Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A journey in Egyptian studies

Did the experts really fail to predict the Arab Spring, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

We have been told that one major casualty of the Arab Spring was Middle East studies. Even former US president Barack Obama railed at the blindness of Washington’s wise men who did not see it coming. I was in France at the time and frequently heard the same thing — that the experts had got things very wrong.

It is time to discuss this sweeping assessment. I recently read an opinion piece in the Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat saying that an economist’s job is not to predict a crisis, but to deal with one. No doctor can tell you when you are going to die. He can only assess your state of health, the article said. But this argument is not wholly true. In some cases, a doctor is able to predict a death. But let us skip this question and ask instead whether the experts were right about the Arab regimes’ state of health before the Arab Spring.

Regarding Egypt, at least one scholar made an accurate prediction. In February 2009, the French-Tunisian scholar Mustafa Khayati and I had a lunch during which we discussed the professional crossroads we had reached. I asked him what he wanted to do: stay in Egypt, return to Tunisia, or go to France. He said “I want to stay in Egypt, of course. This regime will not last another two years. Before March 2011, we will see a revolution.”

He went on to describe the growing social unrest, the anger of the workers and the middle classes, the regime’s blindness and inability to sort things out and the crazy dynamics of Egyptian capitalism. The comparison with the pre-1952 Revolution situation was striking. In 1952, the army cut the Gordian knot. This time, it could not do so, as its relations with the regime were more complex, or — this was my comment, and my friend agreed — it would not do so without a massive upheaval as an excuse.

I did not forget his brilliant analysis. But did I believe it? Before answering, some background might be useful.

Between 1975 and 2009, when a young scholar, a PhD candidate, for example, whether a Westerner or an Egyptian, investigated Egypt, more often than not he was shocked. The former regime was a curious beast. The police state, the huge inequalities and massive poverty, the pervasive master-slave relations, the grotesque and often incompetent authoritarianism that characterises all top-down social and political relations, the deep mistrust and hatred between the different social classes, the corruption — all this made for an unattractive mix.

In the light of this, two reactions were possible. Either the scholar in question thought the situation was unbearable and could not last. A revolution would come sooner or later. Or he would say that the regime was a huge challenge to common sense, but that despite its awful features it seemed to work and was able to achieve things, so we should try to explain it. He might go on to develop elaborate theories of authoritarianism and grotesque typologies emphasising subtle differences in order to do so.

After 1989 and the “third wave of democratisation” that marked the end of the European Communist regimes, some started asking the democratic transition/transformation question about the Arab world. A third group of students avoided taking sides. These either focused on cultural studies, or the economy or the rise of Political Islam. The regime, for them, was not in itself a thing to be explained, but something that might be used to explain cultural trends, economic success or failure, or the rise of Political Islam.

The latter movement interested the three camps. Those who predicted a revolution also focused on it, with some trying to prove that it was an “ultimate stage” of the “people’s struggle” that would achieve “cultural independence”. Others hoped a left-wing version of Islamism would arise, while others still said that “Islamism is the poor man’s anti-imperialism,” and so on. The authoritarian theorists tried to figure out how authoritarian regimes had been able to play the religious card in order to consolidate themselves and how the Islamists might be able to play a role in a democratic transition.

The three camps also shared some common attitudes in their growing distrust of the “usual interlocutors” (those Egyptians who spoke foreign languages and the leftists), and they were deeply influenced by the US-Palestinian academic Edward Said’s stinging critique of “orientalism”. Everybody and everything that looked too “Westernised” became suspect in their eyes, especially if it scorned the “people”.

Naturally, things were more complicated in reality as there were in fact two kinds of Westernised Arabs. The post-modern ones, those who knew Said by heart and criticised the European Enlightenment, were the acceptable ones.

At least in French academic and diplomatic circles, by 2010 those writers who claimed that authoritarianism worked and was stable seemed to have won the argument. The Mubarak regime in Egypt had achieved some economic successes, and the alliance between brilliant technocrats and businessmen seemed a stable and even winning formula, combining vigorous debate and an ability to get things done. The Muslim Brothers were either considered to be “in crisis”, with “old reactionaries” contested by a younger and more “open-minded” generation, or to be “part of the political system” and contributing to its stability by their charities and legalism.

The army had been “neutralised” by Mubarak, this line of thinking said, and it would not oppose the rise of Mubarak’s son Gamal. The 6 April movement was irrelevant, and the regime knew how to handle unrest by using a mixture of carrots and sticks. The prophets of imminent revolution were mocked, as they had been saying the same things since 1975. The younger ones among them were considered to be both naïve and moralistic.

I admit that I bought into some of these arguments, notably those regarding the economic achievements, the successful handling of social unrest, the irrelevance of the 6 April movement, and the efficiency of the overall regime. On the other hand, regarding the army, the Muslim Brothers, and the cohesion of the ruling elite, I knew better. A lot of friends, including some Muslim Brothers, had described the degradation of the social situation in the countryside. When between 2009 and 2010 I discovered the deep anger of many members of the ruling elite and of some senior civil servants, I took notice.

If I wanted to congratulate myself, I would say I never ruled out a revolution. But things were more complicated than that: I believed in 2005 (the Cairo Spring) and 2007 (the start of the social unrest) that the regime would fall. I was wrong. In 2011, I did not rule out the possibility of the regime negotiating with some of the protesters and finding a way out. I only changed my mind about that on 2 February 2011.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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