Chaos, Chaos Theory, Egypt

Protestors stand with a soldier as he waves an Egyptian flag on an army tank in Tahrir Square on January 29, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.
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Protestors stand with a soldier as he waves an Egyptian flag on an army tank in Tahrir Square on January 29, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.

Today's theme is chaos.

I wrote earlier about the difficulty in predicting the future structure and alliances of the Egyptian military. And of the fundamental unknowability of weather.

To begin—quite literally—at the beginning: Chaos was the dark void from which universe arose in classical Greek cosmogony—as Ovid reminds us: "unfashion'd and unfram'd"—containing numberless seeds for the future.

So too of Egypt.

Modern chaos theory is the study of complex dynamic systems. Such systems exhibit extreme sensitivity to initial conditions—such that minuscule changes in early variables can have an enormous and non-linear impact on the later state of the system.

This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Butterfly Effect. The metaphor, essentially, is this: A butterfly flaps its wings somewhere over the Adriatic—and, in consequence, a hurricane destroys Galveston, Texas.

As you might imagine, this extraordinary sensitivity to factors that seem arbitrary and insignificant makes the forecasting business rather difficult.

As I sit in my apartment in New York, watching braver journalists on the streets of Cairo on my flat screen TV, I'm struck by how overwhelming their task must be.

First and foremost: Attempting to remain out of harm's way—and to return to one's family safely.

But then, nearly as challenging: Trying to filter out all the noise among the welter—to distill some cogent narrative from what is happening on the ground.

This weekend, I attended a anti-Mubarak rally across the street from the United Nations—and shot this brief snippet of video at protest, which I posted on YouTube.

Now, here is my point. Comparing a park in New York to the bedlam in Tahrir Square is analogous to comparing a leaky faucet to a Category Five typhoon. (In my video, you can clearly see the protestors sipping Starbucks between chants.)

And yet, despite the overwhelming comfort and safety of the circumstances, there was an impenetrable cacophony of discordant voices—from which we might project the stunning magnitude of actual revolution.

In the snowy park next to The Trump World Tower, there were voluble chants denouncing Mubarak. Some protestors demanded the establishment of a socialist state. Others seemed to support a pan-Arab nationalism. Others still seemed to advocate for a greater role for religion in state affairs. Some carried signs insisting that Mubarak immediately turn over power to more moderate members of his own regime, presumably to facilitate a swift and orderly transition. Others demanded a complete purge from government of all high ministers of state. Everyone I interviewed seemed to agree that the status quo was unworkable—but, beyond that, there seemed to be very little agreement on what practical arrangements should be made for the future.

In short, there were contradictions of every imaginable variety.

And so, as the talking heads of the punditry forecast the future of the Egyptian state, I predict only this: Tomorrow will look very different from today.


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