As we outline in Madmen, institutions — also known as the “rules of the game” — shape the incentives for a productive and peaceful society, or a poor and violent one. When these institutions change, the results can be far-reaching. One of the most fascinating and important examples of this today is the struggle to reshape political institutions in Egypt.
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, George Washington University’s Nathan Brown outlines the terms of the debate, in Egypt and throughout the region. It’s one of the clearer reviews of what’s going on in Egypt. Here’s an observation from early in the essay:
Democracy has failed in the Arab world not because governments have routinely violated their countries’ highest laws (although they have occasionally cheated) but, rather, because their constitutions’ democratic promises have generally been as vague as possible and were left to parliaments to flesh out through regular statutes. European countries first developed that system to ensure that popularly elected bodies, not kings, would define basic rights. When Arab regimes copied the practice — for example, many of them proclaimed freedom of the press but explained that the freedom would be “defined by law” — the effect was that rulers could pledge all kinds of rights and let rubber-stamp parliaments rob them of all meaning.
It is thus important to view the new Egyptian constitution as a political document — a product of specific circumstances that will not merely shape a future set of circumstances but also function within them.
Crafting political “rules of the game” is, in short, a function of the circumstances of time and place. It would be unreasonable for anyone to expect a constitutional democracy to emerge overnight in Egypt (not that Brown does this).
The current debate hinges on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s assumption of significant additional powers, including blanket immunity for himself pending the adoption of a new constitution.
What is surprising is that tens of thousands of Egyptians have flocked to the streets to protest, even as Morsi supporters come out in force, too. (Here’s the NY Times’ chronology of recent events.) For a large portion (but perhaps not a majority) of Egyptians, this move violates a strongly held belief. From where does this belief come? Is it simply a distrust of expansive authority formed over decades (or centuries, or millenia) of authoritarian rule? Or is it a newly formed appreciation for constitutional democracy? And if it is the latter, where did this appreciation — these ideas — come from?
Writing in the Washington Post, Marwan Bishara, an al-Jazeera English correspondent, argues that Egypt and Tunisia are paving the way for a new “consciousness” in political thought, producing “new realities with long-term consequences” for these countries and for the region. He makes several points.
First, the “Arab street” will be replaced by Arab “public opinion” — with significant benefits for peaceful, productive discourse. Second, there is strong support for civil — as opposed to theocratic — government. In other words, Sharia law is largely opposed. Third, those who favor constitutional democracy make up an increasingly large portion of the population.
There it is, public opinion — that conglomeration of ideas about many things, including what government should and should not do.
Do the recent developments in Egypt reflect new “realities” that bode well for constitutional democracy? Perhaps. Or perhaps these new “realities” are only aspirations. Still, it is encouraging to see ideas circulating with such fury and such effect. Again, from where do they come (in Egypt and elsewhere)?
[This comment was originally posted on Monday, December 10, 2012.]