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Egypt’s Long Walk to Despotism

There is a menacing wind sweeping through Egypt engulfing bureaucrats, journalists, judges, celebrities, and the average “patriotic citizen” in its path, remolding them into carriers of despotic ideas. This system is not a clear-cut case of top-down power relations in which an established power asserts itself over its supporters and against its opponents, real and imagined. Rather, in this system, the citizen is brought center-stage in the political arena. Egypt is currently witnessing an age-old political phenomenon of citizens’ “voluntary servitude” to a repressive order – specifically, despotism. Through their collective complicity, citizens hand a carte blanche to the state for violence, nepotism, and corruption.

While despotic regimes rely on violence for control, this violence is rarely targeted toward the average citizen. Rather, one of the paradoxes of despotism is that it relies on citizens’ “passions” and psychological isolation, making them anxious to gain the meager favors of the regime. ((Roger Boesche, “Fearing Monarchs and Merchants: Montesquieu’s Two Theories of Despotism,” The Western Political Quarterly Vol. 43 No. 4 (Dec 1990) 746.)) Mutual suspicion forms the cornerstone of despotism and prevents the “communication necessary for any organized political opposition.” ((Ibid., 746.))

In Egypt, the citizen plays a role in reinforcing the repressive status quo – from a middle-aged woman reporting innocent journalists to the police to a sycophantic lawyer suing an actor who deviated from the state line. The fertile ground of suspicion enables the creation of legislation on a community police that would allow citizens the power to arrest each other and is also manifest in the many citizen’s names and photos posted on Facebook, who are tarnished with labels like “terrorist” and “foreign agent.” An old Egyptian proverb says, “Oh Pharaoh, who turned you into a tyrant?” “No one stopped me,” he replied.

Despotism as a Political Concept

Professor John Keane, author of The Life and Death of Democracy ((John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).)), made a case at a recent symposium entitled “The New Despotisms” at the University of Sydney, for reviving the term despotism. The word had fallen out of the political lexicon by the end of the nineteenth century and has been diluted into modern times to merely refer to a leader’s behavioral style of rule, as in, “he acted very despotically,” – rather than as a reference to a particular political order or system. However, Keane sounded an ominous tone at the start of the session: “A new specter is haunting these early years of the 21st century, the specter of despotism.” ((Cited in John Keane, Notes on the New Despotisms: Imagining the end of democracy (Sydney: University of Sydney, 2014) 2. (This was a draft paper given to the participants at the symposium, it has been cited with the author’s permission)) His warning addresses the growing anti-democratic patterns taking shape in many countries (many of which are “democracies” in name) and underscores the imperative to reconsider the use of despotism as a political and organizing concept.

Despotism is an expansive and precautionary concept that highlights the universal problem of arbitrary power and spotlights the citizen’s role in publicly unaccountable power: “it helps us pre-figure where arbitrary power could lead us and warns us of what would be lost if the practice of public monitoring and restraint of arbitrary power was politically defeated.” ((Ibid. 26.)) Essentially, at its core, despotism is the weakening of political institutions and civil society, removing restraints, leaving the citizen fearful and exposed to the whims of a despot (not necessarily a single person, but a regime). Despotism is not absolutist or totalitarian, yet it is “destructive enough to reduce its population to uniformity and mediocrity.” ((Boesche, “Fearing Monarchs and Merchants” 744.))

In the twentieth century, terms that superseded despotism were absolutism, autocracy, dictatorship, sultanism, and totalitarianism. However, in the current era of pseudo-democracies, these terms are becoming archaic and no longer adequately explain the evolution of political systems. ((Keane, Notes on the New Despotisms, 2.)) Even the preferred term of authoritarianism fails to comprehend Egypt’s current reality – it does not capture the ultra-modernity in the mix of political institutions present in the system that willingly, rather than coerced, support a despotic order. Nor can authoritarianism account for Egypt’s experimentation with “proto-democratic techniques of rule.” ((Ibid., 4.)) In other words, Egypt today is not devoid of democracy, but it feeds “upon the dysfunctions of actually existing democracies [around the world] and (paradoxically) mimics some of their best qualities.” ((Ibid., 2.))

The Sovereign People

Egyptian despotism relies on a clientelist system overseen by a plutocracy, with a concentration of private capital that produces highly skewed wealth and income patterns. Despotism means that its aorta—the public, by and large—loses out, despite wide agreement that the system is stacked in favor of the most powerful and privileged.

