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5 Facts About Egypt

By Taylor Marvin

Americans, it’s been a confusing week. Huge things are happening in the Arab world, things that, let’s be honest, can be hard to understand. I feel your pain. With commentators of all political affiliations offering hugely different views on the developing protests across the Middle East things can be a bit confusing. However, there’s good news- almost no one knows enough about what’s going on to be certain of anything. The only people offering sure opinions are those with no idea what they’re talking about, and those who were actually experts on the region before last week are perceptive enough to admit that no one can make firm predictions about where these momentous evens are going to go. Here are the facts:

  1. No one knows what is going to happen here. Anyone who tries to tell you with certainty that Mubarak will be thrown out before the next election, how Islamic a Muslim Brotherhood led government will be, or how soon democratic revolution will spread to Saudi Arabia is probably wrong. This is an immensely complicated situation, and very few members of American media or academia know anything about Egypt. This is because until a week ago Egypt was boring- it was poor, America or Israel weren’t fighting wars there, and nothing ever there changed politically, so outside of a few academics and reporters no one was prepared to invest time becoming an expert on a place very few people cared about. Of course, when interesting things happen somewhere everyone pretends they can offer a valuable opinion. Ignore these people, and anyone who claims to totally understand the situation.
  2. Egypt is not Tunisia. Tunisians are richer and more educated than their North African counterparts, and Egypt has a much more institutionalized and publicly respected public bodies, like the military, than Tunisia. While the recent revolutions in both countries share broad trends- economic unrest stimulating popular anger against a dictator- both societies are different enough that comparing the two isn’t really that useful. The same goes for other Arab countries. Americans have the tendency to view all Middle Easter countries as a unified block, but when looking at popular democratic revolutions the statistics that matter- the legitimacy non-executive of public institutions, average income, education level and age, and the presence of a middle class- Arab countries differ so widely that Tunisia’s experience is likely to be very different from what unfolds in Jordan or Yemen. Tunisia isn’t Egypt, nor is it Saudi Arabia or Syria.
  3. Egypt is not anywhere else. Egypt is not Eastern Europe in 1989, China in 1989, Iran in 1979, or Iran last year. It’s easy to look at democratic protest movements and assume that they share fundamental similarities, whether as part of a narrative of a worldwide march towards democracy or as dangerous disruptions to stability. However, most of these similarities are illusionary. The past popular rebellions against authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, China, and Iran and today’s throughout the Arab world are products of circumstances that are so different economically, socially, and politically that comparisons are mostly useless. Optimistic assessments of an Arab world about to successfully transition to representative democracy and grim depictions of an Egypt on the verge of an Iranian-style theocracy are equally intellectually lazy.
  4. Successfully establishing democratic governments is extremely difficult, especially in regions without established middle classes or respected civil institutions. Countries that successfully democratize seem to generally share a minimum income level– GDPs (PPP) over $8,000 per capita, slightly less than the world average. Of non-oil rich Arab countries, only Tunisia hits this benchmark. Look at a list of countries by GDP (PPP) per capita and Freedom House’s 2010 democracy index and, aside from resources-rich countries or microstates, this relationship largely holds. The same goes for civil institutions- in the Arab world they tend to not be as effective of popularly legitimate as in past countries that have successfully transitioned to democracy, like Eastern Europe or Southern Cone nations in the 1980s and 90s. Last month’s protest movement is a sea change in Arab world politics. The conditions for successful Arab democracies, at least in richer non-oil exporting countries, are better than they ever have been. However, the formidable obstacles to successful democratic government shouldn’t be ignored.
  5. The entire Mediterranean is not on fire.
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