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Revolutions and reasoning by historical analogy

Aurelie Basha - 18th February 2011

Many observers of the recent and evolving unrest in the Middle East have turned to historical analogies to diagnose what is likely to happen and what the United States or external countries should do.  Nowhere is this truer than Egypt where there are a number of tempting historical parallels with other revolutions.  However much of this use of reasoning by historical analogy has been weak and too stereotyped to be of real policy use.  I suggest there are ways to be more rigorous in the application of analogies.

In trying to predict the outcome of the Egyptian revolution, there are those who see the impending nightmare of another Iranian religious dictatorship, with the Muslim Brotherhood waiting in the wings until they can be democratically elected. On the other end of the spectrum, others are reassured by Egypt’s military as a stabilising force that could lead the country towards a Turkish model.  And, in between, are those who describe this as a 1989 Berlin Wall moment with the Middle East as a whole embracing a democratic future.

Using the right historical analogy is important because the resulting policy prescriptions are almost diametrically opposed. If this is a 1989 moment, “an oil-money-funded Marshall Plan [another historical analogy] for a democratic Arab world” seems about right.  If Egypt is on its way to becoming Turkey, then helping the military stay in place as a guarantor of the transition would be ideal.  But if it is wavering between Turkey and Iran, then giving the impression of helping to keep the existing system (with the military) in place would be a dangerous gamble that could easily backfire.  

This is the danger with the superficial analogies. And the solution is not necessarily to throw our hands up in the air and say that each situation is completely different, especially in this Facebook era.  On the contrary, historians will quote Thucydides who noted that history is useful to those who want “clearly understand the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what is) will, at some time in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.”  So how do we move from superficial analogies to informative ones?

My mind keeps returning to Ernest May and Richard Neustadt’s template for the “uses of history for decision-makers.”  Although this might not fit into the tight requirements of an op-ed page, it might bring us closer to policy-relevant history.  In a nutshell, they argued for a multi-step method where the historian-practitioner should first distinguish between Knowns, Unclears and Presumed.

So for instance, we Know, as Obama said, that Egypt “can’t go back to what it was”, that youth employment levels of 25% won’t be fixed overnight and may continue to threaten stability, or that the region as a whole is neither stable nor democratic.  Some examples of Unclears are the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions or whether a unifying opposition leader will emerge.  And what’s Presumed is that the military will not step in and try to reinstate a Mubarak “light” and more broadly, that what happens in Egypt may have an effect on the region as a whole.

The next step of this method is to use a full list of Knowns, Unclears and Presumed and compare each item to the past, identifying Differences and Likenesses.  Again, to use just a few examples.  We Know that the Middle East is not democratic and this is Different from 1989 where European institutions could facilitate and stabilise the transition to democracy.  It’s Unclear whether a unifying opposition leader will emerge and this is Different from Iran in 1979 where Ayatollah Khomeini was the clear, charismatic head of the revolution.  We Presume the military has no governing ambitions and this is Different from Turkey where the military was central to the creation of the secular Republic.

In terms of Likenesses, we Know that this is an expression of “people power” and this is Like all revolutions to which it has been compared.  We Presume that trends in Egypt will have a knock-on effect on its neighbours and this is Like what happened in East Germany where the Berlin Wall’s collapse had a domino effect on Eastern Europe.  

These examples are just cursory. But if history has something to teach us, which I believe it does, it is imperative that we take the time to move past tempting and superficial parallels and instead identify its real, though sometimes hidden, lessons.  This will help us not only identify what is likely to happen in the months ahead but also, in light of this, what the best policy options are.