Friday, 18 February 2011

More proof...

...if proof were needed that the Obama administration is a just another pathetically craven coward in front of the DC pro-Israeli lobby.

My thoughts at the time of Obama's Cairo speech was that it was rhetorically magnificent, but that at the end of the day he would be judged on his actions rather than his words. Well here are his actions.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


In the previous post I suggested a couple of political factors centred on regime legitimacy and the unity and willingness to risk instability of populations that help explain why certain countries and not others have seen major protests. I also suggested that based on these factors, the Libyan regime looks pretty vulnerable.

One issue with this model, if it can be called one (OK it can't), is that it doesn't have much predictive power, as a lot of these factors have existed in places like Tunisia for a long time without major upheaval being unleashed until very recently. I think that's one reason why people are attracted to the food price inflation theory, because there has been a notable rise in food prices recently and it therefore helps explain why these uprisings are happening now (though it doesn't really explain why they didn't happen in 2008, when there was some scattered rioting in places like Mauritania but not much else, or why they didn't happen 20 or 30 years ago when food actually accounted for significantly higher proportions of expenditure in a lot of these countries than it does now even despite recent inflation).

More generally, there's been a lot of discussion about which political and economic models and sub-disciplines have the most predictive power and whether or not intelligence services for example should have seen this coming, or more generally why nobody did. In response to this, I'm going to make two mutually-contradictory comments:

One is that noone and no model can really predict the future of extremely complex societies. It's hard enough to predict what one person will do, never mind millions interacting in complex ways. Even if the problem weren't so complex, the mere fact of successfully being able to predict the future can itself change the future (as people will act on their foreknowledge - eg if Mubarak could have predicted what was going to happen he might have tried to placate people earlier), which may in turn result in a different outcome than the predicted one. It's a pretty obvious and well-established (in the field of economic forecasting, for example) point that futurology is really just a parlour game.

The second is that, actually, some people did predict what happened in Egypt, more or less. Less than two years ago John Bradley published a book called Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharoahs on the Brink of A Revolution. Obviously he didn't predict events exactly, but from what I remember of the book (I read a borrowed copy) he basically argued that Egypt was a total mess of a society that, as was, er, "on the brink of a revolution." (I think if I remember correctly he may have argued for a likely Islamist revolution, which this hasn't been so far, but I'm not sure). I'm surprised that I haven't seen anything in the way of citations of the book or interviews with Bradley recently (I may have just missed them, of course). Some Egypt specialists I know were sniffy about it, and it was more of a (sometimes sensationalist) journalistic work than a work of political science - but to be fair to Bradley, he seems to have been broadly correct in his assessment. Meanwhile another book has just been published (but obviously must have been written at least several months ago) entitled Egypt on the Brink, though I haven't read it and don't know what it's actual argument was.

Now, I actually think that these writers were probably fairly fortuitous in their timing rather than having been really able to predict with high confidence that Egypt would rise up in the very near future - though kudos to them all the same. But I think a more important point is that in cases like this, in many ways it doesn't really matter whether you could predict them or not. Egypt and Tunisia under their ousted leaders were both horribly repressive and corrupt regimes with major socioeconomic problems. Whether or not they were about to revolt didn't really matter in the sense that, either way, major change was clearly needed - change for its own sake, and not for the sake of avoiding instability or upheaval. If Obama really was annoyed that his intelligence people didn't see this coming, not only is he living in a fantasy world, he's missing the point that the US should have been pushing much harder for change in its Middle Eastern allies years ago, for the sake of the people living there if nothing else. Perhaps it's a naive point, but surely having disastrously-run, corrupt and repressive countries dominating a key region (or any region) is just a bad thing in itself, and bound to lead to no wider good in the long run. Who cares about the (unknowable) future when the present is already a total mess?

It's politics, stupid

A lot of commentators on the recent wave of protests in the region have pointed to socioeconomic factors such as poverty and unemployment. High food prices have been a particular favourite of the more wonkish pundits out there, who have liked to point out that food makes up a very high proportion of household expenditure in Egypt by global standards.

