When an economy sinks a revolution

(credit Civil-Military Fusion Centre)

The revolutionaries who ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak demanded bread and social justice, but after two-and-a-half years of military and Muslim Brotherhood rule, the government has made little progress towards those goals.

Al Jazeera English has a comprehensive feature on the economic problems that Egypt has faced in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The issues are myriad, mostly rooted in bad debt and low international confidence in the Egyptian pound or their ability to pay back loans. It does raise the question of how a political revolution can keep itself intact, given that some economic hardship is guaranteed.

Economist Ahmed Ghoneim sums up the issues when he says “[Morsi’s administration] was only thinking of politics, not the economy.” While the Muslim Brotherhood had persisted as a political entity for over eighty years, they were unable to address fundamental problems and have ministers that were both loyal to the Brotherhood and skilled at their job. Ultimately that political support begins to dry up, as the unemployment rate, GDP per capita growth rate, and currency value begin to worsen.

Revolutions like those in Egypt also suffer from what could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The chaos and danger of large-scale protests, police and military action, and political upheaval can be deadly to tourism and foreign financing. The feature describes the shop owners, travel agents, and museum guides without clients, and large loans from the IMF and other Islamic countries being difficult to secure due to risk and a lack of backing from large banks. If there are economic roots in the 2011 upheaval, they are difficult to solve in the aftermath. Cutting corruption and getting new diplomatic ties can help, but it may not be enough.

I think of how many Latin American and African revolutions have been reversed when economic progress was promised, then not delivered. While a lack of democracy and civil rights are a key reason that revolutions happen, demand for bread and jobs are just as powerful reasons- if often implicit.

The lack of focus and direction in Egypt’s post-revolution economy was where Morsi’s political skills withered. The kind of things a good economic minister does are not politically popular. They are not the things you win elections running on- tax increases, harsh adjustments to please foreign lenders- but they are how you solve systemic problems. Hopefully a new administration will understand that.

There is a quote attributed to various great leaders, that a society is three missed meals away from anarchy. Ultimately it comes down the basics. If it gets bad, it doesn’t matter who’s in power, or what they believe or promise.

 

The last straw

I think the issue of bad and expensive public transportation was the last straw…But what bothers me even more is that our government isn’t providing for us more generally. Not in schools. Not in hospitals. We have huge levels of social inequality and violence.

-Priscila Passareli, Brazilian protester

Quote comes from a story in the Los Angeles Times.

In Turkey, it was redevelopment eliminating green space. In Brazil, it was a transit fare hike. These are the vanguard issues, the ones that break people out of complacency. The hundreds of thousands of people are not there solely because the bus is more expensive- they come together in dozens of cities because they feel the government has failed them.

Turkey is in part about the past- the feeling that Prime Minister Erdogan has eroded at the foundation built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost a century ago. In Brazil, it is about a future promised but not delivered on. Much like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and other South America leaders, the Workers’ Party has been kept in power through a bold anti-poverty pledge. That poverty is down, but few other issues are resolved- education, transit, infrastructure, crime, inequality- has indicated to many that the party has either slowed down their promise, or stopped entirely. The huge investments in the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and then the Summer Olympics amplify what is seen as a lack of investment in ordinary people.

Americans are often mad when cities build sports stadiums for private teams- often costing hundreds of millions of dollars. But what if we also had a poverty rate, illiteracy rate, and crime rate like Brazil? It would be enough to riot over. And Brazil is.