Slide12Earlier this week CNN’s Jim Clancy had a quick interview with a London School of Economics professor about the psychology of the protests in Egypt and in Turkey. The professor, demonstrating how an academic can project his own biased values on a different culture and completely misinterpret what is going on, gave an eloquent speech on how the Egyptian people wanted more freedom and autonomy, rejecting Morsi’s authoritarian regime. He judged the manifestations in Egypt by his own standards and not for what they really were according to Egyptians.

Later Christiane Amanpour played “devil’s advocate” interviewing several people on the ousting of President Morsi and questioning the actions of the military in Cairo. The questions were valid ones to be raised, but we should take the opportunity to take off our culture filter glasses and examine the issues objectively.

Many people have heard the news about Egypt and jumped to the wrong conclusions, simply because they have based their judgment on certain cultural assumptions which are, in this case, quite mistaken.

These “wrong” assumptions are:

  1. An elected official must be allowed to conclude his/her term
  2. Military intervention in politics is bad
  3. The constitution and the rule of law must be respected above all else
  4. In a democracy the majority rules

Each of these assumptions is valid when referring to normal situations in the US and most countries in Northern Europe, but not necessarily in other parts of the world, for a very simple reason: these assumptions also assume a host of other things. For instance, they assume that people are equal. This is true in “egalitarian” societies, but it is not exactly the same in hierarchical societies. Hierarchical societies make up 91% of the world population and they include countries like Italy, Spain and France (the fact that it has “egalité” as part of its official motto does not make France an egalitarian culture).

These assumptions also presuppose that there is an institutionalized government based on three separate and equally balanced powers: the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. Egypt is actually a new-born democracy less than two years old. The parliament was elected under questionable rules, then dissolved (also questionably). The constitution was drafted and challenged. It was approved hastily by a popular vote with very low turnout and that resulted again in many challenges. Opinion polls show that the majority of the population questioned the validity of all this. One of these polls actually showed a country divided in three: the larger portion (38%) said they did not support the Muslim Brotherhood, nor a military government; 35% said they supported a military government; and 25% said they supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

These polls can also be questioned as to their validity, but anyone talking to Egyptians in the past weeks would agree that a “division in three similar thirds” was quite evident. That reality is behind the ousting of President Morsi, whether you call it a “coup d’etat” or anything else.Slide13

An elected official must conclude his/her term

We assume that if a President is elected for a term of four years, he must be allowed to finish his term, no matter how bad he is doing. The constitution describes a few exceptional instances in which the President might be ousted, and that basically involves an impeachment process voted in parliament. Anything different from that is considered to be “wrong”.

But what if there is no parliament? If the elected parliament has been dissolved, the people have no representatives in government. If they express their will on the streets, not once, but three days in a row, in hundreds of thousands, what more do you want? Plus, this was not only in Cairo, but also in Alexandria and all over the country. Is this not more democratic than corporations lobbying at the Capitol in Washington? This is “the wisdom of crowds” expressed in pure form. It would be anti-democratic to ignore it.

Military intervention in politics is bad

Indeed, as a general rule, generals shouldn’t rule. But what if those three separate thirds of the population are preparing to go to war against each other? What if you see street vendors selling plastic helmets and wooden clubs as if they were football jerseys to fans on their way to a big game? What if this “big game” is actually on the streets of the capital and involves at least 200,000 on opposing sides? What if there have already  happened some clashes on the outskirts, resulting in 16 dead and over 100 wounded?

How about if the moderates, who do not support military rule, come to you and say: “please intervene to avoid bloodshed; we will support you as long as you put a civilian as interim President and schedule the immediate drafting of a new constitution and schedule new elections in less than twelve months”?

I guess maybe this major exception overrules the general rule.

The constitution and the rule of law must be respected above all else

Indeed, to step away from the rule of law is extremely dangerous. However, the assumption is that “law” has been approved by the people or by their representatives of the people and mirrors the will of the people. The problem in Egypt has been that the Constitution was approved in a referendum attended by less than half the population. Of those who voted, perhaps as many as two thirds were functionally illiterate and unable to read what was under discussion. They voted because influential people in their communities instructed them to do so; but you could hardly say that they were exercising “free choice”. The situation exposes a major flaw of trying to rush a country into a western style of democracy when the population is simply not ready to deal with such a model. The “laws” laid out in the Egyptian Constitution implemented six months ago do not represent the free will of the people. It is an illusion to think that the population has consciously sanctioned those legal guidelines.Slide14

In a democracy the majority rules

This is a basic principle that is quite valid in societies that share egalitarian values and have a reasonably equitable distribution of power, of wealth and of education. Yet in societies that endorse hierarchical values and where you see a concentration of power, of wealth and of education, the situation is quite different.

