Could polls predict uprisings?

Predicting revolutions is a tough business. Even those threatened with loss of power — and sometimes their heads — seem relatively oblivious to bubbling discontent. Hosni Mubarak employed a vast and ruthlessly efficient security force that taped conversations, infiltrated opposition groups and tortured opponents, searching for information about those fomenting rebellion, yet he apparently had no inkling his regime was days from falling. 

From King Louis to Czar Nicholas to the Shah of Iran to Ben Ali in Tunisia, leaders who have the most to lose from ignorance seem caught by surprise when their countrymen revolt.

Nonetheless, Americans, from the president down, are asking whether our own intelligence agencies should have foreseen Egypt’s uprising. 

Presumably, the CIA has sources and methods we don’t. But could polls have told us anything about the potential for upheaval on the Nile? 

Of course, presidential approval and other overtly political indicators that make analysis relatively easier for us are completely absent from publicly available data.  (Though even with access to all the data we could possibly want, we are occasionally surprised.)

Nonetheless, vague hints are encased in Egyptian public opinion data — hints that may prove instructive in foretelling future upheavals. 

Of course, it’s one thing to find hints and premonitions in data after the fact, but quite another to have looked at those data in advance and predicted that a heavily armed, thoroughly entrenched government was on the verge of collapse.

With that caveat firmly in mind, perhaps the clearest sign of impending implosion was the dramatic and growing dissatisfaction with life, despite an improving economy. Egypt and Tunisia had among the smallest numbers of citizens who labeled themselves “thriving” among 15 Middle Eastern countries Gallup polled. Just 12 percent of Egyptians and 14 percent of Tunisians reported they were thriving. Also near the bottom was Yemen (12 percent), another nation experiencing turmoil. 

By contrast, United Arab Emirates can claim 55 percent are thriving, and Qatar, 53 percent.

As with other poll data, momentum matters — and in Egypt and Tunisia, momentum has been negative. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of Egyptians who said they were “thriving” dropped 17 points, a decline of almost 60 percent. In just four years, good feeling in Tunisia dropped 10 points.

Often, well-being increases as economies improve. Egypt and Tunisia displayed the opposite trend — people felt worse as their economic situation improved, suggesting deep-seated discomfort.

Another survey hints at one cause — rising but frustrated expectations — a factor historians find at the root of many revolutions. A survey of Egyptian youth conducted by the Population Council found that, in contrast with Western countries, unemployment rises along with education. Under 5 percent of illiterate Egyptian males are unemployed, a status they share with about 10 percent of those with the equivalent of a junior high school education. However, among those with a post-secondary education, unemployment jumps to nearly 20 percent. Disappointment and disaffection must be rampant among those well-educated but unemployed youth, and among the even larger number who consider themselves under-employed. The more than four in 10 who say their skills are less important than “connections” and the over half of those with jobs who complain their pay is much too low are likely well-represented among those at the barricades in Tahrir Square.

Post-facto analysis is cheap — no systematic study suggests these indicia vary with revolutionary activity, but the data seem to paint a picture of a country ripe for revolution.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.