Thursday, December 27, 2012

Egypt's Wily Coyote moment

"#Egypt problem is not #Mubarak, #MB or secular opposition. It's the 'deep state'; intelligence, military, security, judiciary, and mafia." -- Carol Malouf @carolmalouf

Malouf identifies a classic problem in revolutionary times, from the French Revolution to the Weimar Republic and beyond.  The new leaders inherit the old bureaucracy, entrenched in its old ways.   There is arrogance, corruption, incompetence and, more often than not, deliberate obstructionism.   Yet the leaders can do nothing sudden, because they depend on these people.  This also happens, as you no doubt know, within companies and all sorts of other institutions.

I have no idea if Egypt is on the brink of some disaster, but it is certainly a world of necessary make-believe. It's on political thin air.  The legitimacy of the new order is constantly questioned, but on what basis?  on the pretence that there are not only established but valid laws, procedures, ways of doing things.   Trouble is, there aren't.  Like it or not, the hundreds of thousands who risked their lives and the hundreds who died to overthrow Mubarak delegitimized, in the most decisive fashion, the whole of the old régime:  its laws, its constitution, its judiciary, its procedures, its authorities.

In other words, if the impact of the revolution were clearly recognized, it would amount to acknowledging a state of anarchy.  But it is not clearly recognized - not because people don't know perfectly well what's happened, but because they do.  A society can't afford to be without laws, judges, police, army, bureaucracy.  That's what gives Malouf's deep state its still substantial prestige and real-world authority.

So we have something like a make-believe state and government.   It joins new elements to the old, but the new elements are fragile - a leader, assembly, and constitution, all thought to be born of illegality and fraud, all thought to rest on bogus expressions of popular will.  By contrast, the old laws and institutions may start to look pretty good!

The dangers of this situation are as obvious as they are deliberately and understandably under-recognized.  On the one hand, push come to shove, there is no government and there are no laws.  What's more, the new leadership only pretends to have power.   It suits the opposition, of course, to take this pretense as reality:  they speak of Morsi's 'power grab', not admitting that is almost all grab and no power.  At the same time, Morsi's own quite necessary and convenient pretense to run a government just as necessarily causes disappointment and frustration, especially among the less privileged classes.   If he's got a government, why doesn't he deliver?  What of his promises?  When will what's broken be fixed?  After all, people make revolutions because they want change, improvement. Yet Morsi cannot very well excuse himself on the grounds that his whole régime, except for the old régime elements, is pretty much an empty shell.

It could all work out.  The make-believe state could gradually morph into a real state with real power.  Morsi could forge a skillful, inclusive, effective administration.  Or not.  Perhaps, though, the prospects for a happy ending will be brighter if both his supporters and opponents are more ready to admit that, before anything good can happen, the deep state needs to be tamed.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sophisticated' and 'ordinary' Egyptians: who needs lessons in Democracy?

So, the naïve, politically immature, ill-educated, provincial Egyptian people have had their say, and taken their first baby steps in the long road to understanding democracy.

I refer, of course, to the upper middle class opposition who never cease to repeat that Morsi has no mandate and the constitution no legitimacy.  These complaints appear to rest on misconceptions about what democracy is.  It's a system where everyone gets to vote, and a majority of votes determines the outcome.  A majority is 50% plus 1: for multiparty elections, a plurality will do.

The reason for this system of majority/plurality rule - so understood for at least four hundred years - is that it constitutes a clear and practical decision procedure for the determination of popular will.  Here are two notions which may seem to describe clear procedures, but don't: a 'substantial majority', and a majority with a 'good turnout'.  Such procedures suffer from indeterminacy - what majority is substantial enough?  what's a good turnout?  When these questions are left open, it is a recipe for special pleading and just what isn't wanted - indecision.

These other procedures are also, in some circumstances, arguably undemocratic.  Suppose a 2/3 majority is required on a vote for Yes or No, and, oh, say 63% of the voters favor Yes.  Then the minority of voters determines the decision against a majority of voters. That doesn't sound like an expression of popular will.

