On Egypt, radicalism and the Gordian knot of expectation
Another day, another leg down, another summit, another raft of assertions that all the mechanics for recovery and growth are in hand and another evening amongst friends trying to explain why nobody has got a grip on the crisis yet. How far we have travelled since the happy and optimistic days when Bill Clinton declared the beginning of the “New World Order”. I’m not quite sure he had all this in mind. Actually, I’m pretty sure he didn’t.
It is now a year and a half since a man in Tunisia burned himself to death in protest at his treatment by police. Since then we have seen the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and protests in innumerable other countries.
Now, of a sudden, the West is discovering that power vacuums cause unrest and that those cause problems. I recall writing in a piece last year that it would be foolish to regard the fall of Hosni Mubarak as the end of anything. I reminded that the path to democracy in Europe began with the year of revolutions which was 1848 and that it took the best part of a full century for political democracy to take a firm hold of the continent.
Political democracy’s greatest weakness is its inability to manage citizens’ expectations, both to the upside and to the downside
For forty years – I wrote my first paper on the subject while still at school – I have argued that a country is not democratic but that a society is democratic and that a democratic society is well served by a democratic political system but that imposing a democratic form of government on a society which is in itself not democratic is doomed to failure. A democracy, so I learnt as a boy from close family friends in, of all places, Greece is nothing more than a society in which the opinions of neighbours are respected and protected. Voltaire put his finger on it when he wrote: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
President Barry O’Bama was first out of the blocks to congratulate the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, on his victory in the Egyptian presidentials and I would like to add mine. However, despite all the media hype, it was not exactly a stunner. His opponent, the “Mubarakite” ex-prime minister Ahmed Shafiq was only defeated by 52% to 48% which a swing of only 2% of the vote would have reversed.
The liberal movement which began the protests that brought about the demise of Mubarak was nowhere to be seen, electorally at least. The question remains whether a Muslim fundamentalist can be a democrat. As in the old joke which had been circulating in London for many a good year which asks how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris, the answer is that nobody knows because it has never been tried.
Mohamed Morsi must of course be granted the benefit of the doubt and his early rhetoric is clearly one of reconciliation and one-nationhood but he has much to prove. Coptic Christians still constitute approximately 10% of the Egyptian population but there have been rising tensions between the Christian minority and the Muslim majority. Events in Northern Nigeria remind us of how close Muslim and the Christian communities can be to bloody conflict whereby I must add that Nigerian Christians are of the Western church but that Coptic Christianity is entirely indigenous to Egypt and significantly predates the Prophet.
Space for radicals
Western security agencies have now suddenly discovered that where the rigid authoritarianism of North African governments is being replaced by a softer form of leadership, a space is being created in which radical Islamic movements are finding support – given the high levels of education and low levels of professional opportunities, not a great surprise. However, the point is that this might be a North African phenomenon at the moment but the risk of the radicalisation of societies across many geographies, our own included, rises as prospects for economic advancement decrease. The polarisation of Greece which was seen in the strong showing on the extreme Left and the extreme Right are cases in point.
Aristides N. Hatzis, Associate Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Athens who runs the blog GreekCrisis.net, wrote an impassioned plea in the Financial Times last week under the title “Back to the 1930s: The Hammer, Sickle and Swastika” in which he makes the point very clearly that the failure of the economic system brings with it significant, and not be underestimated, risks in terms of political radicalisation and disintegration.
Greece and Egypt face each other across the Mediterranean and the Ptolemaic dynasty of Pharaohs, Queen Cleopatra included, was more Greek than Egyptian and Alexandria was of course, in its day, the centre of Greek learning. Both countries are faced with huge and, many might believe, insurmountable economic problems.
The key issue, I believe – and this goes no less for the UK or the US either – is about raised and unachievable expectations. Political democracy’s greatest weakness is its inability to manage citizens’ expectations, both to the upside and to the downside, and until this particular Gordian knot has been slashed, all the grand summits, Technicolor assertions and free and fair elections in the world will amount to nought.