A question of trust

Tewfick Aclimandos
Friday 9 Aug 2019

Do people trust each other too much or not enough in Egypt, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

Most modern societies are characterised by “impersonal relationships” defined by rules and regulations.

As a citizen, you have rights and duties, for example. You might be at the top of the social strata, or at its very bottom. Your boss, or indeed the nation’s ruler, may or may not trust you, but because of your status as a citizen he or she cannot deprive you of certain rights. Civil servants also have to serve you, even if they do not know you personally.

Many authors consider this situation to be a huge improvement over traditional communities, and here I am referring to German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies’s celebrated dichotomy between “society” and “community.” In a traditional community, Tonnies argued, individuals are defined by the group they belong to, and relations are essentially interpersonal and based on trust. In a society, on the other hand, the state regulates more and more fields, and the more effective such regulations are, together with the associated legal system, the more it is possible for more people to embark on relations with those they do not personally know.

Naturally, this does not mean that “trust” between people is unnecessary in modern societies. After all, representative democracy rests on it. The people elect persons or parties they trust. If they stopped trusting them, and if they elected some lesser evil, democracy would have problems.

More generally, even modern societies need to believe that in some respects they are in fact communities. Tonnies believed that communities were small, as they rested on the fact that most of their members knew each other. Modern authors have coined the concept of “imagined communities” to describe how large collectivities still manage to believe that they are communities, even if in fact their members do not and cannot know each other because of their sheer size.

In such societies, the law provides a framework that enables people who do not know each other to trust each other, even if they do not know each other personally. Or, to put it differently, people in such societies living under the rule of law can behave as if they trusted each other. My main point here, therefore, is that trust remains central in all societies, whether these are modern, post-modern, traditionalist or archaic. However, in some societies and in some circles or some contexts, trust becomes more important than in others and contributes more to the social fabric than any set of laws.

Even those who have a positive opinion of Egypt’s legal system have to admit that it can be slow and unpredictable, for better or for worse, for example. More in Egypt than elsewhere, a bad deal is better than a good trial, as the saying goes. As a result, when people conclude deals in Egypt, they cannot rely on the legal system to quickly solve any problems that may arise. As a result, trust in Egypt is much more important than elsewhere.

Destroying somebody’s reputation can cause a lot of harm anywhere, but in some countries the damage is much worse than in others. It should come as no surprise, therefore, if defamation in Egypt is a major offence and one that is loosely defined. People quickly react if they feel the heat, and this situation can have a huge impact on freedom of speech.

Consider daily interactions in Egypt. When you go to dry-cleaners and leave your clothes, you do not ask for a receipt, for example, except in some upper-class suburbs. The same thing goes if you leave your car, or mobile phone, with a technician. I do not know if this is what makes Egypt’s informal economy possible, or if things are the other way around, but the result is the same. People deal with people they trust, and even if they do not directly trust them, they behave “as if this was the case”.

Now let us turn to politics. A heated debate emerged in the 1960s when the regime of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was accused of preferring the “ahl al-thiqa,” the trusted people, to the “ahl al-khibra,” the experts who were competent in various fields. I have never liked this distinction, as it assumes that an individual cannot be both competent and trusted and that an expert was always a better choice that an individual belonging to the right networks.

Nevertheless, the distinction was interesting as it meant that many people thought that trust, the need to trust appointees, was misleading the government. According to this view, trust facilitates the functioning of society but hampers governance. This theme often goes together with another idea: that the state is or should be modern, whereas society is clinging, or should be clinging, to traditional values. The problem is that no state is immune to society’s influence and vice versa.

All this also points to another set of interesting problems. Who do leaders trust? There are leaders who trust their family or childhood friends. Others trust their colleagues. One former prime minister in Egypt, for example, who was an engineer, led a cabinet in which engineers were in the majority. There are leaders who do trust those who belong to a certain social class. Finally, there are leaders who are pragmatic, and others who want to coopt different constituencies. Others still may want flattery.

Another problem is the criteria that govern choices regarding trusted people. Each political ideology or discourse and each type of regime adopts its own. It may prefer the devout. It may opt for people who are clearly “one of us” and who are religious, but tolerant. It may look for people who come from the middle classes, are not especially fond of foreigners, and regularly go to the places “we” know. These people are assumed to know or have a feeling for “how the state works”.

Today, the political situation in Egypt is an exceptional one, as we find ourselves in the midst of a bloody war and facing terrible challenges. However, it is not true that nobody in Egypt can utter a word of criticism as a result. Just look at what appears on Facebook. Many prominent intellectuals and academics living and working in Egypt have made very harsh criticisms of the present government. The regime also frequently consults technocrats and seeks their advice, even if that advice is not necessarily easily swallowed. Debate is vigorous in many of the country’s think tanks.

However, it is also true that those who are not trusted do not have the same freedom as those who are, and they do not have the same access to information. They can be harassed. Undoubtedly, there is a severe crisis of trust between the regime and the opposition. Nobody wanted this situation to come about, and nobody is innocent of responsibility for it. In fact, it is the result of an eternal story of the clash between an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility. 

*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A question of trust

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