Religion and the Arab Spring

Mar 11

The Islamic Monthly, the best news magazine published by Muslims in North America, recently published my essay on religion and the Arab Spring. It is now available on the web.

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Mubarak’s Agricultural Policy — It’s Complicated

Mar 06

Today’s Guardian has an article criticizing Mubarak-era agricultural policies.  The situation is more complicated than  the article suggests.  The article confuses two things which should remain separate: what kinds of crops Egypt should produce, and where they should produce them.  There is little reason to discourage substitution of higher value crops for lower value ones, but there are very good reasons to oppose Egypt’s land use policies under Mubarak, which encouraged inefficient reclamation and irrigation of the desert while it turned a blind eye to the illegal construction of housing on fertile Nile land, the best example being Giza.  When I was a kid, and I came to Egypt in the 70’s, the trip from the Nile to the Giza pyramids took one through incredibly fertile agricultural land.  Now, as everyone who has been to Cairo knows, it is a giant, urban sprawl.  That, in my opinion, is the real scandal.  Egypt was the 18th largest producer of wheat in the world in 2010, and its production had increased in 2010 by 25% relative to its wheat production in 1997. If we use its 2009 output, its highest year (8.5 million metric tons), increase in production since 1997 was an even more impressive 49% from 1997’s 5.7 million metric tons.  If we go back to 1981, when Mubarak assumed power, Egypt produced a mere 1.9 million metric tons of wheat.  So, as is much of the case with Mubarak’s legacy, it is more a case of incomplete and inefficient reform, combined with corruption, rather than complete failure.


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Egyptian Popular Opinion and Continuing Protests

Nov 28

A facebook friend posted an article today which provided polling data in support of the conclusion that Egyptians overwhelmingly believe that continued protests are damaging Egypt’s future prospects by the shocking margin of 84% (against) to 13% (in favor).  I don’t doubt the accuracy of these numbers; I just doubt their normative significance as a guide for future political action.  I then engaged in a lengthy discussion with a couple of friends on this point, and another facebook friend suggested I post this on my blog to give it wider distribution.  So, here it goes:

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Women Voters in Heliopolis

Nov 28

Check out this amazing picture of women waiting to vote today in Heliopolis, a middle-class suburb of Cairo.

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Update from Egypt

Nov 23

I am reproducing in full the text of an e-mail I received this morning from a former student of mine with her eye-witness account of recent events in Tahrir and Egypt:

Dear all,

I hope you are all safe and doing well. I am writing to you to tell you about the situation in Egypt at the moment, as I am not sure about the accuracy of the media. Last Friday there was a huge demonstration in Tahrir Square calling for ending the military rule, to end military trials for civilians (more than 12,000 civilians have been referred to military tribunals) and to object to the supra constitutional principles. There was a huge numbers from different communities that attended the demonstration and most of them left the Square by evening.

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The Troubling Disorganization of Egypt’s Liberals

Jun 21

Bobby Ghosh at Time has a blog entry today disparaging the democratic skills of Egypti’s liberals and suggesting that, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has a much better understanding of how democracy actually works.  There is little to disagree with in Ghosh’s post except that he perhaps understates the inability of the “secular” or “liberal” forces in Egypt to compete effectively in a democratic system.  The reason for this failing, I think, has little to do with the the inherent unattractiveness of liberal ideas in Egypt as much as it does with the class divisioins that are rife in Egypt, and that lead many of the liberal elite to believe — although they will never say so explicitly — that they are entitled to rule because they are the “best” of Egyptian society, the “awlad al-nas,” so to speak.  Parties that are actually popular are dismissed as demagogues or as exploiting the ignorance of the Egyptian masses.  Indeed, one prominent Egyptian liberal, a justice on the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, no less, suggested that the votes of illiterate Egyptians should be weighted 1/2 of those of educated Egyptians.

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Revolutionary Tourism

Jun 15

What is “Revolutionary Tourism”?  Simply put, it is spending your summer vacation money in Egypt and Tunis as a toke of support of their revolutions.  I admit, traveling to a developing country for a vacation is hardly the stuff that makes revolutions, but this summer, if you can, consider traveling to Tunisia or Egypt, or both.  Both countries’ economies, for good or ill, are at the present, highly dependent on foreign tourism.  Foreign tourists, however, have largely shunned both countries out of irrational fears involved with their respective transitions.  Having just returned from two weeks in Tunisia and Egypt, I can say there is nothing to worry about!  If you are usually reluctant to go to places like Egypt and Tunisia precisely because of their place in the global tourism economy, this is the ideal time for you to go and avoid throngs of annoying tourists.  And, the people there will really appreciate your visit.  So go, and enjoy yourself in these two great revolutionary countries, basking in the warm Mediterranean sun and the afterglow of their revolutions.

