What is the matter with Egyptian Authoritarianism?

Authoritarianism, the default governance mode in Egypt, is always offered as a cure or a necessity, and with the pious declaration that the ruler has no interest in power, merely assuming the troubling mantle to serve his children. The most notable aspect of this observation is the sincerity of the declaration, and the willingness of many, including intellectuals, to go along with its fundamental reasoning. This is not historically unique; Raymond Aron noted that most European societies achieved modernization and prosperity under authoritarian governance. But Egyptian authoritarianism is a slightly different breed, having evolved in an environment where the country has been a province of other empires for millennia, and with a permanent separation between the state and the people,  as well as having a persistent poverty and cultural retardation that cannot be wholly explained given the country’s wealth in human resources. Egypt’s singular problem is underdevelopment, something that many recognize yet refuse to admit in a straightforward fashion. The persistence of authoritarianism, like the persistence of underdevelopment raises the question of why Egypt seemingly can’t escape either. The roots of authoritarianism are both cultural and economic, and of the two the latter is more amenable to a solution, and might ultimately influence the former in a positive fashion. And it is to the economic factors that must turn some attention.

The question of “What is the matter with Egypt?” is gaining some currency, no doubt due to the post-January 2011 disappointments. Egypt can’t seem to follow the bright and hopeful script written for it by others. The question echoes that of Thomas Frank’s book “What is the matter with Kansas?” where he argues that cultural and identity issues make Kansans vote against their economic interests. Kansas, weather aside, is a perfectly lovely place in spite of Frank’s valid concerns. The same question can be asked of many places, both functioning and broken, and largely reflects the questioner’s anxiety.  Yet there is a common thread between Kansas and Egypt in the transmutation of the economic struggle into other struggles. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in the 1930s that the abolition of property in the Soviet Union will simply move the inevitable human conflict from the economic to the far more dangerous political and cultural spheres. It is a profound observation that can easily be applied to an understanding of what ails Egypt. Egypt has transmuted its economic struggles into either nationalist or religious struggles. These struggles are fraternal twins bound to be occasional collaborators and frequent bitter enemies. To the eyes of its sons, and largely oppressed daughters, the poverty of Egypt was never a problem to be tackled head on in direct fashion, but a by-product of another larger phenomenon. It was due to the foreigners’ exploitation of the country (the nationalist narrative) or the West’s war on Islam (the religious narrative). Once a problem is made indirect and subsidiary to other less tangible issues it becomes that much more intractable.

There are plenty of demons that haunt Egypt, but no more so than most nations. Nativism, hyper-nationalism, authoritarian governance, religious chauvinism and bigotry are social ills not uncommon elsewhere. We can find reasons why these ills may retard economic development, yet Egypt’s economic underdevelopment remains a mystery especially when compared to other nations. In the 1850s Egypt was ahead of Japan by most measures, but within 50 years Japan had leapt into the forefront of economic and technological achievements, while Egypt stagnated. It can be said that Japan was at least as authoritarian, nativist and hyper-nationalistic as Egypt. Korea was a devastated mess in 1956, but within a decade it also leapt ahead of Egypt. It was governed by an Army elite, as least as repressive as Nasser’s core of Free Officers. Authoritarianism is less a cause of underdevelopment than its companion, both children of deeper ills.

Egypt experienced many waves of economic development, modernization and state building since the 1770s, with major roles played by foreigners, or more accurately foreign Egyptians, for mostly they took to the country even if at times they disliked it. Muhammad Ali imported them for his imperial project; Lord Cromer relied on them to administer Egypt for the British Empire, even while developing a cadre of native functionaries. The economic elite included a smattering of foreign-born Egyptians and many Egyptians who emulated foreign manners. To the average Egyptian, prosperity came to seem as a foreign trait. It was all too easy to conflate the desire for prosperity and social justice with the cry of “taking back Egypt”. This was a subtle component of ‘Urabi’s appeal in 1880s, the direct cry of the Egyptian revolution in 1919, and almost the entirety of Nasser’s economic plan in 1950s and 1960s. This nativism proved destructive in a world where prosperity and openness to global influences were increasingly intertwined. It also created a mindset where development is a by-product of restoring national greatness. Of course the very opposite is true. In many ways Egypt is a country shackled by its history. The desire to restore ancient greatness, whether of the Ancient Egyptians or the Muslim Empires, often detracts from a much more realizable goal; achieving a decent level of prosperity common to midsize countries. The myth of Egypt as an exceptional place, a grand edifice buried in the sands and needing restoration by its people is debilitating, forcing backward glances rather than a forward vision, and useless arguments about which heritage is worth restoring. The pursuit of greatness can detract from the simpler tasks of developing a country where the buildings are well-tended, the roads are safe, the trains stay on track, the ferries remain afloat, and the police does not habitually beat the citizens, or vice versa. Somehow, the slogan of “let us be as wealthy as Slovenia” does not resonate well in Egypt. The country seems to respond to leaders who ask it to bat for the fences while handing it a flimsy stick for the purpose.

