February 14

Egypt: a new dawn?

The handover of power in Egypt to the army has been greeted with rapture in Egypt and relieved approval in Western political circles, particularly by governments long happy to support and praise President Mubarak.

(Rather than just mechanically add its approval, the Australian government should now correct the inexplicable decision taken by the Rudd government to abandon that persecuted minority, the Copts.) 

The Egyptian army of course is not outside of the political or commercial arena. It is an integral part of the regime over which Hosni Mubarak presided.

Moreover, the Army’s coup d’état in 1952 ended the only liberal period in Egypt’s long history. It is the cause of Egypt's current distress. 

There has recently been a reappraisal in Egypt of the role of King Farouk and of the system. A comparison with what followed leads to only one conclusion as to which was preferable.

When Britain terminated the protectorate in 1922, Egypt adopted a constitution, based on that of Belgium, defining the King’s executive powers and established a bicameral legislature.  An electoral law provided for universal male suffrage, the indirect election of deputies to the Assembly with a Senate half elected and half appointed.


….Egypt's liberal age…         

The Cambridge History of Egypt, Volume 2: Modern Egypt, describes the period between 1923 and 1952 as Egypt's liberal age. It says:

 European-style constitutionalism and political pluralism were incorporated into the country's political landscape.

The period witnessed genuine, though irregular, electoral competition among individuals and groups, cross-class participation in the process, and an operative, if imperfect, system of political and civil liberties.

While elites controlled democratic practice, people from humble social classes also engaged in political activity.

Eager for independence from British control and for social and economic reform, the population considered competing ideologies for Egypt's political and economic development including western-style liberalism, monarchy, Islamic fundamentalism, Marxism, feminism, and secular nationalism.

The result was of course not perfect.

As The Cambridge History says:

… the excessive powers of the monarchy, ( in comparison with the UK today, but not say, at the time of the Glorious Revolution) the lack of an indigenous bourgeoisie with political strength, and the absence of a developed proletariat able to defend the liberal experiment combined to impede pluralistic democratic development.

…end of liberalism, persecution and expulsions…

That said, it should be recalled that with the exception of Israel, democracy, limited government and the separation of church and state have not been concepts overwhelmingly welcomed in the Middle East.

The end of the constitutional monarchy signalled the end of liberal, cosmopolitan Egypt, as it has in other countries. The republicans expelled the Jewish, Greek and other European communities and seized their real property without compensation. The assets of companies with any European, Jewish, or Christian involvement were also seized, again without compensation.

Copts were deemed to be second class Egyptians, and have been subjected to discriminatory treatment and persecution.

…foreign adventures of the one party state…

Egypt became a one party state. Allying itself for a time with the Soviet Union, the military government embarked on ruinous socialist policies within and futile attempts under the banner of Pan Arabism to create a vast united Arab state.

External adventurism ended with the death of Colonel Nasser, but the regime has never restored the personal and political freedoms and institutions which once made Egypt a robust cosmopolitan and imperfect parliamentary state.

…something worse?… 



[Continues below]


There is of course no guarantee that the transfer of power to the Army will result in Egypt becoming a democracy. Notwithstanding the nostalgia for the monarchy which swept across Egypt last year it is unlikely that a return to constitutional monarchy will be considered by the army when it determines what should be done. Instead too much will be invested in the search for the perfect leader to be  President.  

 Any student of history can tell you where events in Egypt are headed, warns William Tucker in The American  Spectator (2/4) .

The French Revolution set the historical prototype and, with only a few exceptions, it's been the same ever since. A country under authoritarian rule develops a middle class.

This articulate, legal-minded group agitates against the arbitrary rule until it finally overthrows the ancien régime in the name of representative government.

However, the "revolution" quickly runs into two problems:

1) the overwhelming mass of people who don't care much about democracy but simply want "peace, bread and land," as Lenin expressed it, and/or

2) a highly organized illiberal party of fanatics ready to seize power in the name of some utopian scheme.

Often the two mesh. The result is a Committee on Public Safety or Lenin's Bolsheviks or the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution.

William Tucker says there was one exception:

The only exception to this pattern was the great American Revolution, where George Washington, Ben Franklin, James Madison, and the Founding Fathers were able to keep control of the process and wisely shepherded us into the truly representative system we still have today — bless their hearts forever.”

Actually there was another, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which set in place the institutions and principles which in many significant ways guided the American Founding Fathers.  Mr. Tucker continues:

It isn't going to happen in the Middle East. During the Iraq War, President George W. Bush was heard to lament, "Where are the George Washingtons, the Thomas Jeffersons, the John Adamses?" There are none. You need an enlightened cultural tradition built over centuries plus a population steeped in "republican virtue" to achieve such a thing.

The lesson surely is never to abandon a sound constitutional system without knowing what is to replace it. Unfortunately the Egyptian people were not even asked in 1952.

Should not all of the options be put on the table?

[ First posted 12 February, 2011]


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