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The right comparison?

I attended Egypt’s National Youth Conference for the first time this year, when two sessions evoked the development of terrorism and the complicated issue of fake news. During a third session, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who attended all the sessions and commented on all the presentations, answered questions relating to foreign policy, security, economic issues and education.

Direct visual contact with people is different from seeing them on television, and the president is much more impressive when you see him in person. You feel his willpower and his determination, and he looks notably fit and strong.

I do not want to discuss the issues he dealt with here. I will just say that I appreciated many of the things he said, which included the fact that he was quite clear on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is currently being built in Ethiopia. Our aims here should be moderate, but for now things are not going “as well as we might have wished,” the president said.

He also launched a scathing attack on the religious establishment, which he said did “not seem to feel the seriousness of the situation.” This also tends to prove that the president feels secure, as this issue is a very controversial one. What interests me here is how he reads the overall situation, comparing this to other possible comparisons and paradigms.

The predominant paradigm for understanding Egypt in Western circles seems to be that of a “democratic transition”. People either opt for a “Chilean narrative,” this paradigm says, with the army toppling a “democratically-elected” president, or for an “Eastern European one,” or for one in which a democratic transition failed. 

These ideas deserve serious discussion. I do not belong to those who say that there is no serious demand for democracy in Egypt. In fact, I believe the contrary. However, I do not agree with those who say that everyone in Egypt and elsewhere in the world wants democracy. Of course, everybody wants to express his or her own views. However, democracy is more than that: you express your views and accept the fact that others have the right to say things that are unpleasant, and even odious, to your ears. All of a sudden, things can turn out to be very complicated.

Western academics acknowledge this, and they have invented the concept of “illiberal democracy”. This has its virtues, but also its risks. It tends to mean that when you accept free elections and in theory the rotation of power, you are a democrat, even if you do not tolerate some kinds of discourse and the independence of the judicial system. I will not spend much time discussing this view. I just want to point out that it may be unappealing for many.

For more than a decade, many Western academics have also been giving us migraines by stressing the supposed virtues and democratic credentials of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They now have to admit that these virtues and credentials are not so obvious. So, instead they have used another argument, which is to stress the supposedly democratic credentials of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement. Of course, it is much too early to tell about this, and I confess to being sceptical.

In both cases, however, we can argue that the societies concerned are much more secular than that in Egypt and that any Islamist politician has to take this into account. The real comparison is with Sudan. The Islamists’ performance there should convince anybody that their rule has led to an almost failed state, a terrible civil war, all sorts of crimes and an economic disaster.

Unfortunately, even this has not always been the case. The Western experts have decreed that the former Sudanese regime was a military one (of course this is true), but not an Islamist one implementing a Muslim Brotherhood agenda. Such dishonesty is staggering. It should also be added that the Egyptian state is much more powerful than the Sudanese one, meaning that the threat of Islamist rule is much more serious in Egypt and the likelihood of democracy quite weak.

To make a long story short, of all the possible paradigms the idea of a democratic transition is probably the least suited for understanding Egypt, a country where almost all the institutions are authoritarian, including the family, the schools, the religious authorities, the patron and client networks, the political parties, and so on. 

Most importantly, the only really organised political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, is more than simply “authoritarian”. Instead, its “project” is “total,” to use its own terminology. Of course, you could still acknowledge this fact and say that all this means is that a radically democratic constitution that tries to dismantle as many authoritarian institutions as possible was and is still necessary. Or you could say that this indicates the need for gradual reform. But I do not believe that we have ever had enough momentum for these things to take place in Egypt, and the risk of civil war has been too great.

I sincerely want a peaceful democratic system in my country. I know I am not alone in wanting this, but I do not buy the story that says we have destroyed an interesting and promising democratic experiment.

What we saw in Egypt was a revolution, not a democratic transition. The differences should be obvious: in a democratic transition, remnants of the old regime have the right to organise themselves, and everybody has the right to a fair trial. In a democracy, the people are represented; in a revolution they are simply “present”. A revolution is also Manichean, and its narrative opposes the people to a tyrant. There is nothing similar to this idea in a democracy.

Let us end the discussion on the democratic transition paradigm. Let us try other possible comparisons. There are many of these, including revolution and counter-revolution, which means that you should compare the past decade in Egypt to the ones that followed the 1848 Revolutions in Europe. You could try to determine what we can learn from the Bismarck years in Europe and from the rule of the Russian tsars. 

Authoritarian modernisation is another paradigm, and here you could opt for a comparison with South Korea, with the Mohamed Ali experience in Egypt and with the Russia of Peter the Great. You could have a field day saying that modern technology, geography, and so on change the nature of the game, while others could counter your assertions. 

I want to say that “authoritarian modernisation” was the general pattern in Europe after the Renaissance. It brilliantly succeeded in many places, had mixed results in others, and was a miserable failure in still more. It cannot be simply dismissed as doomed to failure because it is undemocratic. I may also add that armies and their needs were the drivers for this type of modernisation in Europe.

The possible comparisons do not stop here: for instance, we could evoke the 1930s in Europe, with their huge fascist menace. I know this is unpopular, but it does not mean it is preposterous. 

Meanwhile, President Al-Sisi’s discourse at the National Youth Forum strikingly reminded me of the 17th century in Europe, with the threat of civil war being neutralised by the construction of a strong state.

In pro-regime intellectual circles in Egypt, everybody agrees that we are witnessing the unfolding of an “authoritarian modernisation” approach, perhaps a “modernisation from above” scheme familiar from various other historical examples. Many then start to discuss whether the South Korean, Indonesian or some Latin American experience should be our guide.

