The writer Alaa Al-Aswany finished many of his essays during the past decade with the phrase “Democracy is the Answer”, a play on the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the Answer”. In the last few days Al-Aswany came out in favor of boycotting the upcoming parliamentary election. Today, it seems, either democracy is not the answer or these particular elections, in his view, are not democracy. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood seems happy to promote polls as the answer. There is no parable here, just confusion. Politics in Egypt is slowly becoming a collective primal scream.
Democracy is neither an answer nor a system. Democracy is not even a tool. Modern democracy is an imperfect organism whose sole purpose is self-continuation. The purpose of practicing democracy is to insure continuation of democratic practice. We vote one set of bastards in so that we can vote them out sometime in the future. The same populace that votes for one set of economic and political ideas will eventually vote for their very opposite. And if this game continues long enough the sides eventually converge on some minimal set of core beliefs, often called “the center”.
Thomas Hobbes is the father of the modern state; the Isaac Newton of politics. He removed politics from the realm of theology and morality to the sober practice of rules and law. In his view governance is a mere contract between men who give up some of their “natural rights” in exchange for the protections inherent in a stable state. It is not divinely mandated, nor endowed with a divine purpose. Hobbes is the ultimate liberal; a man with no commitment to any system beyond one that guarantees men the maximum freedom possible in a stable and peaceable polity. Hobbes did not so much remove God and religion from politics as relegated them to an initial supporting role, then ushering them quickly off the stage. God gives man his inherent rights but quickly withdraws from the fray of politics.
Egypt has been struggling with modernity for two centuries. Its current tragedy is that its politics is now divided between two factions. On one side we have the pre-Hobbesians, otherwise known as “Political Islamists”. These are men with a purpose; applying God’s law to man. They have little interest in any iterative government, except as a temporary and tactical compromise. For them voting is a self-limiting tool to achieve their aims, after which it will become merely a way to choose different men to govern in identical ways. On the other side we see an incoherent collection of opponents unified only by what they oppose. Their reasons for opposing the pre-Hobbesians are so varied, and often contradictory, that it is essentially impossible for them to present a coherent platform of ideas. Of course, what is impossible is unlikely to happen. One can expect no clearly articulated plan from this opposition.
The chaos increased after the Islamists rammed through a constitution designed less to declare and protect the rights of man, than to obfuscate and circumscribe them. The opposition balked and dithered but presented no clear alternative. There was no declaration of ringing clarity to counter the rump constitution. Many have criticized the opposition for its vagueness of vision and lack of organization. There is no point in repeating these arguments, valid as they may be. The more relevant point is whether any amount of organization by the non-Islamist opposition can turn Egypt into a functioning democracy under the current circumstances.
The sadness of Egypt is in realizing that a robust coherent liberal opposition might in fact throw the country into further chaos. Khairat El Shater once said that all Egyptian law and political practice are “Western” deviations from Islam, imposed by “outsiders”. This is why, in a nutshell, worrying about the exact shape of “democratic” elections is besides the point. The competition is not between two visions for Egypt, but between two Egypts. The sooner this painful truth sinks in, the sooner Egyptians can make a choice. But it will be painful.
Modernity is the Answer.
There is plenty of criticism of President Morsi, and almost all of it deserved. Yet it all has the air of charging a lethal drunk driver with jay walking. The massive economic ills are blamed on the “revolution” and almost never on his inept leadership. This ignores the fundamental fact that growth in 2010 was 3-4 times the current growth, and in a worse global environment. Egypt’s economic problems are not ordained to be insoluble.
The collapse of the currency is not due solely to the large Current Account imbalance, but also, perhaps mostly, to the large capital outflow. That can be partly blamed on the revolution and the consequent instability. But all evidence points to an increase in the outflow since last year. More importantly, Morsi built his campaign on improving the economy by moving away from the “ills of the felool”. He even rammed through a sorry constitution by dubious means for the purely tactical goal of improving the foreign reserves. Those who had the stomach to listen to his loudly barked campaign speeches will recall that he promised a net capital inflow of $200 Billion dollars over his first term, or $50 Billion annually. Of course nothing of the sort happened. He did manage a few crumbs from his ally Qatar.
In fact, almost all of Morsi’s lurches and gyrations have had the opposite effect of increasing economic instability and hence capital outflow. Almost no attention is given to his promise; how economically illiterate it was to make it, and how inevitable that it was not kept. This, more than his gyrations into light-weight autocracy and general Ikhwan-coddling, represents the serious and present danger to Egypt and the breaking of his oath of office, reluctantly taken as it was. His appointments did little to increase confidence and hence willingness to invest in Egypt. His Prime Minister is a decent man who can only be described as “Ragel Ghalban”, with hardly any steel to make tough decisions. The recently appointed Finance Minister, Dr. Morsy Hegazy, surely “knows God”, but shows little familiarity with economic principles. With such a lot at the wheelhouse, any sensible man would reach for the life preservers.
The Egyptian opposition awaits for its version of James Carville. A country boy from Upper Egypt who can coin the native and catchy version of the “It’s the economy stupid”.
