'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.

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

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

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.