Egypt and the psychology of dictatorship. An outsider’s perspective.

What was Morsi thinking on the evening of November 22? Everyone expected him to take some measures to appease the clashes that commemorated the many killed revolutionaries one year ago in Mohamed Mahmud Street. Instead he made a Constitutional Declaration of seven articles, giving himself unlimited powers. Article 2 says: “All constitutional declarations, laws and decrees made since Morsi assumed power on 30 June 2012 cannot be appealed or canceled by any individual, or political or governmental body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected. All lawsuits against them are declared void.” Article 6 says that “The president is authorized to take any measures he sees fit in order to preserve the revolution, to preserve national unity or to safeguard national security.”

Not only the world was stunned, Mohamed Morsi himself was also surprised, by the overall negative reaction. Didn’t he take these powers to give blinded revolutionaries pensions, to reopen the trials that let those responsible for the killings unpunished, to give the liberals more time to finish the constitution? And above all, didn’t he fire one of the most hated remnants of the old regime, the public prosecutor, who refused to investigate so many cases filed by revolutionaries? So, what was Morsi thinking when he issued his declaration? Was it amateurism or bad will? A lot of people on Tahrir said: “Told you so. The Muslim Brotherhood is a Masonic-like organization who wants to take power in order to turn Egypt into a second Iran.” I believe the problem lies somewhere else.

I asked sources, close to the president and the government, in private what was going on. What they told me struck the historian in me. They unfolded to me that the government had proof that the judges, the administration and the media were conspiring against the president and the government. Not to overthrow them but to block whatever they wanted to do to make progress. The media, they said, did not bring the good news. They only criticize. No wonder, because they were paid by foreign funds. There was even proof that some liberals were in the same kind of conspiracy.

Sure there is some truth to it. The media hasn’t been very kind. The Constitutional Court had dissolved the People’s Assembly and was poised to dissolve the Constitutional Assembly as well. The public prosecutor has indeed not been very cooperative. The judges seemed to have used legal grounds to motivate political rulings. The bureaucracy is dragging decisions into the administrative mud. And the liberals walked out of the Constitutional Assembly. But labeling al this as a conspiracy is more then one bridge too far. I have worked in opposition and government in Belgium. Every politician gets that feeling at least once in his career. The ‘they-are-all-against-us-motif’ is an all time classic. It happens in all countries in the entire world. The question is how do you react to it?

The biggest danger is going into the bunker-mentality, closing your self up in retreat, waiting for the right moment for a counter-attack. In a fully fledged democracy this counter-attack is always pretty harmless, because the bunker-mentality makes you misread the situation and loose the next election. Nicolas Sarkozy is a good example. In a post-revolutionary situation, the counter-attack is mostly very dangerous. Because whatever you decide, your bunker-mentality will make you only more suspicious and will encourage you to go down the path of dictatorship, step by step.

Egypt has seen this evolution before. When Nasser took power in 1952 he didn’t shut down democracy immediately. I even think his initial intentions were good. He wanted to liberate Egypt from its foreign occupiers and their puppets. But then he was drawn into the bunker-mentality. He didn’t trust his former friends anymore and surely not the political parties that wanted to block his plans. Gradually, Nasser turned into a brutal dictator himself, sacking president Naguib, abolishing political parties and imprisoning all ‘anti-revolutionary forces’.
This is the psychology of post-revolutionary dictatorship: fighting the enemy of the revolution from an ever smaller becoming bunker. Many revolutionary leaders went down the same path. After the French revolution some leaders wanted to fight against the counterrevolutionary forces. They weren’t butchers by nature. On the contrary, they were mainly intellectuals who were suddenly overwhelmed by the fear that the revolution might fail. Lenin made the same mistake. Initially, he wanted to install a government out of representatives of the Soviets. The Soviets were the councils set up by soldiers, farmers and workers against the reign of the Tsar. But when the councils – without which no revolution would have been possible – criticized the plans of Lenin, he labelled them as enemies of the people and sent them to Siberia.

I am not saying that Morsi is a dictator or that the Muslim Brothers are the same ruthless people as the Bolsheviks. But they should realize that there is no such thing as a big conspiracy against them. There simply is no human brain big enough to master media, judges, politicians and the street. That only exists in films of James Bond. Most people just fight for their ideas or for their own position. Of course, there are many opponents who would like to see them fail, but that is the case in every democracy. The Central-European countries needed two decades to become well-functioning democracies after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Transition is not easy and it takes an awful amount of time.

The problem is that once you go down the path to dictatorship, there is hardly a way back. So Morsi has the choice: either he sticks with his declaration and has to start a crackdown in order to maintain it. Or he leaves his bunker, cancels his declaration and faces the difficulties every post-revolutionary transition has to deal with. There is always a way out. The president and the opposition should start a dialogue instead of setting ultimatums. Deleting articles 2 and 6 and agreeing on a way to move forward with the Constituent Assembly might be the only solution to avoid a major political deadlock. It is not easy and often very frustrating. But thinking that a short period of dictatorship will set everything right is wrong. History proves that the path to democracy never leads through dictatorship.

