Saturday, June 29, 2013

Egypt - An Outsider's View

It's understood that societies exert pressure on their members in various general ways - the state through laws and penalties, the economic order through the demands of employment and unemployment, the society through various forms of persuasion, condemnation and sometimes illegal intimidation.  Of course there are also rewards and inducements of various kinds.  Egypt is no exception.

Egyptians in impressive numbers and with great courage, rebelled against an oppressive government.  What's happened?

The military and 'security establishment', semi-independent organs of capricious and brutal repression, escaped scott-free.  The entire power of the state detached itself from the state and did what it pleased.  In return, the popularity of these institutions, known for torture and murder, soared.  The 'revolutionaries', or more accurately the people dissatisfied with the old order, divided into a more or less liberal, secular opposition, Islamists of various kinds, and a tiny remnant of true left-wingers opposed to the army and police. (The division was rough and the parts themselves diverse, but a rough picture will do.)  Virtually all society's anger was channelled into intergroup dissension, and away from the army and police.

Where was the government in all this?  There was no government, but only a few officials and representatives who came to power in a disputed election, under a constitution decreed by some generals without the slightest hint of democratic procedure, and interpreted by those same judges who so often presided with equanimity over the injustices and oppression of the old rĂ©gime.  They and the army destroyed every attempt by the Islamists, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, to establish something like a state.  There was no legislature; the army through its cabinet posts loomed over the executive branch, and the judiciary led the way in making sure these constraints could not be overcome.

The opposition, largely spectators in this demeaning circus, developed an ideology in line with the increasingly contemptuous approach of the army and police to the efforts of the elected officials to govern.  This ideology had two main components.

The first was to pretend that the non-government was a government, and therefore responsible for the failure to govern.  The army, police and judges responsible for this failure were entirely exempted from responsibility for its consequences.

The second was to offer, with great pretense of sagacity, an absurd theory of democracy according to which the non-government, contrary to the most obvious appearances, was authoritarian.  It was authoritarian because democracy, it seemed, was not about majority rule, but about giving the minority some unspecified but large share of power.  Any attempt by the government to assert its authority against the security establishment, or to  populate state institutions with its own choices, was welcomed with pretentious horror - even the epithet 'fascist' was shamelessly attached to these quite normal attempts to govern.  Meanwhile people went hungry.  The opposition made no attempt to help them, but very occasionally used them as a stick to beat the 'government' down some more.

Why did this happen?  Whatever the whole story, part of it had to do with class.

The revolution was, according to the slogans, for freedom.  To its instigators, largely middle-class, that meant civil liberties and exemption from repressive social constraints.  As might be expected, their ideals amounted to classic liberalism.  To much of the rest of the population, freedom meant above all democracy.  Now, they thought, we get to decide how things run.  And most of this group were Islamist.  Their ideology was anti-liberal, all about social regimentation and at best indifferent to individual liberties.  But this was no ordinary confrontation of liberal and anti-liberal forces.  It intensified and festered from refusal to acknowledge a great big elephant in the room.

This elephant was deep-seated inequality of opportunity.  The liberals were fighting an oppressive social order from which they had largely enjoyed independence.  The anti-liberals represented those for whom there was no such escape.

The liberals realized with increasing clarity that what they really feared was not dictatorship but the imposition of an Islamic lifestyle.  Any other sort of freedom didn't really matter.  They could hardly have be clearer about their priorities:  had they really cared about civil liberties, they would never have come to embrace as saviors the murdering, torturing army and police.  As for democracy, they had discovered what they could not admit:  it was their enemy, the very instrument that sought to on them impose an Islamist lifestyle.  It was this discovery that engendered their absurd, pretentious notions of a democracy that had to be 'so much more' than vulgar majority rule.

The liberals did have one thing right:  democracy is indeed a tyranny of the majority, limited only by self-imposed constraints.  And the liberals may have had excellent reason to fight democracy in Egypt.  But, incredibly, they did not or could not recognize that their fight was only for the privileged few.  For the majority, that fight was already lost, and no political arrangements could reverse their defeat.

The most convenient way to see this is in its most prominent aspect, the position of women.  Middle-class or upper-middle class women in Egypt had some freedom.  They had homes and hangouts in which they could almost dress and do as they please, yet be treated with respect.  Of course this was worth a great deal, almost everything to them, and middle-class men had similar life-style concerns.  This was well worth fighting for, even if it meant promoting an absurd ideology and hoping for a puppet government under the paternal eye of the criminally repressive police and military.  In short it was worth re-establishing the old order.

But this agenda could make sense only to the less deprived segments of society.  For the rest, there was no escape.  The old order had not protected them and a new old order would not be able to do so.  They had to accept Islamic constraints.  For them, the liberal agenda was a pipe dream.

