Egypt: A Warm Cup of Sick, Redux…

So, in February I wrote a Kings of War post about the developing situation in Egypt, in which I suggested that the Egyptian people were facing some unpalatable choices.

I received the normal amount of KoW stick, which was and is all to the good.

Events in Tahir Square mean that it is timely to revisit some of the issues I raised in February.

For western observers, we still have a problem. The Egyptians took the democracy pill and took a monster dose of it. That’s potentially quite awkward. The transitional arrangements suited the west quite well. No strategic upheaval in the Middle East, no overt condemnation of Israel and a Muslim Brotherhood who seemed determined to play electoral politics with a measure of seriousness. This latter point should be far more nuanced than I have laid out – there are clearly a plurality of views within that organisation (some of which the west would be comfortable with, some very much less so). So, the potential pitfalls of an Islamic state in a strategically important place seemed to have been avoided, and the Muslim Brotherhood were playing ball with the military.

But beneath the surface several things have been going on. The first – according to human rights groups – is that the Egyptian military (and thus ruling elite) have become addicted to using military tribunals to try people they find offensive. Attendant to this form of justice are strong measures that don’t conform to any kind of western justice. This caused an underlay of resentment.

The second major thing that was going on was a clear divide between the Brotherhood (keen to play ball) and the ‘salafists’ (who really weren’t very keen to play ball at all). So, it’s a curious divide between  those western governments used to be scared of, and those they’re now scared of. And it’s two visions of governance that both used to seem unpalatable, but which are now divided into sugary sweet, and sour as old lemony boots.

A second revolution (and the ongoing crackdown to try and prevent it) will place western policy-makers and diplomats in a difficult position. The soft-peddling of criticism of Bahrain had raised international eyebrows, and if the Field Marshall and his Generals keep going at their present rate the Syrians could happily moan that the double standards here were stark.

Aside a slightly tongue in cheek aside – please save us all from anyone in the FCO, MoD or Cabinet Office who is having any bright ideas about further interventions or supportive military or quasi military roles in the Middle East… we don’t have the money, and it is someone else’s turn to play global policeman. There’s only so much democratic love we can give, and I reckon the 370million quid’s worth of democracy we gave to Libya is more than our fair share.. sermon over.

But because it is bleak outside my office window, I’ll give you my bleak prognosis on democracy. If anyone is feeling chirpier, please chip in.

Students and scholars will often wax lyrical on democratic standards. Some of the more irritating ones will warble on about the Greek origins of pure democracy. Today’s standards I would argue are much lower, but beneath that bar lies a dark heart. And the standard is simple, it’s the three F’s:

‘Freedom from Fuckwittery’.

Because at the end of the day us ordinary folk, living ordinary lives are not much interested in heightened levels of participatory democracy, we just don’t want someone screwing up our lives. We like the freedom to be able to raise our voices about services that are important to us: so thanks Simon Burns MP for saying people expressing an opinion about the NHS are zombies (I will dust off my undead disposition, daily), and thanks to my local MP (in the same vein) for saying that anyone who wrote to him about the NHS reforms was a Stalinist. Offence duly taken – vote for you, duly lost. But to make a large leap to Egypt, the political nous of people who thought that torture and military tribunals in the wake of Mubarak was going to cut the mustard? D minus, try again.

Similarly, and I can only agree with my esteemed colleague David Betz on this, the imposition of so-called technocratic governments to resolve the economic crisis (be this at the state or supra-state level in Europe) has the large potential to cause political and societal backlash. The amount of political autonomy any of us has (in reality) is actually quite small, but to have that highlighted in 20ft neon lights is asking for a unhelpful response. For most of my lifetime the ‘three F’s rule of democracy’ was a distant barrier lying miles beneath where we sat. The fact that we can so obviously see this barrier in the near abroad, and across parts of the political union, in which we are a member is an interesting moment in our contemporary political history.

In certain parts of the Middle East tonight, wise heads are trying to work out how many people they’ll need to kill to prevail. They’ll also be trying to work out whether they’ll have anything to govern if they succeed. It’s fight or flight time.. and the three F’s are nowhere to be seen. Sad times.


3 thoughts on “Egypt: A Warm Cup of Sick, Redux…

  1. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    Nothing quite like drinking sick a second time…Ahhh…Memories of The Beaver’s Retreat.

    I would take exception to the heuristic of the 3Fs (brilliant, by the way) as a stand-in for democracy. Actually, I think it is just the opposite. I am focusing on the line (supra): ‘Because at the end of the day us ordinary folk, living ordinary lives are not much interested in heightened levels of participatory democracy, we just don’t want someone screwing up our lives.’

    By equating democracy with only one of Isaiah Berlin’s liberties (only a ‘freedom from’ and not a ‘freedom to’), we emphasise a passive, ‘I’m all right, Jack, keep your hands off my stack,’ approach to governance. This is just what the elites/dictators/1% want. ‘Things are too complex; just leave it to us. No muss, no fuss, no problem.’ This is precisely where we are today in most of the West and it is a bad place to be. If one were to be a Marxian (just for a moment), we might call that ‘false consciousness’.

    Consider the ‘freedom from fuckwittery’ embodied in such predatory practices as sub-prime mortgages, pay-day loans, gottahavit gadgets: all very easy, all very seductive, no hassle, oops, you’re screwed.