The Egyptian regime frequently defends this parasitical system by employing the rhetoric of democracy and constantly invoking “the people” as the presumed source of authority. ((Ibid., 6.)) Endless hollow references are made to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, presidential mandate and so forth. Meanwhile, by invoking ideas of hyper-nationalism, Pharaonic motifs, foreign enemies, conspiracies, spies, paid saboteurs, and the war on terror narrative, the regime hides real debate on issues of governance.

The notion of regime legitimacy built upon a silent contract where the ruler provides services in exchange for quiet loyalty from the ruled is not unusual, and was at its height during the 1950s and 1960s. But, gone are the days of the Nasser-style rallies, the dizzying daily alternation of suits and military uniforms, the millions celebrating in unity, and the demagogue who fine-tunes his theatrics and electrifying performances from grand stages. Before, the leaders at least made a tremendous effort to justify their arbitrary rule.

Now, there is no serious attempt for regime recognition. Characteristic of despotism, the regime relies on the provision of “benefits” to an imagined, homogenous citizenry, who in turn perform their own exercises of political legitimation. ((Ibid., 7.)) In effect, Egypt’s regime thrives on representations of Egyptians as a living phantom (e.g.: al-shaab – the people, um-al dunya – mother of the world). In the imaginary of despotism, “they are both being and non-being, of supreme political importance and of no importance at all.” ((Ibid., 7.)) In an interview with France24, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi employed expressions such as “the will of the Egyptian people” to absolve himself from making any attempt at approaching the complexities of his country. In essence, despotism is justified in the same language as its antithesis, democracy, the will and participation of the people in their political governance.

The Fragility of Egypt’s Despotism

For Egypt’s despotism to stabilize, and therefore ensure the survival of the plutocracy and patron-client system, it will need to win over, strengthen, and expand a middle class dependent on the stable order of despotism to safeguard their accustomed status. As Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Towfik noted in his 2008 novel Utopia: “the dissolution of the middle class, which, in any society, plays the role of graphite rods in nuclear reactors … if it weren’t for them, the reactor would explode. A society without a middle class is a society primed for explosion.” ((Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Utopia (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010) )) Yet, ill-conceived economic reform policies, eroding social mobility, the decline or disappearance of social services, and skewed integration into the global market have served to undermine Egypt’s middle class since the Infitah policies under Sadat.

The crisis of the middle class comes into sharper focus on the university campus, as the violence between security forces and students, can constitute a ferocious harbinger of despotism’s deterioration – spelling long-term trouble for the government, as the university is the pinnacle of middle class life and its rite of passage. The campus has been the nightmare for every Egyptian regime since the days of the monarchy; it is where students from different ideological streams collaborate and conflict, and develop the ideas that later spill out into the streets and neighborhoods of Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura and other cities. Yet there is no credible bargaining chip that the state can offer in exchange for student complacency, and the use of force has its limits. The campus remains a formidable bastion of activism that has not succumbed to voluntary servitude

Despotism is highly fragile in that voluntary servitude is never guaranteed, even with all forms of threats. In fact, the nature of the system forces everyone, including the Egyptian president, into positions of dependency, requiring all to respond to the will and passion of others, rather than to deliberate, rational action and debate.

The consequence of this is Egypt’s endless stream of absurdities, as its particular brand of arbitrary power – with its weakened political, institutional, and civic buffers between regime and citizen – foments a Kafkaesque climate where logical fallacies are the norm, binaries shape citizens’ worldview, and conspiracies are elevated to be dominant political rhetoric. This reality aligns with the argument made by Scotsman James Mill (in his three-volume The History of British India, first published in 1818) that despotism “represents the origins of government in a time when desire and the imagination are unrestrained by knowledge and discipline.”

The long walk to despotism is very much that, a long walk, and despotism, while real, is nonetheless far from solidified. Its durability is held hostage to the volatility, fluidity, and whims of the Egyptian citizenry. How long can the regime harness despotism’s ability to neutralize anticipated threats by turning citizens against each other and toward it as the ultimate patron? Egypt’s political order is not simply a reincarnation of Nasser’s authoritarian state nor Mubarak’s police state. It is something else entirely – a political system that will require analysts to plunge into the depths of history, retrieve and reconstruct old modes of thinking, and re-invigorate them with new meanings to understand contemporary problems. After all, voluntary servitude is a phenomenon that philosophers and political theorists have recognized throughout the ages. The Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero observed: “a multitude of men may be just as tyrannical as a single despot.” Nonetheless, one conclusion should be clear from this discussion – reliance on voluntary servitude is too fragile a means of maintaining repression and so the status quo is not a foregone conclusion.


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