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The economic aspect of Egypt's protests

by danps Sat Feb 5th, 2011 at 06:48:09 AM EST

Conventional wisdom in Washington seems to have pretty quickly settled on an ideological basis for the unrest in Egypt.  By doing so it has ignored a more compelling - and prosaic - explanation.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.


No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

There appears to be a yawning chasm between what is happening in Egypt and elite opinions in DC.  Consider this exchange between Chris Matthews and NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel:

ENGEL:  The Muslim Brotherhood is telling the army that it can be a reasonable, rational organization.  I did an interview tonight with one of the senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood.  He was telling me to tell the American people that the Muslim Brotherhood can be reasoned with, wants to be a player, isn't a radical group.  So you're trying—you are seeing the Muslim Brotherhood legitimize itself, much in the same way you saw Hamas try and legitimize itself during the elections in Gaza.

MATTHEWS:  Does that surprise you, as someone who really grew up over there as a journalist, living among the Muslim Brotherhood?  Does it surprise you that they could be copacetic with the military?

ENGEL:  Not at all.  A lot of them are truly patriotic Egyptians.  They don't necessarily want to overthrow the military regime.  In the belief structure and the political structure that the Muslim Brotherhood has, which is common in Islamic moments, they believe in a strict hierarchy.  There can be a ruler.  There can be a military ruler.  But as long as that military ruler doesn't impede on the ability of the Muslim people to worship, then they have no problem with that.  So they could live very copacetically with the military.  It's not that it is a Taliban kind of movement that wants to take over...

MATTHEWS:  I get you.

ENGEL:  ... and tell everyone what to do and how to do it.  They're very patriotic.  They have lot of supporters.  You mentioned I lived with a lot of them.  They were nice people.  I mean, If you fell down in the street, they would come and help you out.  If you didn't have enough money for the bus, they would give you money.  There was a community feeling that a lot of people are nostalgic about in this country that is still present in the poorer, more Muslim—more Islamic communities here.

What people are so upset about is prices have gotten so high, there's become this elite class of Egyptians that...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

ENGEL:  ... no longer reflects a lot of the traditional cultural values here.  And the Muslim Brotherhood still does embrace those values very close to its chest.

Matthews comes across as somewhat surprised that the Muslim Brotherhood could play a legitimate role in a new Egyptian government.  The assumption, apparently widespread in the capitol, is that a populist Islamic movement is necessarily violent.  (In fairness, they might just be extrapolating from America's own experience with religious extremists.)  

In fact, he might even be something of an outlier in his mildness.  Tom Friedman, who usually - but not always! - hides his anti-Islamic fervor well, had this to say: "For the last 20 years, President Mubarak has had all the leverage he could ever want to truly reform Egypt's economy and build a moderate, legitimate political center to fill the void between his authoritarian state and the Muslim Brotherhood."

He simply postulates that the Muslim Brotherhood is the opposite pole of an authoritarian state.  He does not appear to have done any analysis to arrive at that conclusion.  He has not spoken with anyone in the organization (my God man, are there no taxis in Cairo?)  (Also see this just because.)  He just assumes that everyone intuitively grasps exactly what he does.

That seems to be roughly the center for conventional wisdom.  To find the far edge of fear and loathing see this from Richard Cohen: "The next Egyptian government - or the one after - might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval."  His entire misanthropic screed throbs with the message: these savages cannot govern themselves.  It isn't even subtext at this point.  It's right there on the surface.

There does not appear to be any appreciation that very ordinary concerns might be driving the protesters.  What was touted as an economic miracle was disastrous for those on the lower end of the economic scale; Nomi Prins called this "the appearance of enhancement."  Robust economic growth was outpaced by inflation, which lead to widespread hunger (I refuse to use the euphemism "food insecurity").  Food riots have killed people.  The marvels of globalization have been decidedly less wonderful for many.  Do the anti-Islamic commentators in Washington have any sense that such workaday issues might just be front and center in the protester's minds?  And that any party that begins to address them will thereby enjoy the consent of the governed?

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As a coda, those of us in the West might want to consider the following thoughts William Gamble shared about Tunisia:

All authoritarian governments everywhere, by definition, are not limited by any legal restraints. This allows elites to become rent seekers often through state-owned companies and monopolies. Without legal limits, the percentage of the GDP that they take for themselves will constantly increase.

[snip]

The main impact of an economy of corruption is on investment, the investments necessary to create jobs. For Tunisia and many other emerging and frontier markets, this is a major if not the issue. The unemployment rate in Tunisia is officially 13%, but it is probably twice this for younger people. Even university graduates face an unemployment rate of over 15%. This is not unusual for these markets where unemployment rates among younger workers can rise as high as 40%. According to the IMF, the Middle East needs to grow 2% faster every year to avoid its present chronic and high unemployment.
Worsening inequality, impunity for those at the top, reduced investment leading to high unemployment: a multiparty democracy in which a governing majority is persistently unresponsive to public opinion is functionally similar to a one party state.  And prone to similar expressions of dissatisfaction.

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by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat Feb 5th, 2011 at 09:39:55 AM EST
Egypt seems to cram a higher concentration of population into a small area than most countries. But I've searched in vain for any reference to land distribution in Egypt, other than a complaint by someone being interviewed that almost two thirds of his salary went in rent.

The land question still seems to be a form of financial pornography not to be mentioned in decent newspapers.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat Feb 5th, 2011 at 07:36:20 PM EST
Typical of discourse in the US.  Two journalists with no particular depth of knowledge on a subject (That includes you, Engel.  Other than your four years in Cairo, you've been an embed your entire career, and in Cairo, 99% of your "contacts" were the usual that would be found in expat markets, cafes, and hotels.  You grew up on the Upper East Side, for God's sake!), pontificating away.  Richard Cohen may be the worst barrel of whale dreck writing for a supposedly legitimate paper.  As for Thomas "Captain Pornstache" Friedman (who actually manages to be the lesser of the Friedman Twins, Milton being far more evil), it's hard to say just what he is, other than a fraud.  Or an intellectual and journalistic prostitute.

This exchange is a nice display of our rampant ignorance of history as well.  The Big Three Revolutions (US, French, and Russian) became  political but started for economic reasons.  In both the US and France, the lower and middle classes viewed themselves on the brink of destruction because of government economic policies favoring the upper class.  More to the point, the February 1917 riots in St. Petersburg were caused by food shortages.  The uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere follow suit: too little access to life's necessities, and too little chance for change.

How deep does this go?  For several decades, developing nations have been severing their populations from the land to create cheap resources and labor.  They have a good model: the US.  That has been the de facto policy here since at least the start of the 20th Century and the de jure policy since the ens of the Second World War.  My grandfather used to say, "I'm afraid of the way things are going.  At least in the Depression we could feed ourselves.  There isn't more than a quarter of the population now that can."  The percentage is lower now, and the US is a net food importer.  Man may not live by bread alone, but it certainly starts there

by rifek on Sun Feb 6th, 2011 at 01:41:41 PM EST
Oddly enough, I just heard a guy on Al Jazeera say that the three biggest revolutions, in terms of popular participations, are the Russian, Iranian, and... Egyptian ones.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Thu Feb 10th, 2011 at 05:05:47 PM EST
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