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'Why Nations Fail': Is Egypt's new democracy real or a sham?

'Why Nations Fail' author Daron Acemoglu advises looking to Turkey's history for a hint.

By Marshall Ingwerson / August 6, 2012

Riots broke out in front of a hotel in Cairo on Aug. 2.

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Monitor managing editor Marshall Ingwerson chats with 'Why Nations Fail' co-author Daron Acemoglu.

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The Mubarak regime that ruled Egypt, and looted its economy, for three decades is history. But the military that supported the regime is still very much in charge, has rolled back many of its promises, and sharply limited the scope of the recent election.

So is this a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same?

The lessons of history suggest that Egypt is indeed becoming a more inclusive democracy, but not on a fast track. MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, author of “Why Nations Fail” with Harvard political scientist James Robinson, notes that after the French Revolution in 1789, it took almost 80 years for a stable democracy to emerge.

“The hope is it will not take Egypt 80 years, but it would be naïve to think it would take two years.”

A closer analogy may be Turkey. After 80 years of military rule that held power and economic opportunity very closely, the military was dislodged ten years ago by an Islamist party, the AKP, not unlike the Muslim Brotherhood that has dominated elections in Egypt.

“Turkey has become more inclusive, more democratic. Many many more segments of society, many many more cities, people from many more walks of life have become integrated into the economy since AKP’s ascension ten years ago. But at the same time, they have waged a vendetta against the military and against people they view as not friendly to their agenda.

“It’s a mixed bag, but it’s a mixed bag that takes us forward. I expect the same to happen in Egypt.”

The Mubarak regime fell relatively quickly in Egypt compared to the fierce battle over ousting the Assad regime in Syria. But for all the obvious benefits of that mostly peaceful transition, it also has a cost, says Acemoglu, in that was a less decisive change than it might have been. He compares it to the aftermath of the American Civil War.

“Because the elites in the South are still powerful, they are able to reclaim power. There is a fear that in Egypt the same might happen.”

He remains an optimist.

“If anyone expects [President] Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to be totally inclusive, pluralistic democrats, they’re in for a disappointment, of course. But in the past in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and certainly in Egypt, elites could do anything they wanted without much of a protest except from their equally corrupt rivals. Now that has changed because people have found out they can go out on the streets and have their voices heard, and I think that is the biggest check on the Muslim Brotherhood. Not the army.”

Further conversations with Daron Acemoglu, co-author of “Why Nations Fail”:

Marshall Ingwerson is the Monitor managing editor.

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