Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 November 2012

Hard Bargaining in Egypt


Less than two years ago, ordinary Egyptians began their Tahrir Square Revolution. With steadfastness and very little bloodshed, they brought rudimentary democracy to a country that had never known it.

Now, with President Mohamed Mursi purporting to grant himself extraordinary powers, they face a burning question. How can they preserve what they have wrought?

Maybe they should ask Abdul.

No, Abdul is not my name for the hypothetical average man on the Arab street. He’s a real person. He has a little shop in a tiny bazaar near a modern rest stop on the way from the Red-Sea port of Safaga to Luxor (the modern name for the ancient city of Thebes).

Abdul is unusual in several respects. Unlike many of his colleagues, who have all the subtlety of piranha, he’s got a light touch. He has a winning smile and a way of saying “my friend” that makes you forget his salesman’s guile.

After buying a few small trinkets from Abdul on our way to Luxor, my wife and I had gotten away from him by promising to stop on our way back. Sure enough, on our return he spotted us coming out of the rest rooms and approached us. My wife was ready to buy a scarf and left the bargaining to me.

Abdul started with a price of 200 Egyptian pounds, or about $32. He showed us several scarves. He tried a few tricks with the exchange rate, but he stopped abruptly when he saw that I can do math in my head. After several minutes, we agreed on a price of $14, less than half his starting price.

I was happy. Abdul seemed happy.

Later our guide told us the fair price for the scarf was eleven or twelve dollars. So Abdul had made himself an extra profit of 18% to 27%, while making us feel happy with both the purchase and the price. He is good at what he does.

So why can’t Egyptians who want to strengthen their democracy be more like Abdul?

Bargaining seems to come naturally in Egypt. It’s part of the culture. But as far as I can tell from news reports, the most important bargaining in Egypt’s history has only just begun. After ending a futile strike, the leaders of Egypt’s judiciary have begun to bargain for limits to Mursi’s sweeping decree. Maybe they need some reinforcement from political leaders who are democratically inclined.

Bargaining is exactly the right approach. The small-d democrats in Egypt have a lot of leverage. They have a huge following in the urban areas, which seems ready to take to the streets at a moment’s notice. They have the judiciary and scores of well-respected, well-known educated people on their side. One of their partisans is Mohamed El Baradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And although the democrats fear and despise it, they also have the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which so far has seemed far more interested in stopping violence than starting it. Egypt’s professional army has proved to be a conservative institution in the old, good sense of that word. It conserves people’s lives, rather than wasting them as in Syria.

Yet serious bargaining has only just begun. Worse yet, its goals seem puny compared to the reportedly sweeping scope of Mursi’s decree. Recent reports suggest that democrats are trying to restrict his self-granted kingship by subject matter, limiting his unreviewable power to “sovereign” matters, whatever that means.

There are many ways of bargaining. Our Yankee style is to start with a reasonable proposal that you think the other side would accept and then proceed to resolve the few remaining issues. That method is efficient, but it’s not how Middle Easterners haggle. There, you start with extreme positions and expect both yourself and the other side to give up a lot, as Abdul did with me.

Is that what Mursi did? It sure looks that way. I’ve not yet seen a literal translation of his decree. But the various reactions to it suggest that it had no limits in time, scope or subject matter. Mursi was, in effect, declaring himself the last Pharaoh. The judiciary reacted as if Mursi were reading it entirely out of the governmental equation.

That seems unlikely, as least in the long term. Mursi is an American-educated engineer. He could hardly have gotten through college in America without hearing of the three branches of government and the importance of their vitality and independence.

Like everyone else, Egyptians ought to respect the training of a man educated to design and build things that work, not just to argue or proclaim. But engineers, too, have their weak spots. One of them may be a tendency to underestimate how much turmoil rapid change in a time of uncertainty and discord can cause.

In other words, Mursi may have too mechanistic a view of how society works. He may need to learn how to bargain better.

(I leave aside for the moment the possibility that Mursi has abandoned his early training and become a religious ideologue. His reported refusal even to mention Israel by name raises that fear. You do not govern well by ignoring reality, however unpleasant it may seem to you. If Mursi walks down that road, Egypt may well have to suffer real cataclysms, not just street demonstrations. But until I have more evidence otherwise, I proceed on the assumption that Mursi’s model for leadership is Turkey’s Erdogan, not Iran’s Ahmadinejad.)

So rather than stand on the sidelines wringing our hands, we Yanks should advise or help in the bargaining process, as much as Egyptians will allow.

One way we can help is by suggesting reasonable limitations on Mursi’s (or any president’s) power toward which Egyptian democrats can bargain. Limiting rule by decree to extreme or emergency conditions—the Egyptian judiciary’s apparent first gambit—is only the most obvious such limit. Other possible and desirable limitations include time limits on extraordinary powers generally and requirements (including possibly delayed requirements) for legislative or judicial approval.

Like financial markets, political forces often tend to overreact, especially in the short term. Mursi is the first duly elected leader in Egypt’s six-millennial history. So it’s appropriate to give the man a chance and see what he can build. But that doesn’t mean giving him unlimited power indefinitely. Let him do what he can, but let the parliament and judiciary correct his mistakes if he can’t or won’t do so himself.

So, for example, his decrees relating to domestic policy—especially the vital economic sector—might retain force for a specified, short term (say, six months to a year). Then they would expire unless ratified by parliament. In addition (or alternatively) they would become subject to judicial review for consistency with Egypt’s constitution. Delayed parliamentary approval might require a super-majority, so at least a small fraction of parties other than Mursi’s own would have to approve extraordinary (non-legislated) measures.

Another possibility would be for economic measures to require the public and well-publicized approval of a panel of neutral, economic technocrats appointed by the president but with supermajority approval in parliament. The supermajority requirement would insure appointments based on ideological neutrality and technocratic merit, rather than party fealty, religion, short-term thinking, or corruption. They would also give the technocratic experts a patina of legitimacy and at least a smidgeon of opposition support.

It took us Yanks thirteen years after our own Revolution to forge and ratify our Constitution. Even so, as we now know it’s rife with flaws when compared, say, to a simple parliamentary government like Britian’s or India’s. Our Senate “holds” and filibusters allow small minds from very small states to delay and even thwart executive appointments and legislative achievements desired by the vast majority. And we have no way of getting rid of a bad president short of medical incapacity or criminal misconduct.

So we Yanks should be patient with Egypt. It is now less than two years from the very beginning of the Tahrir Square Revolution that, for the first time in six millennia, overturned Pharaonic government and promised something better.

That something need not—and probably should not—look like anything like our Constitution. Our way is not the only way to democracy. It’s probably no longer even the best way.

All Egypt need do to stay on the road to freedom is keep the three branches of government, plus the army, separate and working together, provide some checks and balances, and insure some basic human rights, including minority rights. Then Egyptians will enter the mainstream of modern global society as free and respected partners.

How they do so is up to them. So far, they and the SCAF have shown every tendency to change peacefully, with a minimum of bloodshed. Egypt is not Syria. But the process of change will no doubt involve many twists and turns, lots of hard bargaining, many street demonstrations, and some more regrettable low-level violence. Let the haggling begin!

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