The Political Economy of Revolution–Egypt

In our last session of IS 210 we looked at the topic, political economy. O’Neil defines political economy as “the study of the role of economic processes in shaping society and history.” The recent overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt is a good case study with which to highlight some of the links between political revolution and political economy. Anybody who has taken a political economy course in political science at the graduate level in the last 15 years or so has almost certainly read Stephen Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman’s influential work, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions. The authors attempt to answer a series of inter-related questions related to the politics/economics nexus as it appeared to them in the early 1990s:

“What role have economic crises played in the near-global wave of political liberalization and democratization? Can new democracies manage the daunting political challenges posed by economic crises and reform efforts? Under what economic and institutional conditions is democracy most likely to be consolidated?”

Haggard and Kaufman ultimately eschew both liberal theories of modernization and (neo)-Marxist theories of dependency and turn to a rational choice framework that focuses on the strategic actions of political elites–especially presidents and military leaders–under conditions of economic and institutional constraint. In addition, the authors make a few key assumptions, one of which I will highlight here: “…the 0pportunities for political elites to mobilize political support or opposition will depend on how economic policy and performance affect the income of different social groups.” (6) The empirical evidence draws from countries such as Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Philippines, Peru, and Bolivia. There argument certainly has relevance for the situation in Egypt today and for the potential for the Egyptian polity to make a successful transition toward consolidated democracy.

Jake Caldwell, Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade, and Energy at American Progress, and coauthor of The Coming Food Crisis, has written recently about the daunting economic challenges facing any new government with respect to food security. In the midst of rapidly increasing global commodity prices–especially foodstuffs–the government must find a way to continue to feed its people, many of whom live on less than $2/day in income. Caldwell writes:

“Egypt has spent $4 billion a year, or 1.8% of GDP, on its bread subsidization program in an attempt to insulate the 40% of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day from inflation. But prices continue to rise…

…Egypt faces daunting challenges as it prepares for broad presidential and parliamentary elections within a year. Ongoing volatility in global food prices will strain resources during this critical transitional period.

As the world’s largest importer of wheat, Egypt is acutely vulnerable to any surge in food prices. Wheat prices have risen 47 percent over the last year and other staples are rapidly approaching dangerously high levels.

Food price inflation and volatility strike hard at the household budgets of average Egyptian families. Many of them spend 40 percent of their monthly income on food. As prices rise, purchasing power is eroded, and the recovery of Egypt’s fragile economy during the transition is slowed.”

How much time will the new Egyptian government have to provide food security for the Egyptian people before the polity’s patience with democracy is compromised? Or is the public yearning for democracy and liberty so strong that economic crisis will have little effect on democratization in Egypt going forward?

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Social Network Media and Revolution

In the wake of the revolutionary changes that have (hopefully) taken place in Tunisia and Egypt, much has been made about the role of social media–particularly Facebook–in facilitating the participatory aspect of the revolutionary end-game. (A Google search of `Facebook AND Egypt revolution’ turns up over 22 million hits.) The Globe and Mail’s  Chrystia Freeland is the latest journalist to address the phenomenon, quoting economists Daron Acemoglu and Matthew Jackson.

Freeland notes that social network media have helped resolve what social scientists refer to as the collective action problem.

“It is a question of co-ordinating people’s beliefs,” said Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who, with Matthew Jackson of Stanford University in California, is working on a paper about the effect of social networks on collective action problems.

Protesting against an authoritarian regime is a prime example of this issue, Mr. Acemoglu said, because opponents of a dictator need to know that their views are widely shared and that a sufficient number of their fellow citizens are willing to join them to make opposition worthwhile.

“I need to know if other people agree with me and are willing to act,” he said. “What really stops people who are oppressed by a regime from protesting is the fear that they will be part of an unsuccessful protest. When you are living in these regimes, you have to be extremely afraid of what happens if you participate and the regime doesn’t change.”

That makes publicly protesting an oppressive regime a classic collective action problem: If everyone who wants regime change takes to the streets, the group will achieve its shared goal. But if too few protest, they will fail and be punished. Even if an overwhelming majority wants change, it is smart for individuals to speak out only if enough compatriots do, too.

