February 24 2014 is the day Egypt found a cure for AIDS, and its cabinet resigned en-masse, most likely as a procedural step so that Egyptians can go to the polls again and democratically elect as President the leader of the Army that tossed out the last democratically elected President, who in turn got to his office by the good will of the very same Army that also tossed out a previous President. On this day of cumin-infused Kabuki theater let us recall an Egyptian intellectual unlike any of his generation, Salama Moussa (1887?-1958).
Moussa was a maddening man. His intellectual output was prodigious, took many twists and turns, and was often in-artful and even wrong. But like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog he got one thing right. He cared not a whit for the national struggle against the British; not that he had much sympathy or liking for the British Empire. During the first half of the twentieth century most Egyptian intellectuals were keen on liberating Egypt from the domination of the British. Moussa, on the other hand, was keen on liberating Egyptians from the domination of their native culture. Although proud of his Egyptian heritage, he saw the native religiosity and social and sexual oppression as the root of the country’s ills and their removal as the road to its resurgence and prosperity. His passions were stirred less by “Egypt for the Egyptians” than “Civilization for the Egyptians”.
Time would prove him sadly right, even if the last decade of his life left him demoralized and unsure of his legacy. The man advocating universal values has been largely ignored by his countrymen, who preferred authentic decline to foreign improvement.
Experts are fond of pointing out that the Arab cultural output is far below that of comparable populations elsewhere. Egypt, nominally Arab, leads in that decline. Not only is Egypt today behind many similar countries in cultural output, Egypt today is behind yesterday’s Egypt as well. Those who place the blame on a “deficit of freedom” are only partly right. Three years of revolutionary freedom have not markedly improved the output. The cause of this calamity is deeper than the lack of freedom. It is a cultural decline that coincided with the rise of belief in the superiority of native culture and withdrawal from the universal and global cultural influences. Egyptians today rightly complain about how outsiders mock them. At the same time an Army doctor claims to have cured AIDS with a cartoonish gadget.
It is unlikely that Salama Moussa is glowering in anger from the heavens. He didn’t believe in the afterlife. Had he been alive, however, he would have pointed out that the holy men, the men in uniform, the modestly attired women and the poorly-read youth are the links of a chain binding Egypt to a cycle of decline and anger. It is a measure of that decline that if the social critic of the 1920s and 1930s were to repeat his warnings today he would be met not with social disapproval, but most likely with a term in jail or worse.
There was a time when Egyptian intellectuals debated the merits of a modernizing strongman vs. the retrograde populists. Egypt’s nightmare is that this choice may no longer exist.
— Maged Atiya
For the past 3 years Egypt has inspired a great deal of magical thinking, no where more so than the Washington Post. Typical of both its editorials and op-ed opinions is a recent piece by Emad Shahin, a thoughtful man unfairly targeted by the current Egyptian regime. The piece combines justified anger at the regime with unprovable and unrealistic assertions, such as “The key to stability is upholding essential democratic values and restoring civilian control over the political process.” Clearly the year of Morsi’s rule does not prove that civilian control, if it was ever that, is a key to stability. Nor is there any indication that Egypt on June 30 2013 had a constitution or a political process that upholds essential democratic values. The op-ed also does not address why the military, with its experience of civilian politicians over the past three years, would feel that they are fit for anything other than leading the nation to disaster. In fact, the very title of the op-ed which threatens “radicalization” unless the Army bows out is likely to inspire increased resistance from the Army leaders who see their job as the preservation of the integrity of the state.
The reality of Egypt three years after the January 2011 events is that it is under a military dictatorship. Realistic thinking requires this simple recognition. It also requires recognizing that while this is hardly a good outcome, realistic alternatives are not demonstrably better. Any workable plan must not “demand” return to civilian politics, but rather define the stable means of doing so, given that legitimacy through Army supermacy has been the norm since the victory of the illiberal forces in the late 1940s. It is especially important for those opposed to military rule to understand the thinking of the Army. It sees itself as a national institution since the Urabi revoluton of 1882. It sees that it has been coerced into politics by the imminent collapse of the country in 1952, 2011 and 2013. To simply label it as “putschist” is not the beginning of a process, but the end of an argument. To convince the Army to bow out of politics one must present civilian politicians who are able to inspire respect among those in uniform, convince the Army that they can rule, that they can make the hard decisions when necessary; in short that their well-cut suits do not cloth weaklings, nor that they are dismissive of those in uniform.
Arguably the Muslim Brotherhood fit that that description in March 2011. This may be precisely the reason why it seemed that the Army was in “collusion” with the Brotherhood. In fact, it was doing what was logical for what it saw as national interests. Had President Morsi been a cunning man, and one dedicated to civilian as opposed to Brotherhood rule, he would have seen that his highest duty was to finish his term in office and hand over that office to the next elected civilian politician as a way of establishing a continuous and legitimate process. All else is secondary, and he would have done whatever it takes to focus on the primary mission. But Morsi was neither cunning nor dedicated to civilian rule. So the generals are back, this time with less tolerance for the weak and griping civilian politicians.
To escape the land of magical outcomes, it is important to recognize that the civilians who wish to govern Egypt need to demonstrate the capability to do so. The first step in that process is to be able to negotiate with the Army leaders from a position of strength and in a manner that warrants respect.
