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.