I am no expert on these countries, however. Therefore, I feel disoriented, or even estranged, when such discussions start.

I also have a soft spot for other comparisons, one of them being that between Egypt and Russia. These days, I am reading books on Russia that include some by US and French authors. Martin Malia’s “Russia Under Western Eyes” is a masterpiece I strongly recommend. Alain Besançon’s “Holy Russia” and “Soviet Present, Russian Past” are also two great books that have been enthralling me. 

Sooner or later I will return to UK author Sir Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated book “Russian Thinkers”. Of course, I am also keeping an eye on the Websites of the US journals Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, among others. As a teenager, I was a voracious reader of Russian literature, and for me Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Vassily Grossman were the greatest writers of the last century. All this, of course, does not mean I am an expert on Russia, however.

Let us start with some common features between Egypt and Russia and from the starting points of the Russian tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 17th century and Egypt’s ruler Mohamed Ali 100 years later.  

Both men ruled backward societies that were frequently invaded and had unmanageable frontiers. Both societies were deeply religious. Both rulers wanted to modernise their countries and to build powerful armies for defensive or offensive purposes. This entailed the importation of Western knowledge and the building of a powerful centralised state. Funding such efforts required and legitimised the horrible exploitation of the people. This delayed or hampered the development of a powerful civil society that would be able to sustain itself without the state’s intervention. 

Both men failed to disseminate such new values into their societies, with the relative exception of the upper classes. Later, urban middle classes adopting modern values and ways of living emerged, but this was not to happen for some generations. 

The failure of both men to modernise their countries’ popular culture may have had something to do with the influence of men of religion, who had tremendous influence in their respective communities together with a commitment to inherited worldviews and a reluctance to adopt new ideas. But on many counts, these things did not really disturb the rulers.

In fact, they did not need to concern themselves with the failure to modernise their societies since their armies quickly became impressive tools. We tend to forget that the Russians reached their military peak in 1815, when they occupied Paris. Some 50 years previously (1762), they had nearly destroyed Prussia. Similarly, Egypt during Mohamed Ali’s reign conquered many nearby regions and seriously threatened Istanbul. 

However, in both the Russian and the Egyptian cases, society remained backward and poor despite such top-down successes. In both cases, the contrast was striking between a powerful army and a poor and backward country.

The successors of these founding fathers had to find some solution to this paradox. In order to enforce reform, consent and obedience, they needed the survival of traditional values and in some cases the support of men of religion. Put differently, they needed citizens to adopt some Western values, while at the same time agreeing to remain slaves, or at least subjects. They also needed slaves who would stop behaving as slaves on specific issues. 

In other words, the logic of these systems required the best of both worlds: a population of citizens accepting slavery, or a population of slaves behaving from time to time as citizens. Of course, this paradox was impossible to achieve.

Nevertheless, middle classes that were more or less independent of the state grew slowly and relentlessly in both countries. These classes were modern, and they had an interest in developing a society that would have a say in political decision-making. However, the bureaucracy and the population as a whole disliked these new classes. They did not like their individualism, or what they perceived as their greed. They did not like their tendency to give lectures or their ways of living. We may add that they did not like their perceived foreign connections.

Of course, things were much more complicated than this brief comparison suggests. But what matters is the following: the preeminence of the state was seldom questioned in either case, and when this happened, chaos reigned. Even the modern middle classes then accepted the return of an authoritarian state. Generally speaking, most Russians and Egyptians still seem to prefer top-down approaches.

Culturally speaking, Western values progressed in both countries, but these were countered by various romantic discourses. Many stressed Egyptian or Russian exceptionalism. Many said something that is quite silly – namely, that the West may be superior to us in material goods, but we have true religion, spiritual values, and are greatly superior to it in the things that really matter. 

We may add that there was a belief that this superior essence would appear when things turned critical, when it would become clear that “we” were the better warriors and would be able to achieve outstanding results when things really mattered. There was a belief that “we” understood the West but that the West did not understand us.

The two peoples have also had a complicated relationship with factual truth. Besançon has some impressive pages on this aspect of Russian culture, pointing out that it is often despicable and often admirable by turns. Both countries also have had a restless intelligentsia that is both creative and innovative but that can seem to lack both common sense and political flair.

I do not want to minimise or underrate the huge differences between the two countries. The Russian tsar was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and he had more than a say in theological disputes. The head of the later Soviet Communist Party was also the custodian of that doctrine. In Egypt, neither the rulers of the state, nor the men of religion, have ever had this kind of legitimacy, though this was not for want of trying. 

Egypt did not go through the same horrible ordeal of the last century’s world wars. It never experienced total collapse. The state established in Egypt after the 23 July Revolution had nothing to do with the Soviet one, and its repression was considerably milder than Lenin’s or Stalin’s. Most importantly, nobody ever said of Egyptians, unlike of Russians, that they oscillated between extreme evil and sublime good, occasionally combining both. In fact, a colleague once told me that a Soviet officer had once told a friend that “you Egyptians are not serious: you work half-heartedly, you take vacations half-heartedly, you make war half-heartedly. You never go to extremes.”

Despite the towering figure of late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian literature is much less impressive than Russian. Nowhere else than in Russian novels can you find a woman who is simultaneously a saint and a whore.

*A version of this article appears in print in the19 & 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Dr. Tewfik Aclimandos
Chief of European studies unit

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