Monday, January 31, 2011

Machiavelli and Egypt - The Inevitable Failure of Mubarak/U.S. Folly/What we just don't get

"Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries - for heavy ones they cannot." - Niccolo Machiavelli; Chapter 3, The Prince

If you have never worked through any of Machiavelli's writings, they are definitely worth a spot on your 'to read' list.  The quote above is from The Prince, which is widely viewed as written in irony and intended more to be understood in his broader contexts of writings as opposed to representing his true opinions.  Having read The Prince and most of The Discourses (which are absolutely huge, do not take these on lightly) I actually believe that this is true.  Machiavelli was a great humanist, who used the emperors of Rome to suggest that the best rulers were those who were even-handed and respected by his people.  The above quote seems to suggest that Machiavelli believed rulers should be despotic, vicious, and brutal in dealing with his subjects.  But in reference to his greater body of works, it makes more sense to believe he meant this to be read as advocating generosity in dealing with subjects. 

It is this quote from Machiavelli which leads us to one inevitable conclusion about Egypt - It could not succeed in its current state.

Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak was born in 1928 (quite an ironic year for the purposes of this writing), who rose through the ranks in the military and eventually became Anwar Sadat's Vice President in 1975.  We won't go through the entire development of events that led up to this, although they do bear on the situation, but in 1981 Sadat was assassinated by his own generals due to his signing of the Egypt-Israel peace accords.  After this Mubarak assumed office and has not relinquished it since. 

Really ever since 1981, the United States and Egypt have been close allies.  Egypt's willingness to play ball with Israel despite their history was basically set up by our willingness to give Egypt support and military hardware if they promised to play nice with Israel.  An oversimplification, but basically a truism.  In the meantime, Egypt has become one of the only Islamic countries to ally themselves with most Western European nations. Egypt has a relatively free media, unfettered internet access, and active public education.  But there has been a hitch:  Because our support of Egypt basically relies on their casual stance towards Israel, we fear the country being taken over by a regime which will change back to an aggressive stance.  At the same time, we pay lip service towards 'reform,' and greater civil liberties.  For reasons as old as Mubarak himself, this could not possibly be a successful formula.

The stage for Mubarak's failure was actually set for him long before 1981, however.  In fact, it was set in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.   I will not go into all the reasons for the creation of the MB, but it was mainly due to the colonial government of Britain (in the future I will write about the failures of the secularist national state in the Middle East).  Al-Banna was a proponent of the return to the Sunnah (path) of Islam, and life according to the Prophet and the Great Caliphs.  The MB became incredibly popular and set up chapters in Syria, Transjordan (now Jordan and Israel), and Lebanon.  Many groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, can trace their roots back to activism which began in the MB.  During WWII, the MB actively sided with the Nazis, performing espionage and other activities on their behalf. 
Eventually the MB was banned due to an attempted assassination of Abdel Nasser.  Nasser was a staunch secularist and nationalist, who kept the MB out of the political process.  This makes some sense in the context of the times.  The religious reformers in the Middle East were openly critical of nationalists regimes which dominated at the time, and openly advocated for social change.  Nasser was no different from any other nationalist regime; the MB likened him to "Pharoah" of the Old Testament, the oppressor of Moses and the Jews.  (Reminder:  Muslims believe that they too, are the children of Moses and Abraham.)  After the attempt, Nasser went on a no holds barred campaign against his opposition.  Thousands of members of the group were tortured, executed, or exiled.  In this period of time, there was no real activism taking place in Egypt.  Sayyid Qutb, the author of Milestones, left the country.  You could not criticize Nasser, nor speak out against his government, without a knock on the door from the secret police. 

During the Cold War, you could not run a bingo parlor without deciding whose camp you were in.  You were either supplied and aided by the Soviets, or the Western bloc led by the U.S.  Well, due to Nasser's relations to Israel, the U.S. led bloc would not support or aid Egypt.  Therefore, they turned to the Soviets.  Nasser modelled his political and economic structures after the USSR.  Dissent was crushed; you fell into line or you fell into a ditch with a bullet in your brain.  There were no other options.  It was in this environment that the MB was fostered and created.  One of outright, holistic oppression.  'Pharoah' was the object of hostility, and no one else.  But what was also growing in the environment was resentment; not just from those with religious aims, but those who just plain did not like the socialist/nationalist structure in place.  But that hostility was either pent up, or it was expressed in exile.

Let's fast forward back to the present.  The MB still exists, and is still a large opposition group in Egypt.  But basically the fact is this:  Nasser and the Cold War Era policy of repressing dissent was carried over by Mubarak once he was in office.  The problem was that once Egypt hitched their wagon to Western Europe, their new found allies began to press reforms onto Egypt.  So Mubarak and his allies did the worst thing imaginable.

They allowed various forms of dissent and free speech.  But once some invisible line was crossed, that dissent was squashed.  This is a form of governance which is absolutely not sustainable.  Mubarak broke Machiavelli's rule from The Prince.  While Nasser's regime dealt with the people in very severe terms, crushing dissent and seeking to control, Mubarak's could be termed more 'passive-aggressive.' 

A good example is how Mubarak handled election issues.  Ostensibly, Mubarak was a 'President' of a republic which elected its President.  But Mubarak has only run a handful of times due to Egypt being in a constant state of declared emergency.  People may remember a few years ago the absolute catastrophe that was the Egyptian referendum.  On election day, areas that were suspected to be anti-Mubarak had the polling places barred by the police.  We gave them a quick slap on the wrist, but basically we did not mind that he did this because he said that these areas would elect Muslim Brotherhood candidates.  Israel (presumably) jumped for joy when they saw that the Egyptian people were being kept from exercising their theoretical right to vote.  Mubarak would have been better off saying there would be no elections whatsoever, as opposed to teasing his dissenters with the idea of a free election.  People can only bear insult for so long.

We have made a colossal mistake in our judgment of Egypt.  It should be apparent now that the spectre of radical Islam as the de facto heir of any regime was merely a pretext for Mubarak staying in power.  These protests are largely led by secular university students, professionals, and others who have quite deliberately distanced themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood and any radical Islamic ideas.  Earlier today I watched an interview with a woman leading a group of protestors.  She wore no hijab or covering of anykind, and there were many women with them in the group.  She spoke of a broken political process, not the desire to implement Shari'a law.  I am certain that some groups would like that, but they appear to be a minority.  However, this does not mean that these people do not share some of the Muslim Brotherhood's values and ideas.  The most obvious example is that Egypt will no longer take a deferential stance with Israel; they may even go to war.  The Egyptian people have the most negative opinions of Israel of any nation on Earth, according to many polls.  They will elect a leader who reflects that.  Might we see a very religious leader in Egypt?  I do not presume to know the answer to that question.  But I do know that this go round, the people will actually choose this leader.

Hopefully, this leader will deal generously with his people.

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