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What Egypt tells us that development discourse doesn’t

Written by Lisa Denney


Events in the Middle East and North Africa challenge recent development discourse in two important ways. Prevailing wisdom in relation to governance tells us: that change is never immediate, but rather achieved through incremental, long-term reforms; and, increasingly, that we need to accept the realities of political systems and work with them, including when this involves ‘big men’. Events in North Africa and the Middle East over the last two weeks suggest that such norms can be circumvented by popular grass-roots action in a manner that escapes the predictions of statisticians and the ‘lessons learned’ of development agencies. This is not a blog about Egypt, so much as what events in the Middle East and North Africa suggest about the governance agenda within development discourse.

The nature of the political transitions in Tunisia and Egypt (and perhaps in Jordan and Yemen), are indicative of resurgent forms of transition that we should be careful not to overlook. Rather than being driven by carefully planned and evaluated strategies instituted by international staff within the higher echelons of the civil service of aid recipient countries, change in Tunisia and Egypt has been brought about by the grass-roots resistance of ordinary people, supported by a sense of Arab solidarity and shared frustrations. While most would accept that donor action rarely leads to change, the more immediate transformations that the protests are potentially resulting in also do not fit into development donor models of change. With an increasing acceptance that donor-led reforms might take decades to be realised, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the protests have probably achieved more meaningful change in just two weeks than decades of dialogue on political reforms have achieved in poorly governed states around the world. This highlights the frustrating limits of externally-driven change.

Of course, it is too early to determine how deep and long-lasting change in Egypt and Tunisia will be. There are real concerns about how to handle a post-Mubarak Egypt, or whether a new Jordanian Prime Minister will transform a country dominated by a conservative monarchy. Nonetheless, these outstanding issues should not detract from the initial success of people-power in opening up space for reform, and where development – particularly governance interventions – have been slow to deliver.

By revealing the lack of legitimacy of their governments, the protesters have also highlighted that, despite appearing strong and stable, these regimes are in fact largely hollow, hiding behind the cosmetic facade of life-sized images of their leaders and highly visible security forces (as well as, in this case, the support of the international community). Once this edifice breaks down or is challenged, the weakness of the regime is revealed as having little legitimate base (although plenty of coercive force). Importantly, this demonstrates that despite claims that ‘big men’ are permanent features in the political landscape of many countries, they are perhaps not as intransigent as we thought. Indeed, it appears to be this revelation about the weakness of political leaders that spread from Tunisia to Egypt. If Tunisia could remove a dictator, why not Egypt? While arguments of developmental patrimonialism (and the need to work with existing political realities is a refreshing move away from the more normative good governance agenda of many Western donors, it can risk fortifying ‘big men’ by accepting them as a legitimate part of the political landscape. The protests throughout North Africa and the Middle East should remind us that longstanding regimes can fall.

By challenging those leaders that we have continued to see as immoveable forces, protesters are also challenging perceptions within the development community about the entrenched nature of political figures and governance structures. Perhaps we spend too long focusing on why things stay the same, and not enough on why they change. Development practice could learn from incorporating an understanding of the current political turmoil into its logic. Too often we focus on structural constraints and not enough on the potential for bottom-up change, and we become fixated on our latest findings, internalising them as truths, rather than as another set of lessons that need to be learned.