To Freeland’s characterisation of the collective action problem I would add that the reason it is “smart for individuals to speak out only if enough compatriots do, too” is because each individual reasons in the following manner:

  • I am only one person; my individual marginal contribution to the probability of having a successful revolution is infinitesimally small.
  • Thus, my taking part or not will not be determinative. That is, the revolution will succeed or fail regardless with or without my participation.
  • Given the above, and given potential costs of participating, it is rational for me to not participate.

Social media, however, can help to change the calculus of participation by assuring the would-be participant that millions of others will also participate, thereby decreasing the potential costs of participation to any one individual. I do have an issue, however, with Freeland’s use of the Groupon analogy, which is based on the difference between the types of private goods Groupon specialises in and the truly public good that is a revolution.

The Sectarian Division in the Middle East

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have prompted similar uprisings in many other countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Though the vast majority of the populations in each of these countries are Muslim, the societies are far from homogeneous. In addition, to social class and ethnic cleavages, Brian Ulrich–Assistant Professor of Middle East History–notes the Sunni/Shi’a sectarian split within Islam:

The sectarian split between a Shi’ite majority and Sunni monarchy and minority matters, but not in a straightforward way. The country’s rulers have played a game of divide and rule, one which seems to have accelerated over the past few years which have seen an increase in anti-Shi’ite discrimination. Presumably hoping to keep smaller the popular base to which they must dispense patronage while tying that base to them ideologically, the Al Khalifa dynasty has portrayed Shi’ites as potential Iranian catspaws and pointed to Iraq as an example of the negative consequences of Shi’ite democratic empowerment. What you see in the government’s rhetoric is an attempt to cast the Shi’ites themselves as the sectarian ones primarily on the grounds of their Shi’ism, much like the Mubarak and Ben Ali regime claimed to suppress Islamic extremism.

Bahrain has also seen major protests before, with a 1990’s “intifada” almost exclusively Shi’ite demographically. During that period, the key to the uprisings’ longevity was a social base in the winding narrow streets of the Shi’ite neighborhoods in and around Manama that the mostly South Asian police had trouble penetrating.

Here’s the video of an interesting debate on the Shi’a/Sunni division in Islam, with some very interesting guests, including U. of Michigan Professor of Middle Eastern History, Juan Cole, who has a very informative blog on Islam and Middle East politics.

Germany’s National Soccer Team and Citizenship Law

Citizenship, O’Neil writes, is “an individual’s relationship to the state, wherein states swear allegiance to that state and the state in return is obligated to provide rights to those citizens.” Each state has the right to determine the basis upon which individuals-residents and non-residents alike–fulfill the requirements of citizenship. (Indeed, the extent of citizen obligations also varies from state to state.) As you know, there are three ways in which citizenship can be acquired: jus soli (birth on the territory of the state), jus sanguinis (on the basis of blood relations), and naturalisation.

Prior to changes in its citizenship law in the late 1990s, Germany was a state that based its citizenship law almost exclusively on jus sanguinis. That is, if one were (considered to be) a part of the German nation (“folk”), then one could relatively easily acquire German citizenship, even if they were not born on the territory of the modern German state. Conversely, even those who were born in Germany (and whose parents had also been born and raised in Germany) but were not nationally (or “ethnicity”) German could not obtain German citizenship. A vivid example of the impact the recent changes in German citizenship law have had on German society comes from international soccer (football, really!) where we can see the rosters of two respective German national teams. One of these rosters is the starting lineup for the 1974 World Cup Final (West Germany defeated the Johan Cruyff-led Dutch 2-1 in Munich), while the second is Germany’s starting lineup for the 3rd-place game (Germany defeated Uruguay 3-2) at this past summer’s World Cup held in South Africa. Which one is which? (Note, in order to be eligible to play for an international match for a country, the player must be a citizen of that country,)

N.B.: If you are a soccer fan, you’d be able to distinguish which roster belongs to which year on the basis of the position names (DM,, RW, AM, FW, etc.) alone! Soccer tactics sure have changed a bit over the last few decades!

