Egypt's transition to democracy

Michele Dunne

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: There's legal news from Egypt today. A court in Cairo has rejected an appeal from former President Hosni Mubarak. He wants to stop prosecutors from seizing assets that've been linked to him and his family.

There's some speculation this could eventually mean a criminal trial for Mubarak. Already some prominent Egyptian businessmen and former government officials have been arrested on corruption charges, something that would have been unheard of just a couple of months ago.

Commentator Michele Dunne says those are just some of the changes that Egyptians are going to have to get used to.


Michele Dunne: Is Egypt ready for democracy?

You've probably heard these facts over the last few weeks: Some 20 percent of the Egyptian population lives on $2 a day. More than 30 percent of the public suffers from illiteracy. Reforms that were made by the former President Hosni Mubarak tended to be distributed unequally among Egyptians. The rich were getting richer and the poorer were getting poorer. There's no middle class to speak of.

That must make you think the answer is "no."

But we need to look deeper at trends in Egypt and what they predict for the future of democracy.

Compare Egypt to other countries. Egypt is a lower middle income country by international standards, but by no means among the poorest of the poor. Income per capita and the equality of income distribution are similar to or better than those in India and Indonesia, two countries that made successful transitions to democracy.

Middle class and poor Egyptians have definitely felt the pinch of rising global commodity prices and have not had their fair share of economic growth. That's due to corruption, but also because public education has failed to prepare their children for the private sector jobs that previous reforms generated.

But the idea that the middle class has disappeared is a myth. In fact, the Egyptian middle class has grown as a percentage of the overall population for decades -- from about 20 percent in the 1950s to roughly 50 percent by the 1990s. The percentage under the poverty line fell steadily until at least 2008, when it rose slightly as the global economic downturn hit.

So, is Egypt ready for democracy?

Egyptians are now embarked on what will probably be a long political journey with many detours. But they have a large civil society, and well-developed state institutions. And the socioeconomic indicators are not as bad as many outsiders imagine.


Ryssdal: Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal the Arab Reform Bulletin. Write to us.

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