The poverty of dictatorship

Egypt and Tunisia performed well in social and economic benchmarks – but that’s not enough to keep autocrats in power.

US Egypt
A woman walks past graffiti reading “Democracy – Proud to be Tunisian” in central Tunis [AFP]

Perhaps the most striking finding in the United Nations’ recent 20th anniversary Human Development Report is the outstanding performance of the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Here was Tunisia, ranked sixth among 135 countries in terms of improvement in its Human Development Index (HDI) over the previous four decades – ahead of Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mexico, and India. Not far behind was Egypt, ranked 14th.

The HDI is a measure of development that captures achievements in health and education, alongside economic growth. Egypt and Tunisia did well enough on the growth front – but where they really shone was on these broader indicators. At 74, Tunisia’s life expectancy edges out Hungary’s and Estonia’s, countries that are more than twice as wealthy. Some 69 per cent of Egypt’s children are in school – a ratio that matches much richer Malaysia’s. Clearly, these were states that did not fail in providing social services or distributing the benefits of economic growth widely.

Yet in the end it did not matter. The Tunisian and Egyptian people were, to paraphrase Howard Beale, mad as hell at their governments – and not going to take it anymore. If Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were hoping for political popularity as a reward for economic gains, they must be sorely disappointed.

One lesson of the Arab annus mirabilis, then, is that good economics need not always mean good politics; the two can part ways for quite some time. It is true that the world’s wealthy countries are almost all democracies. But democratic politics is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for economic development over a period of several decades.

Authoritarian rule

Despite the economic advances they registered, Tunisia, Egypt – and many other Middle Eastern countries – remained authoritarian, ruled by a narrow group of cronies, with corruption, clientelism, and nepotism running rife. These countries’ rankings on political freedoms and corruption stand in glaring contrast with their rankings on development indicators.

In Tunisia, Freedom House reported – prior to the Jasmine revolution – “the authorities continued to harass, arrest, and imprison journalists and bloggers, human rights activists, and political opponents of the government”. The Egyptian government was ranked 111th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 survey of corruption.

And of course, the converse is also true: India has been democratic since independence in 1947, yet the country didn’t begin to escape of its low “Hindu rate of growth” until the early 1980s.

A second lesson is that rapid economic growth does not buy political stability on its own, unless political institutions are also allowed to develop and mature. In fact, economic growth itself generates social and economic mobilisation, a fundamental source of political instability.

As the late political scientist Samuel Huntington put it more than 40 years ago, “social and economic change – urbanisation, increases in literacy and education, industrialisation, mass media expansion – extend political consciousness, multiply political demands and broaden political participation”. Now, add social media – such as Twitter and Facebook – to the equation, and the destabilising forces that rapid economic change sets into motion can become overwhelming.

These forces become most potent when the gap between social mobilisation and the quality of political institutions widens. When a country’s political institutions are mature, they respond to demands from below, through a combination of accommodation, response and representation. When they are under-developed, they shut those demands out in the hope they will go away – or be bought off by economic improvements.

The events in the Middle East amply demonstrate the fragility of the second model. Protesters in Tunis and Cairo were not demonstrating for a lack of economic opportunity or poor social services. They were rallying against a political regime that they felt was insular, arbitrary and corrupt – and one that did not allow them adequate voice.

A political regime that can handle these pressures need not be democratic in the Western sense of the term. One can imagine responsive political systems that do not operate through free elections and competition among political parties. Some would point to Oman or Singapore as examples of authoritarian regimes that are durable in the face of rapid economic change. Perhaps so. But the only kind of political system that has proved itself over the long haul is that associated with Western democracies.

Chinese online clampdown

Which brings us to China. At the height of the Egyptian protests, Chinese Web surfers who searched for the terms “Egypt” or “Cairo” were returned messages saying “no results could be found”. Evidently, the Chinese government did not want its citizens to read up on the Egyptian protests and get the wrong idea. With the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement ever present, China’s leaders are intent on preventing a repeat.

China is not Tunisia or Egypt, of course. The Chinese government has experimented with local democracy and has tried hard to crack down on corruption. Even so, protest has spread over the last decade. There were 87,000 instances of what the government calls “sudden mass incidents” in 2005 – the last year the government released such statistics, which suggests that the rate has since increased. But dissidents challenge the supremacy of the Communist Party at their peril.

The Chinese leadership’s gamble is that a rapid increase in living standards and employment opportunities will keep the lid on simmering social and political tensions. That is why it is so intent on achieving annual economic growth of eight per cent or higher – the magic number that it believes will contain social strife.

But Egypt and Tunisia just sent a sobering message to China and other authoritarian regimes around the world: Don’t count on economic progress to keep you in power forever.

Dani Rodrik is Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government, and the author of One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth.

This article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.