The right comparison?

Tewfick Aclimandos
Wednesday 18 Sep 2019

What is the right comparison to make when trying to understand Egypt’s historical experience, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

I attended Egypt’s National Youth Conference for the first time this year, when two sessions evoked the development of terrorism and the complicated issue of fake news. During a third session, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who attended all the sessions and commented on all the presentations, answered questions relating to foreign policy, security, economic issues and education.

Direct visual contact with people is different from seeing them on television, and the president is much more impressive when you see him in person. You feel his willpower and his determination, and he looks notably fit and strong.

I do not want to discuss the issues he dealt with here. I will just say that I appreciated many of the things he said, which included the fact that he was quite clear on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is currently being built in Ethiopia. Our aims here should be moderate, but for now things are not going “as well as we might have wished,” the president said.

He also launched a scathing attack on the religious establishment, which he said did “not seem to feel the seriousness of the situation.” This also tends to prove that the president feels secure, as this issue is a very controversial one. What interests me here is how he reads the overall situation, comparing this to other possible comparisons and paradigms.

The predominant paradigm for understanding Egypt in Western circles seems to be that of a “democratic transition”. People either opt for a “Chilean narrative,” this paradigm says, with the army toppling a “democratically-elected” president, or for an “Eastern European one,” or for one in which a democratic transition failed. 

These ideas deserve serious discussion. I do not belong to those who say that there is no serious demand for democracy in Egypt. In fact, I believe the contrary. However, I do not agree with those who say that everyone in Egypt and elsewhere in the world wants democracy. Of course, everybody wants to express his or her own views. However, democracy is more than that: you express your views and accept the fact that others have the right to say things that are unpleasant, and even odious, to your ears. All of a sudden, things can turn out to be very complicated.

Western academics acknowledge this, and they have invented the concept of “illiberal democracy”. This has its virtues, but also its risks. It tends to mean that when you accept free elections and in theory the rotation of power, you are a democrat, even if you do not tolerate some kinds of discourse and the independence of the judicial system. I will not spend much time discussing this view. I just want to point out that it may be unappealing for many.

For more than a decade, many Western academics have also been giving us migraines by stressing the supposed virtues and democratic credentials of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They now have to admit that these virtues and credentials are not so obvious. So, instead they have used another argument, which is to stress the supposedly democratic credentials of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement. Of course, it is much too early to tell about this, and I confess to being sceptical.

In both cases, however, we can argue that the societies concerned are much more secular than that in Egypt and that any Islamist politician has to take this into account. The real comparison is with Sudan. The Islamists’ performance there should convince anybody that their rule has led to an almost failed state, a terrible civil war, all sorts of crimes and an economic disaster.

Unfortunately, even this has not always been the case. The Western experts have decreed that the former Sudanese regime was a military one (of course this is true), but not an Islamist one implementing a Muslim Brotherhood agenda. Such dishonesty is staggering. It should also be added that the Egyptian state is much more powerful than the Sudanese one, meaning that the threat of Islamist rule is much more serious in Egypt and the likelihood of democracy quite weak.

To make a long story short, of all the possible paradigms the idea of a democratic transition is probably the least suited for understanding Egypt, a country where almost all the institutions are authoritarian, including the family, the schools, the religious authorities, the patron and client networks, the political parties, and so on. 

Most importantly, the only really organised political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, is more than simply “authoritarian”. Instead, its “project” is “total,” to use its own terminology. Of course, you could still acknowledge this fact and say that all this means is that a radically democratic constitution that tries to dismantle as many authoritarian institutions as possible was and is still necessary. Or you could say that this indicates the need for gradual reform. But I do not believe that we have ever had enough momentum for these things to take place in Egypt, and the risk of civil war has been too great.

I sincerely want a peaceful democratic system in my country. I know I am not alone in wanting this, but I do not buy the story that says we have destroyed an interesting and promising democratic experiment.

What we saw in Egypt was a revolution, not a democratic transition. The differences should be obvious: in a democratic transition, remnants of the old regime have the right to organise themselves, and everybody has the right to a fair trial. In a democracy, the people are represented; in a revolution they are simply “present”. A revolution is also Manichean, and its narrative opposes the people to a tyrant. There is nothing similar to this idea in a democracy.

Let us end the discussion on the democratic transition paradigm. Let us try other possible comparisons. There are many of these, including revolution and counter-revolution, which means that you should compare the past decade in Egypt to the ones that followed the 1848 Revolutions in Europe. You could try to determine what we can learn from the Bismarck years in Europe and from the rule of the Russian tsars. 

Authoritarian modernisation is another paradigm, and here you could opt for a comparison with South Korea, with the Mohamed Ali experience in Egypt and with the Russia of Peter the Great. You could have a field day saying that modern technology, geography, and so on change the nature of the game, while others could counter your assertions. 

I want to say that “authoritarian modernisation” was the general pattern in Europe after the Renaissance. It brilliantly succeeded in many places, had mixed results in others, and was a miserable failure in still more. It cannot be simply dismissed as doomed to failure because it is undemocratic. I may also add that armies and their needs were the drivers for this type of modernisation in Europe.

The possible comparisons do not stop here: for instance, we could evoke the 1930s in Europe, with their huge fascist menace. I know this is unpopular, but it does not mean it is preposterous. 

Meanwhile, President Al-Sisi’s discourse at the National Youth Forum strikingly reminded me of the 17th century in Europe, with the threat of civil war being neutralised by the construction of a strong state.

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 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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