Following weeks of demonstrations in Egypt that ultimately forced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down on Friday, some commentators have suggested that events in North Africa could serve as a catalyst for discontent with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
There are, however, a number of reasons why this analogy is wrongheaded and Taiwanese not only cannot — but should not — go down that road.
For one, the situations in Egypt and Taiwan are very different. Taiwan does not have a radicalized and easily mobilized political opposition such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has a long tradition of opposing despotic rule.
The closest Taiwan ever came to having a “radical” underground was in the 1970s, and even then its tactics were largely pacifistic, unlike the violence used by extremist wings of the Brotherhood, one of whose most prominent former members is al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Even at its worst, the repression imposed on Taiwanese during the Martial Law era pales in comparison to that Egyptians have faced for decades. This is not to delve into moral relativism, but merely to shed light on different histories that, in one case, gave rise to radicalism, while in the other led to peaceful opposition. This is also why Taiwan today is a mostly successful democracy, while Egypt remains an unstable society.
Demographics also play a large role. Egypt, with a population of 80.4 million, has about 49.5 million people between the ages of 15 and 64, compared with 16.5 million in Taiwan. Furthermore, more than 10 percent of Taiwan’s population is above 65, while in Egypt it is slightly above 4 percent.
Footage from protests in the two countries highlights the contrasts. In Taiwan, participants are predominantly gray-haired, while in Egypt, they consist mostly of angry youth (unemployment in Taiwan is considered high at 5.2 percent; in Egypt, it is about 10 percent).
The broader geopolitical context is also markedly different. Egypt does not face the threat of military invasion by an external actor should the “wrong” kind of leadership take power. That is not to say Washington or other regional powers would sit back and allow an extreme faction of the Brotherhood to take control of policy in Cairo, but the likelihood of a missile barrage on Egypt or outright invasion by a more powerful state is highly unlikely. Egypt’s territorial integrity and identity are not in question and it does not face an irredentist threat.
There is no doubt, however, that Beijing would react should a similar uprising occur in Taiwan. Widespread instability and chaos so close to home would inevitably prompt a response, lest such developments serve as an inspiration to China’s angry millions. That Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory would also serve as justification for a decision to intervene and thereby ensure stability on its periphery.
Not only are most Taiwanese largely uninterested in the events that have transpired in North Africa, they do not see a connection between what happened there and their own lives.
As such, Taiwanese remain disinclined to seek the overthrow of the Ma administration. In fact, such an undemocratic course of action would bring nothing but ignominy for Taiwan and undermine what earlier generations sacrificed so much to build.
In many ways, the legitimacy of Taiwan as a de facto independent country is largely predicated on its democratic ideals. If those principles were to be abandoned, the global community would likely have little compunction in allowing China to intervene.
Democracy, warts and all, remains one of Taiwan’s strongest assets — one that must be protected at all costs.
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