Everyone knew this, but no one said it.  Everyone had seen what was essentially an Islamist social order arise after decades of failed though persistently repressive secularist governments.  For most women, liberty had already been lost.  Not for them the good job with the good salary and the trips abroad.  They could never hope to defy the communities in which they lived.  The liberty defended so passionately by the opposition was a privilege to which they could not aspire.

That is why the revolution degenerated into a poisonous stalemate.  The liberals had a certain constituency that they could not in short order expand, because they had nothing to offer the lower orders of society.  The lower orders, for whom freedom was out of reach, wanted at least democracy, the power of collective self-determination.  Since this was only a threat to the better-off strata of society, they too could not expand their support.  The result was increasing and increasingly dangerous polarization, all to the benefit of the very repressive institutions whose excesses prompted the revolution in the first place.  The liberals might gain temporary advantage if people believe they can offer competent government, but they would be just as crippled in power as the Islamists:T the police and military will ensure the continuance of an order over which they so profitably preside.

Could things have gone differently?  Could they still?  The liberals could accept democracy.  Failing that, they could and can prevail only if they accept what the Islamists accepted many years ago - that the road to power had to lead through society itself.  The Islamists achieved what they achieved, social transformation and an electoral majority, by working with and for the poor in the slums.  They cared about the poor or at least catered to them, when no one else did, not in any useful way.  The liberals can win only if they travel that same long hard road. They can get behind the efforts of the left and the trade unions to improve the lot of 'the people'. Otherwise, they can content themselves with counter-revolution.


  1. Or they could do what I suggested 7 months ago. They could define democracy not as bare majoritarianism but instead a sequence of checks and balances where people trade off interests with one another. The Islamists can engage in the very hard work of politics: advancing a set of policies you don't like in exchange for getting stuff you love, killing policies you hate but having to advance policies you disagree with.

    You were arguing at the time the Islamists could and should rule by virtue of having a few more percentage points that the liberals. The Islamists more or less agreed and for now the liberals cut a better deal with the Nasserite / Old regime. There is no good reason for the liberals to advance majoritarianism.

    If the poor are worthy of self governance then they need to learn political calculus:
    The liberals hate Sharia. They can and they will undermine a sharia based government.
    There are either going to be civil protections or there isn't going to be a functioning democratic government.
    What's your pleasure?

    That's the begging of politics. If the poor are worthy of self rule then its time they learn to start evaluating other people's wants and needs and not just their own. Realizing that in a successful government, including a democracy, policy is made through coalitions of interests.

    1. So in order to avert the right of the majority to rule and to serve the minority (liberals) you would go as far as designing a new system of democracy where the winners of the people's vote surrender some of their rights to the minority...
      I am truly amazed at your reasoning, because I'm certain that you wouldn't go that far if situation was the other way around.

    2. That's not a new system of democracy that's all democracies. I have no idea what country you are from but many systems are designed to prevent bare majorities from exercising unlimited powers.

      For example take the US at the Federal level.

      1) There is a constitution which requires 2/3rds of both houses and 3/4ths of the states to change. That constitution severely limits what the majority can do.

      2) The legislature is composed of two bodies, the upper chamber is reflective of the states not the population and thus a bare majority, unless it is very lucky, is unlikely to have control of both chambers.

      3) The court system is appointed slowly by the president and the senate. While at any point the senate can remove justices that requires 2/3rds, so a bare majority can not rule the courts.


      These sorts of balances requiring super majorities are common. The system of government where 50%+1 give you unlimited power is majoritarianism not democracy. I think democracy is far better than majoritarianism. Obviously were Morsi proposing good laws that benefit Egypt and Egyptians I'm going to supportive even if he were a majoritarian. Bad policy makes bad process even worse. Good policy passed by bad process is a much more complex moral decision. For example I'm pro-choice but disagree with Roe vs. Wade because the process concerns outweigh the policy advantages. I have process concerns about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but were I in congress at the time because there the policy were worth the constitutional damage. Not everything is all black and white, you often have weigh things on both sides of the scale.

      I was somewhat supportive of Morsi in the beginning, somewhat hopeful even though I disagreed Islamification. The point at which I felt that the NSF had the right to play footsie with anti-democratic forces was when Morsi created a majoritarian constitutional committee and then sought to pass it with a simple majority referendum. Undemocratic laws can be fixed. A constitution must be democratic. What he was doing was permanently restructuring the society and that 50%+1 most certainly does not entitle you to do. That was simply way over the line and at that point he ceased to be a good government.

      Now if had been a liberal constitution forced through on a bare majority... I might very well be more supportive. I'd still disagree with the process but the outcome would be wonderful as to override those concerns.

    3. First, apologies to Anonymous. Gmail represented him/her as replying to me, not CD Host.

      When people make claims about what is democratic, they are not making claims about what constitutes a system with some democratic and some anti-democratic elements. Almost all systems are like that: it the Electors voted in the Holy Roman Empire, then that system had a democratic element.

