Does Egypt still need a 'just despot'?

Ahmed Maged
5 Min Read

CAIRO: Why has the prevalence of democratic rule staggered – if not failed – in the Arab world?

It’s a question that continues to puzzle many analysts, some of whom attribute that kind of failure to the reluctance of successive regimes that had taken control of the region over the years to lay the true foundations for democratic mechanisms.

While this may be a significant part of the problem, others argue that the process of preparing the masses for democratic rule, which usually takes decades, has faltered due to the change of rulers, the outbreak of wars or the complex nature of the democratization process.

“El Mustabid El Adel (The Just Despot) by Mohamed Afifi, a history professor at Cairo University, published by Egypt’s Supreme Cultural Council, dabbles with the issue of democracy and firm rule.

The term ‘just despot’ was first coined by the pioneering turn-of-the-century Egyptian Imam Sheikh Mohamed Abdou (1849-1905), who believed that to pave the way for democracy the ruler should adopt semi-dictatorial rule for 15 years to build the foundations needed to realize the higher goal of establishing self-rule.

According to Abdou, at the head of such a regime stands “a powerful ruler armed with a code of ethics and altruistic love for his own people.

The idea appeared in one of Abdou’s articles and was met with disbelief by many who had always admired him for his rejection of despotic rule and struggle for freedom.

But his were critical times when the old regime in the Arab world based on the Caliphate was swept away by the West’s new political and social paradigm, which led Abdou to conclude that the shortcomings came from within rather than from the colonizers.

Education was therefore the only means of taking on the challenge – accordingly education is bound to necessitate temporary dictatorial rule to ensure the unification of people towards democracy.

Afifi’s book is divided into five chapters where the author discusses the circumstances that led to the advent of Abdou’s concept and how it was severely criticized by Egyptian scholar Ahmed Lotfi El Sayed who saw no way to reconcile the contradiction between justice and despotism.

While the third chapter is devoted to explaining the concept of the ‘just despot’ from the perspective of Syrian politician Abel Rahman El Shahbandar (1879-1940), the fourth chapter practically highlights the model of the just despot as experienced during the rule of late Egyptian/Pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“Nasser was a staunch follower of the just despot theory which he believed (like Abdou and Shahbandar) was a transitional period necessary to prepare the people for democracy.

Nasser was criticized for ignoring the democratic model that prevailed during the last three decades of the monarchy in Egypt, but for him, “the return of that model . was not in line with the transitional period.

Believing that the people were not ready for democracy, he ignored past efforts and set out to administer a faux-democracy through semi-democratic councils.

The author illuminates the consequences of that policy through “Who’s the Victim of the Masses , a long poem by the late Syrian Nizar Qabbani, which he wrote to mourn Nasser’s death.

Due to the loss of the 1967 war with Israel and the proximity of the region to the West, which fuelled opposition to Nasser’s rule, the concept that died with Nasser had two major consequences: first, the masses couldn’t be weaned off the idea of the ‘just despot’ and kept looking for one; and second, following his death late president Anwar Sadat sowed the seeds for multi-party democracy – proof that Egypt benefited from Nasser’s experience.

Afifi doesn’t offer much in terms of explaining where Egypt stands today but poses the question of whether the shortcomings are because of the people or the regime.

Do we still need a ‘just despot’? Or is it time for the people to take the initiative?

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