The Old Regime and the Egyptian Revolution

Originally published in TIA Daily.

Alexis de Tocqueville is well remembered in America for his perceptive and eloquent chronicle of our young republic, Democracy in America. But Tocqueville was interesting in studying America so that he could bring his lessons back to France, whose own experience with republicanism was, shall we say, not as felicitous. Some years later, looking back at his country’s failed experiments, Tocqueville would writer a shorter but no less brilliant book, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. His basic thesis was that the French Revolution never really altered the structure of French government. Louis XIV had centralized power at Versailles, and his institutions persisted after the monarchy was deposed. So the French ended up under the same old system, just with new masters.

It was not the first time in history, nor the last, that social institutions have shown a tendency to persist and re-emerge despite coups, revolutions, even invasions. A country’s basic institutions and habitual way of organizing itself is very difficult to change. Sometimes this is a good thing; who knows what would have happened to American liberty without it. Usually, it is not so good.

Something of the same process has been acted out over the past year and a half in Egypt. The popular revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak has substantially been reversed. Mubarak and his family are still out of the picture, of course. But his successors, the junta who constitute the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, have reasserted control.

In the past months, Egypt’s constitutional court, staffed with leftovers from the old regime, excluded major candidates from the country’s presidential elections, then ordered the new parliament to be dissolved and all of its members replaced in a new election. Then SCAF re-imposed a large portion of the “emergency laws” that gave the Mubarak regime its dictatorial power. Independent pro-democracy groups who are accused of accepting foreign support have been raided and shut down.

The story that sticks with me is one observer’s tale of his visit to the constitutional court building in Cairo shortly after last year’s revolution. He noticed two things that struck him as odd. There was the fact that the building was bustling with activity, even though Egypt technically had no constitution at the time. Then there was the tank parked out front. He wondered what it was doing there. Well, now we know. The building was bustling because the judiciary has become the junta’s instrument for re-asserting control, and the tank was there because the building was, in effect, a military outpost.

Yet this isn’t quite the status quo ante. What has obviously changed is that Egypt’s Islamist faction has gained enormously in its prominence. Between the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical Salafists, Islamist parties won a strong majority in parliament, and the Brotherhood’s candidate won a narrow majority in the election for president.

Yet even this is not a complete change from the old regime. Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was suppressed, but it was still the only social and political organization of any size permitted to exist by the Mubarak regime, which functioned by alternately suppressing the Islamists and cutting deals with them. That is precisely why we see the Brotherhood having such a huge influence after the revolution. It was the only pre-existing organization outside the regime. So what we have, in effect, is an attempt to restore the old system in a renegotiated form, adjusting the balance of power between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some have suggested that the Egyptian system is being remade along the Turkish model, “which both endows Turkish officers with wide-ranging powers to police the political arena and curtails the power of civilian leaders,” while others point to the example of Pakistan, “a self-destructive and stagnating military dictatorship, limping along in sporadic democratic spurts.”

What strikes me is actually the similarities among all three examples. Beneath their individual variations, they reflect the overall outlines of “Islamic Democracy.” The key to Islamic Democracy is that the “Islamic” part is not compatible with the “democracy” part. Islamism demands total dominance for the supposed laws of God over the laws of man. It is by nature illiberal and intolerant of independent secular institutions, which is to say that Islamic Democracy is a constant threat to political freedom and representative government. (Eric Trager reports that the Brotherhood was “preparing for months to reject an electoral outcome against it” through violence in the streets.) Hence the chaos that is characteristic of these systems; they are inherently unstable.

Each of these systems has three basic political institutions, a popularly elected parliament and president, a judiciary, and a military establishment. Those institutions, in turn, are pawns in a struggle between three basic social forces: a secular dictatorship, a fanatical Islamist movement, and a small, largely urban faction of semi-Westernized secular liberals. The variations concern which institutions are influenced, and in what degree, by which factions. But the basic dynamic is the same. The Islamists always seek power in an attempt to create a religious dictatorship; the secular dictatorship always pushes back in an attempt to maintain its independence and protect its corrupt economic interests; and the secular liberals—without control of the military and unable to command a majority in the streets—are always in danger of being crushed between these forces and have to try to play them off against one another. The cities contain an educated middle class which has had some contact with the wider world and knows what a free, secular society looks like, and if it were just up to the cities, the liberals would have a larger influence. (This, by the way, is why Tunisia is the best bet among the Arab Spring countries; it is really just a city-state.) But the cities are balanced out by an impoverished, uneducated countryside where people reflexively vote for the religious parties because they equate religion with morality.

None of this is to say that a full restoration of the old regime in Egypt would be preferable. The fact that the new regime is so similar to what is happening in Turkey and Pakistan (and to some extent in Iraq, where the picture is further complicated by ethnic and sectarian divisions), suggests that military dictatorship just put a lid on these social forces but did little to change them. What the outcome so far in Egypt does imply is that deeper, more lasting political change in these countries is going to come slowly, as the population becomes wealthier, better educated, and more connected to the rest of the world.

Our interest lies, not in blindly supporting the military regime on the assumption that nothing better is possible. Rather, our interest is to support the secular liberals, to help them secure as much liberty as possible, and to keep them from being crushed in the battle between the military and the Islamists so that they can have a beneficial long-term influence.

In this regard, while events in Egypt have been driven by their own internal logic, we can also blame them on a political failure by this administration, which has been conspicuous in its irrelevance. The Washington Post‘s Jackson Diehl puts it nicely: “Obama has made a difference during the Arab Spring mostly by not making a difference. By failing to decisively use US aid, diplomatic influence, and military power to support the removal of dictators and the beginning of democratic transformation, he has helped tip the balance toward the old regimes—or chaos.”

In his big “speech to the Muslim world” back in 2009—appropriately enough, in Cairo—President Obama explicitly stated his goal of diminishing American power in the world and making the Leader of the Free World largely irrelevant to world events. He has made good on that promise, and it will ensure another decade of Islamist mischief and deadly chaos in the Middle East.

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