Monday, December 17, 2012

Egyptian ideologies: for whom?

The following are two afterthoughts to "Freedom versus democracy in Egypt".   The first is a regretful reconsideration of whether Egyptian secularists want either democracy or freedom.  The second concerns the role of anti-Islamist sentiment.


The revolutionaries fought bravely for freedom and democracy.  Since they knew that Egypt had become a conservative Islamic society,  they must have been disappointed, not surprised, when the country - the people - voted in an Islamist.   Well, no matter, there's still freedom - maybe the revolutionaries were really fighting for civil liberties, fair judicial procedure, an end to torture and military rule.

It turns out that isn't true either.   The first priority of the revolutionaries appears to be the protection of their un-Islamic life-styles from the stifling sanctions and, frankly, lower-class displays of the Moslem Brotherhood.   And, in the face of a majority, the best way to secure that objective is to restore the old régime, in the form it has taken, more or less, since 1952 -  army rule, or a puppet civilian administration under the patronizing tutelage  of the military.   No wonder you hardly ever hear secularists worrying about military rule if the No vote wins the referendum.

The proof of this unappetising pudding is in the following news item. When the army stepped back into politics to call a 'reconciliation conference', who played along?   According to a Reuters report,  "Moussa also said he would attend the army's unity talks, along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and the liberal Wafd party leader Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour".   So  it is not just the right wing of the opposition that finds it cute to ally with the army against Morsi:  it is practically the whole opposition, the whole spectrum, left to right.  They will not sit down with the Brotherhood but they will gladly lend their stamp of legitimacy to the murderers and torturers of the old régime.  This after claiming - mysteriously - that the army and the Brotherhood are hand in glove!

Why?  Perhaps it has to do with an unwillingness to take on the Brotherhood at its base, which would mean trying to doing more for the the poor than the Brotherhood has done over all these years.  That would be a lot of work for a movement that seems to care more about its own graffiti than about the lower  classes.   There are many complaints that Morsi has done nothing for the disadvantaged, yet Morsi doesn't even have a government yet.  The 'revolutionaries' could be in the poor quarters right now, organising about something a little more immediate than the constitution.   Where are the marches when yet another house collapses in the slums?  Where are they when the poor cannot get urgent medical care at free hospitals, or afford the private ones?   Where are they when the Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Development ignores pleas to fix a burst sewer pipe?  Where are they when people go hungry?

This is not, in the final analysis, about altruism or sincerity; it is about self-interest.   There is no reason why better-off Egyptians should be any readier than the rest of us to dedicate our lives to others.  But if the revolutionaries don't want an Islamist state, shouldn't they expand their constituency?  Mightn't it be better to gain the support of the poor than to cozy up to the generals?


The concern among Egyptian liberals about what Egypt would become under the Brotherhood has puzzled me.   Isn't Egypt an Islamist society already?  Since Islamist norms put little constraint on men and great constraint on women, it's easiest to address the question in the context of women's situations.

In Egypt today, the overwhelming majority of women wear the veil.  Dressing as you like on the street invites nightmarish experiences; typically your life is one of submission in which you may or may not be complicit.   Liberal-minded but nominal Muslims have found the atmosphere stifling for decades now.   Why fear what seems to have happened already, not because of but in spite of politics?   Mubarak's secularist régime was powerless to stop the spread of an Islamist social movement.

But then I realised that class plays a role here.   It is the relatively wealthy women who have reason to dread  an Islamist state.   If you are well-off, you can travel, you can even move abroad for long periods of time, you can always escape.  You have a good education.  This induces strong expectations of a free and equal existence.   And in Egypt, your expectations are partly fulfilled.   You can live in wealthy quarters where there is a measure of personal freedom.  You may have, or can aspire to, a job in a workplace where you are respected.   You have something to lose.   Not so among the less privileged working and rural classes.  A Muslim woman from those classes has had no choice, for a long  long time.  She has no rational basis for expecting an improvement in her situation which, after all, was forged within a secular state.  The choice in Egypt is not whether or not to have an Islamist society.   It is whether or not to force the upper classes to conform to Islamist norms.

The oppressiveness of an Islamist state makes no difference to the poorer classes, who already feel the full force of an oppressive Islamist society.  A genuine belief in freedom - not just 'freedom for me' - involves a commitment to make a difference at all levels of society.  If that isn't going to be at the top of  the agenda, arguing about shari'a in the constitution is just selfishness.   Why then is so much attention devoted to likely futile constitutional battles, and so little to working for social change?


  1. You are thinking too much about poor vs. rich rather than subgroups. Even among the poor there are two groups that might escape islamization:

    a) The urban poor
    b) The Christians

    (a) has a lot to lose form an Islamic society. Without trade, technology, investment, international finance they could well see a huge drop in their standard of living, with the possibility of de-urbanization being accomplished by starvation and disease. Rural people have fallbacks as the economy shrinks that the urban poor do not.