  1. #1 by Amr Arafa on November 26, 2012 - 9:36 am

    I disagree with kört about the comparison between Nassir and Morsi, as Nasser was actually the Leader of the revolution of 1952, and I totally agree that he started to be paranoid and went down the bunker to protect “HIS” revolution, but the 25 January 2011 revolution is not by any means the made of the Islamic groups or the Muslim brotherhood, and Morsi is merely a follower in his cult and never a leader.
    The thing is that the Muslim brotherhood (who lived under the regimes table for decades) has never been revolutionary, but they rather seized the moment, and jumped over the revolutionary train, then jumped off as soon as they could.
    Now that they are exposed to light, and everyone saw their real nature after watching the members of the dissolved parliament, and everyone saw Morsi’s weakness and lack of vision, The Muslim brotherhood and their Islamist backup are now fighting for their life after they lost the street support, their only hope to continue ruling over Egypt; is the new constitution, a day after they pass it through voting, they will dissolve all non-Islamic political parties (liberalism, socialism, communism are anti Shareáá Laws). Islamists will be the only player in the political seen, and that is the main reason for the latest constitutional declaration, to protect the Islamic majority committee which is producing their life saving raft (known as the new constitution).

  2. #2 by Victor on November 26, 2012 - 8:29 pm

    In transition democracies the personality of the leaders are as important as their ideologies. You basically have two ideologies: conservative/reactionary and liberal/progressive. But you also have two leadership personality types authoritarian and less authoritarian (otherwise you aren’t in politics). Both the ideologies and the personality types reflect a need for either freedom or control.

    It is very easy for a liberal revolutionary to become an authoritarian dictator if he can’t part with power/control or if the country is seen as not soon matching the leader’s ideals. The first case can be seen as tyrannical while the second could be considered benign, but both are ineffective in the long run because instead of building culture and institutions they become cults of the individual.

    The problem for the left is that their members are mostly of the freedom type, which means they will mobilize at intervals, but will want to get back to their own lives soon. The right has the advantage that their members want to control other people’s lives, so they can in a sense be permanently mobilized.

    Morsi´s actions will not be opposed by the West, because in a way they resemble what the West has also been forced to go through in its own transitions. The West has also seen how democracy/liberalism in Turkey in the end brought Islamists to power no matter what obstacles were put on the way.

    It is up to the Egyptians to decide if they want a liberal democratic republic based on constitutionalism or if they want to be another “Islamic” republic based on populist elections, murky rule of law and major limitations of freedom of conscience and expression.

    Constitutions in the end matter less than what is taught in schools and what is seen on television. The free flow of information and the ability to retake protests is what really matters.

  3. #3 by jon livesey on November 26, 2012 - 9:06 pm

    ” After the French revolution some leaders wanted to fight against the counterrevolutionary forces. They weren’t butchers by nature.”

    On the contrary, that’s exactly what they were. They replaced a single guillotine in Paris with twenty one guillotines, going six days a week. How are we going to judge them? By what they did, or by some after the fact white-washing?

    In some ways, the french Revolution has perverted all continental European thinking. It has been declared a “good thing” and now it can be used to justify any kind of state terrorism as long as it can be portrayed as fighting the “counter-revolution”.

    The leaders of the French Revolution “weren’t butchers”; they merely killed a half million people. Lenin “made mistakes”; among them restoring the death penalty the liberal democrats had abolished.

    “Do you seen what you did here, Vladimir? You have restored the death penalty.” “Oops, my bad.”

    What on Earth is it with Europeans? Morsi just granted himself pretty much absolute power, and they try to spin it with babble about the Press “not being kind”.

    Pardon me, but is it the job of the Press to be kind? Is the UK Press kind to Cameron? Would you find a way to defend Cameron if he granted himself absolute power by decree?

  4. #4 by charles on December 3, 2012 - 5:59 pm

    The understated whitewash Jon Livesay describes vis a vis the French and Bolsehvik Revolution applies a fortiori to the Muslim Brotherhood, did the other revolutionaries aim ab initio at world domination, the suppression of all dissent did they ever spawn anything like Al Qaeeda, the Gama’a Islamiya and Hamas as splinter groups? They have started badly, bitten off more than they can chew, and things will worsen fast.
    The great advantage of Morsi’s indiscrete ambition is that the entire blame for the economic sink Egypt is fast heading to become will focus very intensely upon him.

  5. #5 by Marc on December 6, 2012 - 8:11 pm

    Let us worry about the malignant tumor in Brussels first. The Eurosoviet dictatorship must be gotten rid of at all costs. No one voted for this undemcoratic monstrosity that is stealing ever more of our money.