Published on Jan 28, 2011
As one watches the events unfold in Cairo, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the Egyptian citizens who want, more than anything, to share the values of freedom and openness, but must risk life and limb to do so. For me, freedom is the most important human aspiration. No one should be denied the right to determine their own destiny, to be free of oppression or to enjoy bedrock liberties like the right to free speech, a free media, free association and, most of all, the opportunity to participate equally in building a more prosperous, free and sustainable global economy. And as recent events indicate, the same deep stirrings for individual expression and democracy that are evident in Egypt are present in many other countries (Tunisia, Yemen, Iran …) where the universal aspiration for freedom remains unfulfilled.
There has been much concern recently that some observers have overstated the role of the Internet in promoting freedom and democracy around the world. Evgeny Morozov rightly points out that “Tweets don’t overthrow governments; people do,” noting that social networking sites can be both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes. Morozov points out that secret police increasingly gather incriminating evidence by scanning the photos and videos uploaded to Flickr and YouTube by protesters and their Western sympathizers. “They might even serve as an early warning system for authoritarian rulers,” he says.
All true—the Internet is no panacea for freedom. But to dismiss the role of the Internet is equally wrong given the growing body of evidence to suggest that new freedoms of expression and networking enabled by the Web underpin a profound shift in attitudes in many countries, especially among youth. Will youth rise up to affect positive change, cementing new rights and freedoms not just through their tweets, but also through their courageous actions? Events in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt suggest they will certainly try, even if decisive political revolutions have yet to materialize in some of the more authoritarian countries like Burma and North Korea.
Of course, there is a risk that demographic factors in Muslim countries could tip the other way, giving rise to large populations of disenfranchised young people who turn towards dangerous forms of nationalism and fanaticism. Hitler mobilized dissatisfied youth in Germany to become brown shirt thugs who came into the streets to attack labor unions and anti-Nazi-protesters. Some point to the recent resurgence of radical Islam as evidence that the Middle East’s youth bulge has created a similar powder keg that, if sparked, could explode into armed conflict, even riots and civil war.
Herbert Moller, one of the first academics to seriously consider the impact of youth bulges on political stability, concludes that the presence of a large contingent of young people in any population can provide an impetus for progress or instead intensify or exacerbate existing problems, depending on the circumstances. “[Youth bulges] may make for a cumulative process of innovation and social growth; it may lead to elemental, directionless action-out behavior; it may destroy old institutions and elevate new elites to power; and the unemployed energies of the young may be organized and directed by totalitarian rulers.”
Time will tell, but I think that demographics are favoring democracy. As compared to elder generations, young Arabs are better educated, more wired, more likely to favor democracy and generally less hostile towards the West, although they still view the US government with suspicion (see the poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org in 2009 for example). Meanwhile the rising din of debate in the blogosphere suggests that repression and hard line tactics in their homelands are only fanning the flames of freedom.
In the aftermath of the tainted Iranian election, Melody Moezzi, a young Iranian author and blogger, suggested that “The very same restrictions that were once merely irritating, such as dress codes and government censorship, have now become absolutely suffocating [for today’s youth].” She argues young Iranians are beginning to realize the power of being in the majority. “And they are growing up fast,” she says. If Moezzi is right, the Middle East’s future role in the world will be in large part determined by whether secular pro-democracy movements can win the hearts and minds of the youth. For now, those struggling for democracy inside and across the Muslim world will hope that the Internet remains a forum for broadening democratic engagement and a refuge for openly discussing the most salient issues facing Muslims today—even participating in online discussion poses some risks, as Morozoz has pointed out.
In addition to the role of the Internet, we shouldn’t discount the continued impact of economic growth on public expectations. The irony is that the rapid economic growth that many authoritarian countries desire triggers the very internal forces that will see despots and dictatorships crumble under the weight of their citizen’s aspirations. The experience of most countries is that the growth of economic capacities internally spurs the rise of citizen demands and citizen responsibilities. In China and other rising nations, rapid economic growth is giving rise to a significant middle class with purchasing power, and with time to articulate social concerns and demands. The expectations rise quickly as economic gains translate into demands for a better overall quality of life. This kind of citizen is now becoming more vocal. The implication for today’s dictators is that economic growth engenders a paradox—namely, that the very government that makes improvements becomes the object of further criticism.
In the end, it is worth emphasizing that the strength and competitive advantage of democratic states and free market economies lie in their rules-based, accountable, and open systems, and in the values and standards that support them. In the new global interdependent world, human development, political openness, and economic success can and should go hand-in-hand. Not only are higher levels of economic freedom associated with higher per capita incomes and higher GDP growth rates, those higher growth rates create fertile ground for better governance and greater business investment and innovation. So dictators like Mubarak face a choice: Extinguish the flame of democracy and you dampen the spirit of economic creativity and innovation as well. Succeed, on the other hand, in extinguishing tyranny, and you will liberate countless people to participate in wealth creation within every sector of the economy.