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

06 July 2013

Egypt’s Trials: More Common than You Think

Introduction: a promising start
The first checks and balances
Advising versus ruling
The attraction of radical Islam
Checks and balances unlike ours

Introduction: a promising start

What soul today feels no anguish for Egypt? Less than two and a half years ago, its peaceful Tahrir Square revolution was an inspiration to the world. It inspired me, a Jew, to write a post, while on vacation, entitled “I am Egyptian.”

Now Muslims are rising in arms to protest the ousting of their Islamist president. Civil disorder threatens, maybe even civil war. The Army, which has supervised and managed a mostly peaceful revolution so far, may have to start using real bullets.

Egypt is hardly alone in its trials. Recent demonstrations in Turkey set the generally progressive and effective government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan on its heels. Tunisia, too, is having a bit of buyer’s remorse after accepting Islamist government.

But, unbeknownst to most, these trials are not exclusive to the Islamic world. Religious fundamentalists are everywhere.

We Yanks have many right here at home. Just ban abortion and gay marriage, recognize the United States as a Christian nation, and post the Ten Commandments outside every courthouse—they think—and all will be well. We’ll get our jobs back from China, our deficit will disappear overnight, our infrastructure will heal like the beneficiary of one of Christ’s miracles, and our enemies will submit to our sheer moral glory.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But its utter illogic and unrealism is lost on the many true believers who vote primarily, or not solely, on the issues named in the second sentence of the previous paragraph. Those true believers now have enough of a critical mass to paralyze our Congress utterly. So we are not so different from Egypt after all.

The essay attempts to explain why, four hundred years after Galileo Galilei’s Christian apostasy jump-started science, and eight-hundred years after the birth of Anglo-American democracy at Runnymede, religion is still such a powerful force in our human world. Like most other things in our lives, it has positive and negative aspects. And like most other things that are part of the fabric of our lives and history, we cannot eliminate or ignore it. We can only manage it.

The first checks and balances

We Yanks love to brag about our “checks and balances.” We have three branches of government—executive (administrative), legislative, and judicial. They are supposed to supervise and restrain each other and to compete to enhance our “general welfare.” Their doing so, our pols tell us, will prevent runaway government and take us to Nirvana.

Never mind that our checks and balances aren’t working very well right now. Never mind that our legislative branch, Congress, is utterly dysfunctional and paralyzed. Never mind that our own Grand Inquisitor, Justice Scalia, has so cowed our courts with the scarecrow of “judicial activism” that they are reluctant to make any significant changes in policy, even when the Executive and Congress have been silent or catatonic for a long time.

Never mind, then, that our Executive is the only branch of government that still can actually function. Never mind that it has nearly unchecked power in war and foreign affairs, or that it got us into two decade-long foreign wars, both of which seem about to prove themselves mostly futile, without any serious pushback from the other branches.

Never mind that, in terms of real constraint on supreme political leaders, we are no longer at the forefront of nations but well down in the pack. Every parliamentary democracy can dismiss its prime minister, at any time, on a simple, majority “no confidence” vote. But we can’t get rid of a poorly performing president without a lengthy, legalistic trial for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And so, within one voter’s lifetime (mine), we had the spectacle of executive government paralyzed for two-plus years by a gigantic public trial, complete with television cameras, to do the same thing that the British or Indian Parliaments can do on a single day, with a single vote. And one of those lengthy trials, for a President’s sexual peccadillo, accomplished absolutely nothing but paralyzing Congress with acerbic discord.

We Yanks still have bragging rights in one respect. We hardly invented checks and balances. Ancient Greece and Rome had them, and King John re-invented them at Runnymede. But we made them famous and important by constantly crowing about the alleged superiority of our system of government. We never stopped crowing as other nations enjoyed rapid development under unwritten (or frequently revised) constitutions that didn’t require our cumbersome amendment process.

The whole thing was a bit like Al Gore and the Internet. Of course he didn’t “invent” it, if by “invent” you mean develop the computer packet-switching protocols that allow it function. But Gore did convince President Clinton to free it from government control and make it the commercial, global and largely autonomous communications medium that it is today. Gore’s role was an important one: he recognized the Internet’s enormous potential when it was mostly a government-owned-and-run collection of computers in university and federal laboratories. Just so, we recognized the importance of checks and balances on individual rule, and we shouted them to the world.

