Helpful Context for Understanding Egypt

Dr. Larbi Sadiki, Exeter University (UK)

We send $1.3 billion to Egypt annually. Here is some helpful context as we attempt to understand what is happening at the other end of our far-flung foreign aid. (The full interview is available at the link at the bottom):

Jacob Powell: Do you think Egypt is ready for democracy?

Larbi Sadiki: I think the question is not really answerable. The question should be: “where is the infrastructure in place to facilitate democracy?” Democracy is an open-ended game that gets developed over a long time. What we have seen since 2011, – the Egyptian people have the building blocks of democracy enacted through mostly peaceful people’s power displays. We should not engage the question through ‘exceptionalism’, relegating Egypt or Arabs to the realm of ‘non-democracy’, whatever that might be. For example, Chile had its setbacks and Pinochet toppled a democratically elected government in the mid 1970s – mostly with Western backing especially from the US. Several Latin American countries had similar experiences of democratic breakdown with the generals intervening to scupper democratic processes and purge democratic opposition. We cannot forget the Chavista and anti-Chavista in Venezuela. During 2002, Chavez was temporarily ousted by the army, and there were people protesting for and against him.

Closer to home, we cannot forget Algeria 1991-92 and the Palestinian elections of 2006. The common thread is that Islamists choosing the ballot box keep being toppled. The route to democracy is not linear (emphasis added). It is long, complex and fraught with obstacles, embracing both highs and lows. The journey to democracy, past and present, affirms this. I don’t really think Egyptians have something in their character that lends itself to inhospitality to democracy and democratisation. Definitely, what has happened in Egypt has stunted a fledgling democratisation process. I’m pretty sure that the Egyptian people have the means to reclaim their power and restore the democratisation process. However, we cannot massage words about what has happened: a coup is a coup is a coup – be it one which, for now, has been triggered by massive public backing. It is naïve to think Arab uprisings have been solely popular affairs – armies are very much part of the machinations driving ousters of unwanted regimes and presidents, especially in Egypt.

via Q&A: What next for Arab democracy? – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

The Expression of a Hope for a Different Ending

Does the Occupy Movement Have a Future?

As income inequality in America has grown over the last 30 years (for a detailed account of how this has happened, click here or see Hacker and Pierson’s “Winner Take All Politics”), the prevailing sentiment is that such income inequality is inevitable– the result of globalization, or the ultimately fair and benevolent outcome of competitive markets at work. Hacker and Pierson challenge the prevailing sentiment in their book; the “Occupy” crowd is challenging the prevailing sentiment by protesting.

My personal interest is not to see Wall Street come crashing down (I’m too much on the “winner” side– by luck, not skill– to hope for that); nor am I interested in the equality of economic outcomes (people who are uncommonly creative or industrious ought to be rewarded)– but I am interested in the good of American democracy and the long-term viability– if not flourishing– of American society. Too much income inequality skews the democratic process (as moneyed interests buy disproportionate influence); a government too far removed from the needs of the many leaks the legitimacy it needs, in order to maintain the political stability that fosters creativity and innovation in the longer term. While income inequality can be socially useful, too much income inequality creates a braking effect, as economic insecurity and its resulting anxieties erode the trust, confidence, and hope of all but the few at the top, and those connected to them.

Parallels have been drawn between the “Occupy” crowd and the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. These comparisons should not be overdrawn; still, one virtue is shared by these movements at their best: the virtue of hope. The God of the Older and Newer Testaments is a God who continually works surprising and life-affirming new beginnings for people who have labored in a world where the future is no different than the monotonous, enervating present. Hope, in this God, opens possibilities for a different future.

It would be irresponsible and foolish for anyone to say what, if anything, God is doing in Egypt, in Tunisia, or on Wall Street. God reveals Herself in Her own good time. The hope, then, is that in the fullness of time– when the account is made– we can say that we chose life: life shared and life generous; life in abundant and life unafraid– life with creative possibilities for all.

via Paperback Charlie Brown: Occupy Wall Street Charlie Brown.

Anxiety and Change

Iranian authorities prepare to quell pro-Egyptian demonstrations. Bahraini police break up protests. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas reshuffles his cabinet, in preparation for the possibility of new elections. And for his Fox News viewers (a highly anxious group), Glenn Beck diagrams  how the pan-Arab Muslim Caliphate soon will be knocking on Europe’s doorstep.

Precisely what kind of pressure we should place on the Iranian regime; or precisely what level of support we should give the Egyptian military–  these and other specific policy questions are not illuminated by thoughtful theology. However, particular attitudes and perspectives– attitudes and perspectives that increase the likelihood of forming successful policies– are the result of thoughtful theology. For example:

1. We should be suspicious of the notion that democracy is the perfect answer for every people, everywhere and at every time. Some of the rhetoric about democracy elevates it to the status of a quasi-religion, as though everyone can, and will, be saved once democracy is established in their land. While freedom and democracy are compelling ideas that share common ground with a theological/moral understanding of the intrinsic worth of each and every person qua person, democracy is not an unambiguous good in all times and in all contexts. Wise American leadership in support of democratic reform movements needs to be discerning, timely, crafty.

2. We– especially we “can-do” Americans– should be suspicious of the temptation to mistake being powerful, with having the ability to control outcomes. The first does not mean the second. We can bring power to bear– say, in Iran– but we cannot dictate that the reformers will overthrow the Iranian theocracy, or that, if they do, some unintended consequence then becomes even more threatening. Recognizing this kind of limit is the virtuous outcome of thoughtful theology, and is also hopefully the lesson of our hubris in Iraq. The world is not plastic, yielding to how we mold and shape.

Grasping at the perfect answer, and attempting to control outcomes, are stock responses to anxiety. Thoughtful theology– thoughtful grounding in the Transcendent One– guards us from over-reliance on our own frail human capabilities, guards us from over-reaction to events, and gives us patience for issues to ripen– so that our policies actually have a chance to fulfill their intent.

In Brief: An Old Story, the Prophets, and the Life of God

Here’s a real shocker (he says sarcastically) from Al Jazeera:

How did Egypt become so corrupt?

A picture is emerging of a state where wealth fuels political power and political power buys wealth.

(via How did Egypt become so corrupt? – Inside Story – Al Jazeera English.)

The old story (as old as human civilization) is the self-reinforcing connection between wealth and this-worldly power. The prophetic voice of the Hebrew scriptures exposes this self-seeking aggrandizement as unjust: not simply as unfair, but even more, as an affront to God’s word that wise rulers– people with power– express their faithfulness by taking care of their poor, and their widows and orphans. In the prophetic understanding, such care is not merely ritual observance; nor is it the hollow and lifeless, going-through-the-motions obedience to a Divine Tyrant– far from it. On the contrary: such care takes part in– participates in– the very life of God.

Power and Change

The depth and texture of current events in Egypt seem best illuminated, to my mind, by the history of the Arab world since the late Ottoman Empire (say, the mid-19th-century). This history is shaped, in no small part, by the Arab world’s sometimes conciliatory, sometimes rejectionist, responses to European domination and Western ascendance, as well as the tensions and strains that have come with the presence of Israel in 1948, and the Zionist movement before then. In Egypt since 1952, it’s been Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. That’s it.

In a region where the political culture of  nation-states is still developing– in the midst of religious, cultural, economic, and geopolitical tensions and pressures– Egypt is attempting to find a way forward.

The theological category for this moment is possibility.