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Why Economists Missed the Arab Spring

LONDON – The sixth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings this year came and went largely unnoticed. Unlike in previous years, there was no torrent of commentary about the tumultuous events that shook the Arab world and seemed to promise a transformation of its politics.

Of course, novelty wears off over time. But waning interest in the Arab uprisings reflects a deeper shift: hope for new, more representative political systems has given way to despair, as expectant revolutions have morphed into counter-revolution, civil war, failed states, and intensifying religious extremism.

And yet, as disagreeable as the outcomes may have been so far, we must continue to focus on the Arab Spring uprisings, in order to uncover their root causes. Like any landmark event, they have posed new and difficult questions. And one of the most important is why economists failed to anticipate the unrest.

Forecasting political upheaval is no easy feat. Economists have a less-than-impressive record when it comes to predicting even economic crises. But this particular forecasting failure may reflect a deeper problem with economic assumptions and frameworks.