In this blog I am not going to be so presumptuous as to suggest solutions to the Gordian Knot of Egypt’s current political troubles. Neither am I going to claim any in-depth knowledge about Egyptian politics. All I intend to do is draw some general conclusions from looking at Egypt through the perspective of our own political system and find lessons that we can learn.
It is very striking that a key difference between our stable democracy and Egypt’s current turmoil, is longstanding institutions. It is not democracy alone that leads to our stability, but the fact that our democracy has developed through institutions that have not been overturned. Democracy, our history must teach us, is a gradual process and cannot be introduced overnight and expected to endure.
It seems that so much of our involvement in the Middle East has gone wrong because we have made the mistake of believing democracy can be achieved by overturning an existing system and replacing it with a new, democratic, Western society.
Perhaps the reason we act in this ideological and revolutionary way in our Middle Eastern and Asian interventions is that part of the United States’ understanding of itself is that it gained its freedom through a revolution. I am going to be so bold as to say that is wrong. I think that the United States was able to set up a political system based on freedom and stability because it emerged from an existing system, which to be blunt was our system. The founding fathers were able to look to the common law developed for centuries, developed by Henry II and the Magna Carta signed by King John. They also looked at an existing representative system across the ocean, to which they had paid for through taxation as subjects, although not being represented themselves. The United States, I contend, did not achieve its nationhood through a revolution, it was rather through a war of independence to allow it to enjoy the same existing freedoms and rule of law as the home country. It carried on its journey based on its Anglo-Saxon heritage, a millennium of political evolution.
Unfortunately, this belief that democracy can be achieved by revolutionary war has informed the foreign policy of the most powerful Western power. Our intervention in Iraq was based on this mistaken premise and our hopes for Egypt when we turned against our erstwhile ally President Mubarak were likewise based on this revolutionary premise.
Unfortunately for Egypt its institutions are not of longstanding and the vacuum is filled either by the army or religious extremists. It is a Hobson’s choice, but I am not going so far as to argue that the decadent King Farouk and the 150 years old Muhammad Ali dynasty was an admirable institution. Rather, as disliking the extravagances of the Eighteenth Century French court does not imply support for Robespierre, so having strong reservations about King Farouk does not mean one favours the military coup d’etat of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Socialists.
Once institutions are dissolved however, then there is little to restrain abuse of power or nurture progress. Just as the French Revolution ended in the Terror, so the military revolution led to Nasser’s brutal oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. Two examples of how power is inevitably abused when the rule of law and institutions have been cast aside.
The current situation in Egypt, with military government on the one hand and revolutionary religious zealots on the other is I believe a result of there being no institutions and tradition to contain power and curtail abuses. No system is perfect, but gradualist reform and piecemeal change leads to more stable government than revolutionary overthrow.
The ousted government was elected, but it was also revolutionary. The President was moving to claim absolutist powers and he represented radical and left wing religion, rather than conservative and institutional religion.
It is worth commenting that the Muslim Brotherhood, with its more radical approach to Islam should not be described as a conservative force. Rather Political Islam is about a radical return to the original teachings and a rejection of the accumulated wisdom of generations of teachers. Sayyid Qutb, one of the first leaders of the Brotherhood (imprisoned and executed under Colonel Nasser’s regime) looked to a radical form of Islam that returned to original teaching; this political Islam is about revolution, not a conservation of centuries of teaching. It is therefore radical and extreme.
Institutional religion inevitably contains and restrains its more zealous adherents and counteracts the individual interpretation with an accumulation of wisdom and teaching. Without the institution, religion can become radical.
Looking then at our own system again, we can be grateful for our political stability and freedom, but the chaos of Egypt teaches us why our democracy is stable. It is democracy within ancient but evolving institutions. It is democracy in the context of rule of law – a rule of law based on precedent and the accumulation of case law. Our religion is manifested in an established church that as an institution contains the radical, while, as a Protestant church, giving room to individual interpretation.
Thus we must value that which underpins our democracy and makes it stable and secure – precedent-based common law, an ancient representative Parliament, a constitutional monarchy and an established church.