From Tunis to Cairo?

Do the large and angry demonstrations in Egypt mean that I was wrong to predict that the revolution in Tunisia wouldn't spread? Not yet, but I will be watching events closely and developments there could eventually prove me wrong. (As Keynes famously retorted, "when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?") But thus far, I'm sticking with my original forecast.

A couple of quick points.  In my original post on the subject, I emphasized that revolutionary upheavals are always inherently unpredictable, because it is hard to know how much the population is willing to risk to overthrow the authorities and because each person's reaction will depend on what they think others will do. (Someone might be reluctant to join an angry mob if they thought only ten other people will show up, but if they are convinced that 5000 other people will be there, then there's safety in numbers and they'd be willing to be the 5001st). 

I didn't deny that events in Tunisia might generate some sympathetic rumblings elsewhere, because this is common after a revolution, but I said that I didn't expect a wave of upheavals that ultimately overthrew neighboring governments. The main reason was that authoritarian governments would be on their guard against contagion, and would act quickly to snuff out any rising revolutionary tide. Thus far, that's precisely what the Mubarak regime seems to be doing, and they have a lot of practice at this sort of thing.  See here for an eyewitness account. As Juan Cole warns, "Egypt is not Tunisia."

So what do I think now? It's clear that events in Tunisia have provided a catalyst for Egyptians to express their discontent with the Mubarak regime. (That discontent is not new, of course).  It seems plausible that social media (e.g., the internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) may have facilitated some degree of mass mobilization, thereby encouraging larger turnout at demonstrations than one might otherwise have expected. It's hard to know how important this has been, but it could be a change in background conditions that makes this sort of revolutionary contagion more likely. I have an open mind about that subject.

What we don't know yet is whether the popular discontent that is being expressed in the streets will ultimately be able to challenge the government's authority, undermine the cohesion and loyalty of the Egyptian security forces, and render Mubarak's continued rule untenable.  If I had to bet, I'd say not at present. But am as I confident as I was last week? 'Course not.

And for me, the more interesting question is not the short-term possibility of revolutionary contagion, but rather the long-term possibilities for political and social change that these events herald. Even if governments like Mubarak's remain in power today, it is hard for me to believe that the current political order in much of the Arab world can survive unchanged for much longer. Smart governments will try to get out ahead of these processes, and manage a gradual evolution towards more legitimate and participatory forms of government (which may not bear much resemblance to Western-style liberal democracy). The point is that political change in the Arab world need not come about through violent revolution; the mere possibility of violent upheaval may be enough to convince some leaders that they need to rethink some of their policies. Whatever the mechanism, we'll be living in interesting times. 

AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Why the State of the Union Speech doesn't matter

As someone who cares about politics and uses words for a living, I suppose I ought to be more interested in tonight's State of the Union address. Pundits and politicos are in the usual lather about it, either predicting or prescribing what Obama will or should say. I'm sure plenty of people will live-blog it tonight, and then spend tomorrow doing the usual array of post-mortems.

But I'm feeling more like Eliza Doolittle: "Words, words, words. ... I'm so sick of words." I say that because I don't think this speech is going to make much difference one way or the other. It will be mostly about domestic priorities (possibly justified by the need to compete more effectively abroad), and foreign policy is bound to get short shrift. Given the dearth of major foreign policy achievements, I'd say that's both predictable and wise.

But what will the speech accomplish? It's not going to tame House Republicans, or make obstructionist Senators more cooperative. Neither the Tea Party nor Fox/News (a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP) is going to be won over by the president's words, no matter how eloquent he is or how effectively he triangulates. His oratory won't alter the calculations or conduct of the Taliban, sway the governments of Iran, or China, or turn Hamid Karzai into a popular and effective leader. And even in the wake of the Tucson shooting, I doubt that eloquent pleas for greater bipartisanship and a more civil discourse will end the vitriol on talk radio and in the blogosphere.

What matters isn't what Obama says tonight, but what he and his advisors, and the Congress ultimately do. The achievements of his first two years (such as health care, and rescuing the U.S. economy from the abyss), were based not on speeches but on a lot of gritty, messy, sausage-making policy work. By contrast, some of Obama's more conspicuous failures (the Middle East peace process, the half-hearted "opening" to Iran, and the Afghan quagmire), featured high-flying and well-delivered acts of oratory but were followed by ill-conceived or poorly implemented policies.

So I'll probably watch the speech, but I'm not expecting much. And my guess is that a couple of weeks hence, most of us will have forgotten about it.