May 1st, 2012
08:00 PM ET

What we owe Egypt

Editor's Note: James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu are co-authors of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and PovertyFor more, visit Project Syndicate or follow it onTwitter or Facebook .

By James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, Project Syndicate

The question that still underlies much thinking about economic development is this: What can we do to kick-start economic growth and reduce poverty around the world? The “we” is sometimes the World Bank, sometimes the United States and other rich countries, and sometimes professors of development economics and their students huddled in a seminar room. It is on this question that the entire development-aid complex is based.

But what has transformed Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya over the last two years has not been efforts by the outside world to improve these societies or their economies, but grassroots social movements intent on changing their countries’ political systems. It started in Tunisia, where the revolution swept President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive regime out of power. It then spread to Egypt and Libya, ending Hosni Mubarak’s and Moammar Gadhafi's even more repressive and corrupt regimes.

The people who poured into the streets and risked their lives were fed up with the repression and the poverty that these regimes caused. The average Egyptian’s income level, for example, is just 12% of the average American’s, and Egyptians can expect to die 10 years sooner. Fully 20% of the population lives in dire poverty.

The protesters in Tahrir Square perceived the cause of Egypt’s poverty in its non-responsive, repressive political system, its corrupt government, and the general lack of equality of opportunity in every sphere of their lives. They saw their current leaders as part of the problem, not part of the solution. By contrast, most outsiders, asking “What can we do?”, emphasized geographic or cultural factors, or some purely economic “poverty trap,” whose effects should be countered by foreign aid and advice.

There should be no illusion that the transformation that the protesters started will be smooth. Many previous revolutions have deposed one set of corrupt rulers only to bring in a new bunch who are equally corrupt, vicious, and repressive. There is also no guarantee that the previous elites will not be able to re-constitute similar regimes.

Indeed, the military, the bulwark of Mubarak’s regime, is now in charge in Egypt, and has been repressing, jailing, and killing protesters who dare to stand up. Most recently, it has unveiled plans to write a new constitution before the presidential election, and its electoral commission has disqualified 10 of the 23 presidential candidates on flimsy grounds. And, if the military loosens the reins, the Muslim Brotherhood could take over and form its own authoritarian, non-representative regime.

But there are also grounds to be optimistic. The genie is out of the bottle, and people know that they have the power to topple governments, and, more generally, that their political activism has consequences. That is why people have continued to fill Tahrir Square whenever the military has tried to consolidate its power and suppress dissent.

Though it is ultimately the Egyptian people who will decide the country’s fate, and whether it can finally take decisive steps towards more inclusive political institutions, this does not mean that outsiders can do nothing. In fact, there is much that “we” can do – even if none of it will be central to the outcome.

For example, the U.S. will again give more than $1.5 billion of aid to Egypt this year. But who is receiving that aid? Unfortunately, it is not the people who are trying to change their country’s future, but the Egyptian military and the same politicians who ruled Egypt under the previous regime.

The least we owe to the Egyptian people is to stop supporting their repression. That does not mean cutting foreign aid. On the contrary, though foreign aid will not by itself transform Egypt’s society or economy, and though some of it will inevitably be wasted and fall into the wrong hands, it can still do some good. More important, the US and the international community can work to ensure that the bulk of the funds go not to the military and to business-as-usual politicians, but to grassroots causes and groups.

In fact, foreign aid can also be used as a small inducement for national dialogue in Egypt. For example, foreign aid could be placed under the stewardship of a committee of representatives from different social factions, including the civil-society groups at the center of the uprising and the Muslim Brotherhood, with the clear understanding that if the committee fails to agree, the aid will not be disbursed. This would force the military and the elites to work together with opposition groups that they often attempt to sideline.

Beyond bringing important but politically marginalized groups to the table, such a committee might also produce a demonstration effect, with successful power-sharing in a small setting possibly encouraging power-sharing writ large. That may not be the sort of outside intervention that could cure the ills of centuries of repression and underdevelopment overnight, but “we” need to stop searching for a non-existent panacea, and instead do something better than feeding the Egyptian military.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu.