But what about abstentions?  In the first place, in a decision-making process, you can't count actions that don't select alternatives.  Suppose I abstain.  Did I do so because I thought the process was illegitimate?  Did I do so because I thought the process was legitimate, but I couldn't make up my mind?   Did I do so because I thought my abstention would do more damage to my political opponents than voting against them?  Did I do so because I couldn't get out of bed?  Did I do so because I misunderstood when or where or how I should vote?  Did I do so  because I just didn't care?  With all these open questions, anyone can attribute any significance they like to my abstention.   The idea that some particular interpretation should be privileged is just laughable.

This is not to say that low turnout is desirable.   The higher the turnout, the clearer the expression of popular will.  But everyone is free to vote or not to vote, and if they want things unclear, or don't care, so be it.  The alternative is to invalidate low-turnout elections, which is a non-starter.  A nation needs to make decisions, and if the decisions are to be made at all, they must be made on the basis of the deciders.  And of course many other features of democracy are desirable - among other things, informed discussions in which no one feels constrained from expressing his opinion, good will all around, responsible media, appropriate funding for all political parties, good weather on election day.   Democracies can be better or worse, but they are no less democracies for all that.

Elections do have to be free and fair according to real-world standards.  In Egypt's elections, as in countless other elections in many other nations at all stages of development, there were irregularities.  It is essential that irregularities invalidate elections only if they are exceptionally extensive.  Otherwise, once again, there is no decision procedure:  anyone could deliberately commit an irregularity and undermine the whole process.   Each person would be, in that very real sense, a dictator.  This is perhaps the most prominent outcome to be avoided in any democracy.

Perhaps this makes democracy undesirable.  If one doesn't like a democratic system, then perhaps it is better to fight for some other system - a monarchy, an patrician 'republic', a dictatorship, a one-party state - than to pretend one is a democrat.

I hope this little lesson in democracy will not fall on deaf ears - that is, I hope the secularist politicians, journalists, professors, bloggers and generally clever minds of Egypt's privileged classes will get it.  Morsi won.  The Brotherhood won.  If you don't like it, organize, don't bullshit.  The Brotherhood is far more vulnerable in power than out of it:  as many have pointed out, no government is going to cure anything like all Egypt's ills.  Ill-founded pontificating about democracy is just bad focus and a waste of opportunity.

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?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Freedom versus democracy in Egypt

In the revolution of January 25 - February 11, the demands seemed clear.  There was a cry for freedom and a cry for the fall of the old régime - Mubarak, his cronies, his party, and his allies in the security forces.    There was no cry for democracy.   Why spell it out?  doesn't democracy walk hand in hand with freedom?   If you want freedom and the fall of the old régime, isn't it obvious that democracy is your goal?

If these questions seem rhetorical, it's because the world has sucked up a key tenet of American ideology:  that democracy and political freedom are for all practical purposes the same thing.   Not only the media but virtually the whole of political science and philosophy have piled obfuscation upon obfuscation to make this identification work.   But for Egypt's secular liberals it doesn't work at all, and the aftermath of the revolution has made this brutally clear.

Democracy, obfuscation aside, is government  by the people.   Government by the people has, since at least the 17th Century, been understood as majority rule.   So democracy - given a broad enough electorate - is majority rule.   And everyone who speaks of democracy will tell you that real-world democracies 'aren't perfect'.   There will be some voting irregularities, redistricting issues, violation of media advertising rules, some dirty tricks.    This isn't considered enough to invalidate a popular mandate.   That would take something like imprisoning candidates, shutting down TV stations, massive voter fraud, widespread attacks on polls.   Otherwise, getting a majority confers democratic legitimacy.

What then of freedom?  It can be collective, or individual.   Collective freedom is indeed embodied in democracy:  it consists in a people running its own affairs.  Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could claim to favor collective freedom.   But this is not at all the sort of freedom associated with secular liberalism.   Secular liberals believe in individual freedom.   That normally means civil liberties, which protect individual thought and expression.

