With the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and now what appears to be Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Libya friends back home ask me if I’ve heard of what’s going on. And it’s true; it’s pretty easy to live under a rock while in the Peace Corps…working in rural zones and all. I’m lucky, as I can buy national newspapers (La Republica, Peru 21, and El Comericio) in my town AND I have access to cable TV. This is especially nice considering some fellow volunteers live in cities much bigger than mine and don’t have access to newspapers. But anyways, thanks to the internet TeleSur (nationalized Venezuelan TV station); I was able to keep updated about the protests in Egypt and could see live coverage. No one in my town really talked about it much…Egypt is a truly foreign place and in a foreign world to many people in town, so it was hard to relate.
To me, the protests and the changing government are interesting. It was heartening to see that the 18 days of peaceful protests led to a peaceful change of government (for the meantime at least). While not as quick and needing much more manpower than a simple violent coup, the protests showed the power of peace and seemingly have spread to other countries. Fed up with high food prices, continuing and deteriorating conditions and no hope for the future, Egyptians came out in force and asked for a change. And the ripple effect has spread to other countries, where especially the youngsters are out in force. And with international spotlight, it’s not as easy for the governments to overtly suppress these protests without international backlash.
And while some people were upset that the Obama administration did not support the protests and speak for Mubarak to step down sooner, I agree with that policy. With our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, US support for democracy in other parts of the world can easily be viewed as new imperialism. Sure, words aren’t sending arms and munitions but at the same time it could at the very least rise speculation from detractors. And since when did we change to being all gung-ho about the US spreading democracy in the middle east after two terms of George Bush plus the economic downturn (see: Lexington’s ‘Was George Bush Right?’ at economist.com)
But just because the protests are seemingly over, Egyptians still have much to worry about. Some pundits and editorials are pointing this to being another military coup. After all, who is in-charge right now? The Egyptian Army. While quiet during the protests and largely apart from the Mubarak government, right now they’re the ones with the power. It was announced that open elections will be held in 6 months, and while there is reason to believe it (I remember a paper citing that since the 1990’s, we’ve seen an increase towards the military turning towards democracy), it’s still a wait and see type situation.
As well, problems that caused the protests (food prices, unemployment, poverty) aren’t just going to go away because democracy rides into town. In fact, Michael Ross wrote a paper entitled ‘Is Democracy Good for the Poor’ discussing that, in fact, we have very little information about the effects of government on decreasing poverty levels. And while we can predict middle and high income democracies will certainly have lower levels of poverty, a poor country is still a poor country and will struggle to provide basic services to its citizens whether a democracy or not.
Michael Ross measures under-5 deaths as well as life expectancy, data sets available for every country, and found that over 30 years, countries that transitioned from non-democratic to democratic showed no significant improvement in these indicators. Additionally, when democracies do spend money on social services, the middle and upper classes benefit more than the lower classes due to access and availability of services. (Michael Ross 2006 “Is Democracy Good for the Poor?”). And while democracy obviously has its benefits, it is not the magic bullet to Egypt’s problems…but it could be a start.