14 February 2011 ~ 0 Comentarios

The other face of frustration

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Many Egyptians want democracy. We don’t know how many, or to what they allude when they ask for democracy, but we assume that they refer – albeit vaguely – to free elections and a free press, a plural parliament, a multiparty system and the separation of powers. Those are the classic and basic attributes of a liberal democracy. Many Egyptians are tired of the monochrome government installed in Cairo since the days Col. Nasser staged a military coup in 1954.

Why do the Egyptians want democracy and freedoms? Some, probably not many, because they want to make their own decisions. They like to build their lives with acts they choose voluntarily. But another percentage, most likely in the majority, is dissatisfied with the material results of the world in which they live. They are tired of misery, poverty and the lack of opportunities.

In Egypt, when there is work, it is very poorly remunerated. The public systems of health and education are awful. Many people go hungry. The true function of the police is not to protect the citizens but to extort or intimidate them. The judiciary is Ali Baba’s cave in the service of the all-powerful. The State is a disaster patrolled by incompetent functionaries and thieves. That is no way to live, people say.

“Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts given to man by the heavens,” Cervantes wrote, probably when he had lost his freedom and was in prison. The problem is that democracy and the enjoyment of freedoms, though appreciable bounties, not necessarily solve the problems of lack of productivity, poverty and lack of opportunities in Third-World countries. (If the Egyptians want to see countries that are democratic yet poor and abysmally governed, they should tour half of Latin America.)

At the other end of the example, in a nation like Singapore, where democracy is a joke and the lack of freedoms is almost total, society nevertheless seems to be satisfied with its government, because there are economic opportunities, the general prosperity is remarkable, the public institutions are efficient, and the officials behave honestly.

In less than half a century, that small country, which began as a hopeless disaster, has become one of the wealthiest, best educated, healthiest, most developed and modern countries in the world. Lamentably, there is no freedom but there is the certainty that legitimate individual effort generates positive material results.

In Egypt, they have the worst of both worlds. There are neither freedoms nor any hopes to improve. The “Egyptian revolution” was a political creature spawned in 1954 within the ideological coordinates of an authoritarian, pan-Arabist, militaristic and collectivistic nationalism – fortunately a secular one.

From its beginning, Nasserism (as it was then called) was very inefficient and corrupt. But it had an effective populist discourse, originally pro-Soviet and anti-Israeli, that – with time and the military defeats in Sadat’s rule and most markedly in Mubarak’s – evolved into a pro-American, anti-communist, “soft” dictatorship, prudently at peace with Israel. Its large productive apparatus was in the hands of those who held political power, the courtiers at their service, and the military chiefs who guarded the store and kept part of the income.

We are looking, therefore, at something more than a worn-out regime. We’re looking at a perverse political culture, at a way to conduct public and private affairs, at an unfair way to give stability to society (a widespread method in the Arab world) based on the collusion among the political and economic elites and the military officers who control the weapons and, for now, have a monopoly on violence.

Egypt is a classic example of what Douglass North, the Nobel laureate in economics, calls “limited-access societies.” In them, there is no meritocracy, people don’t rise to the top through talent and work or gain wealth through their efforts, the market and adherence to fair rules. None of that. Triumph is achieved by braiding a sinuous chain of personal relations and ceaselessly paginating complementary interests, to the detriment of the weakest and worst-related sectors.

If Egyptians ever attain democracy (something that remains to be seen), they will find out how difficult it is to create a just and prosperous society. It is likely that they’ll soon discover a new face of frustration.

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