Whenever things are going wrong in Egypt, local political actors and conservative media pundits will blame it on “the invisible hands” of foreign agents–usually the US and Israel’s Zionist agenda, but sometimes Iran, and sometimes Saudi Arabia or Qatar, and every once in awhile a coalition of all of them (seriously–someone on state media offered that to account for the protests in 2011).
But they are not alone, of course. Political scientists are always trying to figure out how exactly events in a country are influenced by the foreign policy of global and regional neighbors.
What happens when “prodemocracy” countries and “antidemocracy” countries duke it out in someplace like, oh…Egypt?
That’s the topic of a special issue of the journal Democracy entitled “Democracy Promotion and the Challenges of Illiberal Regional Powers,” edited by Nelli Babayan and Thomas Risse. The basic argument is that in addition to those countries promoting democracy–liberal powers–there are countervailing “illiberal powers” who want to see that democracy never takes root.
So in this corner, we have the United States and the European Union, championing democracy, and in the other corners we have players like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China, who are portrayed as working actively to undermine democracy.
In 2012 I traveled to Oxford University to participate in an interdisciplinary conference on the Egyptian revolution. “The Egyptian Revolution, One Year On: Causes, Characteristics and Fortunes” was a fascinating experience, as I joined scholars from many different disciplines struggling, as I was, for a theoretical language that would effectively describe and explain the revolution.
The conference turned into a book project, and the book “Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles,” edited by Reem Abou El-Fadl was released today by Routledge.
My own chapter, “Re-Envisioning Tahrir: The Changing Meanings of Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution,” is about the ways different political actors have laid claim to Tahrir Square, how they interpreted and articulated its meanings, and how they discursively positioned it within their own visions of the continuing Egyptian revolution.
Whatever one wants to say about Hosni Mubarak, one has to acknowledge that he was a savvy politician (whether you list this on the positive or negative side of the ledger depends on how you feel about politicians).
In a recent article in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs William Youmans argues that one of Mubarak’s successes was resisting the “Freedom Agenda”–the multifaceted push by the George W. Bush to push the Middle East toward greater democracy.
In 2005, the administration intensified efforts pressuring Egypt, a client state, to democratize. However, the US continued pursuing security cooperation with and providing military aid to Egypt.
Youmans claims that President Hosni Mubarak kept US reform efforts at bay by exploiting the inherent inconsistencies between the Bush administration’s democratization program, and its push for security in the war on terror.
The former is a citizen, the latter a…denizen?
One of the best lessons in citizenship I ever got came from sitting in on a lecture by Dr. John T. Swanson, Egyptologist, classicist and associate provost at American University in Cairo.
John described the way that Greek citizen soldiers–hoplites–fought during the Archaic and Classical periods (ca. 750–350 BC) in a formation called the phalanx. The hoplites would line up in ranks in close order and lock their shields together, while the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields. The hoplites thus presented to the enemy a shield wall with a mass of spear points projecting from it, which made frontal assaults against the phalynx difficult.
John pointed out that the structure of the hoplite shields was such that they partially covered the soldier holding them, but also the weapon-holding arm of the next soldier in the formation. Safety required close cooperation and the complete assurance that no man in the phalynx would cut and run.
Citizenship thus required intense loyalty to one another. Your ability to rely on your fellow citizens was thus a matter of life and death.
Citizenship was, of course, gendered. Only adult men could be citizens and enjoy the rights–and fulfill the responsibilities–that came with citizenship.
What about failure?
When I was writing my article on entrepreneurship in Egypt (Peterson 2010), which I heavily cannibalized for Chapter Six of Connected in Cairo, one of the things in which I was particularly interested in was failure.
One of my key points was that when US companies fail at home, that’s just business. But when they fail while doing business in Egypt or comment on the failures of Egyptian entrepreneurs–and I suspect this holds in many countries–they blame it on the local “culture.” Egyptian business failure is blamed on a supposed poor work ethic, on institutions like wasta, and on a presumed “lack of entrepreneurial imagination.”
When I sought to contextualize the discourse of these businessmen with some general statistical data, I was shocked to find almost nothing on business failures.
Obviously all businesses dies sometime, and every entrepreneurial adventure is by definition a risk, yet there was not only no theoretical literature on entreprenuerial failure, there were no statistics. And none on business failures generally.
Well now there is (thanks in part to another anthropologist). It turns out the average publicly traded company in the US lasts only ten years.
The Life Span of Companies
Even more interesting, the interdisciplinary team of two physicists, an anthropologist and an economist at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico discovered that companies die off at roughly the same rate regardless of size, what kinds of products or services they produce, how long they have been in business, or how well-established they are.
This finding runs counter to the few theories that exist in business literature, which either assume that newer, less established companies are more vulnerable, or that more established, less flexible companies are more vulnerable.
Causes of death include: