Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sudden Political Flux

Egypt is balanced on the thin edge of a knife tonight. We have seen "people power" uprisings enough over the past 30 years to know that what happens on Friday evening in Cairo may be dispositive. If the police and army turn out in force and brutally repress, then keep it up for a few more days, the government may survive. We have seen this happen in Tienanmen square in 1989 and Tehran in the summer of 2010. If they waiver and crowds grow, it may be all over very quickly. I can foresee terrible violence or a million people out in the streets of Cairo, plus huge crowds in all the other major cities, demanding Mubarak to leave. Mohammed El Baradei has come to play the role of Vaclav Havel, Cory Aquino, and many others who have offered themselves as a crisis solution. Because 2/3 of the population is under 30 with large unemplyment, the prospects for massive demonstrations of people that have known nobody but Mubarak as president are huge. At this point, the odds of the Egyptian government surviving are still better than even, but waning fast.

That's the situational read. But here's the deeper commentary I want to make. We've seen this over and over again and are still trying to understand how suddenly, one day, a seemingly stable regime can collapse in a matter of days. Politics normally moves at a glacial pace. But sometimes a situation can become entirely fluid. That metaphor may be helpful or not for understanding a phenomenon we could call sudden political flux. Here's how I offer to explain the situation. We can call a state an "institution" but in the end it's just a bunch of people. The body politic is a human thing. The primary mechanism for sustained political structures is expectational. We see the same thing in markets. While the stock market normally moves slowly, it can suddenly move into periods of wild fluctuation as we saw in the Fall of 2008 and into 2009. The metaphor of "free fall" is not bad either - it describes a sudden, unexpected, but accelerating and seemingly uncontrollable event. We have also seen sudden breakdowns of order in places like Los Angeles in the 1992 riots, 1968 riots nationwide. In fact, one lessons of the past 30 years, both political and economic, may be that crisis is endemic to human social, political, and economic systems.

I do not know if a model can be made to predict when crises will occur or how they will resolve. It may be possible, but part of what makes them crises - sudden political flux, market collapse, riots - is that they are not predicted and the relevant actors are unprepared for them. Their spontaneity is their main feature. Moreover, organized premeditated attempts to create political flux through general strikes are rarely effecive. They also involve a set of decisionmakers not normally involved in political decsionmaking. What happens on the streets of Cairo tomorrow will be decided by huge numbers of individual, ordinary people -- protestors, police, soldiers -- in addition to the normal actors, their commanders and powerbrokers. The prerequisite to sudden political flux is mass communication - not mass media. The ability of vast numbers of human beings to participate in political drama is necessary for crises to occur. It may be observed that market crises also appear to be connected with bubbles and mass participation.

So we wait anxiously to see if Egypt will suddenly change its political system over the next twenty four hours.

What may be observable about political crises of this kind is that, like market crises, they cannot be handled by slow ameliorative efforts. It only spirals further out of control. To use another metaphor, a situation like this is referred to as a movement. Only brutal, dramatic, swift, and stunning action can arrest (literally and figuratively) a movement in its tracks. The situation tomorrow may be determined in a matter of an hour.


Raised By Republicans said...

I think a good analogy in these kinds of situations is not glaciers but earthquakes. Pressure on a system builds and builds and then a tipping point is reached and the tension is released in a crisis. Just like an earthquake, we can see the tensions building and we can even say "it's going to snap eventually" but we have a very difficult time predicting exactly when it will snap or how severe the effects will be.

I'm afraid I'm not as optimistic about the prospects for a democratic transition in Egypt as I am for Tunisia.

Reasons to be cautious optimistic for Egypt:

1) I've heard that these demonstrations are NOT dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood which has long been the best organized opposition group in Egypt.

2) Egypt does not have a lot of oil. There is a fair amount of research that over reliance on the export of a single valuable commodity is a significant risk factor for failure to democratize.

Reasons to be pessimistic:

1) The Egyptian army is much stronger materially and politically than the Tunisian army. And they have shown a willingness to use violence against opponents.

2) Even if there is a democratic overthrow of the current military regime, the organization best positioned to take advantage of that is not the urban, middle class pro-democracy crowd but the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohammed El Baradei could find himself not being the Vaclav Havel of Egypt but the Alexander Kerensky (the Russian democratic revolutionary doomed to be overthrown in short order by Lenin and the Bolsheviks).

3) I could seen a scenario play out where Mubarak is overthrown and leaves the country. A transition government takes over led by Mohammed El Baradei. This transition government is immediately beset with a wave of attacks by the Ikwhan (Muslim Brotherhood). When the transitional government proves incapable of contain Islamic fundamentalist violence, the military will perpetrate a coup d'etat with the excuse of "restoring order." Then a new dictator will emerge from some craven coven of colonels.

Raised By Republicans said...


You and our friends/readers may be interested in the following (not overly mathematical) discussion of these kinds of street demonstrations by Professor Sussane Lohman: "The Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989-91." World Politics, v 47, n 1 (1994): 42-101.

Her analysis focusses on the signals that potential demonstrators receive from the identity of the first people to hit the streets. For example, if the only people on the streets are the most radical types, onlookers may dismiss them as a fringe element. But if moderates hit the streets, it sends a much stronger signal about the potential strength (and success) of the movement.

In this context, the fact the demonstrations in Egypt appear to be a pro-democracy/middle class phenomenon rather than some sort of Islamist revolt, could be encouraging at least in the short term.

The Law Talking Guy said...

That sounds like fascinating research.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - I agree that the ultimate result of this sudden earthquake (a very good analogy) is hard to predict, and that there are many bad options. It depends a lot on things that mostly Egypt experts would know about in their civil society and non-state institutions.

Uswest said...

Yes, LTG! Civil society! The success or failure of Egypt's movement, what is being coined as "the scent of Jasmine", depends on the civil society that exists in Egypt. Thus, the difference between the Arab countries now and the Velvet revolutions that swept Eastern Europe is that in Eastern Europe, you had strong civil societies and institutions ready to form unity governments. As RBR implied, you don't have this in these nations. And there is still the threat of Islamists taking over. So I am wary of events in Egypt.

LTG, Egypt was never solidly stable. It was psydo-stable. There is no real stability with you have maintained a dictatorship for 30 years. You only do that by playing groups against each other. The Earthquake is a good analogy. What I have learned in years of working with Arabs of all stripes is that there is always something simmering, often unknown to the casual observers. And then one day, it bursts. The burst is usually big,loud, and short. I want to see if the Egyptians persist or if the burst peeter out. Who joins in as the protests last? Will the movement stay middle class, or will the rougher elements join in? Will the demand remain unified, or will other demands of special interests take over?

Examples of ways that bursts are shortened: Take Yemen. There, the president is increasing the salaries of civil servants and the military hoping to buy their loyalties long enough to quell the dissent. This has worked historically in Yemen. Pay the tribes, and they behave. It's a state held together by corruption, blackmail, and oil. There is nothing more holding it together.

Democracy takes a great deal of time to evolve and to take hold. Will these people be willing to take the time? Democracy won't end unemployment or poverty. In fact, while it is being established, both of these may worsen. So let's see how ready these folks are to do the heavy lifting. Keep your eyes on Tunisia and see if it will be an early indicator of what will happen in Egypt.

All I can say is great ready. Next on the list, Saudi. Buy hybrids. Gas is going to go sky high.

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