Freedom vs Freedom From Want

by Patrick Appel

Larison analyzes this poll. He notes that the poll only contacted residents of Cairo and Alexandria, and he warns that were "there a more comprehensive, nationwide poll that reflected the views of the entire population instead of a sample with a heavy urban bias, we might be seeing significantly different results." His view of the findings:

Perhaps most important is the Egyptian assessment of the reasons for the protests. Economic conditions, corruption, unemployment, and poor delivery of basic services top the list and make up a combined 65% of the “first most important reason” category, and they make up 51% of the “second most important reason” category. (Multiple responses were allowed.) This is overwhelmingly a protest about lack of opportunity and economic conditions. For just 3%, “political repression/no democracy” was the first most important reason, and the second most important for another 6%. About one in ten of urban Egyptian respondents sees these protests primarily in the terms that virtually everyone in the West sees them. Just 6% cite abuses by the security services, and another 6% cite the issue of succession. I’d be interested to hear from democracy promotion fans how exactly the U.S. could have been changing poor economic conditions in Egypt by insisting on free elections.

Larison has made a version of this argument repeatedly over the last few days. Here he contends that democratic reforms wouldn't have stopped the Egyptian uprising:

The argument that Western reform advocates make is that pressing Cairo on reform would have somehow headed off an uprising by allowing for gradual political change, as if repealing the emergency law or permitting free and fair elections would have alleviated rising food prices, reduced massive youth unemployment, or distributed economic gains more broadly among the population. The problem here isn’t just that democratists are opportunistically seizing on events in Egypt to make ideological demands on the administration, but that the remedies they have been proposing don’t even address most of the reasons for profound popular discontent.

Earlier he compared Egypt's fledgling democracy movement to Venezuela:

I don’t think anyone expects this group or any other in Egyptian politics to be able to meet Egypt’s economic and political demands. The “Bolivarian revolution” in Venezuela hasn’t delivered good governance, but once Chavez and his allies were in power they rigged the system to make it extremely difficult to remove them from power. Political movements don’t need to succeed in serving the public interest in order to keep their grip on power, and Egypt doesn’t need to suffer from an Islamic revolution to experience even more catastrophic misrule than it is currently experiencing.

Larison's pessimism is a sometimes necessary corrective, but his current campaign against Egyptian democracy is confusing. He requests that fans of democracy promotion in Egypt flesh out the connection between economic betterment and free elections. He's right that democracy by itself can't fix Egypt - democracy is a tool that can be used to fight corruption or it can be perverted to entrench it. The exact effects of democracy on Egypt are unknowable, but Larison's abstract arguments against Egyptian democracy are a lot less convincing when considering the alternative - the continuation of a regime that has already failed its people. Democracy is a high risk, high reward preposition, but at least it has the power to produce change.