy to suppress.

Sharif S. Elmusa is a Palestinian poet and professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. He is currently a fellow at the MacMillan Center at Yale University.

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