Authoritarianism is harmful at an individual level, inflicting injustices and suffering on those who cross its path, willingly or accidentally. It is also harmful at a communal level, robbing the country of contrary voices that call out potential disasters in the making. Yet, few practical remedies are actually offered, beyond the obvious exhortation to be “more democratic and inclusive”. The trick of course is not to become democratic, but to remain so; especially when the competing political forces are fundamentally authoritarian. Inclusiveness sounds like a virtue, until subjected to a critical review of what exactly is being “included’ in the political mix. In Egypt’s case authoritarianism has become tied to a political and economic system (Statism) that leaves it the favorite among all other choices. “Statism”, or the belief that the State, not the society, is the ultimate manifestation of the nation, is endemic to Egyptian political thinking. Ultra-nationalists see it as the path to national greatness. Islamists see it as the way to create a more pious and godly society. Even revolutionaries see it as the way to foster social justice. As a result authoritarian governance seems to draw strength from both its supporters, through the promise of greatness, and its opponents, through the fear of chaos. This raises the question of whether there is a path out of this doleful loop.

Some months ago, at a breakfast with an Egyptian activist, he asked for advice on how to best alter the Egyptian state. I offered that if you do not like the state the choices are limited to two; leave the country, or build alternate structures away from the state that create just the set of social conditions he advocates with sincere passion. The second option is the most difficult, but perhaps most rewarding, as it will entail moral compromises and moral disillusions. Meeting a payroll or culling of the unproductive, can make a man or a woman quickly lose absolute faith in great ideals. That is the beginning of a healthy political system, where not all battles are for great causes, and not all losses are historical disasters. Sadly, the advice not only fell on deaf ears, but it encouraged the young man to see in his interlocutor a moral coward, a regime supporter, and a lifelong enemy.

There is a statement, attributed to famous editor and left-of-center intellectual, Hani Shukrallah, that “It is interesting that the dynamic of revolution and counter-revolution reduces social and political conflict to its bare bones, rendering it almost a moral struggle: between reason and idiocy, compassion and heartless cruelty, i.e. the best and the worst in human condition!”. Many in Egypt find this statement admirable, even righteous. To this author it encapsulates, in its Manichean and certain views, why Egyptian intellectuals have failed to create a democratic alternative. If you simply take out “revolution” and “counter-revolution” and substitute the cherished heaven and bogeymen of militant Islamism, or ultra-nationalism, the statement could have been uttered by any of their proponents. Egypt does not lack for intelligence, or courage, or moral certainly; it lacks for tolerance of diversity. Every opponent is not a detestable enemy, and every ally is not a paragon of virtue. The struggle between reason and idiocy, cruelty and compassion, is within every individual, and the recognition of moral fallibility and associated lack of certainty produces a profound distrust of such statements. In that lies the beginning of politics as a human endeavor to reconcile the needs of the many for the interest of the whole.

One must end this post on a note of hopeful pessimism. That Egypt will endure authoritarian governance, and its ills, until a new generation decides to develop the country in different ways. Unlike the previous generations of foreigners who took to the country, these are natives who withdraw from its conventions; becoming apostates to its visions of national greatness, public piety, and hysterical fears. They will seek to develop not the country, but its inhabitants, one soul at a time. They will not demand selflessness and sacrifice from the “people”, but promote self-interest moderated by concern for rules. Until then the country will be doomed to cherish the past, fear the present, and chart magical courses for the future.


— Maged Atiya

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