Two Responses to Egypt

The news that Mubarak is, at long last, stepping down as Egyptian president has sparked responses from jubilation to fear. I think one of the wisest responses has been Chris Blattman’s, who wrote:

Five years from now, there will either be a very stable or a very unstable regime in Egypt. The regime may be relatively open and secular, or it may look like a theocracy. Anything seems possible.

My first thought is that only one thing is for sure: analysts will look back at events today and say “such-and-such event caused the mess we’re in today” or “we can thank so-and-so’s action for what we see now”.

We like to see the world from a deterministic view, where causes lead to effects. We seem to be hardwired to think in narratives. A probabilistic world, where outcomes are driven by invisible or chance events, is somehow unfathomable.

[…] democratic change has to come from within, not without. I pointed to Claude Ake, a Nigerian political scientist, who reminded us that democracy is never given, it must be seized. Protesters in Egypt have done some seizing today.

This brings me to my second reflection: It remains to be seen how soon the seizing will translate into democracy. The shortest distance between autocracy and democracy is not necessarily a straight line. Don’t read this as disapproval of events. As much as I fear for Egypt’s near future, I don’t see any other path to emancipation than the one they’ve taken.

To be honest, people seem to already have a feeling that they’re pretty certain what in general lies ahead for Egypt. While everyone issues disclaimers about where we go from here, many people sound like Bill Easterly in this post, titled (somewhat optimistically) “Egypt is Free!”:

I have goosebumps. Regardless of what the future holds, this is a historic moment. This is a moment to celebrate the remarkable achievement of ordinary multitudes of Egyptians who wanted their inalienable rights, that all individuals are born free and equal…. could all those self-appointed pundits on the American media worrying about whether Muslims can handle democracy kindly be quiet for a while, and just celebrate this day?

Yes, Easterly suggests that the future is uncertain. But I think he makes two big mistakes. First, he lumps the entirety of the ideology of this revolution as seeking “their inalienable rights, that all individuals are born free and equal…” There is some substance to this claim; Michelle Bowers, an expert on Egyptian politics, recently wrote a book explaining how the youth of Egypt were organizing “to fight for issues of common interest: an end to the emergency laws, rotation of power after free and fair elections, independent investigation of charges of corruption, and respect for human rights, such as the right to free speech, the right to organize and demonstrate, and freedom from arbitrary arrest.” Nonetheless, it’s hard to say why hundreds of thousands of Egyptian risked their lives to rise up. Undoubtedly many had reasons besides their equality and freedom: absurdly high unemployment, frustration with Mubarak’s cozy relationship with the U.S., and probably the excitement of participating in a once-in-a-lifetime moment of political expression. Undoubtedly, these feelings that Easterly cribs from the Declaration of Independence and imputes to the Egyptian revolution are real. But just as the American Revolution had a complex latticework of underlying causes, many of them economic, so this Revolution is surely driven by many causes beyond pure ideology, and certainly more than just secular democratic ideals.

Second, Easterly unfairly characterizes the real and and very legitimate question that people have been asking: what kind of democracy, if any, will emerge from this struggle. This is a moment to be amazed and excited at what apparently powerless people can do in the face of the once-inevitable status-quo. At the same time, can you really blame people for asking what’s next? Apparently powerless people have arisen in Russia, in China, in Cuba, in Iran, in Korea. Of course, there are huge differences among these revolutions, but the fact remains that formerly repressive societies often stay repressive societies after a regime change. We can hope — maybe, even be optimistic — that this time is different. But hoping doesn’t make it so, and caution is as justified as jubilation.

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