Egypt: Tipping point or business as usual?

February 1, 2011

Mohamed el-Bareidi

Egypt’s turmoil prompts questions about the outcomes of this week’s demonstrations. There has been speculation about irreversible change, or business as usual. One possibility is it that it may be both

Update

The post was written originally at the start of the monumentous few weeks which eventually saw the departure of President Mubarak.

The original post follows:

One of the frustrations of theories of change is their frailty as predictive aids. History at best gives a cloudy view of what will happen and particularly when.

In the relatively simple circumstances of boardroom battles, it may just be possible to identify a few promising scenarios. But tipping points, however popular a business school concept, and however well-promoted by management gurus, are much easier to recognise in hindsight. In global political events involving the replacement of a national leader a perceived critical incident may be not much of a predictor.

The BBC identified three scenarios

The BBC has covered the uprising thoroughly. The Mubarak regime is regarded as an essential ally to American and Israeli interests. The army is considered as having more popular credibility with a reputation of avoiding direct action against the populance. The police less so. Nobel prize-winner Al-Bareidi [image above] has stepped forward as a realistic leader in waiting.

The BBC analysis has suggested three possible scenarios:
[1] Mubarak Quits: The escalating demonstrations show that “[many people] clearly want Hosni Mubarak to give up the presidency immediately. The most common demand, shouted and painted on banners, is the Arabic word irhal, meaning simply go.”
[2] Hosni Mubarak may attempt to stay (business as usual): He draws on the support of the police in its various guises. The army is signalling it would play a relatively neutral role.
[3] There is an ‘orderly’ transition to a more open society, free elections, regularly appointed political leaders

Tipping points and domino theories

Political strategists have found comfort in making sense of complex issues as being resolved by critical incidents. President Bush found the nine-eleven attacks such a defining incident clarifying his enemies. In hindsight it was all a bit more complicated. Yet tipping points and moments of destiny can seize the imagination. There is comfort in believing the future is clear. It is sometimes accompanied by a belief in the so-called domino theory in which loss of one strategic stronghold produces a sequence of losses. The concept is paralleled with the old story “for want of a shoe a horse was lost .. for want of a horse a battle was lost”. There has been such stories constructed over the last weeks: First Tunisia, next Egypt, (next the neighbouring states as if the revolutionary forces were spreading geographically like a plague, that other apocalyptic horseman

What will happen in Egypt?

Consider the events over the last few years globally. In Zimbabwe, Mr Mugabe continues to resist attempts to ensure “fair and free elections”. In Iran, the “revolution through social media” has been halted. In Burma, the release of Aung san suu kyi may have been a Mandela moment, but the progress along the road to political freedom seems as long as ever.

What will happen in Egypt? Tipping points may have symbolic power, but more material factors and multiple stakeholders will make each sequence of political events distinct and with its unique set of circumstances. And yet there is also a sense of history repeating itself in nuanced form. There was a Mandela moment in South Africa. The Berlin Wall did crumble rapidly and literally. Mr Mubarak’s options are increasingly limited, but still not completely defined by forces outside his control. He does not yet have to resign his game of life and death chess.

If only because of his age, he will depart, perhaps earlier than he expected a month or so ago. Even then, it is not so clear that Mr Al-bereidi will be a tipping point in the processes of bringing about democratic change. The outcome may be more ‘business as usual’ of a time period longer than the protesters must be hoping for.