Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Lesson of Egypt

I've been fascinated by the events in Egypt in the last year; they've been one of the participants in "The Arab Spring."

My interest in Egypt is, in fact, nothing new. When I transferred to Eastern Illinois University in 1981, I had plans to go there for a year and transfer to the University of Illinois to study Biology. This changed when I took one of my prereq courses, a Political Science course taught by, believe it or not, a professor named Faust.

Looking back, I know now that it was that class that led me to get a bachelor's and then a master's degree in Political Science. I hadn't been so fascinated in anything in years.

One October morning, as Dr. Faust was dismissing class, a guy ran into class and blurted out that Anwar Sadat had been assassinated. Everybody who was left in the class stopped and talked about it. I was hooked.

Three and a half years later, I wrote one of my Master's papers on Gamel Nassar, the first President of Egypt. It originally started with Samuel Huntington's idea, one of the ideas put forth in Samuel Huntington's classic "Political Order in Changing Societies," that sometimes military rule-- temporary military rule-- can be one of the means by which a society can establish the order by which development-- political, social, economic development-- can begin. Nassar started out as an idealist young military officer overthrowing the corrupt king of Egypt.

My faculty advisor encouraged me to base my Nassar paper on how much he followed the imperatives outlined in Huntington's book for the leaders of developing countries to stay in power. The idea was that they in order to enact change they must stay in power. But we all know that this is not necessarily always the case; Egypt's Mubarek stayed in power for three decades and little changed. Reading the accounts of the power struggles after the fall of Mubarek, it's like reading my Master's paper again; the military, the Islamic Brotherhood-- all the same players.

Nassar took the tack, which Huntington described, of creating an outside enemy. In his case, it was Israel. This was, of course, disasterous. Israel soundly thumped Egypt-- and several other countries allied with Egypt against it-- in 1967. And again, after Nassar was dead, in 1973.

In my Master's paper, I tried to compare Nassar to then-current leaders. Presciently, as it turned out, I compared Libya's Ghaddafi to Nassar (Ghaddafi was open about his admiration for Nassar). It turned out that the comparison was pretty apt. Ghaddafi, in his reign, more than four decades, was able to maintain power, but did not develop the government and social institutions that would allow Libya to thrive. Libya is suddenly a nation of armed gangs. Not a promising prospect.

The other person I compared Nassar to was Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings of Ghana. On May 15, 1979, Rawlings attempted to overthrow the extremely corrupt government of Ghana. His attempt initially failed-- Rawlings was court-martialed and sentenced to death-- but a group of military officers succeeded in overthrowing the government and rescued Rawlings.

Rawlings, who was then only 31 years old, led a military council, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) in cleaning up the government. Rawlings then stepped aside for an elected government.

However, in December of 1981, Rawlings, unsatisified with the progress being made, overthrew the government again. Like Nassar, he ran for president (Rawlings would finally retire from the military in 1992). He won, with 58% of the vote. He would serve as President until 2001. He was prevented by the Ghanian Constitution from running again.

Was Rawlings successful? The fact that the Constitution actually prevented Rawlings from running again might be a measure of that success. Ghana is still poor. It is staggering, like many developing countries, under a lot of debt.

A book I picked up at a used book store years ago, one I've been reading on and off over the years, is about the resumption of civilian rule after the military coup that overthrew the government of Nkrumah, the Ghana's first post-colonial ruler. It's the kind of book that, probably, only someone like me, who has a Master's degree in Political Science would find fascinating. The upshot of the book is that the military voluntarily relinquished power in Ghana because as an institution, it did not have the attributes needed to process the conflicts and needs of a society. It's actually an amazing story. It plays into the ideas that Huntington brought up-- ideas that we're still trying to deal with today. What happens first-- political and social order followed by economic progress or vice versa?

Looking at Somalia now, or the horrific violence the engulfed Yugoslavia after its dissolution in the early nineties, one wonders if a bad government is better than no government. The military government of Egypt is finding the hard lesson that so many militaries have discovered in the 20th and 21st centuries-- indeed, what the United States discovered after easily defeating Iraq and Afghanistan-- that it's easier to overthrow than to govern. In the end, while a leader may stay in power, using the imperatives of Huntington, Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu or anybody else, in the end, if a society that does not have a form of government in which the needs and dreams of its citizens cannot find a way, or in which its citizens cannot even express those things, it is probably doomed. In the end, it may be Winston Churchill who said it best:

"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."*


Erik Donald France said...

Excellent, Thoroughly enjoyed this~~

I also agree that some form of authority is needed. Otherwise, as Hobbes put it, "life is nasty brutish and short."

dmarks said...

Nasser was another nightmare, really:a genodical strongman whose #1 policy goal was wiping out the Israelis.

Pat Tillett said...

It's easier to overthrow than to govern. That pretty much sums it up. A bad government is better than none at all. Chaos...
Our country may have it's problems, but overall, we're pretty darn lucky...
GREAT post! Thought provoking to be sure.

dmarks said...

Pat: I disagree. A bad government is worse than none at all. Just compare Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge socialists took it over, to "Stateless" Somalia.

I'd clearly choose to live in Somalia than Khmer Rouge Cambodia. To really commit massive atrocities takes the organization of a strong state.