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With little tradition of civil society, prospect of real reform in Egypt is dim

Appeared in the Woodstock Sentinel Review and Calgary Beacon
Release Date: February 4, 2011
As the west watches the unfolding events in Egypt, fingers crossed and hopeful for an outcome that will bring true reform and liberal democracy to the country, few realize just how much the deck is stacked against the Egyptian people.

Most revolutions end in tears with power captured by freedom hating ideologies: think Russia (millions killed by Lenin  and Stalin), China (tens of millions killed by Mao), Cuba (Castro’s betrayal of his pre-revolution rejection of communist dictatorship), France (the Jacobean takeover and terror), Iran (a largely secular revolution hijacked by religious extremists) and the leftist, anti-imperialist revolutions that swept across Africa and the Arab world in the 1950s and 60s, and left not one liberal democracy in their wake.

Two conditions, neither of which hold in Egypt, may help create a favorable outcome for a revolution: 1) when the revolutionary society has a living rule-of-law and civil society tradition and 2) where a foreign power, typically indirect, is thrown off, so that at least some domestic institutions and leaders have popular support.

Such conditions applied to the American Revolution (though loyalists were horribly persecuted) and some anti-Communist revolutions in central and eastern Europe. Anti-communist revolutions produced liberal outcomes only in those nations which had civil society within living memory, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, while those nations that lacked such a tradition, or had been under the thumb of the Soviet Union for a prolonged period with little living memory of pre-Communist civil society, had much worse outcomes.

Neither of these conditions apply to Egypt. Some argue the United States is the dominant foreign power. Yet, as WikiLeaks shows, the United States continuously pressed for more freedom and democracy and less corruption, with little effect either under the Obama administration or the more aggressive push for democracy by the Bush administration.

Mubarak’s record is actually better than anti-US nations, like Syria and Iran. International studies show a notably higher level of freedom in Egypt than in these states or in Cuba, for that matter. As well, over the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, Egypt’s per capita real income has more than doubled, compared to a mere 25 per cent average increase across the Arab world.

This may give some cause for post-Mubarak optimism, and the revolution is not led by an anti-democratic ideologue like Castro and Mao. But even with responsible or, in the case of Egypt, no leadership, conditions following a revolution are not conducive to democracy and freedom without a rule of law/civil society tradition.

These traditions condition people to be tolerant of other views and accept outcomes they don’t like, whether through elections or the courts. Without this, the fragmentation caused by a leaderless revolution cannot be controlled by those with liberal tendencies who reject violent suppression.

Governments fail and the music stops only when a brute, whether a Lenin or Khomeini, emerges, and violently suppresses other views. Egypt is susceptible to this outcome. Civil traditions and the rule of law are weak. The most organized opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is suspect, though it has taken a moderate turn in recent years.

Free markets are essential to civil society. Government control of an economy creates many tools of suppression; people who aren’t free to make their own economic decisions aren’t truly free; and markets create wide tolerant networks of suppliers and customers, rather than setting groups against each other as they seek concessions and special privileges from a controlling government.

Take a look around the world and you will find that no society without a free market has ever supported a tolerant society governed democratically. The vast majority of free market economies are already tolerant democracies or moving rapidly in that direction.

Sadly, what Egyptians perceived as “faux” market reforms have contributed to unrest. Egypt’s privatization program, much like the fake privatization program in Russia, was seen to benefit friends of the elite rather than move the economy towards truly free markets. Those who recognize the importance of free markets must be blunt about bogus reform.

Recent violence and the setting up of faction against faction make the prognosis even dimmer for Egypt. All the west can do is encourage liberal tendencies and hope for the best, while recognizing the odds.