    Consider the poor Greek ‘citizen’ interviewed on BBC, who complained, “I didn’t borrow the money, so why should I have to pay it back?” Sorry, Stavros, but you did borrow it: with your 35 hour work week, with your 6 weeks of holidays, with your retirement in your 50s with a great pension, with your 13% VAT…your borrowed it, and now you must pay it back. Freedom from fuckwittery can be a sedative, rather than a solution.

    In the 1995 Massey Lectures (the Canadian equivalent of the Reith Lectures), John Ralston Saul spoke of how Western polities were in danger of becoming an ‘unconscious civilisation’. The opposite of democracy, he claimed, is corporatism:

    “The virtue of uncertainty is not a comfortable idea, but then a citizen-based democracy is built upon participation, which is the very expression of permanent discomfort. The corporatist system depends on the citizen’s desire for inner comfort.”

    And the problem with corporatism, Saul continues, is a profound one. It is

    “an ideology that denies and undermines the legitimacy of individuals as the citizen in a democracy. The particular imbalance of this ideology leads to a worship of self-interest and a denial of the public good. The practical effects on the individual are passivity and conformism in the areas that matter, and non-conformism in the areas that don’t.”

    FFF might be construed as this ‘desire for inner comfort’. FFF might be construed as ‘worship of self-interest’.

    Perhaps what is most alarming about Saul’s warning is that the elites did not ‘steal’ our democracy, we handed it over to them.

  2. Rob Dover says:

    Dear FB,

    Thanks for this.

    I agree. I think that’s exactly where we’re at. Be it a state of false consciousness or the sedative effect of consumerism. A sedative effect that, of course, I am delighted to bask in myself.

    I’ve always liked the idea of being politically engaged and being an academic allows me to think about these things and spout on without really having to engage in the mediation of interests and tensions, like the grown-ups in our elites. And, I agree that this passive 3Fs approach would have some desirable elements for them, and if they were honest, they entirely rely upon it. Which, of course, begs the question why they seem (in various countries currently) incapable of meeting this most basic set of criteria!

    You only need to go and hang out with the policy set in London to understand how uniform it all is. The tribal loathings are no more real than American wrestling. In a vox-pop line-up I’d bet you a small lump of cheese that you’d struggle to tell the difference between Labour and Conservative party advisors, in terms of education, and the pitch, tone and content of delivery. So, this thing we call politics is a misdescribed act for the majority of the public – the best they can hope for is someone not screwing up their lives (think of the person genuinely incapacited and unable to work… they must view every new government initiaitve on ‘benefits scroungers’ with fear and trepidation.. similarly so our armed forces, who have been subject to another round of leaks and innuendo).

    You say ‘we handed it over to them’. I don’t disagree massively with this. The 50s were an era of emerging plenty, and hope, the various liberations of the 60s convinced people they were in control of their destinies (and their bodies), the 70s brought home the power of external influences and how collective action could almost fatally hamstring an economy, and the 80s convinced us that it was only us and our families that counted. The 90s taught us that we were all financial instruments, and that the 60s was a time of self-restraint and monogamy.. whilst the 2000s taught us that our neighbours were irrelevant and imagined electronic and transnational communities of common interests were really ‘neighbourly’. In human terms it’s been a rapid ride; in the micro-sense it’s been a gradual erosion.

    But there clearly is a gap between the rulers and the ruled, and it’s a gap that is producing violent outbursts in parts of our world. I suppose the question for northern European governments is to what extent they have to make an effort to bridge or buy off that gap. Following the 3Fs rule would probably do them no harm.

  3. Its been a little while since I last had the opportunity to get into a KoW article, and with such a wonderful title, how could I resist this.

    I rather like the idea of Freedom From Fuckwittery (and thus will focus on it for my two cents), and I agree with you that is ultimately what people want. From the inimitable author Terry Pratchett comes this gem of a quote from city leader and self confessed despot Lord Vetinari:

    ‘They think they want good government and justice for all, Vimes, yet what is it they really crave, deep in their hearts? Only that things go on as normal and tomorrow is pretty much like today.’

    And of course, but is that what we get? I would argue that in reality what people are willing to settle for is “Freedom From Obvious Fuckwittery”, or at least freedom from fuckwittery they understand. A good example of this occured in the last few days, when Jeremy Clarkeson decided to explain in his usual erudite style that union protesters deserve to be shot. As a “cheerful fascist” (in the words of a dear friend) I’ve got to say I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this paticular strike, but I respect and understand their motivations. So where did the public debate fall? On the exceptionally large strikes and their meaning for us as a society, or the meaningless witterings of a man whose intellect can hardly be claimed to sparkle. Of course it was option 2.

    This is like a metaphor for our national debates on everything, the meaningful is stripped away until something truly mundane is revealed in order for people to discuss that, rather than the hard issues. Mainstream media does nothing but collude in this process of course, giving huge quantities of coverage to the banalities of life over the real debates of our time.

    With econogeddon looming in Europe, America doing its level best to break the internet with SOPA, our overseas interventions on the verge of crashing down, the Middle East a cauldron of once in a generation turmoil, and public institutions being stripped of money and dignity we are buried in the avalance of x-factor style entertainment and politics, which is set up to convince you that all is broadly well in the world and that any nasty fuckwittery is at worst happening to someone else.

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