According to a United Nations’ “Human Development Report”, both Tunisia and Egypt were doing well. The report measures achievements in health and education as well as economic growth. Of course, neither Tunisia nor Egypt can be compared with the most advanced of nations, but 69 per cent of Egypt’s children are at school, which is a higher figure than that of some richer countries, and life expectancy in Tunisia has reached 74, which is higher than Hungary’s.
It seems therefore that both countries were enjoying some of the benefits of economic growth. Yet this did not stop their peoples from deciding that they had had enough of their leaders. Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak failed to see that economic progress alone was not enough to sustain their rule.
True both countries were under authoritarian rule but we are living in the communication age where ideas cannot be stopped by having the army or security police patrol the borders. No wonder that the first thing autocratic governments do in times of unrest is to try and block Internet and mobile phone communications. In China, Web surfers who searched the terms “Egypt” or Cairo” received messages saying that no results could be obtained. But the Tunisian and Egyptian people simply had had enough of a government limited to a narrow group of cronies and riddled with corruption, clientelism and nepotism. The two countries’ rankings on political freedom and corruption stand in glaring contrast to their rankings on development indicators.
But it is not only authoritarian regimes that find that good economics on their own are not enough to satisfy the palate. India is considered a modern economic tiger yet the imbalances in a state that has been democratic since its independence in 1947 are enormous and still growing.
A country’s wealth-creation needs to be accompanied by growth in its political institutions. Italy is supposedly a democracy, but is it? Silvio Berlusconi cleared Naples of the mountains of garbage that had helped topple previous governments even though these mounds are growing again. He had successfully fused his own party with that of Gianfranco Fini, who had changed the face of fascism, but now they have fallen out. Italy’s banks have survived the credit crisis almost unscathed, and many voters still believe the government’s claim − that the economy as a whole has fared better than any in Europe.
But Berlusconi also owns all the private TV channels and a good part of the printed media. Every time the law threatens to move against him, he passes laws in Parliament to protect him from his “enemies”. Until recently all this, as well as his private/public goings-on, had hardly touched him. Now a million women have taken to the streets in protest and his intricate web of alliances seems to be on the point of collapse: all this despite calls that Italy’s well being should not be threatened. Have the Italians, like the Tunisians and the Egyptians, had enough? Are they ready to throw good economics to the wind in favour of clean and wholesome politics?
When a country’s political institutions are mature, they respond to demands from below through a combination of accommodation, response and representation. Democratic leaders ignore this at their peril. Undemocratic ones try to buy off the electorate. That is what China seems to be doing, which is why it is so intent on achieving an annual economic growth of eight per cent or higher. The shadow of Tiananmen Square still looms large in the governments’ thinking. But will we one day see an even bigger Tiananmen Square, or will the freedoms allowed in many sectors except that of politics, eventually bring about the desired freedoms with time?
Samuel Huntington, the late political economist better known for his Clash of Civilisations theory, pointed out that “social and economic change – urbanisation, increases in literacy and education, industrialisation, mass media expansion – extend political consciousness, multiply political demands, broaden political participation”. Add to these the social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and governments everywhere need to broaden their powers of response if they are to survive.
The USA is a nation built on success and a glorious entrepreneurial spirit. Failure made people fearful and ashamed even when it was not their fault. Far from being looked upon as a professional mishap, failure evolved (according to historian Scott Sandage) “into a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red”.
But even this idea is under attack now. Due to the present climate, Americans are now asking whether financial success is a moral imperative. Studies have found that our most potent emotional experiences come from relationships not careers. Those who work in palliative care report that, on their deathbeds, most people don’t regret not having climbed a rung higher or collected even more dollars than their skin could possibly hold, but regret having worked too hard and lost touch with family, friends and relatives. This gives added meaning to our Maltese saying that “ħadd ma joħodhom miegħu”.
There is nothing like adversity to make people rethink what they really want to do with their lives, who they want beside them, who they really can count on, and what is the true measure of worth.