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. deniz boro

    This question is lost in time. Or recent time with the humanity's last practices. Was Egypt ever given a 50 years of purely independent breathing time to decide on what she wants her own? EU was very lenient to its Greek roots. It was not so to Mesopotamia backgrouds nor to the African Eve. So let us ask this: How much has Europe took from Egypt in the last 100 years verses what it has give? İt would take a long accounting if ... Shall we say only if every nation paid back what it has stolen in architectural artifacts, there would be no problem at all.

    May 1, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • 100% ETHIO STRONGER!

      Quite funny! What on Earth you do know about Egypt's true history? Except, the wrongful and fake Mind-set you got, that spreads all over the World by opportunists with lies and deceits, since the last Hundreds and Thousands of Years.

      History and Historians are established and stood, just for opportunists by those who have Money and Weapons.
      According to unbiased and true History, neither the Pyramid nor the Niles belongs to Egypt.
      Read the TRUE HOLLY-BIBLE, that consists 66 + 15 = 81 Books. Which are:-
      1) The Old-Testament,
      2) The New-Testament and
      3) The Book of Esther, although it doesn't mentioned God's name, it is a Holly-Book inspired by God.
      Proof? Yes! The Arc Of Covenant has it all!

      Sometimes, people don't understand what Orthodox mean. In Greek, 'having straightforward opinion'.
      In Geez, the first Abyssinian (Ethiopian) Word of Coptic Christian Religion, Orthodox means, 'having the correct Faith or Religion'. Ortho- straight or correct and Dox- glory or worship. Even the true and Native Egyptian are Nubaians (dark skins). But, the rests are immigrated from Albania and Turkey.

      Words has Prefix, Suffix and Roots.

      May 2, 2012 at 4:51 am | Reply
      • Confused

        Your train of thought is incomprehensible and idiotic. You should proof-read your comments before posting in the future, moreover, what country are you from? Certainly not Egypt...

        May 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
      • .

        Ethio weaker. Los idiotas.

        May 2, 2012 at 8:28 pm |
      • Captain Cooper

        Gratuitously, you hit the nail right on the head. It's quite TRUE, the Doctrines and the meanings of the Holly-Bible has been changed many times, since the last Two Thousands of Years. It is not easy to find the original one.
        However, I agree, the deep secrets are written in the ARC OF COVENANT.

        Conceptually, it is TRUE that, Egyptians are the descendants of Albania and Turkey. Mostly, during the Ottoman empire. And also, we all know that, Nile River doesn't belong to Egypt. It's just only the Western power forcefully, making it available for Egypt, by preventing Ethiopia not to use it's own Water.
        Even the land where the Pyramids discovered, never belonged to Egypt. It was the part of Blue-Nile, Ethiopia.

        Of course, history is by opportunity for opportunists.

        May 2, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
      • deniz boro

        It just so happens that I already read the Holly Bible although I am a Muslim born I also read the Herodotus (which I doubt you did) And all I can say is that I realy would not want to spoil your fairy world.

        May 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • deniz boro

      At the moment I am re-reading Herodotus for the umpteenth time. I am at about 140th page of it. It still says Egypt was one of the first civilizations.

      May 4, 2012 at 3:57 am | Reply
  2. ✠ RZ ✠  

    A "movement" to change a county's "political system" is usually external. Why ? Why can't our leaders and governments more readily recognize the need to change themselves and political systems. Even when problems are readily evident and people are fed up to the point of almost taking up arms, they'd rather fight against it to the extreme of killing their own countrymen. If parents acted like governments there would be a lot more dead children.

    May 1, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply
  3. Brainwashed

    This article just wash people's brain . Who supported Depotism in Egypt ? Without help from outside , it was impossible for Mubarok to stay in power ? Who is outsider ? Who has forced Egypt to sell natural gas at lowest prize to Israel ? Who has imposed slavery economic policy on Egypt ? Who is trying to protect their economic interest in Egypt ? Nope continue to do it and Dear America , you are brainwashed .

    May 1, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Well put, Brainwashed. Who were the outsiders, you ask? We were, of course!