Steven Cook, one of the best Western historians of modern Egypt, advances the argument that “Egypt is too big to fail” (Is Egypt Too Big To Fail?). It is a solid argument buttressed by many facts. It does ignore, however, that when nations come to the aid of another it is often for both practical and sentimental reasons. The US assisted England in the early years World War II, prior to its own entry, for reasons of Anglo-Saxon cultural affinity. Similarly the US support for Israel, a difficult ally at best, rests on a strong emotional foundation.
The new Egyptian constitution summarizes the current identity crisis of the country. It seems that there are three Egypts all jostling for the loyalty of the Egyptians. There is the “essential Egypt”, the “Arab Egypt” and the “Muslim Egypt”. In short, Egypt, the Arab Republic of Egypt, and the Islamic Republic of Egypt. It is possible that the assistance to Egypt will depend on which Egypt emerges from this current torment. The Islamic Republic of Egypt may get some assistance from Qatar, although not likely from other Gulf states, or many other Islamic states for that matter. It is unlikely that the Arab Republic of Egypt will get much assistance from the Arabs, as the sad denouement of Nasser shows us. These scenarios are all subject to debate. One thing is certain, the West will not rush to prop up a pseudo-Caliphate or a zealous Arab nation. Global, and in particular Western, emotional attachment is to Ancient Egypt, and one that they imagine will emerge into a liberal nation. That Egypt closely resembles the familiar templates in the Western mind. When the West cheered the crowds at Tahrir Square in 2011, it was because they closely resembled the “right” version of Egypt, never mind the underlying facts and prospects of the revolution.
The reality, of course, is that there is no single Egyptian identity. But the popular passion and support necessary to garner large scale investment in another country relies almost entirely on vague emotional attachments, not reasoned debate. Part of the recent Western interest in Egyptian Copts (prickly Egyptian to the core) is their Christian roots and their attachment to Pharaonic heritage. Egyptology, for its first century, was a Western creation, from Fourier to Champollion to Maspero to Carter, and it still retains a certain resonance in the West. The West may aid Egypt in small or large ways, but it will depend on which version of Egypt the current rulers will project to the world.
Steven Cook is right to criticize “misplaced arrogance”. A century and half ago, Khedive Ismael foolishly proclaimed Egypt to be part of Europe. It was a vanity project unmoored from the reality and lacking in any foundation of a modern state. It was as un-authentically Egyptian as the concurrent Meiji restoration was authentically Japanese. One came to grief very quickly and one succeeded spectacularly. A residue of Ismael’s failed project and its humiliation remains in the Egyptian psyche. The West has grown wary of Imperialism and will not likely attempt a repeat of the 1876 scenario. But it could also let Egypt limp by as a semi-failed state, as long as the chaos is contained. The one sure way out is for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands and not wait for assistance, or at least motivate the right kind of assistance. The Egyptian identity crisis is not mere teenage angst, it is a serious business with real consequences to the Egyptians.
A post from some weeks ago (Incitement) detailed the current atmosphere of incitement against Copts. A few respondents asserted that it was “alarmist”, that in fact the current political leaders do not support such behavior. Perhaps, but they also do not stop it.
A constant feature of religiously motivated incitement in Egypt is that it starts against the Copts and then widens to incitement against all liberal voices. The knife attack on Naguib Mahfouz and shooting death of Farag Fouda attest to that. There is a lesson in this, especially on the day that Pope Tawadros II spoke sparingly but strongly about the doleful constitution.
The current violence in Egypt has a proximate cause in the Islamists desire to ram a constitution through; a retrograde one that discounts the idea of a social contract in favor of divine mandates. It is impossible to underestimate that danger. A government designed to protect the lives of citizens is a vastly different edifice from one designed to further God’s mandate. Egypt need not relive the horrors of such an experiment. It is good and well to condemn such incitement, but a more rational course is to remove the root of it. The ugly incitements against “liberals” by TV-empowered loud mouths is rooted ultimately in the same mentality that produced that constitution. Get rid of one and the other will slink back to where it belongs.
Back in June of 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood followers chanted “El Kursi li Morsi” (the chair for Morsi) to urge that the election results be translated into Muhammad Morsi assuming the position of President. That was done. Now Morsi has to perform his duty and be President, most critically not be driven from office by demonstrations.
The author of this blog is no friend of Morsi, but process and law must be respected in the new Egypt or else the country will become unhinged. Morsi, regardless of whatever qualms one may have about him or the election that brought him to power, is President for another 40 months. He has to lash himself to the mast and face the storm.
President Morsi needs to ask himself if he really wishes to be the President of Egypt or remain a follower of the Muslim Brotherhood. The current turmoil will not allow him to be both. The President must rise above his party, assert authority, seduce or charm critics, establish order and turn potential opponents into a loyal opposition. To do so is to assert the power of law and process in a country reeling from the chaotic after effects of revolution. To be a leader is to assume the mantle of the office, its duties, chores, anxieties and majesty. If his heart is not in it, he should bow out and return to being an enforcer for the Brotherhood.
