Francis Fukuyama: Political Order in Egypt

Roundup: Historians' Take

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of The American Interest and author of the newly published The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) from which parts of this article are drawn.

While academic political science has not had much to tell policymakers of late, there is one book that stands out as being singularly relevant to the events currently unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries: Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies, first published over forty years ago. Huntington was one of the last social scientists to try to understand the linkages between political, economic and social change in a comprehensive way, and the weakness of subsequent efforts to maintain this kind of large perspective is one reason we have such difficulties, intellectually and in policy terms, in keeping up with our contemporary world.

Huntington, observing the high levels of political instability plaguing countries in the developing world during the 1950s and 1960s, noted that increasing levels of economic and social development often led to coups, revolutions and military takeovers rather than a smooth transition to modern liberal democracy. The reason, he pointed out, was the gap that appeared between the hopes and expectations of newly mobilized, educated and economically empowered people on the one hand, and the existing political system, which did not offer them an institutionalized mechanism for political participation, on the other. He might have added that such poorly institutionalized regimes are also often subject to crony capitalism, which fails to provide jobs and incomes to the newly educated middle class. Attacks against the existing political order, he noted, are seldom driven by the poorest of the poor; they instead tend to be led by rising middle classes who are frustrated by the lack of political and economic opportunity—a phenomenon noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his masterful analysis of the origins of the French Revolution and raised again in the early 1960s by James Davies’s well known “J-curve” theory of revolution.

Something like this Huntingtonian process has unfolded in recent months in both Tunisia and Egypt. In both cases, anti-government protests were led not by the urban poor or by an Islamist underground, but by relatively well-educated middle-class young people used to communicating with each other via Facebook and Twitter. It is no accident that Wael Ghonim, Google’s regional head of marketing, emerged as a symbol and leader of the new Egypt. The protesters’ grievances centered around the fact that the authoritarian regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak offered them no meaningful pathway to political participation, as well as failing to provide jobs befitting their social status. The protests were then joined by other groups in both societies—trade unionists, Islamists, peasants and virtually everyone else unhappy with the old regimes—but the driving force remained the more modern segments of Tunisian and Egyptian society...

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