Mohamed Omar/European Pressphoto Agency
Egypt overthrew its longtime leader while the world watched. But its economics and demographics suggest that the next leader will not be particularly democratic.
Almost three weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt ended Hosni Mubarak’s reign as president. Widely regarded as undemocratic, he enjoyed decades without a serious challenger for his position, and, among other things, did not hesitate to shut off Egypt’s Internet access when he thought it might help keep him in power.
Now the Egyptian military is in charge and promises to hold elections in six months.
But elections are not the same as democracy unless more than one candidate has a fair opportunity to run. Living in the United States, it is often difficult to imagine anything but a fair election for president and the other major government positions, but our world is full of countries with rigged elections that, for example, require that candidates be approved by the government.
Mr. Mubarak himself won sham elections. With the next elections be any more genuine? Will the winner of those elections be willing to keep the process going?
I used a recent study in The Economic Journal to help me assess the outlook. Prof. Kevin Tsui of Clemson (my former student at the University of Chicago) studied democratization in 132 countries in the latter part of the 20th century – democratization referring to the process of moving from rigged to fair elections, allowing free speech, free political expression and so on.
Based on its past elections, Egypt was considered among the least democratic countries in the world, although a bit more democratic than some of its neighbors, like Saudi Arabia and Libya.
Professor Tsui found that oil resources are an important variable – the more valuable a country’s oil resources, the less likely it is to become democratic. Interestingly, Professor Tsui finds that Egypt is about average in terms of oil resources, so that variable by itself does not lead us to expect that Egypt’s future elections will be all that different than they were in the past.
Egypt is more Muslim that the average country in the world, and somewhat poorer in terms of per-capita gross domestic product. Professor Tsui found both of these conditions to be associated with less democracy.
On the other hand, Egypt is more ethnically homogeneous than the average country in the world and more homogeneous than nearby Iraq and Libya. Homogeneity is a factor associated with more democracy.
Over all, Professor Tsui’s study shows that the Egypt of Mr. Mubarak has been about as nondemocratic as countries similar to it in terms of demographics and economic circumstances.
Professor Tsui, who wrote his paper before Egypt’s revolution, did not offer a prediction of what would happen there next. But if the same factors continue to be important determinants of democracy, little may change in Egypt.
One thing that seems different in Egypt’s revolution is that an executive at Google is credited with helping plan the protests with his Facebook page. Perhaps a dictator’s survival is more difficult these days in a world with Twitter, Facebook and other technologies for coordinating revolutionaries.
But nondemocratic leaders will fight back, and I expect the Internet revolution will, in the near term, cause government to monitor, censor and otherwise regulate the communications of its political opponents more, not less.
So I will be somewhat surprised if the aspirations of Egypt’s democracy proponents are realized in the next decade. Egypt’s next leader or group of leaders will have a different name, but are likely to reign with tight political control.