      You can prefer a system with anti-democratic elements to a pure democracy, if you like. You can even call that system, loosely, 'a democracy', just as we call a coin with some high percentage of gold a gold coin. What you cannot do is pretend that a pure democracy is undemocratic because it fails to include some anti-democratic constraint you favor. You also can't pretend that an impure democracy is undemocratic simply because it fails to include some constraint you like. Morsi's democracy was far more democratic for not including the opposition's preferred constraints. Pretending otherwise is either obtuseness or bad faith, or some combination of the two.

    4. We've had this argument 6 months ago when I dug up the very definitions from roman law and latin. Polybius and other Greeks were quite careful to distinguish their democracy from simple mob rule, "Similarly, it is not enough to constitute a democracy that the whole crowd of citizens should have the right to do whatever they wish or propose. But where reverence to the gods, succour of parents, respect to elders, obedience to laws, are traditional and habitual, in such communities, if the will of the majority prevail, we may speak of the form of government as a democracy." Aristotle in the Politics defines a Constitutional Democracy as a system which constrains the law and he considers those constraints fundamental to a proper democracy. He classifies what you are calling democracy quite negative for example, "And it would seem to be a reasonable criticism to say that such a democracy is not a constitution at all; for where the laws do not govern there is no constitution, as the law ought to govern all things while the magistrates control particulars, and we ought to judge this to be constitutional government; if then democracy really is one of the forms of constitution, it is manifest that an organization of this kind, in which all things are administered by resolutions of the assembly, is not even a democracy in the proper sense, for it is impossible for a voted resolution to be a universal rule."

      Now you can argue the people who invented the word don't know what it means and in fact mob rule is the only kind of democracy but I stand in pretty good company in denying mob role (ochlocracy) that status. Most people today, like the United Nations and the EU define democracy in a way that includes other properties beyond merely voting. I think the weight of evidence is that today's use of the term "democracy" requires things like an ongoing rule of law with people equal before that law while majoritarianism does not. There is nothing disingenuous about denying that Egypt's government was a democracy. Voting is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

      You oppose Israel. If there were an election tomorrow throughout all of greater israel between Khaled Mashal and Benjamin Netanyahu about who should rule Benjamin Netanyahu would win a narrow victory. Would that vote then legitimize everything else that Netanyahu wants to do? Hitler's death camps were they voted on might very well have had majority support, so what? I don't even understand what your point is anymore. You seem to be arguing that because in 2011 the Egyptians didn't understand the word "democracy" didn't mean all the good stuff that they associated with it should be governed forever by an Islamic tyrant who holds votes before he ruins their society.

      But assume I was wrong, Egypt's majoritarian system was really one of the only democracies in the world while the government of the: USA, Denmark, Canada, UK ... were only falsely called democracies. False Democracies would have the people actual want because it has the properties they care about like enhancing freedom, and guaranteeing the ability for people to meaningfully petition the government for redress of grievances. True Democracies (ochlocracies) wouldn't have those properties but they get the "democracy sticker" while those False Democracies just have good government. Nothing changes about Egypt. Since False Democracy is what produces good results and True Democracy is a nightmare system often worse than dictatorship even though they get the sticker. There still would be nothing wrong with people rejecting True Democracies for False Democracies.

  2. Well I guess now we aren't discussing the ifs for a while. The MB government has fallen and the NSF / SCAF is in control.

    My hope would be a new constitution that devolves social power to local governments. It appears the cities are perfectly willing to have a secular government rather than the MB and the rural areas still want MB government. Local social policy and local enforcement creates a fine compromise. Tourism might be a good way to introduce this. Most Egyptians know the MB scares the hell out of tourists. Alcohol, bikinis, gambling are musts for the Egyptian economy. MB policies like citizen’s arrest of Western tourists for blasphemy, which go beyond even Saudi Arabia have low support. Egyptians are comfortable with different laws apply to tourists, just extending this to cities and Egyptians themselves might work to sell this.

    The other immediate problem is farming. This appears to be a problem with incompetence and a black market. Wheat is being diverted away from official sources and towards unofficial sources. There were substantial failures in areas like irrigation. It appears that the NSF engineers weren't willing to work hard under Islamist bosses and the effects on the economy was 8.7m tons vs. 9.5m tons of wheat. I'm not sure what a good compromise is here. Maybe something like agribusiness between the government and the farmers which allows the farmers to have bosses they respect and the engineers to have bosses they respect.

    As far as Morsi he lied about this shortfall. There was a good test this year of the utility of faithfulness to God to generate wheat vs. the more pedestrian fertilizer, harvesting promptly and good irrigation. God lost. People seem to be only taking this out on the MB but one can only hope that maybe a few Islamists start asking deeper questions. And if they do, that opens up even better possibilities for Egypt.