Analysis: The plagues of Egypt

Lacking a significant democratic culture, Egypt will likely be providing alarming headlines almost daily.

Egyptian soldiers celebrate in Tahrir Square 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Egyptian soldiers celebrate in Tahrir Square 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
I was once told by an Egyptian friend – a wise diplomat who served at the Egyptian Embassy in Israel for several years – that democracy is in fact a strict dictatorship, since each citizen is his own dictator.
The citizen in a democracy imposes upon himself a strict etiquette: not to push; not to steal; not to harass women and girls; not to harm or insult others; to stop at a red light, even if it is three o’clock in the morning; not to cheat in business; to hold the door open for the person behind you; to stand in line; not to behave in a socially unacceptable manner; and other such dos and don’ts which the citizen in a democratic society feels obligated to abide by at every moment. He upholds these rules not out of fear of the regime, which is in no way intimidating, but out of self-discipline and conviction that only thus can a society run smoothly.
Thus, a democratic society is one that is based upon the self-restraint of its citizens, and this self-restraint allows society to live a life of freedom and comfort.
In Israel, said my Egyptian friend, there exists an unwritten “contract” between all citizens, which sets the rules of conduct in all areas of life: in the street, on the road, in economics, in politics and in the family.
In Egypt, however, he said that there is no such social contract – no rules, no laws, no restraints and no self-dictatorship. Each person does as he chooses at any given moment, with no selfrestraint or consideration for others, unguided by even the most basic rules of conduct. A red traffic light is a mere recommendation; bribery is the norm; anyone can build what he wants where he wants; any manager can appoint his sons, daughters and brothersin- law to any position under him, irrespective of their qualifications; and resorting to violence against the weak is widely prevalent. The individual feels free to act on his impulses, and is not required to answer for his actions and misdemeanors.
And so, after completing many years of service at the Egyptian Embassy, this friend felt that he was “leaving an orderly democracy and returning to a country of confusion and chaos.”
All this was when Hosni Mubarak was still in power, which goes to show that his influence over Egyptian societal conduct was minimal. Egyptian society operated all these years by rules of its own, without the self-restraint that is the basis of conduct in democratic societies.
The reasons for this are clear: When the individual lives under the pressure of a dictatorial regime, he seeks any outlet – legitimate or otherwise – to act as a free person, unlimited and uninhibited. An individual living in a free state, however, does not have a similar urge to break free from the pressure of the regime. Therefore, he develops a system of selfrestraints that allow citizens to live side by side, taking care not to step on one another’s toes.
The same is also true of group behavior. In democratic societies, groups develop codes of conflict management through legitimate means such as debate, public organization and peaceful demonstration. Everyone abides by the same “rules of the game” which enable all groups, even if they differ in worldview and agenda, to coexist and conduct open, fair and nonviolent public debate among themselves.
In contrast, in a society lacking democratic experience there are no political rules, no limitations, no restraints or constraints. Groups tend to enter into violent confrontation on every issue. In fact, the Egyptian regime executed heads of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Brotherhood and other organizations assassinated president Anwar Sadat, ministers of the interior and police officers.
Egyptian society has just been released from the grip of Mubarak’s regime. The current situation in Egypt resembles a pressure cooker whose lid has been suddenly removed. The general population’s awareness of legitimate tools for conflict management have yet to form, and each group sets demands, develops expectations and is prepared to launch a struggle – sometimes violent – to realize its aspirations.
Instances of assault on police stations, looting of museums, government offices and supermarkets, and even sexual assault (as CBS’s Lara Logan experienced) are the result of such lawlessness, and such behavior may prevail in Egypt for some time. This is similar to what we witnessed in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Terrorist attacks by Islamic groups should not be ruled out either.
THE ARMY has now suspended the constitution for six months in order to impose order; in other words, to put the lid back on the pressure cooker. Nevertheless, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, the Wafd party, the Nasserites, the Socialists, the Communists, the extremist religious groups, of course, and the various Muslim Brotherhood Islamists will all attempt to pull in their own direction. Street clashes between the rival groups are likely.
Such internal struggles could create a political vacuum, drawing in foreign interference. Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaida are all waiting to be “called-in” for assistance by one or another Egyptian faction. Much the same happened in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in April 2003, and to this day the Iraqi domestic political system has not yet stabilized.
The army will endeavor to lower the flames, or smother them, should they get too high. While the army has thus far not expressed any desire to take power into its hands permanently, it is certainly possible that after whetting its appetite the army will “discover” a taste for ruling, and Egypt will revert to the rule of generals.
The Muslim Brotherhood has now demanded a repeat of the elections for the Legislative Council (Majlis a- Sha’b), held last November, whose results were clearly fixed by Mubarak’s regime.
The Brotherhood won only one seat out of 454, when its electoral strength might have earned it over half the seats. If the army responds to its demands and holds fair elections, we might see an Egyptian parliament with an Islamic majority, such as in Turkey, which will appoint a government with an Islamist agenda. An Islamist president elected in fair elections together with an Islamist parliament might change the constitution to prevent the passing of the country into secular hands, as was done in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The coming period could indeed be one of social and political unrest in Egypt, with governments rising and falling, an elected parliament unable to function, a military refraining from taking power despite its authority to do so, and politicians forming and rapidly changing alliances within a short period. We may also witness a series of political assassinations, as the quarreling camps seek ascendancy.
This situation of unrest could awaken within many Egyptians the wish to bring to power a strong and dependable figure, with a clear, unwavering agenda. The choice would probably be one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Sheikh Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi is a celebrated figure in the Arab and Muslim world, an eloquent speaker, well-read and knowledgeable, and a practically permanent guest on the Shari’a and Life program on Al-Jazeera. Already this past weekend, he was back preaching in Cairo, and he could yet be called upon to rescue Egypt from chaos, leading the country in the Islamist direction.
In the near term, then, Egypt will likely be a society plagued by a whirlpool of political intrigue and instability – providing alarming headlines almost daily. The governments of the world must be alert and vigilant for developments that could threaten the Suez Canal, the peace with Israel and regional stability.
This article was originally published by The BESA Center.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a 25-year veteran of IDF Military Intelligence, is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.