    (b) Christians right now are a discriminated minority that are rapidly losing their ability to function. The Islamists have made it pretty clear that slow ethnic cleansing is their goal. So they have a lot to lose.

    Now in terms of the middle class's interest what the secularists are doing is creating exactly what a democracy needs to avoid majoritarianism a system of check and balances. Essentially 3 branches of the government:

    i) A military which is an independent meritocracy.
    ii) An Islamic parliament and presidency
    iii) A financial system controlled by the people who had economic power under the old regime.

    Those 3 branches check one another. And absolutely they being to create a more free society because they check one another. Secularists who are able to play a strong role in (iii) intrinsically. They have some role in (i) and (ii). Moreover when (ii), the Islamist parliament, wishes to coordinate economic policy, that is coordinate with (iii), they are going to need the support of the secularists. If the government has need to check the army, (i) the will need a at the very least a supermajority of (ii), the parliament.

    It wasn't the secularists that decided to create a situation where the democratic government would be weak. That was Morsi. If at some point the Islamists decide they are interested in being a government for all of Egypt then things will change.

    A genuine belief in freedom - not just 'freedom for me' - involves a commitment to make a difference at all levels of society. If that isn't going to be at the top of the agenda, arguing about shari'a in the constitution is just selfishness. Why then is so much attention devoted to likely futile constitutional battles, and so little to working for social change?

    They tried to do that. They tried to oppose an Islamic state, they tried passionate and desperately and they still lost. Now they are on to plan (b) creating the breathing room for secular regions to exist in urban areas. That's what the situation is like in many countries the cities are "liberal" while the countryside is "conservative".

    And absolutely they are going to within a few years create a real choice for women. If the cities are free poor rural women who wish to escape Islam/Sharia will be able to move to the cities for freedom and have a worse life economically but far more personal dignity. Conversely young urban women who wish economic security will be able to sell their dignity and freedom by marrying rural.

    Is it an ideal situation? No, of course not. But it is the best the secularists can achieve. They have a terrible hand to play.


  2. The Muslim brotherhood probably is a party that does represent the interests and values of the rural poor. The don't have to appeal to the urban poor, they are the urban poor. A middle class secularists party can't compete with that. Running a better orphanage for a few years isn't going to change the fundamental political situation in Egypt. What might change is it a sharp rise in living standards in urban areas inducing a migration towards urban areas, which induces deterioration of extended family ties and traditional support structures. What might change that is a rural secularists movement caused by widespread disgust with the Muslim Brotherhood over issues of corruption, as they unable to deliver on their promises.

    But those processes take generations. In the meanwhile the secularists are doing the best they can to prevent the light of freedom from going out entirely.

  3. That should have read:

    The don't have to appeal to the rural poor, they are the rural poor. A middle class secularists party can't compete with that

  4. Amusing to see this re-orientation and "discovery" ---that in the final analysis, there are parties that represent or feel to represent the poor, and others who don't, irrespective of their religious inclinations. In other words, what exactly is their interaction with labour and capital? And does it represent a class interest? You can be fundamentalist as hell and yet have a lumpen proletarian zeal or a proletarian affinity. And in every country that should still regard itself to be part of the third world, this is not a revelation. It is reality. A wide range of parties with reactionary cultural politics, could still invoke a nationalist bourgeois perspective, while the most culturally liberal could very well represent a comprador frame of mind, in essence when it comes to foreign capital. In the western mindset, where "democracy" has instilled a boring affinity for flat earth righteousness and a tendency towards preaching to the other, a rediscovery of the class basis for each political formation would be a good idea.

    1. Your observations are indeed not discoveries, but they also seem slightly off-base. Sincerity and affinities aren't at issue here; it's not a matter of expecting a new social order. No one thinks any kind of proletariat is threatening any kind of bourgeoisie or that the two sides are drawn up along class lines. The opposition includes some workers and some non-liberal, socialist parties. The Brotherhood certainly includes a lot of middle class people. It's more that the Brotherhood has helped the poor in ways one would expect in a capitalist welfare state - hardly a threat to the middle classes. To retain political clout, the opposition must either do roughly the same, or embrace the military and the old régime. It appears at least to be considering the latter alternative. This is too bad, because the opposition would sacrifice nothing by imitating the Brotherhood in helping the poor.

      Sure, it would be great if some party actually wanted to address poverty by changing the social order and, unlike the current parties, actually had some chance of doing so. But nothing so fundamental is on the horizon. It's simply a matter of whether cultural liberals are going to pursue their self-interest by working for the limited sort of improvements associated with a welfare state. So far, any move in that direction hasn't got much beyond lip service.