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Egypt: How Freedom Finally Arrives

In Egypt, authoritarian society dies hard.

Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (Credit: 360b - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Mubarak, like a weed, grew back because the roots of authoritarian society are still firmly in the ground.
  • There are a “million Mubaraks” in Egypt. The million Mubaraks have become millions of Sisis.
  • Real social change rarely happens immediately after a revolution. In Poland, we know that all too well.
  • In most Arab countries, the old state has corrupted society for decades.
  • The old state gave power to those working for it from the top down and the bottom up.
  • Democracy requires abandoning authoritarianism on every level of the state in favor of service for society.
  • In most Arab countries, the connections a person has dictate how a government official will treat them.
  • Freedom is so alienating and demanding that initially people would rather escape into authoritarianism.
  • So many Egyptians love General Sisi because he is safe, stable and predictable.

“Three years ago Hosni Mubarak stepped down as the president of Egypt, but the Egyptian society still strangely resembles that of his times. Mubarak, like a weed, grew back because the roots of an authoritarian society are still firmly in the ground.”

In his brilliant book of 2009, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, Brian Whitaker, British journalist and former Middle East Editor of the Guardian, described a phenomenon of an authoritarian society. It replicates master-servant relations not only between the government and the people but also in almost every person-to-person contact: in the streets, at work, at home.

One of his interviewees talks not about a single Mubarak, but a “million Mubaraks” in Egypt. They are the real problem. Looking at the Egyptian society today, the million Mubaraks have become millions of Sisis. This is mostly due to the fact that the prevalent state institutions have remained intact.

Authoritarian institutions, authoritarian society

Changing a country’s political system entails not only a transformation of the foundations of state institutions. It also requires a change in the mindset of people that make up those institutions.

Such change rarely happens immediately following a revolution. The changes require a deeper, more profound social adaptation, which then reaches into people’s lives. Such is the case in most Arab countries — certainly in Egypt.

The old state had corrupted society for decades. The behemoth gave power to those working for it, from the top down and the bottom up, from a countryside policeman to the minister of the interior.

In Poland, where I was born and grew up, we know the longevity of the corrupt mindset all too well. During the Communist period, people would bow to nurses, teachers, clerks, bringing them gifts, bribing them and showing unnatural respect — just to get things done. It continued for years after the democratic transition in 1989.

Ideally, a new attitude requires abandoning the deeply ingrained arrogance and authoritarianism on every institutional level of the state in favor of a sense of service for society.

Omnipotence and subservience

In Egypt, as in most Arab countries, the amount of wasta — connections — a person has dictates how a government official will treat them. Clerks use their privileged positions to wield power in the most minor of cases.

A different, more customer-friendly mindset settles in only very slowly in state institutions. It arrives quite a bit after the big political changes have taken place. This new mindset requires strong examples from supervisors and explicit repetition of the new rules.

Deeply ingrained corruption, however, impedes this process. People who have grown accustomed to reaping additional benefits from their poorly paid public sector positions, resist giving them up.

It does not make social transformation any easier that there is significant over-employment in the civil service. In Egypt’s case, more than six million people work in the state sector, a group that constitutes roughly one-fourth of the country’s workforce and about 8% of society.

Reaching each and every village

Those clerks do not readily welcome change. Together with the potent institutional decision makers, mostly the army, they are the real deep state. The deep state runs not only vertically, top down throughout the bureaucracy, but also horizontally. In short, it reaches each and every village.

Brian Whitaker’s words, cited at the beginning, mirror those of the renowned psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm. His 1941 book, Escape from Freedom, a seminal work in the development of the social sciences, clearly applies to the Arab Awakening.

Fromm’s general thesis is that freedom is so alienating and demanding that initially people would rather escape into authoritarian, safe, predictable and stable systems. Based on Fromm’s premise, one can finally understand why so many Egyptians love General Sisi — a cunning replica of Mubarak. He is the safe, the stable and the predictable choice. But not forever.

Class society

There are at least two Egypts. One lives and works in the streets. It walks in dirty sandals and buys a dozen loafs of bread for one Egyptian pound (an equivalent to 15 U.S. cents). The other Egypt drives to work in an air-conditioned car with a chauffeur, goes to lavish sport clubs ($400/month) and sends kids to American schools ($1,000/month).

These two groups of people rarely meet. When they do, they play the master and the servant. The rich had already been free before Mubarak left and they are free now. But the poor remain restrained — all they have is a promise of a better life that they will never have, if one takes into account the state of the economy in Egypt.

Yet, they wait. They have given Sisi the benefit of the doubt, but the structural problems of their country are such that not even Sisi, the presumed “savior of Egypt,” can solve them. Another uprising is inevitable.

This is based on a longer article by Patrycja Sasnal, The Pessoptimist’s Arab Revolution: A Mismatch Between Social Evolution and Political Revolution, published in 2012 in Insight Turkey.

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About Patrycja Sasnal

Patrycja Sasnal is head of the Middle East and North Africa Project at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

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