In the Middle East, experience is the knowledge of what we are sure won’t work…

The problem with experience is that it doesn’t prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation. This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the ...

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.

This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.

History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.

The problem with experience is that it doesn’t prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.

This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.

History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.

And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.

It may be that the past was defined by the interplay of old forces and that what we are seeing in Egypt is the consequence of the ascendancy and application of genuinely new and unfamiliar forces. Mubarak was a man skilled in the old ways and a master of the application of old-school power via tried-and-true stratagems. Wael Ghonim, Al Jazeera, and the Middle East’s under-24 majority are masters of the new.

The old forces sought stability. The new forces demand change. The old forces play on the fear of tomorrow. The new forces are driven by the intolerability of today. The anciens régimes of the Middle East from Cairo to Jerusalem, from Damascus to Tehran, from Riyadh to Sanaa, see the downsides of old-school approaches as a kind of rent they pay to avoid what is even worse … that and the fact that they have learned to profit handsomely from them.

For the crowds in Tahrir Square and agitators across the young Arab Twitterverse, they see that the old ways are a trap … they have failed to lift up the people, create opportunity, contain corruption, solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and enhance regional competitiveness. The young see that their only hope is upheaval and that it worth whatever risks it entails.

Fortunately, they have more than hope on their side. They have the transformational trends of our era: new technologies, the new relationships they enable, demographics, shifting global capital flows, the rise of new markets, etc. Right now they are learning how to harness those trends. Some of the phenomena they have enabled are so new that even open-minded experts are having trouble grappling with them. Take the idea of "leaderless revolution." We are accustomed to political movements requiring charismatic leaders and political infrastructure. But what happened in Egypt was, thanks to social networks and a new information culture, a revolution led by networked clusters of individuals in which the all the grassroots capabilities of old infrastructures were instantly available via the application of new technologies.

Will such a leaderless revolution remain a powerful factor during Egypt’s transition? Must it take a more traditional form? Can it compete with more traditional political movements? All this remains to be seen. But what is clear is that entrenched mechanisms of power from secret police forces to armies of on-call thugs were unable to match these new approaches over the course of the past month of pitched confrontations.

We cannot know whether the spirit of Tahrir Square is a harbinger of immediate or some more gradual, fitful form of change. But we do know how much change is needed, and given the frustrations and futility associated with tried-and-true approaches, there are few things that can be more encouraging or overdue than circumstances that our experts and the old guard have a hard time understanding.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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