Contrary to American ideology, individual freedom is not democratic.   It's anti-democratic as its clearest advocate, John Stuart Mill,  was well aware.   It bears no relationship to collective freedom:  a people running its own affairs may decide that individuals should have lots of freedom, or very little.   People almost never speak of collective freedom as anything but democracy, and I'll follow that practice.  I'll take 'freedom' to mean 'individual freedom',  a reference to  the rights enshrined in liberal values - freedom of speech and religion, for instance.

It turns out that in the January 25th revolution everyone was opposed to the old régime, but probably for different reasons.   It looks like some wanted individual freedom and some, collective freedom.   In the shorthand of contemporary politics: some wanted freedom, and others democracy.   The ones who wanted freedom included intellectuals, middle class urban youth, non-conformists of various stamps, progressively-minded members of the élite who deplored what one observer called 'the stalled society'.   The ones who wanted democracy included the poor, who thought their own parties and elected representatives would be a lot less likely to shaft them.   Of course the lines weren't sharply drawn, but they were discernible.

The division emerged when elections brought Islamists to power, first in Parliament, then to the Presidency.   The liberal secularists who wanted freedom rightly saw this as a threat.    But their response suggests that they were (and still are)  caught in the 'freedom is democracy'  mindset.   First they pretended the election was invalid because of minor irregularities.   Then they were upset that Parliament, as was its right, stuffed the Constitutional Assembly with Islamists.   There were other sources of liberal outrage, most notably Morsi's assault on the judiciary.    The liberals called this anti-democratic and then, dictatorial, an accusation which lost force when Morsi rescinded its most 'dictatorial' parts.

This accusation had little basis to start with.   It was based on the seemingly democratic but actually anti-democratic belief that any institutions other than those created by the elections have some sort of political legitimacy.   They didn't and don't.    Democratic legitimacy comes only from popular will and is conferred only on elected representatives or the institutions they create.   From a democratic standpoint, only the president and parliament had such legitimacy.   Invoking the judiciary as a check on presidential or parliamentary power only makes sense if the judiciary is the product of democratic procedures within a framework of democratic institutions.   Egypt's judiciary is nothing of the kind.   Morsi's decrees usurped nothing.   They simply made plain the political fact that the judiciary had no legitimate authority.    Perhaps the judges were decent and right,  perhaps Morsi is evil and wrong, but that didn't make his actions the least bit undemocratic.

There is also nothing undemocratic about the disinclination of Parliament to give liberals a substantial say in the Constitutional Assembly.   Elected representatives are supposed to follow what they judge to be in the best interests of the electorate, not to accommodate the views of all segments of the electorate.   Democracy, to repeat, is nothing more than  rule by the people.  It's 'narrowly majoritarian', to use the expression favored by those who want it to be something else.  It doesn't have to be good, just, inclusive, progressive or tolerant.   Maybe the people, the majority, don't want it to be.

The problem this raises for liberals doesn't reduce to Mubarak redux.   Perhaps they thought they were for freedom and democracy, but they have shown themselves to be against democracy because what they really want is freedom.   Nothing unreasonable or unjustified about that: democracy, properly understood, isn't all it's cracked up to be.    But not admitting it, not even recognizing it, doesn't seem to have served the liberals well.   Their polemics are full of bogus claims about dictatorship,  and, what is worse, pretenses that they are the innocent victims of violence rather than perpetrators as well.  It's not clear why this talk can be expected to expand their political base.  Their allies of convenience have become the partisans of the old régime, without whom the liberals have no chance of overcoming democracy.   They needn't be told, though, to be careful of what they wish for.

What's the alternative?   To convince enough of the majority that liberals will do better by them than the Islamists.   This probably doesn't mean promising more civil liberties!   It probably means demonstrating a real commitment to improving the lives of the poor.   In other words it means doing what brought the Islamists to power in the first place.   There don't seem to be any shortcuts to acquiring popular support, and allying with the felool has apparently made Morsi's supporters even more distrustful of the liberals.   Fighting for freedom in a democracy is no easier than doing so in a dictatorship -just different.