For many ordinary Egyptians, fixing the economy is key. They are demanding a functioning economy that works under the rule of law. In fact, protesters have been demanding greater economic freedom, not necessarily greater democracy. Recognizing the critical distinction between these two cannot be overemphasized.
In his thought-provoking chapter featured in The Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Index of Economic Freedom, Robert Barro of Harvard University empirically pointed out that installing property rights and open markets that buttress economic freedom matters much more than democracy:
[D]emocracy does not seem to have a strong role in fostering law and order.… The problem with the United States recommending democracy to a country such as Egypt is not that democracy would harm economic performance, but rather that it would have little impact. If there is a limited amount of energy that can be used to accomplish institutional reforms, then it is much better spent in a poor country by attempting to implement the rule of law—or, more generally, property rights and free markets. These institutional features are the ones that matter most for economic growth, and these features are not the same thing as democracy. Moreover, in the long run, the rule of law tends to generate sustainable democracy by first promoting economic development.
President Obama, not properly realizing what ordinary Egyptians are calling for, has equated the Middle East practice of “one vote, one time” with the exercise of democracy. The U.S. needs to press the case that any legitimate future Egyptian government should deliver on the promise of fostering the rule of law and economic freedom.