Why Egypt is Going to Hell
by Benjamin Studebaker
Back in December, I said that Mohamed Morsi, the president of Egypt, was an inept bumbler. I seem to have been right about that, as Egypt has descended once more into instability and violence. There are widespread protests, the Muslim Brotherhood’s offices have been torched, and the military has given all parties a 48-hour deadline (there are about 24 hours left on that) before it intervenes in unspecified ways. The source of the anger against Morsi? His social conservatism and his efforts to put Islam at the center of Egyptian law. While it may be surprising just how fast the situation in Egypt has once again deteriorated, the deterioration was itself inevitable. Here’s why.
Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party is only nominally independent–it is functionally an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Here’s the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan:
Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Quran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.
The Republican Party is widely considered to be overly affiliated with religion, but imagine the uproar if republicans campaigned on some version of this slogan:
Heaven is our objective. Jesus is our savior. The Bible is our law. Crusade is our way. Dying in the way of Jesus Christ is our highest hope.
Why would this upset people so much? Because this is a political creed that does not consider equally the interests of all citizens. It is a creed that is biased in favor of some citizens over others–in the fictional republican case, the creed would put Christian Americans (and not even all Christian Americans, but only those who agree with the specific interpretation of Christianity espoused by the party) ahead of all other American citizens.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s creed does the very same thing, but for Islam. Now, the Freedom and Justice Party won the elections–there are a lot of Egyptians that, at least at some point in time, endorsed either tacitly or openly the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood by voting for the party. There may even be a majority of Egyptians now who support the brotherhood. Most Turks still back Erdogan, despite the very loud and vocal protests of the minority in Turkey recently. It is not unheard of for, as Richard Nixon put it, a “silent majority” to be pushed to the side by a vocal minority.
Regardless, there are some non-Muslim Egyptians, there are secularist Muslim Egyptians, and there are Muslim Egyptians that don’t agree with the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of Islam. These people’s interests are being given secondary status by Morsi’s government, and they resent it. The Egyptian constitution pushed through by Morsi, among other things, forbids the insulting of religious prophets, claims that sharia is the central basis for the laws of the country, does not protect freedom of religion for non-Abrahamic faiths, and bans the press from contradicting the principles on which Egyptian society has been founded (i.e. Islam).
This is one of the troubles with democracy. Because Morsi was elected by a portion of the population, Morsi gives preference to the interests of that portion of the population. While we in the United States do not typically give religious preferences (though there are always individuals and groups seeking to challenge that practice), even our democratic system often behaves similarly. Politicians elected with the help of donations from various corporations and interest groups tend to give those groups’ interests an undue preference.
This has become more or less normalized in democratic society. Of course a politician will favor the policy preferences of those who vote for him or donate to his campaign. That’s just the way democracy works, isn’t it? Yes, that is the way it works, but there is nonetheless something very wrong with that. The state is not supposed to treat its citizens unequally, to give preference to some over others intentionally. It is supposed to evaluate issues with minimal bias and make decisions that best balance the interests of all citizens, not just some portion of them, not even a very large portion.
In say, American politics, we have now grown used to the notion that our parties only care about some of the people. The democrats care about environmentalists, racial minorities, unions, the poor, and so on. When in power, we expect the democrats not to balance the interests of those groups against the interests of other groups, but to push them at the expense of rival groups. By the same token, republicans care about white people, rich people, businesses, social conservatives, and so on. We do not expect republicans to weigh the interests of the rich against the poor, but to side with the rich against the poor, no matter what, and we expect democrats to do precisely the inverse.
Very devoted readers may recall my post concerning the democracy pendulum, my term for the tendency of political parties to advocate exclusively for subgroups and particular interests without searching for any optimal or sustainable balance. When one party cares about some of the people and the other party cares about a different portion of the people, no party cares about all of the people. Optimal policy, which weighs all interests equally and gives no preference, is impossible under democracy. Whichever party rules will, given enough time, push the pendulum too far in the wrong direction. Our political debates become not a question of “how should we govern ourselves” but “in which ultimately wrong direction are we presently headed”.
The troubles in Egypt are merely an extreme version of the problems faced by all democratic states, their perpetual inability to really, truly treat their citizens as though they are of equal value to one another. Parties owe allegiance to supporters and donors, but never to the people as a whole.
The aggrieved portion of the Egyptian people dismissed by Morsi as being of inferior political and moral value might put up with his government nonetheless, if it could run a functional economy, but Morsi can’t even do that right, with unemployment up another half a point since he took office in June 2012 and growth falling off to well-below its Mubarak-era average:
People often put up with the injustice democratic systems perpetuate when they’re getting paid to do it, but when the money isn’t flowing, the patience runs thin.
I think you’re misinterpreting pre-co-option Brotherhood politics with the FJP and Morsi. There’s no question the latter two come from the former, but your argument seems to be a trumped up and intellectualized form of the argument offered by everyone in power since January 25, 2011: that there are networks of patronage and these have driven people to thuggery or protest.
Comparisons with the American political environment are at best irrelevant. However, I have recently been thinking we can learn a lot from Egypt’s experience. The better counter-factual would be to think of how our currently polarized and ineffectual democracy would deal with problems on the magnitude of those facing Egypt from February 11, 2011.
I’m not making any argument concerning networks of patronage. I’m claiming that democratic systems in and of themselves inevitably produce governments that favor subsections of the population. The democratic system creates the outcome, and the same mechanisms operate in the Egyptian system as operate in the American system, albeit in a more grievous way. The wider critique is against democracy more broadly.
You should look into Selectorate Theory. I am not personally a subscriber, but a lot of its more theoretical elements offer a really interesting way to think of comparisons in that regard. Again, not really thrilled with its quantitative evidence; but its point on private good provision is somewhat along the lines of what you are saying. And in that vein, all governments pander to some subset. I’m not sure democracy is worse for that.
But current unrest in Egypt, in my opinion, is the result of irrational fears, rational fears, and pragmatic rationality.
On the one hand, there are a lot of people that just hate the Brotherhood and are queasy over Islam. They form a minority of the population, but they have grown very vocal in recent days. Conversely, President Morsi has bumbled a lot of stuff and appears to have done little to rectify any of the severe crises facing Egypt – although how much free reign he has is unclear given Egypt’s history and transitional situation.
And then there are pragmatic issues – into which economic issues would fall. But I don’t think unemployment has stoked this. It is a combination of the collapse of the pound (which, btw, is pegged), the collapse of tourism, and a lot of capital flight and lack of new investment. But even without the last two, Egypt’s large-scale development projects have brought impressive growth but have had a limited effect on unemployment – this is something brought to my attention when I first talked to people about it in 2007.
Mesquita is right insofar as democratic governments tend to be better than monarchies and one-party states, but I nonetheless contend that there are severe issues with the democratic system and that superior alternatives should be theorized and tested.
I agree that there’s a lot of queasiness over Islam, but I connect this to the fact that the minority knows that the Brotherhood commands a majority, that it doesn’t need to give the minority equal consideration and therefore is unlikely to do so.
I mention unemployment because it’s around 4 points higher than it was before the revolution, and restless youths tend to go along with instability and violence. Morsi does not need to bring about US-style unemployment figures, but he needs to get them down to where they were before the instability.
[…] me–I had long since identified Mohamed Morsi as a bumbler. The other day I also identified the reasons behind opposition to Morsi, and those too seemed rather predictable and reasonable. The bit I now […]