But checks and balances are not new. Ancient Greece and Rome had kings or emperors. But open and public legislatures checked their power, at least at times. Not only that. Ancient pre-Christian religions also imposed some checks and balances. They did so in their “auguries” and “oracles,” which saked the inveterate human craving to know the future.

Of course, some priests were probably dumb enough to think they could actually read the future in the bloody guts of disemboweled chickens. But the smart ones knew that augury and oracles were their chances to exert political influence.

Universal education is not even as old as our nation. Before its arrival, only the elite had any education at all, let alone long practice in abstract thinking. And the secular elite were too preoccupied with real battles, paying or collecting taxes, and political intrigue to have much time to think. So for most of human history the best thinkers, and the ones most practiced at abstract thought, were priests.

The priests were the ones best positioned by education and practice to see cause and effect, ie, to gauge the likely impact of various social and governmental policies. They were also the best positioned to assess what we know today as “public opinion.” If you think our President lives in a bubble, think how small a bubble the kings and queens of yore lived in. As is well known from history and literature, a single clever advisor could bend their policies to his will and virtually control their access to information.

Priests were different. They still are today. Through their daily sermons and officiating and weddings and funerals, they have the chance to talk to ordinary people—or at least the “ordinary” elite—and assess their mood and thinking. The best of them, of course, incorporated this assessment into their auguries and oracles.

Those ploys didn’t always work. A leader emotionally committed to a course of action might not listen. Think Agamemnon in his quest to recover Helen of Troy. But politics is not a game of command; it is a game of persuasion and influence. There were undoubtedly numerous cases, including some reported in history and legend, where oracles and auguries were decisive in averting unnecessary wars and counterproductive policies.

So priests had our species’ very first checks and balances. Therefore we should not be surprised to see imams and Ayatollahs performing a similar role in societies like Egypt’s and Iran’s, which have not yet developed their own formal, secular checks.

Advising versus ruling

But there’s a difference between advising and ruling. A king or queen living in a medieval bubble needed all the advice and information he or she could get. If the people were on the verge of rebellion, or if they would not support a foreign war with any enthusiasm, a priest might know when the monarch might not. Then an augury or whisper in the ear might have a salubrious effect. It might even avoid a catastrophe.

Ruling is another matter entirely. Priests’ training in abstract thinking (just like lawyers’ today) helps them see cause and effect. But it also has two key deficiencies for rulers.

First, abstract thinking is often (some might say mostly) the antithesis of pragmatism. It often leads to certitude and intransigence, which can undermine practical rule, let alone justice.

You don’t have to look at Islam to see this point. Just look at Christianity’s history. For several hundred years, Catholics and Protestants fought pitched battles among and within nations. The carnage was unimaginable, especially for the primitive military technology of the times. If you know Vasily Vereschagin’s poignant painting “The Apotheosis of War,” just consider. If you counted the premature deaths from the Catholic-Protestant schism, his pyramid of skulls might reach the Moon.

From a modern perspective, that holocaust seems ludicrous. Don’t Catholics and Protestants worship the same gods, including Jesus Christ? Don’t they get along famously now, despite some trying to steal each others’ converts? So whatever was all that carnage for, the glory of God?

Islam hasn’t gotten to that point, yet. Its Sunni and Shiite jihadis give every indication of repeating the Christian holocaust, with equally bloodthirsty enthusiasm.

But a similar Islamic holocaust is hardly inevitable. Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s brand of “quietist” Islam points a different path, if both Sunnis and Shiites can see its benefits. The goal of every wise ruler—and every wise imam or priest—should be to walk that path sooner than later. For Islam to repeat the bloody schismatic history of Christianity in the twenty-first-century, with all of its vastly more productive machinery of death, would be a huge failure of both global leadership and the intelligence of our species.

Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, a million only a statistic. But Stalin was wrong. A million deaths are a million tragedies—to the individuals that must face them prematurely, to their families, and to their societies. One of the chief goals of any practical ruler should be to minimize those tragedies.

Some day all sects of Islam will know this. Then “jihad” will no longer be a war against different sects or tribes, or an attempt to kill or convert nonbelievers, but a spiritual and practical struggle with the evils that all humans face: ignorance, arrogance, war, poverty, disease, climate change, and, yes, tribalism.