The current troubles give Morsi a chance at greatness, but only if he puts Egypt first. Otherwise, the continuous uncertainty about who he is and what master he serves will leave him a sad footnote in Egypt’s long history.
Incitement against Copts has a long and sad history in Egypt. Such incitement is not intrinsic to Islam and indeed it was missing from much of the early history of Islam in Egypt. It began to gather strength under various complex historical and economic factors. The darkest moment of such incitement was in the late 13th century and the 14th century. The new Mameluke rulers lacked legitimacy and inciting against Copts gave the population a safety valve that kept the rulers safe from the fury of the mob. This searing history was to lead Copts to 500 years of steep decline and almost extinction.
In the last 200 years incitement grew and waned in synchronicity with attempts at modernization and the invention of a new national dialog and identity. The 1919 revolution, the “liberal” age between the two World Wars , and even to some extent the 2011 uprising, all saw attempts at seeing Muslims and Copts as partners in the same enterprise. Incitement never vanished, sometimes it lurked in the fringes, while at other times it became more prominent. The nature and methods of incitement have undergone a subtle evolution in the last 40 years. We can detect three distinct stages, each increasing the danger to the Copts and to Egypt.
In the 1970′s and 1980′s the disciples of Sayyd Qutb (and most of the current leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood are his disciples) railed against the “crusader” West and the secular rulers. In the case of the rulers Qutb introduced the innovation of Takfir to counter standard Islamic prohibition against Fitna. Copts were seen as an instance of the Christian faith and perhaps an ally of the secular rulers. Incitement was vaguely and imprecisely targeted and given complex and often vague reasons.
At the beginning of the 21st century a new form of incitement came into being. Instead of the generalized words of Jihadi groups, usually published in obscure venues, we see a more immediate incitement of private citizens against their neighbors. The immediate reasons were often very small, even trivial. A slightly modified Church, or a fight between two traders, a disagreement about a cross-faith romance, were all reasons for citizens to commit murderous acts with impunity, and even the feeling that they are satisfying religious obligations. This evolution reflected the weakness of the state, its frequent venality, and the influence of fringe TV preachers looking for followers. As such it was often in smaller towns or far away provinces that such incitement took place.
The third evolution of incitement coincided with the Muslim Brotherhood attempting to assume the reigns of government. Announcements from various officials of Islamist parties, and hangers-on, portrayed Copts as an intrinsic danger to the nation. They are often trotted out to distract from the failures of the movement, often announced to large crowds at heated rallies. In that form incitement harks back to the 14th century. We see plenty of examples. Safwat Hegazy, a man close to power and a member of a panel on human rights, is perfectly comfortable addressing a rally of Brotherhood members and threatening the “Copts” and “Church” in inflammatory and specific terms. Gehad El Haddad, a party spokesman and a scion of a wealthy Brotherhood grandee and a presidential adviser, coordinates his tweets with a large crowd of bused-in Brotherhood members in Heliopolis, a neighborhood with a large Coptic population, while his father is rubbing elbows with American leaders at the White House. We see the official organs of the Brotherhood congratulating Western Christians on Christmas day in English while issuing fatwas against congratulating Copts in Arabic.
Copts have a serene faith in God’s plans and the inevitability of their survival. Still, such incitement will take its toll, both on them and on Egypt. As economic conditions worsen, the temptation of finding scapegoats increases. Fascist movements in Europe often ranted against the “cosmopolitan Jew” as the cause of all economic ills. An obscure preacher recounting the wealth in various Coptic families and contrasting that with the general poverty, sounds ominously similar.
The question for the Brotherhood, and indeed the world, is where such incitement will lead. The Muslim Brotherhood is exceptionally opaque, and we can not be sure if the incitement is part of its policy or a symptom of its failures. But to the extent it is allowed, and to the extent that the world is willing to accept this duplicity, Egypt can easily become an unstable and perhaps a failed state. Does anyone want to see this outcome?
In his 2009 Cairo address President Obama outlined the high moral case for US support of democracy. Only a childish mind would believe that practical day-to-day decisions must be made entirely on the high moral case. Yet wholesale abandonment of such beliefs holds practical dangers. Since that high time in the spring of 2009, there have been two deeply rigged polls in Egypt. The first was in 2010 in a parliamentary election run by Mubarak’s NDP party, and the other, far more consequential, is the current poll to ratify a deeply flawed “Constitution”. There was silence then and there is silence now from the US.
Approval or lack thereof from the US is not directly relevant to Egyptian behavior. First and foremost, Egyptians must sort out their own affairs. US administration views, however, are relevant to Americans and to American interests. This silence serves no one. The US is rapidly losing its natural friends in exchange for the conditional and hedged support of entrenched enemies. The Muslim Brotherhood is, at its core, hostile to our understanding of democracy, and any perceived role in restraining its branch office in Gaza was both transactional and cynical. When pushed, its blotches of sectarianism and paranoia will show through the imperfect make up job.
It is always a mistake to bet against the US. It has a record of coming through as a moral nation. But unless the current policy acquires a healthy dose of understanding of current realities, it will risk losing faith with the American people.