Coups Slow Economic Growth

In the week or so since Egypt’s military removed President Morsi from office, political scientists have shown how military coups—and yes, that was a coup in Egypt—and the reactions to them can have enduring political consequences. For the Monkey Cage, Clayton Thyne showed how international responses to coups have historically affected the speed with which elected civilian government is restored. For Political Violence at a Glance, Brent Sasley responded to dueling pieces by Shadi Hamid and Barbara Slavin to consider how the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood might affect the strategies of other Islamist parties and groups in the region.

To that roster of possible political repercussions, let me add an economic one: coups often hamper growth.

That’s one of the findings from a statistical analysis I did a couple of years ago for a private-sector client who was concerned about how various forms of political instability might affect investments in poorer countries. I had already generated probabilistic forecasts of coups for the coming year, but those forecasts couldn’t tell us how much he should worry about coup risk. To help answer that, we needed to look at the effects coups might have on economic processes that more directly influence the value of his investments, including growth in gross domestic product (GDP).

This isn’t a simple thing to do. It’s tempting to take historical data on as many countries as possible and compare growth rates in and after coup years with growth rates in coup-free periods, but the results would probably be misleading. The problem is that coups are much more likely to occur in a subset of cases that don’t look like the hypothetical “average” country, so the differences we’d see in a simple comparison could just as well stem from the things that cause coups in the first place as they could from the coups themselves.

To try to get a sharper sense of how coups affect economic growth in the face of these potentially confounding factors, I used a technique called coarsened exact matching (CEM) to sift and prune the data first. As with other matching techniques, the process starts by identifying the “treatment” whose effects we want to estimate—in this case, the occurrence of a coup. In contrast to laboratory experiments, we can’t randomly assign countries to treatment and control groups that do and don’t experience coups. Instead, we have to use what we know about the things that cause coups to approximate that experimental design by sifting countries into sets that faced similar risks of coups but didn’t all have them. By carefully comparing growth rates across coup and non-coup cases within these clusters of similarly coup-prone countries, we can get a more reliable estimate of the specific effects of the coup “shocks” on economic performance than we’d get from a simple comparison of all available cases.

The results of my analysis are shown in the series of charts that follow (with technical details at the end of the post). The charts summarize the distribution of estimates of the difference in economic growth rates between coup and non-coup cases. Of particular interest here are the estimated first differences, shown in purple in the middle of each set of plots. The peaks of those distributions identify the mean difference, while their spread tells us about the variance of those estimates.

As the first set of charts shows, in the year a coup occurs, the economies of coup-struck countries grow about 2 percentage points slower on average than the economies of similar countries that don’t suffer coups. The second set of charts shows that this drag seems to persist into the following year, when growth rates for coup-struck countries lag 1 to 2 percentage points behind their coupless peers. According to the third set of charts, this difference finally disappears in the second year after a coup, but by then the accumulated difference between the growth that was and the growth that might have been is already substantial. (They aren’t shown here, but results for the couple of years after that continue to show no more differences.)

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Year of Coup

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Year of Coup

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Next Year

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Next Year

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth Two Years Later

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth Two Years Later

Of course, it’s impossible to say exactly how the coup in Egypt will affect that country’s economy, which had already stagnated badly before the army led the president away under armed guard. Reports that Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. are rushing to lend money to the post-coup government, and the rally that occurred in the Egyptian stock market immediately after Morsi was toppled, might be grounds for optimism that Egypt will avoid or at least mitigate the typical damage. Still, I think this analysis should temper any such optimism by reminding us—as if we should need it!—that coups aren’t surgical strikes which neatly cure political cancers without producing myriad consequences of their own.

Now, for the technically inclined: This analysis was done in R using the MatchIt, Coarsened Exact Matching (cem), and Zelig packages. I used the Center for Systemic Peace’s list to identify when and where coups had occurred and Angus Maddison’s estimates to measure GDP growth. Coarsened exact matching was based on GDP per capita (log), Polity score (quadratic), post-Cold War period (binary), and any coup attempts in the previous five years (binary). Post-matching estimates of the effects of coups on growth were derived from a linear regression model that included all of those covariates as well as previous year’s GDP growth rate. I’m traveling at the moment and haven’t had time to post the data and R script for replication but will do so soon.

UPDATE: The R script I used for this analysis is now on Github, here. The data used in that script is on my Google Drive, here. If you find any errors of have any suggestions on how to do this better, please let me know.

Yes, That’s a Coup in Egypt

Apparently, some of the protesters who support what the Egyptian army is doing right now claim it isn’t a coup because they believe it expresses the popular will, and the U.S. and the E.U. so far refuse to stick a label on it.

Well, I hate to break it to those people, but in any conventional sense of the term, this is a coup. Here are a few of the definitions used by leading scholars of coups and civil-military relations. First, Monty Marshall, who compiles a data set on coups and coup attempts for the Political Instability Task Force (scroll down to the Polity IV section here):

A coup d’état is defined as a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime (although not necessarily in the nature of regime authority or mode of governance).

Now Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne from the coding rules for their Coup d’état Dataset:

[Coups d’etat are defined as] overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means…there is no minimal death threshold for defining a coup. A coup attempt is defined as successful if the coup perpetrators seize and hold power for at least seven days.

Last but not least, Samuel Huntington from his 1968 classic, Political Order in Changing Societies:

The distinguishing characteristics of the coup coup d’état as a political technique are that: (a) it is the effort by a political coalition illegally to replace the existing governmental leaders by violence or the threat of violence; (b) the violence employed is usually small; (c) the number of people involved is small; (d) the participants already possess institutional bases of power within the political system.

Force deployed? Check. By political insiders? Check. Chief executive replaced? Check. Legal procedures not followed? Check.

That the army’s apparent ouster of President Morsi may be popular doesn’t make it legal or erase the fact that he only “agreed” to go when coerced. That military leaders may not claim executive authority for themselves does not obviate the fact that they are pushing out a sitting president at gunpoint. That the coup could push Egypt onto a more positive trajectory doesn’t change the nature of the initial act.

On that last point, I’ll emphasize the word “could.” It’s impossible to say with confidence what comes next for Egypt. I’ve seen a number of people list infamous coups from the past (Algeria, Argentina, Chile, Iran…) as evidence that military intervention always makes things worse, but I’ve also seen a recent study by Nikolay Marinov and Hein Geomans showing that coups in the post-Cold War period have been less damaging to democratization:

Whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed durable rules, the majority of coups after that have been followed by competitive elections… While the coup d’état has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the downfall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors.

Again, I don’t know what comes next in Egypt, but I think the folks using historical analogies to argue that a coup can only make things worse there are ignoring an important source of bias in their analysis. Maybe coups are bad for the health of the polity, but there’s a selection effect at work here, too. Coups happen in situations that are already crappy, and the set of plausible counterfactuals in these crappy situations rarely includes a sharp turn for the better. A coup in Egypt might delay democratization and further damage the already-reeling economy, but it’s hard to imagine an alternative path from June 30 that is both politically realistic and looks a whole lot better. This is the common tragedy of transitional politics, and Egypt appears to be no exception.

More Shots Fired in Egypt’s Transitional “Truel”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets on June 30 to press for the resignation of President Morsi and his government, and the impending confrontation between these protesters, the government’s supporters, and state security forces has lots of people on edge. Here’s how Tarek Radwan set the scene in a recent post on Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel blog:

What began as a humble attempt to translate countrywide discontent with the way President Mohamed Morsi has governed Egypt, the Tamarod — or “Rebel” campaign — has mobilized millions of Egyptians for a protest that promises to be epic on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Although opposition forces initially kept the signature drive that demands Morsi’s removal from office and early elections at arms length, nearly all of the relevant players in Egypt’s transitional drama now recognize the campaign’s significance and potential to affect change. Movement within the political opposition, including coordination meetings with the campaign and youth groups for a post-Morsi transition plan, suggests a fundamental belief that the June 30 protests could realize Tamarod’s goal of replacing the president.

Islamists who support Morsi’s government, primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, responded with a counter-signature drive of their own called Tagarrod — or “Impartiality” — to reiterate their faith (no pun intended) in the political system and the elections that brought him to power. Supportive Islamist groups have also called for a June 21 protest against violence. However, the counter-campaign’s attempt to balance the scales only seems to accentuate the country’s deeply divided polity.

Meanwhile, the army has responded ominously to the planned mass protests, issuing a public warning that it will “not allow an attack on the will of the people” and a calling instead for dialogue and (ha!) consensus.

tamarod.campaign.in.action

In a recent column for Egypt’s online Daily News, activist and one-time candidate for parliament Mahmoud Salem sketched three scenarios for how this latest confrontation ends: 1) a clear victory for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), 2) a clear victory for the Tamarod campaign, or 3) a military coup. The forms the latter two outcomes would take are clearest: the government resigns and fresh elections are held, or the military tosses out the government and installs itself or a government of its choosing in power. It’s less clear to me what an “outright victory” for the MB would look like, but Salem seems to have in mind a violent routing of the organized opposition with the cooperation or at least complicity of the military. Salem sees the third scenario (military intervention) as the most likely one but acknowledges that the situation is highly uncertain.

For reasons that are probably narcissistic but I’d like to think are intellectual, I’m struck by how closely Salem’s scenarios and outcomes match up with the game-theoretic model I use to analyze the politics of democratic consolidation and breakdown. This model portrays politics in newer democracies as a kind of “truel“—a lousy neologism for a three-way version of a duel—involving two rival political factions and the military. In principle, any of those three groups can usurp power at at any time. Election winners can rig the game to ensure that they keep winning; election losers can overthrow the government by revolutionary means; and the military can carry out a coup.

In the metaphor of a truel, attempts to usurp or defend power are like shots fired at different rivals. As in a real gunfight, those shots don’t always hit or kill, and rivals can also choose not to fire. In many new democracies and other “transitional” cases, it’s easy to imagine one or two or even all three of these actors attempting to hoard or usurp power (i.e., take a shot) at almost any time, and it’s also easy to imagine most of those attempts failing.

Democracy is effectively consolidated when all of those actors routinely abide by and uphold democratic procedures, especially but not limited to fair elections and freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The risk of these usurpations of power never gets to zero, but in some long-standing democracies it’s awfully close to it. That’s the truel equivalent of everyone agreeing to put their guns away and resolve their disputes in other ways. In the real world, military coups have become less common than they were during the Cold War, and revolutions rarely succeed in overthrowing elected governments. Consolidations of incumbent advantage aren’t hard to find, though, and attempts at all three forms of usurpation are still common in the “life courses” of newer democracies.

So what can the truel metaphor tell us about Egypt? First, it’s evident that Salem’s three scenarios exclude an important fourth scenario in which everyone either misses or holds his fire. If the June 30 protests don’t force out the Morsi government, inspire a military coup, or lure MB supporters into widespread counterrevolutionary violence, this latest round could come and go without producing dramatic changes in the political landscape. Based on the outcome of the last couple of confrontational moments in Egyptian politics and the fractiousness of the Tamarod coalition, I’d say this is probably the most likely outcome.

The truel metaphor also raises some questions about the wisdom of the opposition’s decision to press revolutionary demands through mass unrest. This is the political equivalent of shooting at the incumbent, but game theorists will tell you that the optimal strategy for the weakest player in a truel is often to hold fire or to miss on purpose. That’s because the dominant strategy for the two strongest players is usually going to be to try to eliminate the other, so the weakest player can often do well by letting that confrontation play out, leaving him in a showdown with the lone survivor, possibly even with the advantage of getting to shoot first at a now-damaged rival.

In Egypt right now, I’d say the MB and the military are clearly the two strongest players, while the groups behind the Tamarod campaign are still the weakest. If that’s right, then the maximalist strategy Salem and his cohort are pursuing is probably quixotic. As Salem acknowledges, this attempt to oust the MB is unlikely to succeed, but the act of trying is probably increasing the risks of both a military coup and a deeper consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power by strengthening those groups’ fear of a revolution, and thus their incentives to preempt or respond to that threat with a crackdown or coup of their own.

Of course, that might be exactly what some of the participants in the Tamarod campaign are hoping for. Some of the MB’s rivals have openly called for a military coup against the Morsi government as their best hope for a “reset” of Egypt’s transition, and the occurrence of sustained mass unrest is, at this point, probably the only thing capable of making that happen. By attempting another revolution—or a counter-counterrevolution, depending on whom you ask—these factions are probably looking to draw the Brotherhood’s supporters into a fight that would, in turn, lure the military into a coup. What looks a little crazy on the surface may turn out to be crazy like a fox.

Last but not least, careful consideration of the current moment in Egyptian politics shows how the truel metaphor elides the possibility of bargaining among the players. After writing a draft of this post yesterday, I discussed it with Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. As Michael pointed out to me, there’s really a fifth scenario here, too, in which the military uses the credible threat of a coup to compel the MB government into a political deal designed to halt the spiral of polarization that keeps producing these showdowns. The military seems like it really doesn’t want to be responsible for governing Egypt right now, but it probably wants even less to see the country descend into a period of sustained mass violence. One way to try to achieve both of those goals would be to give the government an ultimatum: accept a compromise with the opposition or get shot at from two sides at once. If I had to lay odds, I’d say this is probably the second-most-likely outcome, after the “everyone misses or holds his fire” scenario described earlier.

So that’s what my analytical self makes of this remarkable moment. All the while, my emotional self continues to marvel at the courage and tenacity of the many people who keep struggling to make the most of this historic opportunity to democratize Egypt, and to sympathize with the fatigue and frustration this seemingly endless transition and its accompanying economic woes must be producing. Honestly, I have no idea what that’s like, and it’s infinitely easier to comment from afar.

Coup Forecasts for 2013

Last January, I posted statistical estimates of coup risk for 2012 that drew some wider interest after they correctly identified Mali as a high-risk case. Now that the year’s almost over, I thought it would be a good time to assess more formally how those 2012 forecasts performed and then update them for 2013.

So, first things first: how did the 2012 forecasts fare on the whole? Pretty well, actually.

For purposes of these forecasts, a coup is defined as “as a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime.” That language comes from Monty Marshall’s Center for Systemic Peace, whose data set on coup events serves as the basis for one of the two models used to generate the 2012 forecasts. Those forecasts were meant to assess the risk of any coup attempts at some point during the calendar year, whether those attempts succeed or fail. They were not meant to anticipate civil wars, non-violent uprisings, voluntary transfers of executive authority, autogolpes, or interventions by foreign forces, all of which are better thought of (and modeled) as different forms of political crisis.

Okay, so by that definition, I see two countries where coup attempts occurred in 2012: Mali (in March) and Guinea-Bissau (in April). As it happens, both of those countries ranked in the top 10 in January’s forecasts—Guinea-Bissau at no. 2 and Mali at no. 10—so the models seem to be homing in on the right things. We can get a more rigorous take on the forecasts’ accuracy with a couple of statistics commonly used to assess models that try to predict binary outcomes like these (either a coup attempt happens or it doesn’t):

  • AUC Score. The estimated area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curve, used as a measure of the ability of a binary classification model to discriminate between positive and negative cases. Specifically, AUC represents the probability that a randomly selected positive case (here, a country-year with coup activity) will have a higher predicted probability than a randomly selected negative case (e.g., country-year with no coup activity). Ranges from 0.5 to 1, with higher values indicating better discrimination.
  • Brier Score. A general measure of forecast performance, defined as the average squared difference between the predicted and observed values. Ranges from 0 to 1, with lower values indicating more accurate predictions.

Assuming that Mali and Guinea-Bissau were the only countries to see coup activity this year, my 2012 coup forecasts get an AUC score of 0.97 and a Brier score of 0.01. Those are really good numbers. Based on my experience trying to forecast other rare political events around the world, I’m pretty happy with any AUC above the low 0.80s and any Brier score that’s better than an across-the-board base-rate forecast. The 2012 coup forecasts surpass both of those benchmarks.

Of course, with just two events in more than 150 countries, these statistics could be very sensitive to changes in the list of coup attempts. Two possible modifications come from Sudan, where authorities claim to have thwarted coup plots in November and December, and Paraguay, where right-wing legislators pushed leftist President Lugo out of office in June. I didn’t count Sudan because country experts tell me those events were probably just a political ploy President Bashir is using to keep his rivals off balance and not actual coup attempts. I didn’t count Paraguay because President Lugo’s rivals used legal procedures, not force, to oust him in a rushed impeachment. I’m pretty confident that neither of those cases counts as a coup attempt as defined here, but for the sake of argument, it’s worth seeing how the addition of those cases would affect the accuracy assessments.

  • Sudan ranked 11th in the 2012 forecasts, just behind Mali, so the addition of an event there leaves the accuracy stats essentially unchanged at 0.96 and 0.02, respectively.
  • Paraguay would definitely count as a surprise. It ranked in the 80s in the 2012 forecasts, and counting its June events as a coup would drop the AUC to 0.80 and the Brier score to 0.02.
  • If we count both cases as yeses, we get an AUC of 0.84 and a Brier score of 0.02.

All of those are still pretty respectable numbers for true forecasts of rare political events, even if they’re not quite as good as the initial ones. Whatever the exact ground truth, these statistics give me some confidence that the two-model average I’m using here makes a useful forecasting tool.

So, without further ado, what about 2013? The chart below plots estimated coup risk for the coming year for the 30 countries at greatest risk using essentially the same models I used for 2012. (One of the two models differs slightly from last year’s; I cut out a couple of variables that had little effect on the estimates and are especially hard to update.) I picked the top 30 because it’s roughly equivalent to the top quintile, and my experience working with models like these tells me that the top quintile makes a pretty good break point for distinguishing between countries at high and low risk. If a country doesn’t appear in this chart, that means my models think it’s highly unlikely to suffer a coup attempt in the coming year.

2013 Coup Risk Estimates

2013 Coup Risk Estimates

The broad strokes are very similar to 2012, but I’m also seeing a few changes worth noting.

  • Consistent with 2012, countries from sub-Saharan Africa continue to dominate the high-risk group. Nine of the top 10 and 22 of the top 30 countries come from that part of the world. One of those 22 is South Sudan, which didn’t get a forecast in early 2012 because I didn’t have the requisite data but now makes an ignominious debut at no. 20. Another is Sudan, which, as Armin Rosen discusses, certainly isn’t getting any more stable. Mali and Guinea-Bissau also both stay near the top of the list, thanks in part to the “coup trap” I discussed in another recent post. Meanwhile, I suspect the models are overestimating the risk of a new coup attempt in Niger, which seems to have landed on firmer footing after its “democratizing” coup in February 2010, but that recent history will leave Niger in the statistical high-risk group until at least 2015.
  • More surprising to me, Timor-Leste now lands in the top 10. That’s a change from 2012, but only because the data used to generate the 2012 forecasts did not count the assassination attempts of 2008 as a coup try. The latest version of CSP’s coup list does consider those events to be failed coup attempt. Layered on top of Timor-Leste’s high poverty and hybrid political authority patterns, that recent coup activity greatly increases the country’s estimated risk. If Timor-Leste makes it through 2013 without another coup attempt, though, its estimated risk should drop sharply next year.
  • In Latin America, Haiti and Ecuador both make it into the Top 20. As with Timor-Leste, the changes from 2012 are artifacts of adjustments to the historical data—adding a coup attempt in Ecuador in 2010 and counting Haiti as a partial democracy instead of a state under foreign occupation. Those artifacts mean the change from 2012 isn’t informative, but the presence of those two countries in the top 20 most certainly is.
  • Syria also pops into the high-risk group at no. 25. That’s not an artifact of data revisions; it’s a reflection of the effects of that country’s devastating state collapse and civil war on several of the risk factors for coups.
  • Finally, notable for its absence is Egypt, which ranks 48th on the 2013 list and has been a source of coup rumors throughout its seemingly interminable transitional period. It’s worth noting though, that if you consider SCAF’s ouster of Mubarak in 2011 to be a successful coup (CSP doesn’t), Egypt would make its way into the top 30.

As always, if you’re interested in the details of the modeling, please drop me a line at ulfelder@gmail.com and I’ll try to answer your questions as soon as I can.

Update: After a Washington Post blog mapped my Top 30, I produced a map of my own.

Egypt’s Constitution as a “Used Future”

Leaning on the musings of artist John Powers, I wrote a post a couple of days ago about states as political manifestations of what John called a “used future”—a world that shows its provenance. Drawing on John’s discussion of the used future George Lucas self-consciously constructed for Star Wars, I suggested that states are more like the Millennium Falcon in their guided but messy assembly of disparate elements than they are like the Death Star and the grandiose Modernist ideals it represented.

Egypt’s draft constitution nicely encapsulates this idea of states, and constitutions in particular, as used futures. Constitutions are schemata for the future practice of politics within states, and political scientists and policy-makers often lade the drafting of these schemes with heavy expectations. The rewriting of basic rules is seen as an opportunity to reboot whole societies—to end old conflicts, to prevent new ones from emerging, and to channel officials’ and citizens’ behavior in more fruitful directions. If we just get the rules right, the thinking goes, we can knock a previously troubled society onto a new and more desirable equilibrium path.

As Egypt is reminding us, though, real-world constitutions are not elegant constructs that have been meticulously designed to guide the development of a harmonious new society. More often, they are collages composed of disparate elements, each with its own historical provenance. A constitution is meant to embody a specific vision of the future, but that document can’t escape the pasts and presents of the people who actually draft it. Constitutional provisions aren’t produced by actuaries armed with formulae whose elements and solutions are objectively known. Instead, they are haggled over by human beings who arrive at the negotiating table with their own interests and prejudices and who fear what the uncertainties of the future they are crafting may bring for themselves and their families and friends.

Partly because they are written by committee, constitutions often contain inconsistencies and even contradictions. In a recent press release, Human Rights Watch identifies several of these in Egypt’s draft constitution. For example, on the question of free speech:

Article 45 protects freedom of expression without stating what legitimate limitations are permissible and how to balance this right against article 31, which states that, “The individual person may not be insulted,” and article 44 prohibiting “the insulting of prophets.” Articles 31 and 44 are not legitimate limitations on freedom of expression under human rights law, and they would appear to make difficult, if not impossible, any meaningful reform to existing penal code provisions that criminalize “insult” and defamation, provisions frequently used in the past to prosecute critics of the government.

And on the inviolability of citizens’ rights:

Article 81 states that no law may limit the essence of the rights and freedoms set out in the constitution but goes on to say that, “These rights and freedoms shall be exercised insofar as they do not contradict the principles set out in the Chapter on State and Society in this constitution.” The provisions in that chapter include article 10, which states that, “The state and society shall commit to preserving the true nature of the Egyptian family,” and article 11, which states that, “The state shall protect ethics and morals and public order.” The language in both these provisions is overly broad, open to interpretation, and available to justify wide-ranging limitations on key rights, Human Rights Watch said. It appears to place the “true nature of the family” and morals and public orders above fundamental rights.

Philosophically, I’m a liberal, so I believe HRW is right to suggest that Egypt would be better off if its constitution-writers resolved those inconsistencies now in a liberal direction. Still, as a purely analytical matter, it’s fascinating to see liberalism, Islamism, and other forms of traditionalism colliding so awkwardly in a single document. Different chunks of this text clearly signify distinct streams of Egyptian and world history. Instead of the Modernist ideal of an urban machine built from the ground up, we get the architecture of an old city in which buildings from many eras stand side by side.

Actually, Americans should be more familiar with this conundrum than we are. More than 200 years after our founding documents were written, we’re still arguing over what they mean, often phrase by phrase, sometimes even word by word. Curiously, in spite of this unending and intense debate, we’ve constructed a national myth in which the rules of American politics were delivered unto us like sacred texts by a cabal of farsighted and public-minded men. In the construction and repetition of that myth, we gloss over the diverse historical origins of those texts, the profound disagreements they elided, and the many messes they have since failed to prevent or even created.

Maybe Egyptians today can learn from our mistakes—not just in the wording of the constitution they adopt (or don’t) now, but also in acknowledging the inevitability of ambiguities in that document and recognizing that the future will keep delivering opportunities to haggle over them anew.

On the Consequences of Transition Politics for Democratization

In academic work on political development, the term regime transition refers to the period of time between the end of one political regime and the establishment of another. As Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter say on page 6 of their Little Green Book, “It is characteristic of the transition that during it the rules of the political game are not defined. Not only are they in constant flux, but they are usually arduously contested.” Think Tunisia from Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011 until the convocation of its elected Constituent Assembly in October of that year, or Egypt since Mubarak’s resignation (now 18 months and counting!).

So, we might wonder, does the way that transition unfolds affect the quality and duration of the democracy that ensues? Does it make a difference if, say, this period is characterized by negotiation and compromise instead of tumult and violence? If it’s carefully managed by the remnants of the old regime or driven by outsiders? If democracy is imposed by foreign forces instead of built from within?

According to an interesting paper upon which I recently stumbled—and, I gather, a forthcoming book based on the same research—authors Gary Stradiotto and Sujian Guo conclude the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”:

 The literature offers competing claims among scholars concerning the role the mode of transition plays in influencing post-transitional democracy. The authors reconcile these claims. First, they classify democratic transitions into four transitional modes, and hypothesize that cooperative transitions result in higher levels of democracy that last longer than other transition types. A method to quantitatively test the mode of transition (the independent variable) against democratic quality and longevity (the dependent variables) is developed. The results provide strong confirmation that states that transition through cooperative pacts are associated with higher levels of democracy and a lower risk of reversion compared to other transition types.

The question this paper is trying to answer is a really important one for participants in these transitions, who have to think strategically about how to try to push developments in a particular direction, and for policymakers and activists in other countries, who might wish to influence those trajectories as well.

As careful as the authors are in their analysis, though, and as plausible as their story is, I don’t think their research design succeeds in solving the vexing problems that make it so hard to answer this question with confidence. I’m thinking of two problems in particular.

The first is the problem of confounding factors. The conjecture that modes of transition might have lasting effects on the democracies they produce is rooted in the idea of path dependency, which is just a fancy way of referring to the persistent influence of events or conditions deeper in the past than the moment or period we’re studying. Using this language, the hypothesis Stradiotto and Guo are exploring could be restated as the idea that the survival and quality of democracy after a transition depends, in part, on the form of the politics that occur during the transition process itself.

That statement seems obviously true, and yet it’s devilishly hard to prove. The problem is that transitions don’t occur on blank slates, and the history that preceded the breakdown of the old regime might—really, must—also have some effect on both a) what form the transition takes and b) what happens afterwards. For example, numerous scholars of comparative democratization have argued that the structural features of an authoritarian regime affect the likelihood that the regime will break down, and if it breaks down, that democracy will follow (see here, here, and here). Others emphasize the effects of even deeper forces—things like Jared Diamond’s argument about the persistent influences of climate and geography on political and economic development, or Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson’s claim that institutions imposed at the time of initial colonization have powerfully shaped developmental trajectories right up to the present.

When confounding factors are present, it’s really hard to be sure that the patterns we see are causal and not just coincidental. An analogy might help here. The trajectory of a golf ball, for example, is highly path dependent. Changes in wind speed and direction after the ball is struck will have some effect on where it lands, but, under most conditions, the ball’s flight path is largely predetermined by the way it was struck. If we wanted to explain why balls land where they do, we could analyze the relationship between distinct flight paths–hooks, slices, worm-burners, and such–and landing spots, and we would find a strong association between the two. But, of course, it’s not really the flight path that caused that outcome. Instead, it’s the club selection and swing mechanics that caused that flight path to occur, and it’s the training and experience that caused those swing mechanics and club selection, and so on. If our analysis began the moment the ball left the ground, we would find strong patterns in our data, but we would misunderstand the causes of those patterns.

To look for independent effects of transition modes in the face of this problem, we can’t just pile measures of likely confounding factors into a statistical model and expect to have “controlled” for them. Instead, we have to think more like experimenters. One way to do this is to focus on variation within sets of cases that have similar values on potential confounding factors. Matching before modeling and conditional regression are two ways to do this. Mixed-effects models with cases clustered by likely confounders might work, too, although this could get quite messy if those confounding factors aren’t nested. I suspect the causal-inference pros could suggest many others, and in any case, my point is that, without some more careful structuring of the comparisons, we really can’t tell if variation in the mode of transition is causing variation in outcomes, or if that variation in modes is just symptomatic of deeper differences that would likely have doomed or blessed the ensuing democracy anyway.

The second big problem is selection bias. Stradiotto and Guo limit their study to cases where democracy happened and exclude ones where a transition led to something else. “Excluding cases that never reach a democratic threshold is not problematic,” they argue, “as we are only concerned with understanding how the mode of transition influences the resultant democracy.”

In my view, this isn’t quite right. To fully understand how modes relate to outcomes, we also have to consider transitions that failed to produce democracy. Freek Vermuelen nicely illustrates why in an old post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network called “Beware the Dangers of Selection Bias”:

Consider, for example, the popular notion that innovation projects require diverse, cross-functional teams. This notion exists because if we analyze some path-breaking innovation projects, we see they were often staffed by such teams. However, it has also been suggested (see for instance the work of Professor Jerker Denrell from Stanford Business School) that diverse, cross-functional teams also often created the biggest failures of all. However, such failures never resulted in any products… Therefore, if we (only) examine the projects which actually resulted in successful innovations, it seems the diverse cross-functional teams did much better. Yet, on average, the homogeneous teams—although not responsible for the few really big inventions—might have done better; always producing a reliable, good set of results.

What Stradiotto and Guo are analyzing is the outcome, conditional on the successful conclusion of the transition. If we’re interested in how the dynamics of the transition process shapes prospects for democratization, though, I think it’s pretty clear that we’ll also want to consider how those dynamics affect whether or not democracy even arises in the first place. Indeed, in an earlier stab at this problem, Gerardo Munck argues that modes of transition have strong effects on both of those stages:

All too often the literature on modes of transition has failed to distinguish between transitions from established regimes and transitions to new regimes and thus reduced the assessment of modes of transition to their impact on the consolidation of democracy. The mode of transition not only affects the consolidation of new regimes but also helps to determine whether the transition is to democracy or some other regime type.

In sum, confounding factors and selection effects make it very hard for us to identify the marginal effects of transition modes on prospects for democratization, and I don’t think Stradiotto and Guo succeed in overcoming these problems in their recent contribution to the literature on this timely question. Perhaps the authors have addressed these issues in their forthcoming book, which I look forward to reading. In the meantime, it’s frustrating that we don’t have much of an answer to this very important question, especially at a moment when so many countries are experiencing these kinds of transitions. Unfortunately, though, I think that’s still where we are.

What We Should Call What’s Happening in Egypt

Yesterday, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court re-scrambled that country’s already-messy politics by dissolving the country’s recently elected parliament and overturning a law that would have barred the old regime’s last prime minister from participating in the upcoming presidential runoff election. Although the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) didn’t actually issue those rulings, it appears to have endorsed them. “From a democratic perspective, this is the worst outcome imaginable,” Shadi Hamid told the New York Times. “This is an all-out power grab by the military.”

What should we call this turn of events? Judging from Twitter feed, no one’s really sure. Lots of observers are calling it a military coup, but others object, noting that the military never gave up power in the first place. That fact suggests that the court’s rulings might be described as a kind of self-coup, or autogolpe, but those tags are usually applied to situations where elected officials short-circuit the electoral machinery, and Egypt’s ruling junta was most certainly not elected. More generally, the struggle between SCAF and its political rivals has been cast as a still-unfolding process of revolution and counterrevolution, and yesterday’s rulings are being described by some as a decisive blow in favor of the latter.

The question of what to call the various twists and turns in Egyptian politics in the past year and a half isn’t purely semantic. The labels we choose should reflect our thinking about the nature of the process involved and the historical cases to which we might usefully compare it.

I don’t think we can figure out what to call yesterday’s events without first choosing a conceptual framework to characterize the larger change process in which those events are embedded. As a student of comparative politics, I’m going to make a case for anchoring the discussion in theories of authoritarian breakdown and democratization. The best of these theories a) distinguish between different phases of regime change and b) recognize that the outcome at each of those phases is not predestined.

Regarding phases, most theories of regime change now usefully distinguish between breakdown, transition, and consolidation. Breakdown refers the dismantling or collapse of existing patterns of political authority; consolidation refers to the reinforcement of, and habituation to, new patterns; and transition is just what we call the interval between the two, when the rules are in flux or undefined.

When the regime that breaks down at the start is authoritarian and the transition involves talk of competitive elections, we might say that democratization is occurring, but we don’t actually get to democracy until a freely and fairly elected government takes power. Once that happens, we can start talking about democratic consolidation. Sometimes, though, one form of authoritarian rule is simply supplanted by another, in which case we have breakdown, transition, and consolidation without democratization. When transitions drag on for too long, we get a collapsed state, but that’s a topic for another day.

With that lexicon in hand, I think it’s a little easier to figure out how to describe Egypt’s trajectory over the past 16 months. The story starts in January 2011 with a nonviolent popular uprising, or what Erica Chenoweth would call a campaign of civil resistance. In and of itself, that uprising did not constitute a regime change, but it did succeed in triggering the breakdown of the decades-old authoritarian regime characterized simultaneously by the formal dominance of the National Democratic Party, the political power of the military, and the personal power of Hosni Mubarak.

The breakdown of the Mubarak/NDP regime kicked off a period of transition, and in the Egyptian case, it’s fair to say that transition also involved democratization. Civil liberties were expanded (albeit fitfully), parliamentary and presidential elections were held, a new legislature was seated, and a constitutional assembly was even formed.

Crucially, though, the forces that seized power at the start of that transition have never actually relinquished it. When Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that state authority was passing to the then–newly formed SCAF, and that body has retained virtually all of that authority ever since.

The result has been a twin-streamed process entailing both democratic transition and authoritarian consolidation. As the democratic transition has unfolded, SCAF has simultaneously set about consolidating its own power, and those two processes have often been at odds. These competing streams were neatly reflected in the outcome of presidential election’s first round, which set up a showdown between Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister and former commander of the Egyptian Air Force, and Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the country’s most popular political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

While it’s too soon to say that Egypt’s democratic transition is dead, there’s no question that the dissolution of the recently elected parliament has badly wounded it. Instead of a coup, we have what wrestlers would call a hard takedown. The match between authoritarian consolidation and democratization isn’t over, but SCAF is ahead in points and has now democratization on its back.

If SCAF cancels or manipulates the second round of presidential elections and then sets about writing a new set of national political rules on its own, I think it would be fair to say that Egypt’s democratization process has been aborted, and that we have officially entered a new phase involving the open consolidation of military rule. If, however, SCAF allows the presidential election to proceed—and, more importantly, either calls fresh legislative elections or allows the recently convened constituent assembly to proceed with its work—then I think we could more accurately describe this week’s events as yet another bend in Egypt’s highly uncertain, still-ongoing, twin-streamed transition.

Constitution-Writing in Egypt

Simon Frasier University’s Tamir Moustafa has published a new paper (PDF) on constitution-writing in Egypt that is meant to draw attention to “the gulf between ‘best practices’ in constitutional design and the political realities of the Egyptian transition.” He writes:

As the fundamental document establishing a framework for governance, the new Egyptian constitution will have a lasting effect on Egyptian law, politics, and society for years to come. However, Egypt’s transition is shaping up to be a case study in how not to initiate a constitution-writing process. If Egypt is to emerge with a stable constitutional order that protects basic rights, it will be in spite of the mismanaged transition dictated by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

According to Moustafa, SCAF’s mismanagement results from its arrogance and selfishness. “Acting in a unilateral and opaque manner,” he writes, “SCAF has continually changed the rules of political transition to suit its own evolving interests.” The transition would be go much better if SCAF would take their cues from “experts in constitutional design,” who “emphasize the importance of an inclusive and transparent process for achieving buy-in from major political actors and a sense of ownership among the general public.”

An inclusive and transparent process may be the best way to go if the objective is to achieve stable democracy. But for whom is that really a goal? The expert prescription Moustafa endorses assumes the existence of powerful but disinterested overseer–a manager rather than a politician–or at least a political society dominated by a set of groups who see durable democracy as a desirable end in itself.

This prescription, and the critique of Egypt’s constitution-writing process that Moustafa bases on it, are emblematic of a technical modernist worldview that pervades applied academic work on democratization. According to this view, political institutions can and should be designed to solve social problems. During transitional moments, political leaders are expected to behave as if they were in Rawls’ original position, adopting a “veil of ignorance” about their current assets and future interests so they might construct a set of rules that will be fairest to all.

The prescriptions that emerge from this technocratic perspective can be both correct and unrealistic at the same time, like specifications for a hyper-efficient car that can only operate in the vacuum of space. More realistic about what’s happening in Egypt, I suspect, is Nathan Brown’s description of a process of gradual and uneven change driven by the self-interested behavior of powerful organizations. Where Moustafa chides SCAF for mismanaging the transition, Brown assumes the extrication of the security establishment from Egyptian politics will take decades because it is so powerful and deeply embedded.

The Egypt of the past half century has been one in which the security establishment exercised control over civilian life. There are now powerful forces at work that seek a reversal so that there will be civilian oversight of the security establishment. This may be a Herculean task but it is not completely a Sisyphean one. An attainable goal over the short term may be a relaxation of security vetting for sensitive state institutions…There will be no sudden change — the geriatric leadership of many Egyptian state institutions will neither step aside quickly nor allow the floodgates to open immediately — but the slow transformation of state institutions to be far more diverse is a likely result even if it occurs at a glacial pace.

In contrast to Moustafa’s admonition of SCAF to follow “best practices,” Brown’s simply assumes that security forces will continue to pursue their organizational interests. In fact, he expects other powerful corporate groups to do the same, mostly by using the current uncertainty to grab as much autonomy as they can, and he sees the resulting tugs of war as the defining feature of Egyptian politics for at least the next two decades.

The institutions brought long ago under presidential domination are now striving hard to wriggle free. Two of the major tools they seek to use to achieve independence are the ability to select their own leaders from their own ranks (rather than have the president dominate the institution through a hand-picked sycophant) and the writing of a law that will give them full institutional autonomy from other parts of the Egyptian state. The leading Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, has already achieved some of that goal; labor unions, the judiciary, professional associations, and the universities will be working to shove their way to the agenda of the newly-elected parliament to attain something similar. In a sense, the military is seeking the same thing: to be able to run its own affairs, administer its own budget, make its own security policy, and select its own leaders with only minimal civilian oversight. Many of these causes (such as the judiciary’s claim on independence) are popular; some (such as the military’s) are far more controversial but still backed by powerful political forces.

Even if the specifics turn out differently, Brown’s mental model of the transition process is surely more realistic than Moustafa’s. As I wrote in a recent post, democratic transitions are not ruptures in history that wipe away old institutions and replace them with new ones. Instead, they are more like floods that add a new layer of institutions atop the old ones, and the interactions between the old and new can take a long time to play out.

Western policymakers looking for levers to pull will probably find Brown’s analysis more frustrating that Moustafa’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The best strategies are based on realistic assessments of what’s possible, not hopeful visions of how we want them to be. I hope Egypt finds its way to a durable democratic government soon. If that happens, though, it won’t be because SCAF catches democracy fever. Instead, it would probably happen when the array of powerful groups Brown sees pursuing their own interests get stuck in a stalemate and grudgingly forge a compromise.

The Geology of Democratization

For the past 25 years, when we’ve talked about democratization, we’ve used the lexicon of transitions. As the prevailing narrative would have it, the breakdown of authoritarian rule launches a process of institution-building that leads eventually to democracy. Political democratization is the conjoined twin of social and economic modernization, and any country moving away from an authoritarian regime can usefully be described as “in transition” to a democratic one.

In geological terms, the transitions approach likens democratization to the production of igneous rock. Over time, pressures build under the crust of an existing authoritarian order. When that pressure becomes too intense, an eruption occurs. The old order is shattered, and fresh material pours onto the surface. That fresh material gradually but inexorably cools and hardens into a new, more modern order. The process might take a while, and parts of the new formation might crack and crumble while young, but the basic process is one of unidirectional transformation through disruption, replacement, and consolidation.

I don’t think the transitions metaphor works very well, and I’m not alone in that view. Ten years ago, Thomas Carothers wrote an essay called “The End of the Transitions Paradigm” that nicely showed how the transitions metaphor misrepresented the messier reality of modern regime change, and how that mismatch had often led Western foreign policy and aid astray.

Carothers’ essay was read widely in professional circles, but it doesn’t seem to have produced the gestalt shift to which its title aspired. Twenty years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, we still talk about the states born of that collapse being “lost in transition.” One of the first things the U.S. Department of State did after the Arab Spring hit was to open a Middle East Transitions Office that could coordinate and oversee U.S. policy toward the three “transition countries” of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) still maintains an Office of Transition Initiatives that motivates its existence with a narrative of disruption, opportunity, and consolidation.

I think the biggest problem with the transitions metaphor is that it misrepresents the nature of the underlying change process. Returning to the language of geology, I think democratization is more like the production of sedimentary rock than igneous. Institutions aren’t destroyed, replaced, and consolidated; as Francis Fukuyama masterfully describes in The Origins of Political Order, they are laid down in layers. New and old abut and sometimes comingle at the edges, but the one does not supplant the other. Instead, many layers coexist, and over time the process of layering interacts with other forces, like gravity and erosion, to produce something different from the sum of its parts. The heart of the process is not disruption but accretion. Change does not occur in a sequence; instead, it occurs through the interaction of multiple processes occurring on different time scales.

We can see this kind of accretive process occurring in “transitional” countries like Egypt, where the dramatic changes that have followed Mubarak’s ouster–the establishment of a new ruling council, the emergence of new political parties, and the convocation of a freshly elected parliament–have been poured atop a political economy that does yet not seem to have cracked or shifted.

We can see the interaction between layering and other forces in “consolidating” countries like Turkey, where the military’s role as political overseer wasn’t ended abruptly but instead shifted gradually as military elites became sandwiched between strengthening Islamist forces and the hardening expectations of its NATO allies.

We can even see these complex and cumulative effects at work in authoritarian regimes like China’s, where traditional kinship groups are the organizational form through which some of the most powerful demands for democratization are being expressed. Those demands, in turn, are arising in response to land grabs driven by the interplay of newer forces of globalization and long-standing forms of elite privilege.

Carothers’ 2002 essay might not have transformed the way we talk about democratization, but it’s not because he was wrong. Where the prevailing metaphor sees disruption and displacement, a closer look at the world suggests a more complex process of accumulation and gradual transformation. Maybe intellectual orders work like political ones, and the shift away from teleological metaphors of transition and consolidation will happen gradually and subtly. However it happens, it would be nice to see it happen soon.