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Contrasts Between Tunisia and Egypt

Jun 11

One important difference, it appears to me, between the transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, is the relatively greater incidence in Tunisia of public fora that bring together spokespersons from various political and ideological movements in the country simultaneously.  The sense I got from my days in Egypt, however, was that the warring-ideological groups tend to speak to the press rather than to each other, much less in the context of a shared public forum.  In Tunisia, by contrast, there are several civil society organizations that sponsor fora to promote public debate and dialogue on the various choices facing the country, and while I have not seen any evidence that different groups have moved substantially from their core positions, I think the fact that they can sit together on the same panel and share, discuss and debate their country’s future augurs well for the success of their transitions.

I attend one such forum yesterday at a public institution called “Dar al-Thaqafa Ibn Rashiq,” (The Ibn Rashiq Cultural Centre, Ibn Rashiq being a famous medieval literary figure) that was sponsored by a civic organization with the name “Muntada Ibn Rushd.”  There are other such organizations, including one called “Muntada al-Jahiz.” While relatively few such organizations were permitted during the Ben Ali regime, apparently scores have been opened since the end of the Revolution, a fact that has helped raise public awareness of the various issues facing Tunisians in the context of the transition.  If anyone knows of equivalent efforts of Egypt, I would appreciate being corrected on this point, but at least from the perspective of an institutional framework for establishing a collective public sphere, the Tunisians appear way ahead of the Egyptians.

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Tax Rates in the Developed World and in Egypt

Apr 19

According to the renowned economist Paul Krugman, the US is a “low-tax” jurisdiction, with aggregate tax receipts amounting to slightly more than 30% of US Gross Domestic Product. Unsurprisingly, the Scandanavian social democracies have the highest overall ratio of taxes to GDP, with tax receipts in excess of 50% of GDP.  In Egypt, taxes represent only approximately 15% of GDP.  Any economic reform will require raising the ratio of tax receipts to GDP so that the state has the resources to make the necessary investments in public goods such as health, education and infrastructure.  Hopefully, if Egypt evolves into a democracy with meaningful public participation, its ability to collect taxes efficiently will improve dramatically. Indeed, Greece, which is notorious for its citizens’ non-compliance with tax law, still manages to collect tax revenues approaching 40% of its GDP.  I note that perhaps the Egyptian state’s ratio of taxes to GDP somewhat understates its access to resources given the fact that it still owns substantial productive assets; nevertheless, I suspect that there is a lot of room for rationalization (i.e., expansion) of the tax base in a fashion that would be highly progressive.  I have suggested that a property tax be introduced instead of raising marginal income tax rates because of its relative simplicity.  Presumably, a relatively low property tax rate applied widely enough could raise a substantial amount of revenue, and functionally, act as a clawback for state-owned property that was privatized using less than optimal procedures.  In any case, unless the Egyptian state can improve the efficiency of its tax-collection, raise the overall ratio of taxes to GDP, and invest the additional marginal revenue in public goods, it will be very difficult for Egypt to attract sufficient private capital to generate substantial enough growth to solve the structural unemployment problem.

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Political Islam and Democratic Transition

Apr 15

It would be an understatement to say that westerners remain concerned about the role of Islam in democratizing Arab states.  Some, however, have suggested that secular democracy need not mean a complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere, but instead permit its participation against a background of institutions that serve to moderate the risk of a “tyranny of the majority.”   I agree that this is the most that can be reasonably obtained under present conditions in a country like Egypt.

In my opinion, modernist Islamic thought — the ideological basis of moderate Islamism –has been concerned primarily with equality before the law, establishing accountability of the government to the people, and eliminating arbitrary decision-making so as to better pursue the public good. They are attracted to democracy because they see democratic institutions as the best means to establish these ends.  Unfortunately, Islamic modernism (nor secular modernism in the post-Ottoman world, for that matter) has not been gravely concerned with pluralism as such.

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