Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Spontaneity, democracy and change in Egypt

Even Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen have noted the presence of a remarkably tolerant and plural atmosphere inside Midan al-Tahrir.  They and other foreign observers have also noted elements of self-organization inside the Midan.  What they haven’t noticed, and probably haven’t really known or understood, is how events in the streets and neighborhoods of Egypt, as well as in the Midan, reflect a basic argument about democracy, people’s control over their own lives, and the possibility of self-organization.  This is a debate with a long and event boring history in political philosophy but it’s also been an academic and a practical debate in Egyptian life.

            There is a kind of constant referendum on trust and for much of the past two weeks Egyptians have been saying they trust each other more than they trust the hierarchical state.  The state meanwhile has been trying to get Egyptians to feel less trust in each other and a correspondingly greater need for the instruments of coercion and organization in the hands of state officials.  But this isn’t just a question of how academics can re-imagine ordinary behavior.  Egyptians have been talking about these questions:  what would happen if the coercive state withdrew from society for a long time.           

On an early fall day in 1987 two prominent political activists and amateur historians who had known each other for at least a quarter of a century had a falling out at an obscure academic meeting and the echoes of their dispute are, surprisingly enough, being heard in the squares of downtown Cairo, in its salons, and even in an interview between President Husny Mubarak and the famed reporter Christiane Amanpour.  Tariq al-Bishri, a prominent jurist and the author of several important meditations on contemporary Egyptian politics, had been invited to a conference on historiography.   Another participant, the late Ahmad Sadiq Saad, had been a prominent Communist leader in the 1940s, but by the 1980s had spent years as a factor manager in the state sector and was writing his own books on the roots of Egyptian authoritarianism. 

            Al-Bishri was already an extremely well-known and controversial intellectual because he had just re-issued an earlier study of the Egyptian politics in the period between World War II and the 1952 military coup.  When first published the book lauded the role of secular left and especially the communists, but in the second edition (which had then only recently been published) Al-Bishri appeared to have transformed his vision completely.  In a lengthy and self-critical introduction, he repudiated his former praise for the left and argued that the Muslim Brotherhood, as an expression of authentic Egyptian society, was both in practice and principle the dominant political force in Egypt before 1952.  The clear implication was that they, unlike the communists and the secular left, still deserved to be. 

            Many of al-Bishri’s former friends felt betrayed that a prominent jurist and a member of Egypt’s highest administrative court should have turned on the left and the secular liberals with whom he had long been associated.  Sadiq Saad recognized however that al-Bishri had posed another, even deeper, challenge to the Egyptian left and, somewhat to al-Bishri’s dismay, he pointedly referred to it.  Was al-Bishri really endorsing, Sadiq Saad asked, a spontaneity as a political principle?  Didn’t he understand that the dangers of romanticizing the activity of the masses along with the idea that they could somehow participate directly, without intervening organizations, in politics?

            Sadiq Saad was referring to an older debate about revolution that raged in early twentieth century Russia and that had come to dominate the thinking of communists and revolutionaries around the world by the middle of the 20th century not least in Egypt.  “Spontaneity” was an idea sharply criticized by the revolutionary Communist leader Lenin.  Initially it referred to his perception of the danger to the ultimate success of the revolution of allowing the masses to pursue their own interests as they perceived them.  In such a case, he argued, you might get anything from trade union activity that reinforced the capitalist system to ordinary liberalism to violent attempts to impose racist (and in the context of Czarist Russian viciously anti-Semitic) conceptions of community on society.  Far better, Lenin said, for there to be an organized political elite—professional revolutionaries—to provide leadership to the disorganized and ultimately untrustworthy masses.