The moral principle behind democracy is that people are equally capable of making informed free choices. In a society in which two thirds of the population are functionally illiterate, there is no “free choice”. The ignorant masses are manipulated by the elite, and that happens not only in Egypt but also surely in most of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The moral thing to do is to invest massively in education during an extended period of time, lasting generations. Then you can talk about real free choice. Democracy without education is an illusion, used by certain members of the elite to deceive and manipulate the people.

The people of Egypt have taken to the streets simply to say: “this current President does not represent me, get him out! We’d rather have an enlightened despot who will take care of our basic needs in terms of security, health and allowing us to work in order to make a living.”

Whether a government has been “democratically” elected or not, it should not impose the will of a third of the population on the other two thirds, no matter how much this basic principle goes against discipline and compliance with the existing legislation. Even if two thirds were dictating the rules over the minority of one third, there needs to be a minimum degree of respect for minority groups within the overall community.

Although some might say that it is not “politically correct” to lambast democracy, the truth is that a country’s elite (those with more power, more education and greater economic impact) end up having more influence in the political process, for better or for worse. When the elite are more enlightened, their influence is used for the benefit of the whole population. When the elite is not enlightened, things get worse and worse until you get a bloody revolution, civil war and genocide. This is also true for the US and Europe, by the way.Slide09

The Egyptian lesson

Reactions from around the world typically reflect the cultural and/or political biases of the foreign governments involved. I’m sure the Egyptian military must have consulted the US before acting. The American government can’t openly support the overthrowing of a democratically elected President, despite all the circumstances listed above; but by not criticizing it vehemently, they have made their support implicit, at least.

The Turkish government, of course, has criticized it strongly. Turkey is one country where the same thing might happen, if Erdogan continues to lose popular support; he has been at odds with the military there as well, so he has no alternative but to criticize what happened.

The English media have criticized it on a matter of principle; but I don’t see them doing it very eloquently.

As a foreigner I cannot aspire to understand Egypt like a local, but I might do better than other foreigners who do not understand the culture… I find that many egalitarian cultures have a knee-jerk reaction against military intervention, failing to realize that under the circumstances it may have been the best alternative for the country. I was impressed by how many people expressed their certainty, before June 30, that Morsi would be ousted on that very day. They were quite sure that the majority of the population was so unhappy about the situation, that either Morsi would resign or the military would remove him. It was as simple as that… Whenever I argued that perhaps he should be allowed to finish his mandate, they looked surprised and responded calmly: “Why? He has done nothing right, he has refused help from other factions outside the Muslim Brotherhood, the economic situation is much worse than under Mubarak, even the people who voted for him no longer support him, why should we wait?”

The lesson, for me, was to focus on the spirit of democracy, rather than the letter of the law. I realize that some flexibility is required to reach such a conclusion. In many other countries, in similar (but not quite like this one) situations, the military have forced an interpretation to suit their own interest. This time, although they also stand to gain, I really don’t think they had much of an alternative, under the very specific circumstances.

I do hope that the spirit of democracy prevails also going forward, and that means allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to have a voice and participate as a very vocal opposition in the short term, and perhaps winning another election and doing better next time. The best thing for Egypt would probably be to have a moderate government, avoiding the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. In order to do that, they need a slower transition into democracy. If there was one problem with the revolution of 2011, it was the fact that the generals bowed to public pressure at the time and brought the whole transition schedule forward. Eventually, the facts proved that it was too much, too soon.

As I’ve said before in 2011, Egypt needs time. A society does not move from a totalitarian regime (Mubarak) to a democracy in just a few months. The failure of the Morsi administration demonstrated that.

Does this means that Egypt cannot become a democracy? No. It means that Egypt needs a longer transition period and it also needs to find its own model of governance, which should not be an imitation of the American model, nor the British one. Democracy is in crisis, all over the world. We need better versions of democracy, better than the outdated versions (from 200 years ago) we see struggling. Perhaps the Egyptian version, which is just being born in the 21st Century, can be better than what is currently out there.

They need time to discuss what is the role of a President, in their model. What will be the role of Parliament? What about the role of the Prime Minister, if they choose to have one? And how will the model reflect the will of their people? The rule of law can only be respected if it reflects the will of the people. The Egyptians have just shown the world what happens when it doesn’t.                                                                                 

See  also “Egypt Needs Time”, in my book “Take Off Your Glasses” at Amazon: