Deadly divide and rule

8 Min Read

By Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: To cross the River Nile from the Corniche to Zamalek you would probably go by bridge. If the bridges were closed, you could take a boat. In theory if the boatman refuses you could swim.

The three strategies address the same objective: to arrive in Zamalek. In military academies much emphasis is placed on strategy.

The universally accepted objective of the revolution is to transform an autocratic society into a democracy. On the face of it the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces endorses this by laying out timetables to elect new legislatures and a president.

What’s disturbing is not the objective, but the strategies being deployed to achieve the goal. Instead of a bridge to freedom the people are enduring a tortuous choppy journey.

The path to democracy is rancorous, deadly and precarious. Protests disintegrate into fist fights and worse as self-righteous group seek to overlord each another. The Bloody Sunday massacre of Copts at Maspero joins the dots of a contumelious campaign stretching way back.

According to newspaper reports, the ruling militia approved a law on Saturday that punishes discrimination offenders with a minimum three months’ jail and fines of up to EGP 100,000.

But will a statute make a difference?

Anti-discrimination legislation is the bedrock for European Union membership these days. Every new EU member has to pass such a law including outlawing discrimination based on race, gender, religion or sex. Declarations of good intent are not sufficient. The European parliament has pioneered legislative action to criminalize offenders.
Unfortunately a review by a panel of legal experts last December concluded discrimination in Europe remains widespread. Member states resisted providing evidence. Even when concerted efforts were made — such as recruiting police in Northern Ireland from an equal pool of protestant and catholic candidates — the law was challenged for discriminating against the protestant majority.

Copts face an uphill struggle to live on equal terms in Egypt. The anti-discrimination law is a first step. Enforcement would prove intent. A positive discrimination law should follow. That would reflect the overwhelming desire in Tahrir Square to strengthen the foundations that have distinguished Egypt for centuries: tolerance and esteem.

At times of great strain, others have articulated the true measure of tolerance, none better than Mahatma Gandhi: A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

Esteem was the foundation of John F. Kennedy’s appeal for unity: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

Neither Gandhi nor Kennedy sought to divide their nations. Both marshaled unity to conquer stubborn foes: in India, British imperialism, in America the threat of Soviet expansion.

Flicking through the clippings in the Cairo archive identifies Egypt’s failure to adhere to the revolution’s first principle: tolerance. In their Theory of Tolerance two professors of economics, Giacomo Corneo from the Free University of Berlin and Olivier Jeanne of Johns Hopkins University offer an insight.

They say intolerant individuals attach all symbolic value to a small number of attributes. They disrespect people with different ones. Tolerant people have diversified values and respect social alterity, alien cultural values such as sexuality, divorce and women’s rights.

The hairs on the back of my neck bristled reviewing their method to determine the tolerance of societies in three categories: occupation, lifestyle and religion. Re-examining the comments of the various groups that are in tension forming Egypt’s new democracy forces the conclusion that tolerance is absent.
Two recent experiences are apposite. The obituaries of Steve Jobs related the founder of Apple moving from poverty to great wealth without hindrance from the one-time stigma of illegitimacy and adoption. The American society he traversed accepted him for what he was doing for others, rather than rejecting him as a social misfit.

Listening to the president of the Royal Society, Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse unveil his upbringing revealed the extent of his achievement. Brought up by a cook and a handyman, he was in his 50s before learning they weren’t his parents. They were his grandparents. His mother was the woman he’d been led to believe was his sister. His brother and another sister became his aunt and uncle.

Yet here is Britain’s most influential scientist guiding the top echelons of policy-making with nary a care about his parentage. His peers acknowledge him as the architect of expanding gene therapy, a genius of teambuilding, eschewing academics’ egos.

The core of the problem in Egypt today is fear of change. According to professors Corneo and Jeanne, authoritarian paternalism — children guided to embrace lifestyles of their parents’ choosing — results in a society of highly complacent and intolerant people.

Alternately they say children that are encouraged to follow natural talents results in a society of tolerant people who take advantage of their economic opportunities. In a tolerant society production efficiency is enhanced. The move from intolerance to tolerance increases incomes.

What does this have to do with strategies?

To my mind those opposing significant change are attempting to divide the tolerant majority that emerged in Tahrir Square so that a self-centered cadre can commandeer the reigns of power.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Caesar and Napoleon used divide and rule as an effective strategy to hold power. Machiavelli advocated it in his manual The Art of War.

Even democrats are tempted. James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the American Declaration of Independence that under certain qualifications divide et impera is the only policy by which a republic can be administered on just principles.

Dividing people to dominate them is a cynical strategy to control.

History reveals its folly. The division of the Subcontinent of India into three parts fosters enmity. Ireland’s division along religious lines is a millstone around Britain’s neck. Korea glares across minefields. Cyprus exists on baleful rhetoric.

The genius of German literature, the polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 -1832) put his finger on it: Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is the watchword of the wise.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


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