I don’t have any brilliant suggestions for how President Obama should handle the situation in Egypt. But history and economic theory do give us some insight on why the revolt against the government started so suddenly and unexpectedly. They also highlight the danger that any regime that replaces incumbent dictator Hosni Mubarak might turn out to be much worse than he is.
I. Why the Revolt was Such a Surprise.
It seems likely that the revolt against Mubarak came as a surprise to him, and also to Western intelligence agencies, including the Israelis, who are renowned for their capabilities in this field and have obvious incentives to keep close tabs on events in Egypt. Why was everyone so surprised?
A key reason is that citizens of oppressive regimes have strong incentives to keep anti-government opinions to themselves. As a result, many who oppose the government might hesitate to say to to pollsters, foreign journalists, and anyone else who might potentially reveal their views to the authorities. As I have previously emphasized here, here, and here, this makes it very hard to gauge the true level of opposition to the government. Indeed, even the regime itself might underestimate the true extent of its own unpopularity, which may be one reason why Mubarak was caught flatfooted.
As economist Timur Kuran showed in a brilliant 1995 book on this kind of “preference falsification,” regimes that rely on repression to inhibit expression of opposition opinion can rapidly collapse if the public perceives that the reins have been loosened. Once a few people start protesting openly and the government does not react as forcefully and effectively as everyone expects, protests can quickly snowball and spread, as more and more people begin to believe that it’s safe to express antigovernment opinions openly. This is what happened in Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989-91, in Tunisia a couple weeks ago. It may also account for current events in Egypt, as protests rapidly grew once police and security forces failed to suppress their initial manifestations a few days ago. By their very nature, such occurrences are difficult to predict, since they rely on a combination of random events and relatively modest relaxation of vigilance on the part of the regime.
II. Why the New Regime Might be Worse than the Old.
There is a long history of revolutions against repressive governments resulting in takeovers by groups that are even more oppressive. Czar Nicholas II, who slaughtered thousands and significantly repressed opposition movements, was overthrown only to be supplanted by the communists, who slaughtered millions and permitted no opposition at all. Batista, the run of the mill Cuban dictator, was replaced by the mass murdering Fidel Castro, who both killed many more people and made Cuba far more economically backward than before. The repressive Shah of Iran was replaced by the even more repressive Ayatollah Khomeini.
What these cases have in common is that the illiberal forces were much better organized and prepared to seize power than their liberal democratic rivals. A secondary factor was the illiberal strain in Russian, Cuban, and Iranian public opinion, which gave the new regime broader support than it might have had otherwise (though, contrary to popular mythology, the vast majority of Russians did not support the Bolsheviks in 1917). Under oppressive governments, rational political ignorance and irrationality are even more of a problem than in democracies, since the regime inhibits the free flow of information. This makes people even more susceptible to dangerously irrational ideologies than they would be otherwise.
Both of these danger signs are very much present in Egypt. As political scientist Barry Rubin, an expert on Arab politics, points out, the best-organized opposition in group in Egypt is the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. If they manage to seize power, the resulting regime is likely to be even more repressive than Mubarak’s, especially when it comes to women, non-Muslims, and liberals. Rubin also notes that Egyptian public opinion is far from liberal:
[W]hat do Egyptians really think? According to a recent Pew poll, they are extremely radical even in comparison to Jordan or Lebanon. When asked whether they preferred “Islamists” or “modernizers,” the score was 59% to 27% in favor of the Islamists. In addition, 20 percent said they liked al-Qaeda; 30 percent, Hezbollah; 49 percent, Hamas. And this was at a time that their government daily propagandized against these groups.
How about religious views? Egyptian Muslims said the following: 82 percent want adulterers punished with stoning; 77 percent want robbers to be whipped and have their hands amputated; 84 percent favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.
The Pew poll Rubin cites is this one. He does misinterpret one question. The 59% who said they preferred fundamentalists to “modernizers” is not 59% of the entire sample, but merely of the 31% who say they perceive a conflict between these two groups in Egypt. We don’t know what the other 69% of Egyptian Muslims believe on this issue. Nonetheless, the overall picture of Egyptian public opinion is a disturbing one. In addition to the points cited by Rubin, it’s also worth noting that 54% of Egyptians say they favor legally mandated sex segregation in the workplace, and that the survey might underestimate the extent of sympathy for Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Some Egyptians might have been reluctant to express such views so long as Mubarak seemed firmly in control, since all three groups were enemies of his regime.
None of this definitively proves that radical Islamist forces will soon take over Egypt. The Mubarak regime might yet survive, perhaps sans Mubarak himself. Even if it does not, it’s possible that more liberal forces will somehow prevail. But it does suggest that an Islamist takeover is a serious threat, and that repressive forces are better positioned to seize power than their rivals for much the same reasons as in 1917 Russia and 1979 Iran.
It is reasonable to point out that this sad state of affairs is in part the result of longstanding US support for the Mubarak regime, which has repressed liberal opposition and allowed radical Islamists to pose as the only viable alternative. Of course this critique of US policy assumes that there was a viable liberal alternative to Mubarak that we could have supported instead, which is far from clear. Mubarak might have been the lesser of the available evils. But even if US policy does deserve a share of blame for Mubarak’s repression, that only makes it all the more imperative that we do what we can to forestall the rise of an even worse government.
UPDATE: It seems like most of the commenters are focusing on the very brief discussion of US foreign policy in my last paragraph and using it as an occasion to rehash well-worn debates about the history of US policy in the Middle East (e.g. – whether the US was wrong to ally with various Arab dictators, and whether doing so helped cause the 9/11 attacks). I’m not going to delete comments on these issues. But it seems to me that it would be better for readers to focus on the main points I make in the post rather than rehash arguments that have already been debated ad nauseum elsewhere.