The Brittle State

The art of bridge building stagnated for centuries until builders realized that bridges can not be made stronger or longer by adding heft. There needs to be careful understanding of the stresses and forces on a bridge and these forces must be channeled along sinews just strong enough to withstand them with a reasonable margin for error. This revelation has resulted in bridges that are long, strong and ephemeral.

The same claim can be made about states, especially the Egyptian state. The arbitrary removal of President Morsi was justified on the grounds of prevention of state collapse. But the Egyptian state can not be made stronger by merely adding heft to it. An equally viable path would have been to leave Morsi in place to finish his term but with sharply reduced powers. Neither side wanted that, for both craved presidential power, rather than its limitation. The army’s intervention to protect a constitutional order would have had more receptive ears on November 22 2012 than July 3 2013.  The world would have appreciated and Egypt would have been spared an embarrassing and dangerous constitution.  But that now is muddy water under the collapsing bridge.

The narrative surrounding the January 2011 revolution has done damage to the goal of progress in Egypt. The accepted myth is that of an impossibly brave action against an exceptionally impregnable wall.  While there is no denying the bravery, the Mubarak state was less an impregnable wall than a pile of rubble.  Like a bridge with heft and no strength it awaited the first burst of wind under the right conditions to exhibit spectacular collapse. The Egyptian state will be made stronger and more durable by trimming rather than adding. Everything in Egypt today is the opposite of what it seems. The arbitrarily empowered policeman undermines law and order rather than enforce it. The hectoring Sheikh (or Abouna) does not promote morality, just false piety. The constantly declaiming politician does not enlighten, but obfuscates. The preening man in uniform does not protect, but menaces. The deeply patriarchal men do not hold the family together, just rob it of half of its strength. The Islamists are menacing not because they are the “other” but because they are a reflection of a damaged self. A country this deep in the rabbit hole has to consider doing the exact opposite of what its instincts demand.

The goals of the 2011 revolution, Bread-Freedom-Social Justice, are catchy, vague and contradictory. The country needs a chicken in every pot not more poorly-baked and subsidized bread. Only an unfettered market will guarantee that,  and such a market will initially run counter to social justice, although it will ultimately strengthen it in profound ways. Freedom is a vague concept, notable only by its absence. What will free Egypt from its current chaos is respect for the rules,which may seem initially counter to “Freedom”, but is ultimately its true servant and guardian.  Incremental progress, not revolutionary action,  may guarantee the most profound change in Egypt today.

The only open question is whether Egypt will be lucky enough to find leaders who can articulate this vision to its people in terms both understandable and respectful. It would run counter to the last decades of leadership, which has been alternately charismatic , theatrical , tedious , and stupid, but rarely effective.


— Maged Atiya

4 Comments on “The Brittle State”

  1. […] Salama Moussa writes about the Orwellian realities in Egypt today: […]

  2. Kees Hulsman says:

    the art of bridge building is today more then ever needed in Egypt!

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