Ethnic Violence in Guyana–Economic Hardship and Ranking of Groups

Here is the video we watched yesterday in IS 309. The video reported on inter-ethnic violence (between those of east Indian heritage and Creoles/Africans/Blacks) that was occurring in the northern South American country of Guyana in 2004. I used the video to highlight some of the themes Horowitz explores in chapters 3 and 4 of Ethnic Groups in Conflict. What are some of the issues that you noticed when watching the video? For a good analytical study on inter-ethnic violence in Guyana from 1948-1999, see this article in the Journal of Peace Research. I provide the abstract for you below:

Coercive and elitist approaches to political control in post-colonial states like Guyana have often proved counterproductive with respect to resolving ethno-political conflicts in these parts. In Guyana, this contradiction is usually manifested in terms of the escalation of legitimate political competition into overtly violent ethno-political violence and polarization, and reinforced by the consequent devaluation of the more democratic or pacific alternatives to conflict resolution such as mass or grass-roots participation, intergroup negotiations, and third-party mediation. Recurring debates between Cultural Pluralists and Marxists on this issue have so far failed to shed light on the prospects for the more pacific approaches to conflict resolution. Closer analytic scrutiny of actual ethno-political conflict events in Guyana between 1948 and 1999 leads to the understanding that such conflicts derive largely from what is termed a continual crisis of political legitimacy reflected in the inequities of political representation and economic resource distribution across groups. The more democratic or pacific approaches are here suggested as most appropriate for the resolution of the political legitimation crisis and the ultimate realization of a sustainable peace among the diverse groups in the Guyana political system.

Rwandan Journalists Jailed for Stirring up Ethnic Tensions

Last week in IS 302, we addressed the issue of how governments should approach the existence of ethnic division in a post-conflict setting. We saw that Rwanda and Burundi have chosen different approaches. Burundi’s leaders have decided to address ethnic grievances via assuring ethnic balance in important institutions such as the military. Rwanda’s government has chosen a different approach, endeavouring to make the society as ethnicity-blind as possible. As such, there has been a zero-tolerance policy with respect to any demonstration or acknowledgement of ethnic particularism. As a recent Amnesty International report states unequivocally:

Rwanda’s laws banning “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism” are vague and sweeping, and have been used to silence legitimate dissent. The laws were designed to encourage unity and restrict speech that could lead to hatred. However, they have had dangerous and chilling effect on Rwandan society.”

The most recent example of this “dangerous and chilling effect on Rwandan society” is news of the conviction of two Rwandan journalists of having “stirred up ethnic divisions.” As this BBC article makes clear, it seems highly likely that President Paul Kagame has been using the role of “hate media” during the Rwandan genocide to silence legitimate opposition:

Editor Agnes Nkusi was sentenced to 17 years, while reporter Saidath Mukakibibi was imprisoned for seven. Among several articles, the judge referred to one saying some Rwandans were unhappy with the country’s rulers. Prosecutors said this was “meant to stir [up] hatred and fury against the government”.

President Paul Kagame came to power in 1994, ending the genocide in which some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered. He has recently been accused of intolerance and harassing anyone who criticises him. His government defends its tough media laws, pointing to the role of “hate media” ahead of the genocide.

The newspaper was suspended for six months last year, just ahead of elections which saw Mr Kagame re-elected by a landslide. Nkusi was found guilty of disrupting state freedom, propagating ethnic division, genocide revisionism and libel.

Two Opportunities for Summer Study Abroad

Via the polcan listserv (Canadian Political Science Association) comes word about two opportunities for study abroad in the area of (ethnic) conflict. The first is a course offered in Kenya by the University of Toronto. The course, PCS361Y–Special Topics in Peace and Conflict Studies: Conflict in Africa: Causes, Consequences, and Responses–is described as “an intensive inquiry into the causes, consequences, and especially possible to conflict in Africa.” The course will be taught in Nairobi, Masai Mara, and Mombasa from May 13 through June 6. For more information, go here.

The second course will be taught as part of the American University in Kosovo summer program. Here is a description of the program:

American University in Kosovo is now accepting applications for the Summer of 2011 to study Peacebuilding, Post-conflict Transformation, and Development in the fun and safe ‘living laboratory’ of the Balkans. This four-week program offers a wide selection of courses in related areas from an impressive array of global scholars, diplomats, retired military officers, ex-combatants, practitioners, and representatives of international organizations. The goal of the program is to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Last year’s program included about 60 students from over 30 countries — including 6 Canadians. About 2/3 of the students were undergraduates — the remaining graduate students. Undergraduate course credits are transferrable. Several participants from 2010 referred to their experiences in the program as ‘life transforming.’

For more about this program, go here.