Why Egyptians Should Care about the Maldives Coup

I knew nothing about the Maldives until it popped into the news this week, but what I’m seeing there now looks very familiar, as it should to anyone who studies how new democratic regimes so often sputter and fail.

The Republic of Maldives is a tiny archipelago state off the southern tip of India with a population of only about 314,000. Fish are its leading export, but its economy depends most heavily on beach tourism. The Maldives gained independence from the British in 1965 and was ruled for most of the ensuing 45 years by one man, Mamoun Abdul Gayoom. Years of pro-democracy activism finally spurred the government to open the door to multiparty politics in 2003, and the state became a democracy in 2008 when its first free and fair elections delivered the presidency to longtime activist leader Mohamed Nasheed.

The 2008 elections terminated a long period of authoritarian rule, but they did not instantly transform the fundamentals of the political economy that developed under al-Gayoom’s government. That transformation would require deeper change, and President Nasheed’s efforts to bring about those reforms seem to be what recently got him into trouble. In 2010, the New York Times reported:

The government of the Maldives wants its money back — $400 million to be precise. That is the amount that it estimates was looted by its former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and his associates. Mr. Gayoom dominated politics in the Maldives, a tiny Indian Ocean nation, for 30 years. After winning six successive single-party elections, he finally bowed to popular pressure and allowed open elections in 2008. He lost. He is one of a number of politically connected figures — some alive, others dead — who are the targets of increasingly coordinated efforts to repatriate misappropriated funds. Results to date have been encouraging, but much more can be done, officials and development experts say. A report from the Maldives’ national auditor released in 2009 reads like a guidebook on self-enrichment. The president’s spending was “out of control,” it said, as Mr. Gayoom used his power to live a lavish lifestyle and extend largesse to those around him.

As President Nasheed’s administration struggled “to get its money back,” it found its efforts impeded. When the president tried to overcome one small piece of that resistance by ordering the arrest of an uncooperative criminal court judge, the judge refused to go, and the president’s opponents took to the streets to protest. The Times described the final spiral this way:

Recently, Mr. Nasheed’s popularity has suffered as the economy of the Maldives has struggled. Then, last month, Mr. Nasheed ordered the military to arrest the criminal court judge, Abdulla Mohamed, accusing the judge of acting on behalf of Mr. Gayoom and compromising the fairness of the country’s courts. The arrest, which was widely condemned, prompted the nightly protests in Male that peaked on Monday. “The real catalyst, last night, was that the police decided that they wouldn’t disperse the protesters,” said Mohamed Hussain Shareef, the spokesman for Mr. Gayoom’s party, the Progressive Party of Maldives. Mr. Shareef contended that soldiers had balked as well as the police. “We were told that the army was also asked to disperse the protesters using live rounds,” he said. The Associated Press reported that troops had initially fired rubber bullets. S. Ahmed Shiyam, a police subinspector in Male, said there were clashes between police officers and soldiers on Monday evening and early Tuesday morning, with some of the protesters joining on the police side. Then some soldiers switched sides as well, he said. An official close to Mr. Nasheed denied that the president had ordered soldiers to fire on the protesters. Rather, he said, the president chose to resign specifically to avoid such violence. “He faced the choice of seeing a lot of blood by asking the military to crack down,” said the official, who asked not to be identified, given the political volatility of the moment. “But he wasn’t prepared to do that.”

What seems apparent from the bits of information I’ve been able to find is that political polarization had amped up long before the recent showdown over judge Mohamed. Some of that polarization seems to have resulted from an economic slowdown that hit the Maldives in 2011, some from a disagreement over the proper role of Islam in politics, but surely some also resulted from the new government’s attempts to discover and dismantle the networks of patronage and corruption left over from the ancien regime. Presidential elections were due in 2012, and President Nasheed’s move against judge Mohamed apparently strengthened their belief that he was willing to do whatever it would take to cement his continuation in office and continue his fight against their interests.

These are the familiar and formidable challenges of democratic consolidation. New democracies are not drawn on blank slates. The development of democratic institutions that persist usually requires a transformation of deeper arrangements in which powerful groups are heavily invested. Wealthy individuals and powerful bureaucrats must be convinced to subject their sinecures to the rule of laws adopted by representatives they do not choose. Men with guns must be convinced that they will be better off refraining from picking sides in partisan fights or seizing direct control of government when they don’t like how much money it spends on them or what it tells them to do.

For democracy to survive under these conditions, political and military leaders have to gain confidence that every political confrontation is not a gladiatorial death match, and that their rivals can’t or won’t try to win those confrontations by simply usurping power and demolishing the arena. This trust is impossible to manufacture. It seems instead to rise and decline fitfully, and the confrontations whose successful resolution might deepen that trust more often lead instead to resumptions of authoritarian rule. We can recognize and even vaguely understand all of this and still not know how to make it happen differently.

So what usually happens instead is what happened this week in the Maldives. Motivated by mixtures of ambition and fear, partisan rivals get stuck in a downward spiral of distrust that leads eventually to an undemocratic resolution. These resolutions often take the form of a military coup, where the guys with guns decide to take matters into their own hands or, as in the Maldives, side with the rebellious opposition. In many other cases, the confrontation is resolved by executive coup, where incumbent officials ensure their continuation in power by tightening the screws on their political rivals or just rigging or scrapping elections. Opposition parties sometimes rebel, but those rebellions very rarely succeed; instead, they are usually either quashed or hijacked by a collaboration of opportunistic political insiders and state security forces.

Anyone who cares about the fate of new democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, or really anywhere should care about this pattern, because it foretells the likely futures of those regimes. I don’t mean this to be a declaration of helplessness in the face of these patterns as much as a frank assessment of the depth of the challenges involved. As I’ve said before, I’m a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. In their brilliant overview of political development throughout recorded history, Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast drly note (p. 27) that “historic transitions [of the sort described here] occurred within relatively brief periods, typically about fifty years.” Replace that last comma with a pause for comic timing, and you get a better sense of what I have in mind.

PS. For detailed reporting on the coup and the spiral of events leading to it, see this story by Bryson Hull for Reuters.

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