Egyptians are celebrating the fall of Hosni Mubarak. But we are not Egyptians. We are entitled to ask: What does this event mean for us? For Western interests? For peace in the Middle East? For the security of energy supplies? Western governments hope for a transition to an Egypt that is more democratic while still Western-oriented. But such a transition will not be easy to achieve.
Mubarak fell because he could not deliver prosperity to his people. Half the population of Egypt lives on $2 a day or less. Millions of Egyptians depend on state-subsidized bread. When Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981, the average Egyptian was 2.5 times richer than the average Chinese citizen. Today, the average Chinese is 50% richer than the average Egyptian.
Egypt has the largest population of unemployed university graduates in the Middle East. It is the world’s largest importer of grain: Sixty percent of the grain eaten in Egypt is purchased abroad, and at prices that have risen sharply since 2005.
Egypt has lost the ability to feed itself in large part because the population has doubled since Mubarak took power in 1981 — and quadrupled since 1950. Displaced peasants move to urban slums: Cairo’s population is estimated at some 17 million.
Disappointed by meager opportunities, these new city-dwellers turn for consolation to more intense forms of religion, which promise that Islamic government can deliver social justice. If Egypt’s new government does not deliver quick results, that Islamic message will gain appeal.
I agree with the analysts who say that Mubarak’s long hold on power strengthened the Islamists. Gradual democratization will stabilize Egypt. But of all transitions, gradual democratization is the most difficult to manage.
To hold power, Egypt’s new democratizing government must do what Mubarak did not do: deliver quick economic benefits while accelerating long-term growth. Unfortunately, those two goals radically conflict with each other.
Egypt is a heavily state-directed economy, led by inefficient state-owned industries, overseen by a bloated bureaucracy. Long-term growth demands that bureaucracy shrink and that industry be privatized. In the short run, however, those two economic reforms imply higher unemployment, especially for the university-educated.
Unemployment will bring discontent — and in a more democratic Egypt, governments will be less able than Mubarak’s police state to survive the protests of the discontented. Those rejoicing over the changes in Egypt should remember that other revolutions have inspired similar hopes. And they should remember what became of those hopes within a very few short months and years.
Edmund Burke foresaw it all 220 years ago. He observed the overthrow of another authoritarian regime, the French monarchy, and reflected prophetically on what he saw:
When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose; but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one … The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.
If Egypt can move toward democracy while excluding from power the anti-democratic Islamic movements; if Egyptian defense and security services continue to co-operate with the United States; if Egypt honors the peace treaty with Israel; if Egypt protects and respects its Christian religious minority — then this revolution will truly be a liberation. But if an authoritarian government has given way to instability; if successor governments try to appease Islamism by breaking with the United States and persecuting Christians; if they connive with Hamas and abrogate the peace with Israel — then this revolution will show itself one of the great disasters in the history of the Middle East.
The most likely course is also the most depressing: Egypt opens a little, then closes again. The regime tries to buy popularity by bloating the state sector. It emits nationalist noises against the United States and Israel, downgrading co-operation with former partners. Its foreign policy pivots away from the West and toward Turkey and Iran. In this scenario, Egypt’s future would resemble its Nasserist past: exploiting nationalism to justify authoritarianism. The new dawn will yield to the old twilight.
Originally published in the National Post.