Egypt One Year Later: Going the Way of Iraq?
Why is Iraq’s democratic transition a less-than-perfect model for Egypt?
January 27, 2012
Difficult as it is to for Westerners to swallow, the two core building blocks of Egyptian society are the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. All indications are that these strange bedfellows will arrive at a modus vivendi that will allow them to coexist. They appreciate what they have in each other and hope that, by aligning forces, they can manage the tide of the revolution and keep it, and the constitution now to be written, from becoming either too liberal or too conservative (by Egyptian standards).
The biggest omission in Egypt current power arrangement – the missing “Third Man,” so to speak – are the economic reformers, the experts who could help lay the foundation for much-needed economic growth. For it is growth that ultimately bolsters all political transformations – and that may be the key to deciding whether the country moves toward reform or chaos.
In that context, it is crucial to remember that Egypt, unlike Iraq, can’t rely on oil, which is what Iraqi politicians (with good reason) expect to underwrite the Iraqi economy and society in the not-too-distant future. Oil or no oil, Iraq is anything but an inspiration for Egypt. Rather, it is the precise opposite, a case study in how not to develop a democratic society.
Amazingly, Iraqi politicians even today act with the same self-centered pomp that may have been appropriate in the 1960s when institution-building mattered more than anything else. However, as important as institution-building is to laying the groundwork for a country’s sustainable economic, social and political future, the current times are anything but patient.
More so than ever before, the populations of countries undergoing transformation expect economic miracles. In Egypt’s case, it does so for three main reasons: first, as a consequence of the understandable pride of having achieved political freedom by their own devices – not as a “gift” from abroad.
Second, because the movement was youth-driven and youth unemployment is rampant. And third, because the example of “how the others live” creates a true pressure cooker in the age of globalization, something that is very hard for any politician or policymaker, even the most successful ones, to fulfill.
None of these aspirations is harder to fulfill than the desire for a reward – other than freedom itself – for having freed oneself from the shackles of political oppression. In that sense, the situation in Egypt is even worse than in Iraq, where that payoff expectation was projected onto the U.S. occupation forces.
The biggest problem with achieving an economic turnaround is that the pool of economic reformers in place before the revolution is now seen, because of its association with the Mubarak regime, as tainted. That may prove to be Egypt’s death knell. Simply put, no general has ever created a real job – or would even know where to start. Nor does, so one surmises, the Muslim Brotherhood.
For all the understandable hesitation to deal with officials who were in power before, many of them were essentially technocrats who chose to serve in high government posts in order to help reform the country, even under a very problematic political framework.
While there are plenty of cases where so-called reformers used their access to power to engage in acts of malfeasance, tainting this entire group of often quite young reformers with the Mubarak label may prove to be as short-sighted in Egypt’s case as the dissolution of the Baath Party was in the case of Iraq. It robs the country of what perhaps is its most vital institutional stabilizer.
The cases of post-war Germany and Japan proved that it is of vital importance to be very precise in sorting out the good from the bad. Nazis deserved nothing but criminal prosecution, prison or, in some cases, worse. But the U.S. occupation forces were wise enough to undertake a rather precise and admirable examination of former officials.
They realized that, without a deep bench of technocratic economic reformers, hopefully politically untainted, it would be hard to imagine that anything useful might come about that would spur economic growth. In order for the transition to work smoothly, these experts needed appropriate powers to implement the needed economic reforms.
All of these considerations are of vital importance in Egypt’s case. And they are of vital importance for the entire Middle East and Northern Africa region because of Egypt’s traditionally exalted role (at least symbolically and culturally, if not economically) in the region’s affairs.
In that regard, it is illusory to believe that the case of Turkey, often cited as a path ahead, does indeed offer much hope for Egypt. While there may be certain parallels in the hoped-for moderate Islamism à la Turkey, the key difference is that Turkey was primed for a major economic acceleration when the AK Party came to power.
The small to medium-sized industrialists in the country’s large Anatolian area had, until then, been systematically disadvantaged by the Istanbul-based conglomerates that ruled Turkey and the Turkish economy, usually in more or less tolerable conjunction with the military.
With Erdogan’s rise to power, these then-still-much-smaller industrialists became center-stage players. Erdogan realized, and they realized, how much they needed each other – and how much working in tandem would support each other’s core interests. The AK Party was propelled from success to success as the economy grew – because the small and medium-sized entrepreneurs from the presumed hinterlands managed to integrate themselves dynamically not just into the Turkish, regional or European economy, but indeed the global economy.
In Egypt’s case, sadly, no such magic source for growth is in the offing.
Egypt, unlike Iraq, can't rely on oil, which is what Iraqi politicians (with good reason) expect to underwrite the Iraqi economy.
Iraq is anything but an inspiration for Egypt. Rather, it is the precise opposite, a case study in how not to develop a democratic society.
More so than ever before, the populations of countries undergoing transformation expect economic miracles.
Tainting an entire group of young reformers with the Mubarak label may prove as short-sighted as the dissolution of the Baath Party in Iraq.