Economic Turmoil Has Preceded Revolutions, Though Not Egypt

Tuesday, 15 February 2011 12:44 By Paul Krugman, Krugman & Co. | Op-Ed | name.

Economic Turmoil Has Preceded Revolutions, Though Not Egypt’s
(Cartoon: Schrank / The Independent on Sunday - London, England / CartoonArts International / The New York Times Syndicate)

Maybe it’s because I spent time working for the United Nations Development Program in the Philippines in the ‘90s — I was a bit surprised that few people have mentioned the parallel between the Egyptian uprising and the People Power Revolution in Manila, which took place in 1986.

There are striking similarities between the two revolutions: in both instances, people organized against a dictator who had been a longtime ally of the United States; in both instances, the popular uprising was sparked by the government’s perceived corruption, rather than any particular ideology. Also, it seems to me that the role Mohamed ElBaradei has been trying to play in Egypt is somewhat similar to the role Corazon Aquino played in the Philippines, as she led the opposition. The fact that this revolt is taking place in the Middle East makes it a lot more fraught, but the script seems similar.

Certainly, the Philippines didn’t turn into Sweden (so famous for being almost corruption-free) following the uprising. There was still plenty of corruption, and the democracy remained imperfect following the revolution — none of which changes the fact that getting rid of Ferdinand Marcos was a very good thing. Egypt won’t turn into Sweden either, but maybe, just maybe, something good is about to happen.

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That said, many people have pointed to the parallels between the situation in Egypt today and that in Indonesia in 1998, which ended Suharto’s dictatorship — I’ve done it myself. But there is a possibly important, or even revealing, difference between the uprisings in Indonesia and the Philippines and the uprising in Egypt. As the chart on this page shows, political crises followed drastic economic crises in both the Philippines and Indonesia — Mr. Marcos was caught up in the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, and Suharto was entangled in the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Egypt is not experiencing similar problems, which is not to say that economics had nothing to do with the revolt. Egypt has experienced decent growth in recent times — but the gains weren’t trickling down, and youth unemployment has been a huge problem. I suppose the moral of the story is that gross domestic product is never the whole story.

Backstory: Uprisings, Past and Present

The political uprising that erupted in January against President Hosni Mubarak and his government in Egypt bears some striking resemblances to other popular revolutions that unseated regimes that were once political allies of the United States.

And while the world waits to see how the crisis in Egypt will play out, political commentators have been looking to these historical precedents for clues.

In the Philippines in 1986, the People Power Revolution succeeded in overthrowing President Ferdinand E. Marcos, whose brutal and corrupt government had retained power for almost 25 years.

The movement was triggered by the 1983 assassination of Mr. Marcos’s political opponent, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., after he returned to Manila from exile in the United States.

The overthrow of Mr. Marcos’s government was marked by peaceful demonstrations and nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, and in contrast to recent events in Cairo, news of the popular dissent spread via word of mouth and radio, rather than through social media.

Under intense pressure from the United States, Mr. Marcos eventually left the country and later died in Hawaii.

Following his departure, the Philippines chose its first democratically elected president in decades — Corazon C. Aquino, Mr. Aquino’s widow.

The collapse of the 32-year rule of the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998 also might offer insights. In 1998, as the Asian financial crisis ate away at the country’s prosperity, Suharto agreed to step down after hundreds of students were killed when protests against his regime turned violent.

Known for his ruthless and unscrupulous behavior as president, Suharto — whose opposition to both communism and Islamic extremism made him an ally of the United States — had previously managed to establish a viable economy and a strong military.

Egypt might be able to follow either course to political stability, some analysts believe.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).

Copyright 2011 The New York Times.

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 10:57