As Egypt Burns
Monday, August 19, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

WH Auden wrote powerfully in 1940:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

He was referring both to the evils the great powers were inflicting on each other, and on the innocent people of Europe, in their great power game, and to the evils an increasingly intolerant society was on its way to doing to all sorts of outcasts like Auden himself.

What Auden understood, many talking heads do not.

Here is one example, an article in the New York Times:

Egypt is not ready for democracy, the article argues, and the experiment with democracy is at the root of all of its problems.

It goes on to hint that such experiments with democracy open the way to unmanageable civil strife of the sort that the Middle East is already inclined to. Better to let the security forces and the elite run the show, not just in Egypt but in all sorts of places that are still not mature enough for democracy.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

There is no evidence that electoral democracies, in any part of the world, bring in more civil strife or greater political repression than dictatorships. Democracy is not perfect anywhere, least of all in the tribal, polarized, repressed Middle East with its weak civil society institutions. But democracies tend to be more stable (as shown by this paper for example).

Elections sometimes lead to greater violence as argued by Jack Snyder, and they sometimes collapse in the midst of heightened conflict as in Lebanon. But the cause of this isn’t the elections, but the problem of political losers we have emphasized in Why Nations Fail — that is, the unwillingness of certain groups of elites to relinquish power and their unscrupulous tactics for clinging to their privileges.

In Egypt, or in Turkey for that matter as we have argued here and here, it is worse than naïve to expect good and liberal governance from the security forces. In Egypt, they have consistently manipulated politics using repression and violence.

As Egypt burns today, the blame for the carnage there must squarely be on the security forces.

This is not to absolve Muslim Brotherhood of misgovernance, of bigoted intolerance, of attempts to tilt the political playing field for its favor when in power, and the crimes that some of its members are now committing.

But as Auden understood, it would take a very noble soul indeed who would respond to evil with the other cheek.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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