Political imagination and the road to transition: ERF pre-conference workshop

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) has changed. The people-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are both good examples of successful mass-movements catalysed by social inequality and political oppression. Ultimately, however, the success of these revolutions cannot be measured by the speed at which former regimes were toppled, but by the shape of the future political and economic landscape of these countries.

We cannot know what the legacy of the Arab spring will be. But there are lessons to be learnt from history, and the context in which other successful transitions to democracy have come about. The ERF’s 18th Annual Conference used its pre-conference workshop to asses where the Arab mass movements came from, how other countries have pulled off successful democratic transitions and what other lessons can be learnt.

The road ahead is not clear

Stephen Kosack and Evann Smith (both Harvard) introduced their on-going research that seeks to bring together huge amounts of data from mass movements in different countries of the world over the last 100-200 years, as a means to create a massive public data set. Relying on the data from an initial 10 countries they introduced a typology to shed some light on the Egyptian uprising in 2011.

Based on this, the Egyptian movement was classed as an ‘unorganised class-based protest movement’, which has a number of different characteristics, including the fact that it is rarely politically successful and when it is, it tends to remove political leaders, but struggles to remove regimes completely.

Can Tunisia and Egypt reverse this trend? Context, as ever is key, the political circumstances that played such a pivotal role in bringing about change, will also play an important role in shaping what the new political system will look like and the challenges that are emerging.

Linked to this, Ishac Diwan (Harvard Kennedy School and ERF) outlined how the ‘authoritarian bargain’ that underpinned the former autocratic regimes, shifted over time as the middle class became dissatisfied with the version of crony capitalism that ensued and its inability to distribute wealth evenly. The result was that that the middle class began to create a new coalition with those traditionally outside of this system. This may form some of the foundations for a future social and political compact, but the reality is uncertain.

Organisations key

There is no doubt that the organisations that underpin the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt will depend greatly on the nature of those organisational structures that emerge. Mushtaq Khan (University of London) spoke of the need to construct organisations that operate in a competitive democratic environment, incorporating the poor and spreading the benefit of growth more broadly.

In the developing country context, Khan believes this rests on patron-client politics as a means to overcome the shortage of available tax revenues, like those at the disposal of many advanced democratic countries. Lacking in formal revenue-generating mechanisms, such as this, means that many developing countries need to rely on informal mechanisms to develop relevant patron-client relationships.

The challenge in Egypt, according to Khan, is that the middle class don’t have such mechanisms and organisations in place. This is highly characteristic of this type of protest movement, and represents a huge point of risk and potential failure, as supported by Kosack and Smith’s typology, above.

There can of course be a sharp distinction between the rhetoric attached to democratic organisations and the practice. This point that Jillian Schwedler (University of Massachusetts) was able draw out through her comparative research on Yemen and Jordan. Jordan has initiated inclusive structural practices in its transition to democracy, while the Yemen, despite glowing rhetoric has failed to show moderation and inclusivity.

Imagination of elite important

If Egypt and Tunisia are to avoid the ‘typological curse’ associated with the type of movement that brought about regime change, then there is no doubt that political imagination is required. Pratap Mehta (Centre for Policy Research) supported this view, and talked of the need for a “spirit of compromise” that seeks to willingly ensure that wealth is distributed more evenly by those in positions of power. In other words, the elite need to be brave and ensure that different voices and interests are included in these new regimes.

One of the underlying challenges facing both Tunisia and Egypt is that the changes brought about by the uprisings where not expected. There were no longstanding plans in place to bring about smooth transitions, and this has created a series of unique challenges. Hazem El-Beblawi (Former Deputy Prime Minister, Egypt and ERF) placed emphasis on ‘fire fighting’ those things that require urgent action, before two much focus is placed on building the pillars of democracy. Practice should come first, perhaps.

One thought on “Political imagination and the road to transition: ERF pre-conference workshop

  1. Pingback: ERF 18th Annual Conference on “Corruption and Economic Development” kicks off in Cairo « GDNet Blog

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