Argument

Egypt's Struggle for Freedom

Egyptians are taking to the streets to demand their rights. Shame on America if it stands in the way.

A classical Arab idiom maintains that a flood begins with a mere droplet. For freedom-aspiring citizens across the Middle East, Tunisia was akin to the first shower of rain. Two weeks ago, no one could have predicted the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's repressive regime in Tunisia. Today, the chatter of citizens and officials across the Middle East is when, not if, the "Tunisia scenario" will completely unfold in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country. Egyptians have struggled for many decades with an authoritarian regime whose rule is marred by repression, corruption, and political and economic stagnation.

The social contract that former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had with Egyptians -- to liberate Arab lands from colonial powers, subsidize food staples, and guarantee employment to all university graduates -- has been unraveling for more than three decades. Egypt unscrupulously maintains a peace treaty with Israel, despite that country's relentless occupation of Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese territories. The government has also pursued a policy of economic liberalization without regard to its impact on the Egyptian people. Despite its success in achieving moderate rates of economic growth, this strategy has left millions of families impoverished and unemployed.

Income inequality has reached levels not before seen in Egypt's modern history. According the United Nations Development Program, at least 23 percent of the population lives under the poverty line (earning $2 a day), and many more are just above it. By 2020, Egypt's population will reach 100 million, the majority of which will be young people under 30 years of age. This is a recipe for unrest. President Hosni Mubarak's regime, however, refuses to offer Egyptians a new social contract based on democratic representation and political freedoms. It elects to rule primarily through coercive martial law and a limited network of civilian and military patronage.

Egypt has been restless for a few years, but the uprising in Tunisia offered Egyptians living proof that, if they expected change to come, they needed to take matters into their own hands. As millions of Egyptians cheered on the Tunisian crowds ousting their dictator, some young activists called for a "day of revolt against corruption, injustice, unemployment, and torture." This Facebook-initiated protest, meant to coincide with a national holiday honoring the police, was dismissed by the government and the "official" opposition alike.

The Wafd and Tagammu parties, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and even former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, all decided not to partake in the protests. The Ministry of Interior, desperately seeking to rehabilitate its image, decided it would tolerate the marches -- expecting hundreds of activists at most. Yet, when these hundreds of activists walked down the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, tens of thousands of apolitical citizens joined in. Suddenly, the protests spread to other Egyptian cities. "Mubarak, the plane is waiting for you," many chanted, referring to Ben Ali's hasty retreat into his Saudi exile.

The chants for justice, liberty, and human dignity reveal the depth of Egyptians' discontent, and their aspiration for a democratic system. The Islamists, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, did not officially partake in the initial demonstrations (though the Brothers have announced their support for Friday's protests). Like Tunisia, Egypt is flirting with a democratic revolution, not an Islamist takeover.

The success of Egypt's (and Tunisia's) budding revolution remains to be seen. Traditionally, authoritarian regimes collapse only when the people sustain their protests over a long time and across a wide geographic territory. They also collapse when their security forces disobey orders to kill peaceful demonstrators. In Tunisia's case, 78 Tunisians were killed before the military refused to continue. In the case of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the shah's forces killed thousands before surrendering.

Historically, the role of external pressure tends to be paramount in isolating the dictators and causing divisions within their regimes. This factor should be a cause for concern among the brave protesters on Egypt's streets. The United States is heavily invested in the survival of Mubarak's dictatorship, which it views as vital to American interests in the region. So far, Washington has been timid in its requests for the regime not to shoot at protesters, even as several of them have already been murdered and tortured. Indeed, despite the lip service U.S. administrations often pay to democratization in the Middle East, they are often too myopic to see beyond their current interests. The George W. Bush administration backed off its "Freedom Agenda" in the region, for example, after the Muslim Brotherhood gained seats in Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections and Hamas scored electoral gains in Palestine in January 2006.

History, to be sure, is not linear. The current wave of protests may die down or be brutally repressed. Nevertheless, they represent the beginning of the end of Mubarak's regime. Watching events unfold from Washington, U.S. officials should keep in mind that when regime changes occur -- and they eventually do -- populations often do not forgive those who worked to prop up the old guard. The United States must now contemplate cutting off its lifelines to Egypt's autocratic regime and paying more attention to Egyptians' demands for their fundamental rights. Like Iranians before them, Egyptians may neither forget, nor forgive, those who kept them under the thumb of an oppressive ruler.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Great Invention Race

Whatever we do, China and India will train more scientists and engineers. But America's still got the best environment for ideas to grow.

U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to "win the future" by out-innovating the rest of the world was a ringing climax of his State of the Union address this week. Obama suggested increasing U.S. investment in research and development, a good and welcome step. But what will really determine U.S. competitiveness in the global ideas market isn't the money we can pour into the system. It's the strength of the system itself --  the social, political, and cultural institutions that shape ideas from start to finish.