            Wasn’t Al-Bishri proposing that the political elite, whether professional revolutionaries or not, follow rather than lead the masses?  Wasn’t this, the implication certainly was, a dereliction of duty by intellectuals?  And besides couldn’t it possibly lead either to political quiescence or to the imposition of even worse forms of political domination on society than the Egyptian regime then in place?  What al-Bishri went on, in later articles, to expound was a notion of the devolution of power down from the state into society at the expense of the power of the centralized government.  He has continued to link this vision to the

            Fast forward a quarter of a century to a moment when the largely spontaneous participation of the Egyptian masses in politics has profoundly dizzied the hierarchy of the state.  Midan al-Tahrir may be the center of where Egyptians are acting out this debate but it’s not the only place.   For the first two weeks of these events there have been some acts of terrible violence (especially in the countryside and some of the adjacent suburbs) apart from the unleashing of thugs on the demonstrators and the people.  But there have also been remarkable acts of civil society ascendant including people lining up in queues, engaging in intense and political conversations about the meaning of events as they occurred, and a remarkable openness to each other.

            Obviously it’s not going to be possible to organize the life of 80 million people through spontaneous activity for a much longer period of time, but this is why the issues raised by the protesters are so crucial to the future of Egypt and why the government is so anxious to forestall them and focus on limiting all change to the provisions of the constitution relating to elections.

            There are, it seems to me from talking to Egyptian friends, two crucial aspects to the demand that Mubarak go.  One of these is the demand that Mubarak himself go; the other is the demand that the presidential system that has been built around him in Egypt (but whose roots lie in the Nasser period) also goes.  The Egyptian presidency is, according to Egyptian scholars, one of the most ones in the world.  The president has very wide powers of appointment and direct decision making.  The curfew was, for example, decided by President Mubarak in his capacity as “military ruler” a position which is more encompassing than, for example, President Obama’s role as commander in chief.  The president also has a range of other powers, primarily embedded in his right to resolve conflicts between branches of government and government institutions.  Imagine, for example, that in a conflict between Congress and the Administration over funding a policy, the president (rather than Congress or an independent judiciary) was empowered to decide and then impose a decision.

        When President Mubarak told Christiane Amanpour in a television interview that the alternative was him or chaos he was also commenting on this long debate.  He was saying that without the existing hierarchical apparatus of the central state Egyptians themselves would be incapable of social cohesion or coherent economic activity.  Because Mubarak himself was out of the country for over a month last year while he underwent still mysterious medical procedures in Germany it is clear that the country actually can get along without his person for a while.  But whether those people in authority can get along without the presidential system or the existing president is a completely different question than whether Egypt can.

            The demand that Mubarak goes is a demand to change the system of the presidency.  But the system (including both its corrupt but also its simply repressive elements) is centered in a person who also is empowered informally by all the actors to make decisions resolving their conflicts.  If the system had to choose between Mubarak the person and the presidential system it would probably choose the latter but the top officials would prefer to retain both the person and the system. 

            Ending the state of emergency, freeing the media, guaranteeing that the youthful protesters not be punished, opening up other sections of the constitution for change, and electing a new parliament that can itself then enact further change are not important just because they allow a veneer of liberal democracy over an otherwise highly centralized political system.  They are important, and I believe the government knows they are important, because they are likely to be steps in the direction of taking power out of the hands of the central bureaucracy and placing it in the hands of Egyptians locally.  This would not be spontaneity but it would be a lot closer to real local self-government. 

            There is no doubt that, if Egyptians could make more decisions about how to live in their own communities (or even governorates and cities) it would have both positive and negative characteristics.  In some places it might lead to abuses based on membership in religious community; in others it might lead to a florescence of creativity.  But it would be a set of conflicts Egyptians would finally be able to have about how to live with each other and if the constitutional authorities I know had any impact, it would be subject to some substantive limitations given the existing (but completely formal) constitutional commitment to equality of citizenship.

            Free elections should be held and they do matter.  But they matter (I think) primarily insofar as they allow Egyptians to regain control over their own destiny in an admittedly imperfect way.  They matter insofar as they help to take power away from a handful of at the center of state apparatus and place it in a multitude of other hands.  The debate in Washington DC about Egypt has, as far as I can tell, overlooked this particular dimension of what is happening here.


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