The attraction of radical Islam

So why does radical Islam (perhaps illusorily) seems to be gaining credence in the Middle East today? Why are tens of millions of Egyptians now engaged in a desperate political struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, which just a year ago seemed their salvation from tyranny? Why is Iran—a nation with much more well-educated, worldly, and sophisticated people than most in the West now suspect—still ruled by an aging but not irrational tyrant who, at the age of 73, is older than any national ruler now on the world stage, except for Robert Mugabe, now 89?

To answer these questions, look to China. Why was Mao a Communist? Why did Deng Xaioping jettison Communism not long after Mao died? Why is China, having jettisoned Communism in all but name, now the world’s fastest rising developing country, likely to become the world’s number-one economy in the next decade or two?

The answer to all these questions is pragmatism. Not an especially enlightened or brilliant pragmatism, but pragmatism nevertheless.

Mao’s greatest feat was unifying China in the chaotic aftermath of humanity’s most horrible war. How did he do it? Two ways.

The first had absolutely nothing to do with Communism or any ideology. It was simple humanity and economic justice. Before Mao, any warlord marching through the hinterlands of China would simply commandeer peasants’ crops, buildings and land to nurture and house his soldiers. It was a cross that Chinese peasants had to bear. And they bore it for two centuries, while Western colonialists carved up a weak and divided China like a steaming pork roast.

Mao won China by a simple expedient: he paid the peasants for their crops and the use of their land. His march from the caves of Yunnan to Tiananmen Square was more a progressive coronation than a battle, except when forces loyal to the Nationalist government intervened.

Mao also had an ideology—the next best thing to religion for people who don’t believe in God. China had never had anything like the muscular, proselytizing religions of outsiders, in particular Christianity and Islam. But as a secular religion Communism was tailor-made for postwar China. Derived from the struggle of ordinary people (Russia’s serfs) to be free and respected, it taught that the common person is worthy of respect. Hence Mao’s payments for value received.

Communism had other value for Mao: money and logistical support. In its Soviet guise, Russia had money. It also had international clout, due both to its pyrrhic victory over Nazi fascism and its huge and victorious armed forces, then tromping their heavy boots rather clumsily over Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

Russia could easily have feared China as a powerful neighbor and prospective enemy, especially under Stalin, who had feared (and therefore virtually destroyed) both Poland and the Ukraine in the leadup to the Great Patriotic War. But by becoming a fellow Communist traveler and an ostensible pupil sitting at Stalin’s knee, China avoided this fate.

Instead of an implacable and fearsome enemy, China gained a powerful ally and a source of money and materiel. Russia helped fund its revolution and its real great leap forward. If any leader of China at the time had believed this would be the outcome of adopting Communism as a national ideology, he or she would have done the same thing. Although ideological in the abstract, it was the practical thing to so.

But what happened then? Mao got a little senile and erratic in his later years, destroying China’s economy with the Thousand Flowers, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. (The latter was a form of extreme social deviance in a nation whose basic philosophy, Confucianism, had taught respect for elders and authority for two and a half millennia). But once Mao died and Deng Xiaoping took over, China dropped Communism like the economic hot potato it is.

The rest is history. Today China’s Communist party is modern, technocratic and anything but ideological. It looks more like the best of the Mandarin bureaucracy that once prevailed throughout Chinese imperial history than anything ever conceived or developed in Russia.

Having dropped the imperial system and replaced it with a one-party system ruled by a committee of nine (now seven), China has retained and evolved the best of its former shape. It has been much like one of those plastic combs that, bent all out of shape, returns to form when placed in boiling water. That restored plastic comb is now giving the (rest of) the capitalist world a strong run for its money, with intense competition and shrewd economic management.

Is radical Islam in the Middle East any more than a temporary expedient, just as was real Communism in China?

Only time will tell. But there are some affirmative indications.

The most important test case is Iran. It was a thriving democracy in 1953, when our and Britain’s spooks engineered a coup overthrowing its duly elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. The spooks installed the Shah, and Iran suffered 25 years of increasing tyranny, complete with the Savak, a secret police to rival the Nazi Gestapo.

Iran suffered under this unwelcome, externally imposed regime for quarter of a century. Then the dam burst. The result was something like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution of 1917. The people got their freedom, but the revolution wasn’t exactly pure or accommodating.

On the good side, Iran’s Islamic Revolution was far, far less bloody than either the French or Russian revolution, especially to foreigners, even the ones (us) who deserved the most payback. But why Islam? Why did a largely secular, sophisticated, modern Iran turn so heavily to religion in the late twentieth century?