      May 2, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
  4. iraqi government are terrorists

    رابطة الشفافية تكشف ان اثنين من البنوك الخاصة على الاقل في العراق توليا نقل كميات كبيرة من اموال المعونات الامريكية عبر الحدود لصالح تنظيمات عراقية مسلحة لاقامة مشاريع في لبنان وسوريا ودول اخرى

    – May 1, 2012

    دبي-الشرقية 1 مايو: كشفت رابطة الشفافية ان اثنين من البنوك الخاصة على الاقل في العراق مما يتعذر على الشرقية نيوز ذكر اسميهما كما ورد في تقرير الرابطة توليا نقل كميات كبيرة من اموال المعونات الامريكية عبر الحدود لصالح تنظيمات مسلحة عراقية لديها مشاريع اقتصادية في لبنان وسوريا ودول اخرى.كما ادارت شبكة لنقل الاموال من العراق الى الخارج لخدمة المصالح الاقتصادية لعدد من الميليشيات والسياسيين الذين كان همهم بالدرجة الاولى بناء شبكة مالية قوية خارج العراق تضم موارد قادمة من داخل العراق.وتوزعت هذه الموارد بين الاستحواذ على المعونات الامريكية في العراق الى جانب المبالغ التي يجري ابتزاز الافراد والشركات لدفعها داخل العراق.واستمرت هذه الحالة بعد انتهاء الاحتلال الامريكي حيث يجري نقل كميات كبيرة من الاموال لصالح مسؤولين حكوميين وتنظيمات شبه عسكرية واحزاب سياسية.وشددت الرابطة على الدور الذي يقوم به اثنان من البنوك في ادارة الاموال المريبة المتداولة حاليا.

    May 2, 2012 at 3:43 am | Reply
    • .

      Nobody on this website knows what you're ranting about, Akmed. Say it in English or log off. Now!

      May 2, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Whether the Egyptians like it or not, the military will continue to be the power base of their country.

    May 2, 2012 at 4:10 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      In fact both the U.S. and Israel might have an interest to keep Egypt's military going strong. Should the peace treaty of 1979 between Egypt and Israel be honoured, the military would be the only guarrantee.

      May 2, 2012 at 4:13 am | Reply
      • George Patton

        In fact j.von hettlingen, it's through Egypt's military that the West continues to run things in Egypt!!! We own to the Egyptians to butt out of their internal affairs and adopt a laissez-faire policy toward that country, but unfortunately, the right-wing thugs in Washington won't even consider that!!!

        May 2, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • deniz boro

      some improvements have to be left in time and taken step by step. I am very much interested in Egypt and respect the land beyond point..But when the history is looked at at fast back and forward one comes to see that there is no problems concerning this part of the world.

      May 4, 2012 at 4:13 am | Reply
  6. Jonathan Ledwidge

    Reblogged this on Ledwidge and commented:
    Interesting post on what the US and other western governments should really be doing to support the Arab Spring.

    May 2, 2012 at 9:35 am | Reply
    • .

      Arab Spring my ass. It's a radical Muslim uprising.

      May 2, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Reply
      • Jonathan Ledwidge

        I see you dont fully comprehend what has happened.

        May 2, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  7. Tahir

    I congratulate Egyptians for giving their blood to democracy. They should enjoy it, they are writing history for democracy.They should come out and give more blood to democracy otherwise they may lose a big opportunity to get democracy. Don't worry blood is very cheap but democracy is very important.

    May 2, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      More than Democracy, the Egyptians need Socialism which will try to get them out of their grinding poverty and on the road to prosperity. Most of all, Egypt needs to be free of Western interference!

      May 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  8. .

    The question isn't what we owe Egypt. It's what they owe us.

    Now, let's get started....

    May 2, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  9. medhat

    this site is very good to learn english for free

    May 2, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  10. deniz boro

    First of all EGYPT needs time to find out what she wants. It never had a chance before.

    May 4, 2012 at 4:02 am | Reply
  11. deniz boro

    I do not believe Arab Spring was a natural uprising of supressed people. I do believe a kind of review was necessary in the Islamic part of the world. But when such a review is enforced on people wihout sufficient infrustructure by people who are not informed in it, such outcomes are natural.To the degree that it hits back on them. The whole world has a balance. One must take care to disturb it.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  12. Travel Destinations

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    September 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply

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