The experts were wrong, again
Moments ago, Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down after 30 years in power — following on the heels of Tunisia’s dictator who fled his country after ruling for 23 years.
At this remarkable moment in Middle Eastern history, it is worth recalling what scholars, diplomats and pundits said in years past about stability in Egypt and Tunisia. This jog down memory lane is one of those delicious moments where the experts are yet again proved ignorant of the present and incapable of predicting the future.
In 2007, then US ambassador to Egypt, Francis Riccardione, declared that the country was the “rock of stability in this region.” Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “the Egyptian government is stable” and State Department spokesman PJ Crowley echoed that Egypt was an “anchor of stability.”
To any student of history, all of this was eerily reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s pronouncement on the eve of the Iranian revolution that the country was an “island of stability.” At midnight on December 31, 1977, Carter raised a glass of champagne and toasted Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, proclaiming that the Shah enjoyed “his people’s total confidence.” Just before the Iranian autocrat was toppled, Britain’s ambassador in Iran said, “There has been little or no evidence of unrest among the urban poor.” That year, Pahlavi boasted,“Nobody can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops, all the workers and most of the people.”
Days ago, as over a million people fearlessly gathered to protest corruption and dictatorship in Egypt, Al Jazeera declared without a hint of irony that the Egyptian people were famous for their apathy. The New York Times described the Egyptian public as “apolitical and largely apathetic.” There were, of course, elements of truth to these caricatures, but much greater humility was called for. The Egyptian people were apathetic — until suddenly one day they weren’t. Egypt was a rock of stability — until suddenly one day it wasn’t.
Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations was not exaggerating when he wrote recently that “many of my colleagues considered Ben Ali’s Tunisia as among the most stable of stable political systems.” Journalists who covered the region were fond of saying that despite his heavy-handed tactics, censorship, rampant corruption and authoritarianism, Tunisia under Ben Ali was stable, moderate, literate and relatively prosperous. They also claimed that Ben Ali was here to stay. In late 2009, The Economist confidently asserted that even after more than two decades in power, the dictator’s reign “is by no means over yet.”
In 2003, renowned foreign correspondent, Georgie Anne Geyer, wrote a book titled “Tunisia: A Journey Through a Country That Works.” On one of her many visits to the country, Geyer sat in a cafe in Sidi Bou Said — the same city, ironically enough, where the Jasmine Revolution was sparked. For several hours she relaxed and was “as happy as the black and white cats that were leaping from rooftop to cafe and from cafe to exquisite doorway in the magical city.” Charming.
Tunisians were “admiring all the lovely things in the shops and lingering over coffee and drinks in the picturesque little restaurants and bars. I looked, but I did not see any revolutionaries marching down the streets promising the perfect society, nor any utopian dreamers who would either be crushed by the tanks of the righteous when the revolution came or be destroyed by their own grandiosity. I saw no-one who looked even a bit afraid and no-one who looked remotely persecuted.”
Geyer saw no revolutionaries, no fear and no persecution for the same reason that Walter Duranty saw no famine in the Soviet Union in the 1930s — he did not want to see it. There is no limit to man’s ability to deceive himself. Tunisia was a “country that worked” — until one day it didn’t. Simmering beneath the facade of stability were decades of repression and marginalization. Tunisians loathed the corrupt and pompous gang that ruled over them.
All one really needed to know about Tunsia is that it was ruled by just two men since its founding 55 years ago. Ben Ali treated his people as children, unworthy of political freedom and incapable of choosing their leader. So did Mubarak who eliminated opposition and ruled for three decades. Both dictators fought jihadists and so the West showered them with praise. Professors, pundits and the press were all too eager to explain in exquisite, lofty rhetoric why Arabs weren’t quite ready for pesky democratic rights and inherently unstable liberty.
“[T]he Tunisia experience,” wrote Geyer in 2003, “spoke a daring truth — that not all people are immediately ready for democracy … [Tunisians] didn’t need any revolutions, nor even any rebellions; and unless every indicator was wrong, Tunisians were still willing to give their leaders a long political leash as they continued to make their way through the minefields of development and change.” What she ignored, along with almost everyone else, is simple truth that the number of double thinkers in closed societies is almost always higher than we imagine and the number of true believers lower.
One month ago, few would have entertained the thought that Mubarak’s regime was about to collapse. Almost no one saw the fall of the Soviet Union coming either. In 1982, Sovietologist Severyn Bailer proclaimed that the USSR “will not go bankrupt … like the political system it will not collapse.” John Kennith Galbraith spoke of a thriving Soviet economy and E.A. Hewett claimed in 1988 that Soviet citizens enjoyed “massive economic security.”
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confessed that “virtually no one in the defense or intelligence business predicted that the Soviet Union was bound for the dustbin of history until it hit bottom.” It was left to imprisoned poets like Andre Alamrik to presciently ask “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?”
There has been much talk — and will be much more — about what exactly toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak. Why now and not last year or a decade ago? The short answer is that we haven’t a clue and probably never will. The mighty Black Swan emerged from her shadowy nest and once again made fools of everyone. We should learn from this experience — although if history is any indicator, we won’t.
David Keyes can be reached at email@example.com.