As an aside, to me this is less interesting than it first sounds. Saying that food makes up a large proportion of household expenditure in a given country is to a large degree simply saying that said country is poor. Of course it's a little more complicated than that as other factors such as subsidies, taxes, the degree of national food self-sufficiency and transport costs for imports also affect food prices and how much expenditure they account for. But at the same time, a lot of it boils down to the fact that the poorer a people are, the higher percentage of their income they'll have to spend on basic items such as food and the less they'll have for non-essential items. For example FT Tilt recently published a fancy graph by Goldman Sachs showing that food expenditures in Egypt were the second highest in the region as a proportion of the inflation basket out of 14 countries in the region. But then, based on GDP per capita levels, Egypt is also the third poorest of the 14 countries, so that's not particularly surprising or interesting.

And yet, it's not the poorest countries in the world, or even in the region (eg Mauritania), that have seen the most significant uprisings; nor is it clear why Tunisia should have seen the first major revolt when it's substantially wealthier and exposed to food-price changes (according to the GM graph) than say Syria, which has barely seen a peep. Conversely according to another chart published by the WSJ, Moroccans are even more exposed to food price rises, yet it's been quiet so far too. (That could change given plans for demonstrations in a few days, though I very much doubt it will see an Egyptian-scale uprising).    

Obviously a lot of factors are playing into this, but I think the nail in the coffin for the econo-determinists is the eruption of major unrest in Bahrain and Libya. Libya is by far the wealthiest North African country on a per capita basis. While the GM graph shows it has having a fairly high vulnerability to food price changes (though still lower than say Syria), presumably because it's heavily import-dependent, that still leaves a lot of money in absolute terms to spend on other things given its high per capita GDP. Meanwhile Bahrain is one of the wealthiest countries in the region (and in the non-Western world), as well as (according the GS chart) one of the three regional countries least exposed to food price changes (accounting for less than 20% of expenditure, vs more than 40% in Egypt). Now clearly in spite of overall wealth, there are problems such as uneven distribution of wealth in these countries and other socioeconomic problems such as high unemployment (especially in Libya), but let's be clear that there are also much quieter countries in the region with much more severe overall socioeconomic problems. The King of Bahrain has just announced that he's making a donation to all Bahraini families of an amount greater than the GDP per capita of some other countries in the region. It makes little sense if food prices and the like are the driver of unrest for it to break out in Bahrain while Mauritania and Morocco both stay fairly quiet.

To me, what these protests are about is first and foremost politics, not economics. In particular, what they're about is regime legitimacy, something Presidents-for-life like Ben Ali and Mubarak - and Qadhafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, which has seen significant protests - are particularly lacking in, as are minority-dominated regimes such as Bahrain.

At the same time, I think several other factors affect whether people are willing to come out to protest en masse.

One is  extreme domestic ethno-sectarian or political divisions, which for example make seriously divided countries like Iraq and Lebanon unlikely candidates for national-level uprisings.

Another is fear of renewed violence and instability making people just want to get on with their lives and keep their heads down - lowering the chances of any mass uprising in Iraq and Lebanon again, as well as in an Algeria still traumatised by civil war (as the Moor Next Door has noted, Algeria had a popular uprising in 1988, which set off a chain of events that ended in catastrophe). This also might be a factor in the two countries most affected by the fallout of Iraq (in terms of refugee inflows, Syria - mitigating factors such as its rule by a minority sect - and Jordan.

Given these factors, I think Issandr El Amrani nails it when he says that
the most important protests now taking place in North Africa are those in Libya. [...] Libya shares something important with Egypt and Tunisia: an aging leader (41 years in power) faces a looming succession crisis in which the leading candidates are his own sons. I simply don't think that's an acceptable outcome for any republic in the 21st century, and was a key aspect to the revolt against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia (with the rumored heir apparent being his nephew).
 Qadhafi doesn't have a lot going for him based on these factors. He's the longest-serving ruler in the region (and is a complete clown to boot, something I think is more important than people might think given that it can undermine nationalist legitimacy; I reckon Ahmadinejad's embarrassing outbursts did a lot to help inspire the degree of antipathy shown towards him by many Iranians when he won a second term in 2009, and that increasing publicity surrounding Ben Ali's family's corruption helped undermine him too). He rules over a country that is ethnically and religiously relatively homogenous (though there are important tribal and regional divisions) and that has no recent history of major instability or violence. All he has going for him is oil wealth - which didn't help the Shah of Iran for example - and a particularly repressive and brutal security apparatus. This didn't much help Ben Ali (Tunisia was more open and less violently repressive than Libya, but it was still a very repressive and closed regime) and can backfire by galvanising protests instead of successfully repressing them.