I think it was the times. Although the French and Russian revolutions were complex in detail and extremely bloody, their causes were absurdly simple. The French peasants and Russian serfs simply wanted enough to eat, a say in their own fate, and a chance to avoid gross exploitation by their so-called “betters.”

They were willing to fight for these things, in part because the risks were much less than they are today. In France’s and even Russia’s revolutions, the rebels faced small arms, horses, and cannon. There weren’t even yet many tanks. These weapons were fearsome, but their aim wasn’t very good. They could be circumvented with courage and training.

Today, in the twenty-first century, the tyrants are much stronger. They have small arms, medium arms and heavy arms. They have immensely mobile tanks with highly accurate artillery. They have aircraft with dumb and smart bombs and accurate missiles. They also have various forms of electronic surveillance, to sense and meet any rebel threat and expose conspirators.

You just can’t compare the tyrant’s technology of death and spying today to what it was in the Russian Revolution, let alone the French. If the last Czar or Louis XIV had had modern weapons and electronic spying, Russia and France might still be monarchies today.

Faced with such awesome hostile technology, what will the modern man or woman do? Most will make a practical calculation. They will either take their families and emigrate, or they will stay and knuckle under. In order to stay and fight, you have to have something more than just anger and dissatisfaction. That “something more” was Islam, with its tradition of self-sacrifice and jihad.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution was not very bloody. But no one could know that in advance. It took immense courage to face the Shah’s Stalinist apparatus, not knowing until the end that he would back down and leave peacefully. Who could know in advance that the Shah would not be Bashar al-Assad?

Islam supplied the courage and the quest for justice. It also supplied the glue that held society together.

The Shah’s Iran was much like Stalin’s Russia. If you wanted to organize anything, let alone talk regime change, however peacefully, you had to go where you were sure no one was listening. So Mosques, the center of Iran’s religious life, became the center of resistance, just as Catholic churches did in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe.

Thus Islam became the focus of the Islamic Revolution for entirely practical reasons, not religious or ideological ones. Islam gave the people courage and hope. It gave them a place to meet, organize and plan. And so in the end, it inevitably became the focus of the Revolution.

But does this mean Iran is truly an Islamic state, with human automatons massing in huge squares like the Nazi storm troopers at Nuremburg? I don’t think so. You have only to look at Iran’s recent election to reject that notion completely. The most moderate candidate won, and he did so with the Ayatollah’s approval or acquiescence.

The opposition arranged to have a single moderate candidate for president among some half-dozen in all. The Ayatollah didn’t get to be Supreme Leader of Iran by being stupid. Surely he understood the significance of splitting the conservative vote. So he was either in favor of the moderate result or powerless to prevent it. It is entirely possible that Ahmadinejad was Iran’s Dubya, to be followed by Iran’s Barack Obama. Only time will tell.

Checks and balances unlike ours

The dirty little secret of checks and balances is that every nation has them, except maybe for North Korea and Zimbabwe. They just don’t always match our pure and abstract model of executive, judicial and legislative power.

In fact, our abstract model is next to useless outside of developed democracies. But throw away the model and think more generally about forces in balance, and you quickly come to the conclusion that checks and balances are pervasive worldwide.

China has its huge Mandarin bureaucracy, known today as the Communist Party. It has eighty million members nationwide—more than most countries have people. Think any such organization is monolithic? Think again. Then China has the PLA, a conservative force luckily under full civilian control, its powerful regional governments (analogous to our states), and its massive business community, growing more powerful every day.

Russia has the Kremlin, to be sure. But it also has the Red Army, which tilted the nation toward democracy and self-determination by turning back the putsch against Gorbachev. It has the Duma, which is nascent and mostly impotent now, but which has potential. And it has a rising business community, including the Oligarchs who, if they start looking beyond their own bank balances toward making history, could do Russia some spectacular good.

Iran, we now know, also has checks and balances. The Mosque and its not-so-secret police, the Basij, control about a quarter of the economy. There is a massive private business community, not associated with the Basij or the military, which just helped elect its own president. And there may be (and probably are) important policy splits among the Basij, the Islamic clergy, and the military-business interests that control about one-quarter of Iran’s economy.

We can now see similar balance emerging in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is the nation’s sole organized political party, with a religious base. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is the strongest counterforce. There is also a growing but disorganized business community, especially in the field of tourism. It wants tourists back. But the liberal opposition is disorganized. Except for street demonstrations, which have proved effective, it is largely impotent.