— Maged Atiya
In the mid 1960s, as Nasser was elegantly proclaiming on television a new Social Democratic Republic (“Gomhurya Ishtrakia wa Democratia” ) a young man rose up with a stream of obscenities directed at the screen. One in particular remains itched in memory. “You sonofabitch, it is a republic of civil servants !” (“Ya Ibn Al Kalb Di Gomhuryat Al Muwazafeen“). The young man’s intemperance can be easily excused, for months before he had been given a number, a ceiling on the size of his burgeoning business beyond which it would risk nationalization. Months later he was still angry at the scratch of a pen that aborted his dreams. Nasser’s nationalization policies created a large public sector that remains an economic albatross. But blame does not rest solely on his broad shoulders. Large government in Egypt has many fathers, and Nasser shares this dubious distinction with many others, notably Muhammad Ali and Lord Cromer. All three men, founders of modern Egyptian regimes, wanted a large and pliant bureaucracy for increasingly abstract reasons. Muhammad Ali needed it for his imperial vanity project, Lord Cromer for the health of the British Empire which he served faithfully, and Nasser for “social justice”. Many who demonstrated in January 2011 held photographs of Nasser while demanding “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”. That is understandable given that Nasser worked tirelessly for “Bread” and “Social Justice”. While two out of three ain’t bad; if a choice is given one should opt for “Freedom”, for it can beget the other two more readily than they can beget freedom. The clearest danger to the cultural, political and economic health of Egypt is a large government. This is a difficult argument to make for a country craving security, but it must be made. The Muslim Brotherhood dream of fixing Egypt through a more moral government is a mirage, as a large government armed with morality is likely to be more intrusive and coercive. Neither should large government be blamed on stereotypes of Egyptians loving a “nanny state”. A country where half the economic activity is outside official channels can not be said to lack for entrepreneurship.
The trouble is not even the economic orientation of government. Both Sadat and Mubarak tried to shift the economic philosophy away from Nasser’s socialism and nationalization, but with government remaining large. the country created a class of capitalists fearful of government meddling that can ruin their business, and even worse, many who are dependent on it for largess. The ills of a large and ponderous government in Egypt go beyond the economic sphere. They affect the cultural and political fabric of society. The government ownership of a good portion of the media, and its regulation of the rest, means that no censorship is needed to control the press. Media, like any business, will toe the line for those that butter its bread. The customer is always right. Culture is not immune to government meddling as many of the leading lights are essentially civil servants. The size of the government is no help in provisioning human services, such as education and healthcare. In fact, its failures have created misery for Egyptians and opportunity for those who wish to create an alternative society rather than participate in a shared one. Such failures are the largest impediments for the desired end of a pluralistic and democratic government.
There is a feverish search for a new US policy toward Egypt, one that does not “reward’ violations of freedoms nor weaken the country at a time when it faces a Jihadist insurgency born of the usual nihilism common to the region. As always, a sensible policy is an active and positive one with unambiguous recommendations rather than meek condemnations. The best that can be done for Egypt is to recommend and assist in ways to trim its government and increase the size of the private sector. In the American context advocacy for small government is seen as a “right wing” cause. But in the Egyptian context, advocacy for a smaller government is neither left nor right, just a sensible way out of a historic dead-end.
— Maged Atiya
On December 19 1908, on the occasion of an address by Lord Cromer, recently retired as effective ruler of Egypt, the Spectator newspaper noted :
” Frankly, we regard the future fitness of the Egyptians for Constitutional government as an open question. There is no analogy between one country and any other ; the Young Turks have acted with singular coolness and wisdom, the Egyptian Nationalists never have; and similarly we might go on and demonstrate that there is no possible comparison between Persia (whatever one may think of the prospects of Constitutionalism there) and Egypt, or between India and Egypt, because of their fundamental differences in personal character and the difference in their obligations to other Powers. Englishmen have that habit of mind which postulates Parliamentary government. We say honestly that we would rather live under a bad democracy in Britain with the continual hope of improvement than under a good autocracy. But then Britain is peopled by men of Western race, and men who believe in and desire free institutions. Nothing we have said can be taken as a symptom of a wavering democratic faith. But we refuse to bow the knee in the temple of any universal formula, or to admit that because Constitutionalism agrees with white men, it must therefore agree with those of a totally different race.”
A dozen years after Lord Cromer’s departure from Egypt the country would have surprised him, had he lived, by rising up and demanding a constitutional government. Barely two decades after this review Egypt had an imperfect but functioning parliamentary system. Since then the path has been uneven, in no small part due to the flaws inherited from the man who could rightly be called a founder of the modern Egyptian state. Cromer worked hard to improve Egypt’s finances and administration but his disdain for the Egyptians left a major gap in three distinct areas : education, where he saw the need to train but not educate the Egyptians; business, where insisted on a heavy government hand to keep Egypt a market for British goods; and constitutional government, where he felt the people have as much need for it as fish for a bicycle.
The Egyptian elite hated, respected and feared Cromer in equal measures. In time they absorbed many of his flaws, especially disdain for the masses. That disdain has proven to be a heavy legacy dragging down Egypt’s prospects for economic and political development. It can be seen in Nasser’s comment that “letting Egyptians practice politics is like leaving children to play in traffic”. It can also be seen in Sadat’s imperious behavior toward critics, student activists and his own staff. In his final moments he rose to face his assassins perhaps in disbelief that his “children” could commit such an act. The same disdain can be seen in Mubarak’s final speeches in power, where he harangued and pleaded with the revolting masses as their “father”. Even nominally populist movements suffer from this disdain. The Muslim Brotherhood heavy-handed hierarchical structure is disdain built into an organizational chart. Their downfall was due in part to their imperious behavior and a sense that “Murshid knows best”. Like Sadat, they could not believe that the people they claimed to guide and represent could rise with such ferocity against them.
The best democracies distrust the passion of the masses but do not disdain the collective good sense of the people. Until Lord Cromer’s sad legacy is purged from the Egyptian soul, the country will continue to look for strong men to follow and revolt against.
— Maged Atiya