Hosni Mubarak has resigned, and bloggers everywhere, this one included, have had to decide how to salvage whatever suddenly outdated Egypt post they were halfway though writing. Some have utterly and charmingly failed. I’m going for the impressive retrofit.
Daniel Larison has been challenging the prevailing optimistic pro-democracy narrative on Egypt, and I think his contrarian take is more useful than ever in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, though I think he ultimately underemphasizes the awful damage wrought by the Mubarak regime, and the immense improvement-by-subtraction that has just occured.
But Larison’s questions are apt, which I paraphrase and update in light of today’s events: Will a precipitous political change go smoothly? The Army is now running the country: did we just witness a democratic revolution or a military coup? Pharaoh is gone, but would you take a bet that Egypt will be economically and politically stable in any reasonable time frame? Constitutional overhaul? The emergency laws? The rubber stamp parliament? A credible transitional government? Here’s Larison (remember he was writing yesterday):
What I am most interested in here is that everyone paying attention to these events give some serious thought to how representative of the Egyptian people the protesters are, how Egyptians perceive these protests, and the possible consequences of rapid political change.
If the protesters are actually unrepresentative, that makes a significant difference not only for how we understand what to expect in a democratic Egypt, but it also tells us how successful democratic reformers are liable to be. Austrian liberals made great strides in forcing their government to become a constitutional monarchy with a representative parliamentary system, but they represented a small minority of the population and their politics and their agenda were profoundly unpopular in rural areas and among the working class. As the franchise expanded, they were swamped by mass movements that were more representative of the population and were also strongly illiberal and anti-liberal. Should democracy ever come to Egypt, that process will happen all at once. The Ghad and Wafd parties will be buried under tidal waves of populist, Islamist, nationalist, and socialist sentiment. Perhaps Egypt will still be better off in the end as a result, but it does no one any good to overlook the potential pitfalls.
Well clearly now we know these protests were "representative" enough to cause the complete collapse of the regime; a regime structure that began not with Mubarak but with Nasser sixty years ago. Egyptians have experience with a constitutional order and respect for rule of law and an independent judiciary; and while we do not know the specific domestic policy preferences of each and every person now in Tahrir square, and while things can still end in the democratic rise of illiberal or anti-liberal forces, it is absolutely premature to make assertions about tidal waves burying this or that political strain. Egyptians want peace, opportunity, and dignity, and a constitutional arrangement that codifies this will keep any strain from "swamping" any other. It’s also worth noting that the military will have a large influence in both the transition and in any post-Mubarak regime, and the U.S. essentially owns the Egyptian military. Larison goes on:
It may be that the economic policies that would most benefit Egypt and most effectively address the economic grievances of the protesters would also be enormously unpopular and politically radioactive in a democratic Egypt….If most Egyptians see the protests as protests about economic conditions and unemployment, the main causes of instability in Egypt are not authoritarianism and repression as such, and Egypt will likely continue to suffer from political instability as long as these economic problems persist.
This is a good point. It’s true that even if this political transition goes uncommonly well, per capita income for Egyptians will not magically spike tomorrow, thereby allaying all of the people’s economic concerns and grievances. But what Larison misses is the extent to which the specific structure of Mubarak’s individual authoritarian rule has exacerbated every single economic woe plaguing the country.
I am not a macroeconomist and so I don’t really know what combination of monetary and fiscal policy has been lacking in Egypt thus far, and whose implementation will now inexorably rescue the country from its economic malaise. But I do know that thirty years of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, centralization, underinvestment in education and infrastructure, and a preoccupation with regime survival leading to overinvestment in internal security and military apparatus, has not been a very good recipe for economic vitality and efficiency. The underground economy in Egypt is almost as large as the private and public sector combined. And so to the extent that all of that ends, or at least gets severely mitigated, that’ll be a really great for the economic well-being of the people. Of course, improvements in education and infrastructure policy have long lag times before they manifest in GDP or median incomes, but the thirty-year neglect and mismanagement in these and other areas means there just isn’t room for any nostalgia on "realist" grounds for the regime of Hosni Mubarak, nor any pessimism on the occasion of his demise.
And I say that an entrenched atmosphere of political repression and brutalization is one that cannot possibly marshall the full innovative and productive capacity of the citizenry. If the new constitutional order frees the citizenry from such repression and brutalization, which certainly seems likely, and restores a sense of agency and meritocratic opportunity, this will stop or at least slow the debilitating brain drain that has contributed so much to the economic stagnation. And perhaps is it not too rosy to think that a liberated Egypt will attract a wave of diaspora repatriation, and with it an influx of social and financial capital.
Back to the idea of Larison’s skepticism of a "representative" movement:
When the Green movement protested the election results in Iran, we were bombarded with commentary that expressed with certainty that the movement represented the Iranian people and that the Iranian government was tottering and gravely wounded. These were things that we Westerners wanted to believe, and so for the most part they went unchallenged. They also happened to be wrong.
Of course, just because a regime survives doesn’t mean the protest movement against it isn’t representative. I think that over 60% of Iran’s population is under thirty years old, and a vast majority of them do not want to live under a repressive sclerotic theocracy. So why did Egypt fall but not Iran? And why Egypt 2011, but not 2010, or 2005, even though the same economic and political problems persisted?
The idea of preference falsification explains a lot. It was articulated and popularized by economist and political scientist Timur Kuran in 1989. It says that societal opposition to a regime can be severely underestimated because people hide their true preferences for fear of social disapproval, or of violent reprisal. And if many people hide their discontent it makes it harder for others to express theirs. This is why all revolutions seem to "come out of nowhere" and why all repressive regimes seem stable up until the moment that they crumble. Once a critical mass of public disapproval is reached, other people’s calculations change as to whether the movement is more likely that not to succeed, and so they join in too. That’s how it took Egyptians 18 days to uproot a thirty-year autocracy.
I remember reading about small protests in central Cairo a few years ago. A few dozen or maybe a few hundred people, all young, would gather to protest economic or political conditions. They knew that the dreaded security forces would soon be by to break things up. They would yell to all the pedestrians around them and implore them to come join the protest and stand up for their rights and oppose the dictatorship. But these pedestrians would just put their heads down walk right by, leaving the protesters at the mercy of internal security, and heartbroken at their countrymen’s apathy. But preference falsification explains why those pedestrians walked by then, and why those same people joined the crowds in Tahrir after January 15.
The point is that that tiny group of ill-fated protesters was not in any way "unrepresentative" of the larger sentiments in Egyptian society, even though it certainly appeared that way at the time. We have no way of knowing now who has an eye toward "swamping" whom in Egypt (and you can dismiss any writer or analyst who mentions the Muslim Brotherhood today). In a government bounded by and responsive to a constitutional rule of law, nobody "swamps" anyone. Long live free Egypt.