Authoritarianism, If You Can keep It

A sense of gloom surrounds the upcoming third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution . There is a feeling that the gyre has turned back to the starting point of familiar authoritarianism. It would be an error to ignore Egypt’s long history of revolt and assume that the current trend is long lasting. Those who have been waiting for an answer of what system the revolution will produce seem to be getting a grotesque variation of the famous Benjamin Franklin quip: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”. The great fear is not that Egypt will keep a new-found authoritarianism, but rather that it will lose it without finding a superior substitute. Too little is written about the weakness of the Egyptian state, primarily because its habits of public and blunt coercion hide its underlying fragility. The closest analogy is a bully with a glass jaw. In a thousand schoolyard tales a bully reigns supreme until that moment when a punch sends him to the ground sniffling. After that it is always nearly impossible to regain the top dog status.

Much attention has been placed on promoting democracy in Egypt, and too little on identifying the rough outline of what constitutes “Egypt”. There is a strongly-held romantic view of the square-shaped desert land surrounding the Nile valley as integral and eternal. But the land has been labile for the better part of two hundred years as it tries to find an identity beyond that of an exploited province of great empires. That identity has been so strong and familiar that long after all empires have vanished exploitation continues at the hands of self-selected few. Politics in modern Egypt has sometimes been nothing more than an economically extractive process. Those who do not seek to enrich themselves instead have often brought up fantastic tales of hidden meddling by external forces. The rough outlines of a people’s soul are often defined by their collective mythology. When Egyptians from all walks of life, from the mighty Sadat to the earnest Muslim Brotherhood cadre to the hyper-nationalist Copt, whisper tales of external powers wishing to partition Egypt they betray their fear about the uncertainty of the Egyptian identity. The current polarization is between two camps favoring mobilization along familiar but largely mythological lines, nationalism and religion. Both camps are authoritarian in character, for they favor the collective over the individual, even if their definitions of the collective are radically different. Yet it would be false to assume equivalence between the two. Only the nationalist mobilization has the DNA to evolve into something resembling a liberal system that works for the benefit of the average man or woman.

As the noise of revolution dies down the real work must begin of building a national narrative and a working contract between the state and the people. It is difficult and uncertain work, with many likely reverses. But it is not without precedent in Egypt as there is much intellectual capital to start with. No other country in the region, except possibly Israel, has worried so long and wrote so extensively about what it means to be a “native”. The accusation of “unEgyptianness”, or worse of working for a foreign agenda, is a familiar one; hurled with poor aim both in the public sphere and occasionally across the dinner table. ¬†Nevertheless, it should not slow down those who wish to construct a rational order based on exchange of rights for protection. Being an Egyptian should not be a one-sided deal of constant sacrifice for “Egypt”, but also of the country giving back dignity and prosperity for its citizens.

There is no durable retreat to authoritarianism, the end will be either chaos or a better and more liberal system. The outcome will depend on the work done in the shadow of authoritarianism and on the manner by which it is brought to heel.

— Maged Atiya


One Comment on “Authoritarianism, If You Can keep It”

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