The Advantages of Backwardness

In several of my last posts I have discussed some of the many problems that Egypt is facing including extremism, apathy, and maybe even the Armed Forces. However, despite all the disadvantages that Egypt is struggling with, there is one advantage that the Western and democratic countries could not lay claim to like we can today. It is the knowledge and history that has built up over the years that has allowed us to learn from the past, it is our backwardness.

Thornstein Veblen, an economist and sociologists in the early 1900’s coined the term, “the advantages of backwardness.” This term means that any country can learn from those who went before. Barrington Moore Jr., in his Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy states that “the methods of modernization chosen in one country change the dimensions of the problem for the next countries who take the step…” (p. 414). The point is that the revolutions of the past, the methods of modernization, and the history of development in other countries all have either a direct or indirect influence on us today.

To some degree, we saw this play out early on when Mubarak tried different techniques to prevent further protests, and essentially send the people home. He saw how Ben Ali failed and tried to do things in a way that would succeed. As Egypt’s revolution continued, in late January and early February, we began to see the spread of revolt in other Arab countries. Subsequently, each dictator, king, and ruler, desperately tried different measures that both Ben Ali and Mubarak tried. For example, in Yemen, before things got too heated up, Ali Abdullah Saeed, quickly announced that his term would end in 2013 and that his son would not run for election. King Abdullah also made major changes in his cabinet. Libya and Syria reacted by cracking down faster and harder than Mubarak and Ben Ali. (It is also true that some of this leaders didn’t try different measures…weren’t learning fast enough)

Now, in Egypt, this means we have the advantage to learn from all the countries that have had revolutions that have succeeded in creating a democracy as well as those that have failed. We have seen the mistakes and the victories of others and much of what we do is in deliberate reaction to that history.

However, to take proper advantage of our backwardness we need a few things.

First of all, we need the willingness to learn and not to just charge right ahead. In short, we need to be deliberate about our actions and not be ashamed of the mistakes we have made.

Secondly, this leads us to the fact that we need a strong leader, a Nelson Mandela. From the start of this revolution in Egypt, the revolutionaries prided themselves in the fact that we had no leader. But I cannot help but think that if we had one honest and charismatic leader, just one, we might be in a very different place. He would be the unifying factor that we all need right now. The county has become fractured as people have begun to focus on their own priorities, and naturally so. We cannot expect everyone to stay focused on one thing and we cannot want that either. Life wouldn’t function properly. But, oh to have a national symbol to lead us all, slowly but surely away from the old regime and towards our desired democracy. He could carry our demands to the Armed Forces and he could be the point of unity between the different political parties and the coalition being formed. And it could be this leader that could deliberately, with the help of the people, learn from the mistakes of other nations, and take action to push us forward.

We don’t have that leader, but we are not doomed because of that. It just means we need to work harder and that we need to work together, despite our differing goals and priorities. Let’s just remember to learn from the past.


One thought on “The Advantages of Backwardness

  1. I want to be hopeful for you guys. But I am also afraid. The Muslim Brotherhood has been watching and waiting and learning for a long time. And the polling numbers suggest the vast majority of Egyptians want a much less secular and more rigorously Islamic country than existed under Mubarek. Democracy only produces freedom when the majority believes in the importance of protecting the rights of the minority. I’ll be watching and praying.

    Your friend and brother,
    Travis

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