The 99.9% Solution

It is likely that Nasser would never have lost an election in Egypt. Yet every referendum he ever proposed or starred in had results that would be the envy of the six-sigma preachers of corporate America . The final figure always had a profusion of the digit “9”, as if the government printing press had no other digits at hand. The 1956 referendum was won by a margin of 99.9%, other referendums featured additional nines.  Nasser wore his nines with elegance as he was always assured of the people’s love, less can be said about the garish and bloody imitators in the region.

Historians have generally accepted this as the expected behavior of dictators. Yet Nasser was hardly a vicious dictator in the mold of Saddam, for example. His power rested on a wide acceptance by many forces in Egypt, although with stiff resistance as well. Nor can it be said that it was born of his early association as a callow youth with various totalitarian groups in Egypt. He managed to outgrow all of these associations, and in time crack down on most of them. Also, we should note that this practice set the stage for other imitators (primarily Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt), who lived and governed differently and in different circumstances. There may yet be another explanation for that obsession with overwhelming and ridiculous winning margins.

Nasser may have realized early on the fragility of the Egyptian state. From the outside, the structure of the Egyptian state seems mighty and oppressive. But its oppression might owe less to might than weakness. He, and subsequent rulers, maybe have been in touch with the anarchist streak in the Egyptian soul (traffic patterns are the best hint there), and feared its eruptions. Anything less than an overwhelming, even silly, win might spark a protest that will quickly mushroom into outright rebellion. Subsequent history does not show them entirely wrong. In fact, stare long enough at the three nines and the current situation in Egypt becomes clearer. 2011 was the year that the brittleness of the seemingly mighty state was laid bare for all to see.  2012 was the year it became absolutely clear that the Muslim brotherhood sees elections as the means to acquire power, rather than the method for safely alternating it among different hands. Neither winning power by peaceful means nor losing it by extra-legal ones is likely to alter the Brotherhood view of governance as simply a means to repress and eliminate opponents. Pundits who talked knowingly of the “moderate Brotherhood” now intone about the “return of the regime”. 2013 is the year it also became clear that the “regime” can never return, as one of its components was the presence of the Brotherhood as peaceful and beaten opposition, useful to narrow the social and intellectual space and as a convenient patsy in the ring.

The notion of dissent as rebellion has taken hold in Egypt with dangerous consequences. It is not merely those in power that view dissent as a rebellion. More alarmingly, dissidents also see dissent as a means to overturn the political order. Much of the confusion in the reaction of Western observers to the current protest law lies in the different understanding of “dissent”. In a functioning liberal and plural system dissent is a means to alter the behavior, rather than affect the removal,  of leaders. Yet listen to all factions in Egypt and you will see that dissent is seen as simply a way toward radical change of leaders and even rules. This sets a dangerous feedback loop of repression and dissent that must be broken in some fashion or a more open system can never be established in Egypt. The intellectual sphere in Egypt has narrowed considerably under the onslaught of religious fundamentalism and societal disrespect for differences. It is not surprising that in such an environment there is an obsession with total approval, for that indicates total control as well.

The best contribution toward stability in Egypt is to further the understanding that a regime is not illegitimate if it has the approval of only 51% of the people, or even if it has the approval of a minority. A regime is legitimate because it acquired power by the rules and maintains power by strict observation of these rules. The rules need to include respect for the natural rights of the individual and communal need for law and order. Until that understanding animates the politics of Egypt, look forward to further repressions fueled by the belief that anything short of total approval constitutes a loss of legitimacy. The 99.9% solution is Egypt’s millstone.


— Maged Atiya


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