Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wrestling with hope for Egypt

It is interesting to watch sober minds grapple with their hopes in the wake of the Egyptian revolution. Nowhere more so than on the Comment page of the Financial Times, where columnists based on various continents address as a matter of course the current and likely future progress of democracy (and humanity), and Fukuyama haunts the space (and not infrequently, visits in the flesh, or rather ink). 

Up today is Martin Wolf, who explains the tidal pull toward democracy in basically Fukuyaman terms -- economic pressure to compete plus an Aristotelian understanding of human nature as essentially political, determined to self-govern. Unanswered in the short space of a column is the relationship between the two: as Wolf points out, usually it's only when a country has reached a certain level of economic development that its people are equipped to express "something deep within us" that demands self-governance.  If the will to self-governance is prior to the economic conditions that unleash it, that suggests that the "democracy drive" is either evolutionary or a product of intelligent design.

As an economist, Wolf places his bet on Egypt in mainly economic terms:
Scepticism is not unreasonable. As my colleague, Gideon Rachman notes, the stability of democracy goes hand in hand with economic advance. The richer the country, the more educated its people, except where wealth comes mainly from resource rents. Again, the higher the proportion of the desperately poor, the greater the likelihood of a successful electoral appeal by ultimately ruinous populists. Finally, the poorer the country, the smaller the resources at the disposal of any democratic government with which to protect itself against its foes...

True, Egypt is a relatively poor country with a sizeable proportion of the population illiterate. Yet its gross domestic product per head, at purchasing power parity, is almost double India’s and 50 per cent higher than Indonesia’s. This does not suggest that democracy is, in any sense, inconceivable. Egypt does have a well-organised Islamist movement. But does this have to be deeply anti-democratic? This must be put to the test. Remember that Catholicism, too, was once widely thought incompatible with successful democratic government.
What interests me is, with the ground thus prepared, Wolf grapples with "naivete anxiety" while giving way, mostly, to that "something deep within us" that yearns for democracy:

I am not, I hope, unreasonably naive. I do not believe the triumph of democracy is inevitable in the world or in Egypt. While the modern economy does create opportunities for political opening, it also puts far more potent tools of repression than ever before in the hands of the state. Democracy has indeed progressed. Yet its victory is not assured. At the same time, I wonder if the Chinese communist party believes that their ancient state will remain exempt. People may for a while accept autocracy as the price of stability and prosperity. But humans want to be treated with dignity. Egypt is, I hope, not the last time they succeed.

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