Iranian repression vs Egypt and Tunisia

Recently a lot of pundits have been making the point that renewed protests in Iran are unlikely to bring the government down, something with which I agree. However one reason a lot of them have been giving is that the Iranians are more willing to ruthlessly use force to stay in power, as demonstrated by the events of summer 2009.

The Iranian regime has an atrocious human rights record, let there be no doubt about that. It's a record that is in many ways worse than a lot of the pro-Western regimes in the region. But the events of 2009 do not at all point to it being more willing to kill vasts amount of people to stay in power. Stephen Walt also challenges the WSJ on this topic, but by saying that the Mubarak regime didn't brutally repress protestors "this time round" I think he misses a key point.

According to Green movement leaders themselves, 72 people died in the post-election protests in Iran (the Iranian government said around 36). That compares to at least 360 in Egypt and over 200 in Tunisia. The contrast to Tunisia is particularly strong, given that the Iranian population is around seven or eight times larger, and given also that, based on reports of the protests, vastly more people in Iran took to the streets than in Egypt or Tunisia (there were reports that one march in Tehran was three million strong alone; the Tunisian marches were tens of thousands strong and the highest estimate I heard for a Cairo demonstration was two million).

That makes the per capita death toll of demonstrators vastly higher in Egypt and Tunisia than in Iran. Based on these figures, Western-backed regimes' security forces seem to have shown far greater willingness to kill than the Basij did in 2009. Indeed one of the lessons the regime likely drew from the fall of the Shah in 1979 was that massacring people is a great way to stiffen their determination to overthrow them, something Mubarak and Ben Ali  and their police forces (though possibly not their armies) seem to have missed.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Some interesting Egypt statistics

One of the questions asked by Pew Global Attitudes Project in their 2009 survey was "how satisfied are you with your life overall?" (As far as I can tell they didn't ask the same question in their 2010 survey).

Of the 25 nationalities surveyed, Egyptians were by some way the least satisfied with their lives. 60% of Egyptians surveyed, more than any other nationality, said they were dissatisfied with their lives. Of these, 34% said they were very dissatisfied with their lives, again higher than in any other country. Bear in mind the survey included countries such as India, Kenya and Nigeria, which are substantially poorer than Egypt. Such high levels of dissatisfaction perhaps help explain the degree of anger shown by anti-Mubarak demonstrators in recent days. (Unfortunately, Tunisia wasn't included in the survey).

Perhaps ominously, Jordan was the next most unhappy country (56% dissatisfied, including 30% very dissatisfied).  Perhaps surprisingly, the other two Arab countries surveyed, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, were much happier (as were Israel and Turkey, the other two Middle Eastern countries surveyed).

Egyptians were also the least satisfied with their household income (again Jordan was the second least satisfied country), with their jobs (Jordan the third least satisfied this time), and with their personal economic situation (Jordan did a bit better here, coming in as fourth most dissatisfied, with Lebanon just behind Egypt as second most dissatisfied). Indians were most satisfied with their personal economic situation, suggesting that absolute income levels have little to do with levels of satisfaction (especially as the poll includes numerous developed western countries). I should be clear that I'm cherry-picking to an extent here - the survey asked tons of questions, and Egyptians weren't the most negative in anything like all of them - but they were in most of the questions about personal circumstances.

One final point worth making is that Egyptians were amongst the less likely to say that they were sometimes unable to afford food - only 16% said that had been the case during the previous year, less than (shockingly) the US, where the figure was 23%. (However, Egyptians were up there with some of the worse countries in terms of being unable to afford health care). This seems to suggest that pure economic and food inflation-based explanations of the Egyptian uprising  are off the mark; Egyptians are clearly unhappy for a number of reasons, but being amongst the poorest or hungriest people in the world isn't one of them. I wonder if things like comparing their own situation to that in Gulf Arab countries for example, or even just watching a lot  foreign TV, plays a role. At any rate, that inability to buy food doesn't seem be a comparatively big problem in Egypt seems to suggest that the explanation for the unrest is at least is more about political frustrations (frustration with a leader who just won't go away, hatred of the police and so on) than socioeconomic ones,  a view I lean towards already.

The full report is here: CONFIDENCE IN OBAMA LIFTS U.S. IMAGE AROUND THE WORLD - 25-Nation Pew Global Attitudes Survey.