By Gideon Rachman February 14 2011 The Financial Times
Wael Ghonim has been appointed by the US media as the face of the Egyptian revolution. Younger than Mohamed ElBaradei, less scary than the Muslim Brotherhood, articulate in English, married to an American and an employee of Google, Mr Ghonim is the perfect figure to sell the romance of the revolution to a western audience. As the administrator of the Facebook page that first drew demonstrators to Tahrir Square, he was imprisoned for a spell, until emerging from captivity in time to articulate the frustrations of young Egyptians.
Yet some caution about the “Facebook Revolution” is in order. The commentary about the role of social media in Egypt has become so breathless that it is easy to forget that the French managed to storm the Bastille without the help of Twitter – and the Bolsheviks took the Winter Palace without pausing to post photos of each other on Facebook.
The Egyptian revolution was driven, not just by the internet, but by many of the same forces that have sparked revolutions throughout the ages: hatred of a corrupt autocracy and its secret police; the frustrations of a rising middle class; the desperation of the poor.
This matters because the Facebook class – the young, educated and articulate demonstrators who became the international face of the revolution – are just one social strand in Egypt.
This is a country where 44 per cent of the population is illiterate or semi-literate and where 40 per cent live on less than $2 a day. Low wages, rising food prices and high youth unemployment mean that there are plenty of frustrated people, whose voices will now be heard in a freer political climate. The government is already running a big budget deficit, so has few resources to buy off the discontented.
Thanks to the efforts of the Mubarak regime, the institutions of civil society are very weak. The press has been muzzled, the judiciary largely controlled, opposition political parties barely exist. The military, which has assumed control in the post-Mubarak era, by far the most powerful state organisation. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose commitment to Islam is stronger than its commitment to democracy, the most organised social force. And yet, against this background, Egypt now has to allow political parties to form and hold parliamentary and presidential elections.
Unlike the eastern European revolutionaries of 1989, who could look to western Europe, Egypt’s democrats have no regional models to emulate. But there have been many democratic transitions in other parts of the world, that give an idea of the challenges Egypt now faces.
The wealth of a society matters a lot to the sustainability of democracy. One study suggested that democracies rarely fail in countries with a per-capita gross domestic product of $6,000 or more, but rarely survive when per-capita income is below $1,500. Egypt’s per-capita GDP is currently $2,800 – a similar level to Indonesia, which has managed to maintain a democratic system over the past decade, albeit one marred by corruption and religious intolerance.
Turkey, Pakistan and Thailand, as democracies with strong militaries, offer some parallels. All three saw many years in which democratic rule was regularly punctuated by military coups. Turkey and Thailand now seem to have moved beyond that stage. Pakistan, a poorer nation, is still vulnerable.
But Egypt has witnessed a more dramatic display of “people power” than anything ever seen on the streets of Karachi or Istanbul – which may make the Egyptian army wary of ever overthrowing a civilian government.
If the army now keeps its promise to hold clean elections in Egypt, the disposition of social and political forces in the country will become much clearer. Over the past 30 years, the population of Egypt has nearly doubled to more than 80m. This is a very young society, it is also an increasingly urbanised country, and one that has seen a visible religious revival in recent years.
One recent Pew opinion poll showed 80 per cent support in Egypt for the idea that adulterers should be stoned, the kind of figure that bolsters the fears of those who worry that Facebook Egypt will be outvoted by fundamentalist Egypt.
The experiences of Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey suggest that the educated urban middle classes are often unhappy with the outcome of democratic elections that empower their poorer and less-educated compatriots.
In Thailand, over the past year, it has left the country in the grip of civil conflict, as countryside-based Red Shirts battle the more urbanised wealthier Yellow shirts. In Turkey, much of the secular elite are deeply suspicious of the governing, mildly Islamist AKP party. And many educated Pakistanis seem to be in a state of permanent despair about their dysfunctional and violent political system.
If Egypt is lucky, the country’s future may look most like Turkey – a functioning democracy with a strong Islamist party and a booming economy. If things go really badly, Egypt’s future might look more like Pakistan – an impoverished and dysfunctional democracy, torn between fundamentalists, secularists and a powerful military. Egypt has not yet achieved the wealth of Turkey, but it is significantly richer and less rural than Pakistan. Perhaps its future will lie somewhere in between.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.