Monday, January 31, 2011

Dreams of freedom

I have no expert knowledge of Egypt or of other countries of North Africa and the Middle East and so am, and will remain, just another observer of events as they unfold. I do, however, express the hope that the protesters realize that the euphoria many of them are feeling as they topple or seek to topple repressive governments (a mixture of high expectations and the sense of power?) will fade, and the subsequent reality won't measure up to today's dreams of freedom. It never does. Even if these movements don't end in tears (like the Iranian revolution which ousted the Shah), they will end in compromise and relative dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, I suspect that what most of the non-Islamist protesters want approximates to a European-style welfare state. What is insufficiently appreciated is that European and American societies have for more than two centuries been sustained not only by a complex tradition of political and religious thought and custom, but also by wealth (derived largely from invention, manufacture and trade). The balance of wealth in the world is now shifting dramatically away from the US and Europe, but not towards North Africa and the Middle East; rather, towards East and South Asia.

In my view, the best the people of the non-oil-exporting countries of North Africa and the Middle East can hope for is peace, modest economic progress and gradual political reform. No cause for euphoria, but no cause either for despair and continued submission to secular or religious tyrannies.

10 comments:

  1. Well said, Mark.

    Autocracy and street chaos are interconnected. They signal the lack of an agreed decision-procedure. But street protest, even if necessary, can't magically summon up any such decision-procedure.

    Maybe the Egyptian army will enforce proper elections soon. I hope so.

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  2. very objective view.
    "...European and American societies have for more than two centuries been sustained ... "
    I suppose you mean democracy. China is a wealthy country now but still there is not sign of democracy, because China doesn't have a "a complex tradition of political and religious thought and custom". That's so true!

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  3. Alan, you say that protests signal the lack of an agreed decision-precedure - but they also signal high food prices, no jobs or whatever! Even proper elections may not solve Egypt's problems, but, like you, I hope the army can bring them about.

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  4. Thanks, yun yi. I think that Western democracies have worked partly because of their economic success: they have helped to deliver prosperity to the people. China is a fascinating case of prosperity without (so far) democracy. How things go in China, politically speaking, will have a huge impact on the future.

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  5. In this interesting opinion piece, David Burchell is saying some of the same things as Mark has said above, I think.

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/no-easy-ride-to-freedom-in-cairo/story-e6frg6zo-1226001069961

    Liberty is not licence. Freedom comes in degrees, it is not black and white. True freedom requires lots of self-restraint. "The people" are not just those who march in the streets. Good institutions evolve over long periods of time. Good intentions are not enough.

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  6. David Brooks tries to analyse Egypt's economic and social institutions:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/opinion/06brooks.html?_r=1

    The lack of political opportunities stands out. Third world democracy is far from impossible, as India and Indonesia have shown.

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  7. Thanks Alan. I'll have a look at both articles.

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  8. I thought the Burchell piece was particularly good.

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  9. Well put, Mark. I've commented on the situation as I see it in Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.

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  10. Ana, I think our views on these matters are quite close.

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