Check and balances come in many flavors. If we expect other countries to match our theory of three branches and to make their checks and balances look exactly like ours, we will inevitably be disappointed. More important, if we base our policy on cultural chauvinism, we will inevitably do harm.

Right now, there are three forces in Egypt that check and balance each other: (1) the Muslim Brotherhood, (2) the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and (3) the disorganized liberal, secular opposition. Except for street demonstrations, the third is too chaotic to have much effect, so checks and balances in Egypt depend on the first two. That’s why it’s vital that neither one overreach.

I don’t think the SCAF overreached in removing Mursi. He seemed promising as a candidate, and he won an electoral victory in the first flush of real self-determination that Egypt has ever had.

Yet his instinct was not to govern. Instead, he sought to grab more power before beginning to govern. He and his Muslim Brotherhood controlled parliament by virtue of that same flush of electoral enthusiasm, and then they stacked the deck by changing the constitution to enhance their power. Most of what Mursi tried to do in actually governing was to force his religion on others.

That’s not governing. Governing is not amassing power to do something unknown later. Governing is using whatever power you have, and compromising when you must, to improve people’s lives and gain the people’s trust. Only when you have that trust—and deserve it—can you reach for more power.

Any prime minister of a parliamentary democracy that did what Mursi did would likely suffer a “no confidence” vote. The leaders who got away with similar ploys, such as Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez, are not exactly paragons of democracy. And Putin had had two successful terms as President before reaching for a third term as Prime Minister. Mursi hadn’t even begun before trying to guarantee his own political party perpetual power.

That’s not how checks and balances or democracy is supposed to work. The idea of self-determination is not to win one election and then jigger the law so you never lose again. Hitler and Stalin both did that, and the results were unfortunate.

So the Army was right to remove Mursi. The international community should give its action cautious support. In the absence of an effective parliament, it was just doing what an effective parliament would have done.

But that doesn’t mean that the Army should arrest the duly elected president of Egypt, let alone hundreds of leaders of his political party. Like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood stood the long vigil against Mubarak alone. Unlike Al-Zawahiri, its members didn’t take on the quixotic task of destroying the United States. They didn’t take refuge in a no-mans-land like Afghanistan and wage war against civilization. Instead, they stayed in Egypt, working and fighting for a better regime, day after day, often risking imprisonment and even execution. That’s why they had the only viable political organization in Egypt and could win the first election.

These men (they are all men) are Egyptian patriots. They deserve honor and respect for helping to remove the tyrant and advancing Egypt’s history. That doesn’t mean that they deserve absolute power or whatever they can take. It does mean that they don’t deserve arrest without reasonable suspicion of doing something that would be criminal even if it didn’t involve politics.

If the Muslim Brothers (or anyone else) incites or commits violence, by all means arrest them. But until then, the Muslim Brothers are members of Egypt’s sole working political party. The fact that the Army, as the sole operative check or balance in today’s Egypt, removed their leader in a “vote of no confidence” doesn’t change that status. If these patriots can figure out how to deliver a better life for all of Egypt’s people, they deserve a second chance. To arrest them is only to inflame discord.

We Yanks and other outsiders can help, but only if we ken a basic truth. There is no one true path to self-government. All that self-government requires is popular will to participate, some discipline and patience, some willingness to cooperate and compromise (i.e., some self-restraint), and knowledge that governing is a task, not a right, privilege or benefit.

Mursi didn’t show those qualities. Instead, he sought to grab more power before he had used well the power he had. So the Army removed him. He should be eligible to run again; now that the country knows him, his road will be steeper. But maybe he can learn and become the Egyptian “comeback kid,” like Bill Clinton.

The most important thing is keeping those checks in balance and avoiding violence. That means avoiding any incitement to violence, including the arrest of innocent people on pre-emptive grounds.

We Yanks invaded Iraq on pre-emptive grounds that proved to be vaporware. Egypt’s SCAF should learn from our mistakes. Paranoia may have fitted Stalin, but it’s not generally good governing policy. Everyone deserves a second chance, especially the Brotherhood, which worked the hardest of any organized social force to end tyranny in Egypt. The SCAF should release all its political arrestees immediately, except those for whom it has good evidence to suspect that they have committed or are about to commit specific crimes.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post referred to Soviet postwar armed forces “then tromping their heavy boots rather clumsily over Western Europe and the Baltics." (error empasized). I regret the over-fifty moment.



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