By Mohammed Nosseir
While authoritarianism may be perceived by many as hereditary in Egyptian DNA, it is in reality a mechanism of rule that has been forced upon its citizens for centuries in a determined effort to get rid of any attempt to establish genuine democracy (such as the 25 January Revolution). The challenge we Egyptians are facing is not only the difficulty of transforming our country into a democracy (no genuine attempt to do so has been underway).
A major part of the challenge is that Egyptians, having never experienced another mechanism of rule, tend to rely on the authoritarian model, relieving themselves of all responsibility and casting the burden of advancing the country entirely on the shoulders of their respective leaders.
Following six decades of rigged elections, the first and only fair and free parliament elections in Egypt were held in 2012. Almost half of the registered voters, voted for the Muslim Brotherhood; a structured, organised group whose leader bears the title of ‘Supreme Guide’. In fact, he is a citizen who is neither an intellect nor a leader, the ‘Supreme Guide’, is simply an ordinary person whose position in the organisation requires him to play a holy role that enables him mobilise his followers who must obey him unconditionally.
In the same elections, slightly less than one-quarter of all eligible voters happily voted for the Salafi groups (whose thinking ranges from conservativeness to extremism). Egyptian Salafis are not known to have superior educational knowledge in any given field, and are not good at mobilising citizens in elections like the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet they did manage to convince millions of Egyptians to vote for them.
One of the fundamental tools that the Brotherhood uses with great success is its “no argument” motto. Brotherhood members are taught that internal quarrels lead to polarisation. Members are therefore completely forbidden to argue with their respective leaders, which obviously facilitates the mobilisation of recruits and followers. Those unfortunate people who have had occasion to debate any given issue with Brotherhood members soon realise that Brotherhood members repeatedly counter their arguments using the very same points they had been initially taught by their leaders. They blindly repeat these arguments, without even thinking of what they are stating.
During the days of 25 January Revolution, I asked a Brotherhood leader why he kept moving forward toward the microphone to applaud the speech of a liberal politician. His answer was that his followers would only join in the applause if they saw him doing so. What matters here is not the speech’s substance; it is the ability of a given organisation to switch off the minds of millions of citizens in order to steer them blindly in a chosen direction.
I can understand that the very tiny numbers of people who hold power are privileged in our society, continuously advocating for an authoritarian system where the rule of law is not applied. The question is, why do the vast majority of powerless citizens accept this structure? Eventually, I came to realise that Egyptians have never had the experience of living in a country ruled by law where institutions play a strong role in the protection of citizens’ rights. Thus they tend to reach out to authoritarian rulers who will either give them their missing rights or enable them to abuse power. Egyptians having been living with this phenomenon for centuries; when an authoritarian ruler gets ugly enough, their reaction is to replace him with another, less ugly, authoritarian ruler. They are not, apparently, aware of the possibility of changing the entire mechanism of rule.
Furthermore, inequality of gender and religion is an established fact in Egypt, and while most members of our consecutive cabinets may be progressive individuals, they are aware that these inequalities, which are widespread in rural and poor areas, constitute a fundamental pillar of the structure that maintains them in power. Discrimination against women or Christians gives a sort of authoritarian pleasure to some of the leading figures in society who are affiliated to the regime.
The husband is the authority, while the wife and children are the powerless devotees, and wealthy people should always have an upper hand because their money helps to mobilise ordinary citizens during elections. Because they do not portray authoritarianism, women (who account for 50% of our population) still cannot win in any political elections. In the past, when husbands used to bear the full financial responsibility for their families, their authoritarian position in the family could be ‘justified’ in a sense. Today, thousands of unemployed husbands rely on their wives’ incomes – yet they still manage to maintain a strong authoritarian grip, controlling their wives (along with their incomes of course).
Egyptians may enjoy the comprehensive rhetoric of the leftists and the floppy ideas of the liberals, yet when it comes to ruling the country, their minds automatically associate the ruler with an authoritarian figure (someone who is firm, powerful, well connected, and who can make people obey his orders). Thus, they settle on either the tough version of authoritarianism (‘military officer’) or the soft one (‘political Islamist’). All other contenders do not even make the shortlist.
The regime in power is always careful to cultivate and maintain excellent relationships with various leading figures in society, such as priests, the Head of the Coptic Church, mayors, wealthy citizens, and anyone else with the ability to mobilise poor and illiterate citizens. In return, the ruler always generously rewards these leading personalities, ensuring that they can continue to exercise their authoritarianism in their respective domains. Inequality helps to manipulate citizens, so let’s not mess with it. The Egyptian government is continuously calling for the need to establish ‘a strong authoritarian state’ – a phrase that is strongly supported by members of the influential and powerful Egyptian elite, who all stand to benefit personally from its realisation.
“To break a piece of steel, you must use a harder one” is a phrase commonly used by Egyptians during the 12-month rule of the Brotherhood. Whether you believe that what happened on 30 June 2013 was a people’s revolution or a military coup does not really matter; it was the only channel available to the millions of Egyptians who had become disillusioned with theBrotherhood and who perceived them as a threat to society. Getting rid of the Brotherhood required bringing the military to power. Personally, I was never accorded much interest to labelling the 30 June events; I was (and still am) much more concerned about the price that society is forced to pay for repeatedly exchanging one authoritarian ruler with another.
Many Egyptians justify authoritarianism by claiming that the outbreak of violence/terrorism requires a leader with an iron grip to combat terrorists – and whoever else is, for political purposes, labelled as such. It never occurs to them that applying the rule of law would enable the entire country to experience justice and thus reduce potential violence. Quite apart from these people’s disregard for moral values and the illegality of their motives, I would like to invite them to think for a moment about the consequences for our country should the president fail in his mission of erasing violence and the power was to revert to the other side.
The dilemma that Egypt is facing today is the absence of demands for applying common moral values to the entire society. Egyptians tend to be strongly biased towards their preferences; they are happy to see these preferences realised – even if this is achieved through the abuse power by an authoritarian ruler, or by outlawed groups. People can easily narrow or broaden their perspectives on any given issue. The crisis that our country is experiencing today can be addressed either from the narrow perspective of “terrorism needs authoritarianism”, or be viewed through the broader perspective of “the absence of freedom and rule of law can only lead to violence”.
Egypt is going through an extremely fragile transitional phase. The relationship between ruler and citizens has always been in the form of a very tight leash that allows the ruler to manipulate the citizens. The ruler is always warning us that the unleashing of society will conclude in chaos. I fully agree – if this were to occur in the absence of the rule of law and in the continued presence of dysfunctional and corrupt institutions. Nevertheless, the ruler needs to think about how much longer he will be able to maintain his grip on the leash, which is certainly becoming weaker with every day that goes by. Egyptian society is evolving, and the leash is bound to break sooner rather than later. The only viable option therefore is to replace the leash method with true democracy – and not with a stronger leash.
Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian Liberal Politician working on reforming Egypt on true liberal values, proper application of democracy and free market economy