There is no doubt that China and India are catching up with the United States when it comes to hardware -- the raw materials for innovation. They are increasing their spending on science and technology, training more engineers and scientists, applying for more patents, and churning out more research papers. 

But the actual system for generating useful ideas in these places remains underdeveloped. Yes, more scientists are being trained, but that doesn't mean they're producing good science. Plagiarism and data fraud are rampant. In a survey of 180 graduates with doctorates quoted in China Daily, 60 percent admitted to paying for their work to be published in academic journals. Sixty percent also said that they had copied someone else's work. Even as a large number of Chinese and Indian scientific stars have returned to their native countries from abroad, they have been unable to transform a research culture characterized by strong bureaucratic control and deference toward age and seniority. In the words of Anita Mehta, a physicist at the S. N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences in India, "Diversity of research or personality is often frowned upon, those who don't match stereotypes or work on subjects that have been hammered to death are labelled 'too independent.'"

In the Indian and Chinese private sectors, there are very real bursts of entrepreneurial activity. But government incentives, especially in China, are focused on making Chinese versions of international products such as cell phones and semiconductors rather than on sparking bold, local innovation. In both countries, new companies must maneuver through an opaque legal system, unpredictable regulations, and volatile capital markets. And though policymakers in Beijing and Delhi are aware of these challenges, addressing them will require political and social change, and so progress will be slow and uneven.

America can't win the hardware race. There are simply too many people -- 2.3 billion people in India and China -- for the United States to compete when it comes to materials and labor. Given respective population size, China and India will one day have more skilled engineers than the United States, even if their quality doesn't match up now. Total U.S. spending on R&D ($395 billion in 2010) is currently more than two and a half times larger than Chinese expenditures ($141 billion), but that gap is rapidly shrinking.  

But America can compete when it comes to software -- i.e., the ideas and innovation that are still out of reach for China's and India's more hidebound scientific and business communities. An important first step will be helping small start-ups. Small companies (those with fewer than 500 employees) generate about half of total employment in the United States; according to the Small Business Technology Council, they also employ more scientists and engineers than do large businesses and more than universities and federal labs combined. Specifically, as a recent study by the Kauffman Foundation shows, new small businesses are the ones creating these jobs. Since 1980 nearly all net job creation in the United States occurred in firms less than five years old; over the last four years, these young start-ups created two-thirds of all new jobs.

To help small businesses, the U.S. government needs what William Miller, former vice president and provost of Stanford University and a venture capitalist, describes as "people and place" policies -- policies that support research, training, and collaboration. The Clinic Program at Harvey Mudd College, for example, involves students in solving real-world problems that have immediate commercial or scientific applications. The locus of innovation isn't in individual entities anymore -- universities, for example, or corporate labs -- but in broader ecosystems that combine these more traditional bodies with smaller networked groups. Another transformative example is in Maine, where the North Star Alliance Initiative -- a partnership involving small companies, the University of Maine, community colleges, and the state government -- is leveraging local research to spur the development of a wide range of other industries, including marine and waterfront infrastructure and ballistic armor.

A more holistic model of education will also be crucial. So far, unfortunately, the dominant U.S. policy response to this perceived global competition has been a single-minded focus on increasing the absolute number of scientists. Instead, the United States must think more broadly about the range of skills a scientist develops. Many future breakthroughs are likely to emerge from multidisciplinary work at the nexus of biology, physics, computer science, and mathematics. As a result, young entrepreneurs must be familiar with several different branches of the sciences, as well as be able to draw insights from design, psychology, economics, and anthropology.

Finally, the United States still retains the immense advantage of its connections with global innovation networks. A vast web of collaborative research, corporate alliances, foundation grants, personal ties, alumni groups, and government-to-government contacts tie the United States to established and emerging centers of scientific excellence. In 2005, for example, scientists in the United States were the most popular partners for Chinese and Japanese scientists in every field -- chemistry, physics, engineering, environmental technology, and biology -- but one: material science. And in that field, they were the second most popular choice for both their Japanese and their Chinese colleagues.

The goal, then, is to make sure the United States does not become complacent about these relationships. As the president noted in his State of the Union address, the United States must improve visa regulations, welcome highly skilled immigrants, and create clear paths to citizenship. Those who excel in school or start their own businesses should be encouraged to stay in the United States. At the same time, the United States will have to do more to reach out into the world. The National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health, for example, should develop programs that provide more international experiences for U.S. scientists -- and not just short trips, but extended sojourns in foreign labs.

Inevitably, more science and scientific discovery will occur abroad in the coming years. But as long as the United States maintains its comparative advantage -- an open and flexible culture and a web of institutions, attitudes, and relationships that move ideas from the lab to the marketplace -- there's no reason why the future isn't in its grasp.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images