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Middle East expert Robert Springborg talks protest in Egypt

CAIRO: Renowned academic and director of the London Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Robert Springborg gave the keynote address at the American University in Cairo’s symposium on 30 years of political and social protest in Egypt. He described Egypt as hybrid state, straddling both hard power and some …


CAIRO: Renowned academic and director of the London Middle East Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Robert Springborg gave the keynote address at the American University in Cairo’s symposium on 30 years of political and social protest in Egypt.

He described Egypt as hybrid state, straddling both hard power and some freedom of expression – a state, he said, which is “very difficult to reconcile.

Despite corruption and activism denouncing government fraud, Springborg suggested that the attention paid to “how the game is played, as opposed to simply the substance of policy, is a positive sign.

“Rules of the game did not matter under [president Gamal Abdel] Nasser, only a little bit under [president Anwar] Sadat.

He takes this as a healthy sign of evolution, a “sophistication far beyond what went on 20 years ago.

He spoke to The Daily Star Egypt about prospects for democracy and political activity in the region.

Springborg once worked for USAID’s Democratic Institutions Support Project, which works to promote democracy in the region.

While he admits that democracy cannot be imposed from outside, he does believe Western governments can promote democracy through stricter measures and pressure at the policy level.

“So far it’s been all carrots, few sticks.

When asked why the West cares if there is democracy in the region, Springborg responded untraditionally.

An undemocratic government “is less likely to deliver goods effectively and efficiently . a government that is democratic is more efficient and responsive . and fundamentally better, he said.

“It’s the willingness of the people that grants the right to govern. Representation is the most universal principle.

Springborg still strongly disagrees with the Iraqi model of promoting democracy. Just one month before the March 2003 invasion of the country, he wrote in the British The Guardian newspaper that of the two possibilities, the chaotic mess that has become Iraq was far less likely.

He now says he advised against the war but believes he and others did not appreciate the degree of frustrations pent up in the population. Regarding whether frustrations were exacerbated by the West, Springborg admits that they probably were and invokes the adage “one moment of anarchy is worse than a thousand years of tyranny.

Will the region’s countries need widespread protest to bring about regime change?

“Yes. It’s almost a necessity, said Springborg. “If the analogy is Eastern Europe then the hope [for change] would clearly be in protest especially in the absence of wide mobilization in the region.

He does provide some possible explanations though of why Arabs may be less likely to exert themselves for democratization, such as religiously instilled propensity to respect authority.

Springborg hypothesized that the social solidarities that exist in the Arab world work against political upheaval, as they ameliorate life’s difficulties.

Another explanation is that a simple cost-benefit analysis weighs against protest and mobilization.

Although it is not foreseeable, Springborg explained that revolts can and do occur spontaneously when solidarities begin to form.

“We have not seen widespread protest in recent years [in the region] but solidarities do exist. Still, he does not believe people will mobilize over rules of political behavior, such as the constitutional amendments that angered activists early this month.

Instead, more emotive bread-and-butter issues, profound insensitivity to the citizens, or taking away a particularly beloved leader could present catalysts to change.

Robert Springborg has published multiple books on Egypt, the political Middle East, and globalization. He has also served as Director of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), headquartered in Cairo.

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