Tunisia, Egypt and “isms”

Note to regular readers: You may notice an increasing number of posts that deal with pure political economy or international issues.  In the past my posts have been dominated by macro-economic concerns and that’s largely because my teaching schedule was heavily macro.  I’m teaching a new class this term that is essentially Political Economy 101, so in addition to the usual macro and money and banking, there should be more pure political-economy stuff, such as this.

First Tunisia erupted in popular protest two weeks ago and drove a long-term autocrat/dictator from office.  Now inspiration from the Tunisians appears to be spreading throughout the Muslim and Arabic-speaking world of North Africa and the Middle East. Protests have been most notable in Egypt and Yemen, but have reportedly also occurred in Saudi Arabia (in Jeddah), in Jordan, and Lebanon.  In Lebanon, the Hezbollah party has peacefully and constitutionally emerged as the lead party in a new government.

But it’s in Egypt where most of the attention is focused right now.  Hosni Mubarak, the long-time Egyptian autocrat/dictator has dismissed his cabinet and announced he will form a new government (with himself still in charge), but it appears at this point to not be enough.  Instead, it looks as if Egypt, the 15th largest nation in population, (approx. same size as Germany) will experience a relatively peaceful revolution as a result of popular protest.  The events are capturing the attention of the world.  Although it is too early to tell, these events have a certain feeling that is reminiscent of 1989-1991 when waves of peaceful popular protests led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, communism in Eastern Europe, and eventually the Soviet Union. Although the media will no doubt focus much attention on these events, it’s doubtful the media will shed much light on the deeper causes or dynamics of what’s happening.  That’s up to us to think through.  I’m going to try to shed some insight in a series of posts.

First, up is that I want to simply alert students to the complexity and nuances of our current, 21st century world as opposed to the categorizations of our textbooks.  Textbooks are still using terms such as capitalism, socialism, communism, democracy, totalitarianism, and dictatorship to describe and categorize different political-economic systems. But using these terms and their definitions may as easily hinder our understanding of some situations today as help us.  For example, how are we to describe the regimes and systems that just toppled in Tunisia and might topple in Egypt?  They clearly were not democratic in the sense that the people were able to regularly assert their will and have a government that represented them. They were/are repressive regimes. Yet, the governments had the forms and features of democracy: elections, national assemblies, constitutions, courts, etc.  Economically how are we to describe these countries? They clearly were not primarily socialist or communist.  The governments are involved in a few industries, but international capital is welcome and corporations can function. Private property clearly exists, even though it is not necessarily widely distributed. Yet neither were/are these countries, nor much of the Arabic-speaking world, truly free-market capitalist either. Private economic activity is heavily regulated and bureaucratically restricted.

I have no answers here. My purpose is to stimulate some thought. It seems to me that too much our existing thinking about political and economic systems is guided by  terms and thinking that are relics of the Cold War 50 years ago. Further, it may be that we pay too much attention to the titles and appearances of institutions rather than their performance.  For example, it should be clear that “holding elections” is not a sufficient criterion to make a system democratic. Those elections must also be free elections, the elected must be responsive and representative of the will of the people, and the electors must be informed and have options.  But these criteria are harder to define.  Just how do we tell if an election is “free”?