I recently met a former Czech official who compared the revolutions of Eastern European in 1989 to Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Upon asking him if Egypt had any lessons to learn from the Velvet Revolution, he responded that his country had it easier in some respects. With the failure of the communist economic model, the Czechs knew what type of economic and political system to adopt. Geographical proximity to Western Europe also played a major role in their transition, as the Czechs were able get economic assistance and attract foreign investment.
But such comparisons are unfair, he added, because in the early 1990s the global economic climate was different. Europe and the US had more money to spend, which enabled them to support the former Soviet countries. By contrast, the financial crises today in some European countries make it difficult for Europe to provide the same levels of foreign assistance. The US also suffers serious economic problems. More worrying than the recent crisis over the debt ceiling, is the US’ declining economic growth, the growing rates of unemployment and the downgrading of the US credit rating.
Instead of giving momentum to the world economy, there’s now a danger Europe and the US will become a burden upon it. All these factors may lead to another global recession similar to that of 2008. This can spell trouble for the Egyptian economy, especially tourism, exports and revenues from the Suez Canal.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire world wants to see Egypt succeed,” the former official went on. “Because what happens in Egypt will impact the rest of the region.”
He then proceeded to recount how, even though Western Europe was ready to help former Czechoslovakia, they tried as much as possible not to get assistance in the form of cash.
“Instead, we focused on trade and investments to spur economic growth and create more jobs, without being economically or politically subservient to any country.” he said. “We began a long journey of economic and institutional reform that went hand in hand with political reform.
These comments raise an important question for Egypt. What comes first, democracy or economic prosperity? Most rich countries are democratic, but some of them were not always so. South Korea, for example, focused on building a strong economy and an effective education system before beginning its democratic transition in 1987. That doesn’t mean Egypt should focus on economic reform at the expense of political reform. But it’s worrisome to see a lack of serious discussion about how to build the economy, even though the road ahead, given the current global economic climate, will be very challenging.
Democracy improves a country’s chances for economic growth, especially when transparency and the rule of law prevail. However, if the process of political transformation fails to meet popular aspirations for a better living standard, this can undermine any political gains.
The revolution erupted because Egyptians wanted to live in a democratic country with social justice and a decent standard of living. We can only achieve dignity when we provide food for our families and a better future for our children. Behind any revolution there are economic grievances that need to be addressed. Any successful political transition cannot continue unless fortified with a simultaneous economic transformation. People need to feel change in their daily lives.
Translated from the Arabic Edition