Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt and the State of Nature

News comes today that the Egyptian military, left in charge by the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, has dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution. The move has been applauded by the protesters -- a diverse group to be sure -- who toppled Mubarek. International reaction is likely to be ambivalent for military control of a nation is rarely, if ever, a good thing. The good news is that Egypt's military has so far not given any indication that it wants to establish a military dictatorship and its public pronouncements today have indicated a desire to draft a new, more democratic constitution and hold elections within six months.

The Egyptian people now confront that moment in the history of a nation when they must replace an old, no-longer-effective political order with something new. This is not exactly what the great modern political theorist Thomas Hobbes described as the state of nature: a time during which there is no common power to put the people of a territory in awe. When such a situation exists, according to Hobbes, people do whatever it takes to preserve themselves and cannot be faulted for whatever they do; their choices can only be evaluated as more or less well calculated to achieve self-preservation. As a result, during this time people live in a state of war, indeed a "war of all against all." "In such a condition," Hobbes tells us, "there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

This is not -- yet -- the condition of Egypt. While the economy has slowed due to the unrest that preceded the downfall of Mubarak, it has not collapsed. While there were demonstrations, the level of overall unrest was relatively low and major clashes between demonstrators and the military did not occur. Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the demonstrations was the relative order and peacefulness with which they occurred and with which the government responded. Life for many in Egypt continues to be poor, brutish, and short, in part due to the policies of the Mubarak regime. But it seems clear that there is a "common power" capable of keeping people in awe -- the military -- and, as a result, the war of all against all has not materialized. Political order has not disappeared, though its nature will surely change.

The situation, therefore, reflects the time described by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson as the moment of revolution: when one government is cast out and replaced by a new one without returning the society as a whole to a state of complete disorder. Locke's description bore a strong resemblance to the so-called Glorious Revolution in England, when James II was sent packing and William and Mary were called to the throne by Parliament, establishing parliamentary sovereignty once for all. Jefferson's, of course, was meant to capture the moment of the American Revolution, when the colonists cut their ties with the king and set up their own new nation with its own independent government.

We can hope that developments in Egypt will go the way of William and Mary's England or the post-revolutionary United States. But we should be aware of the Hobbesian warning: revolutions bring disorder, and disorder can get out of hand, rendering a once "common power" perilous. When that occurs, there are two directions in which a nation and its people can go. Those who hold power can find themselves incapable of enforcing order, whether through lack of physical strength or lack of will, and as a result the state of nature returns. Afghanistan, for example, seems to be ever teetering on the edge of chaos; it is a nation in which the ability of any power to extend its reach to all of the country bespeaks a "failed state," which is to say a situation strongly resembling the Hobbesian state of nature. A even more powerful example is offered by Somalia, where no power is able to enforce its will on the nation and where life is truly solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short -- Somalia is the Hobbesian state of nature.

At this point, however, it does not look like Egypt will go the way of Afghanistan and Somalia. Order appears to be too deeply embedded in Egyptian society, and frankly the military appears too powerful. Today, as the military tried to persuade the last demonstrators to leave Tahrir Square, people set to work tidying up, scrubbing grafitti off statues, repainting curbs, removing litter. This reveals a deep sense of order in Egypt and suggests that the state of nature is far, far away.

But should events not move forward smoothly and consistently with the wishes of the protesters who felled Mubarak, disorder may re-emerge. If it does, there is a strong chance that the holders of power will redouble their efforts to enforce order, becoming less tolerant of dissent and much more willing to use whatever force is necessary to preserve peace.We can applaud the democratic rhetoric of those who filled Tahrir Square and the restraint so far shown by the military. We can applaud the idea of creating a commission to draft a new constitution and the promise of truly free and fair elections in the near future. But we must be mindful of the lessons of Hobbes and history: few revolutions have actually resulted in stable, long-lasting democracy.

The American case remains more an exception than the rule, surely due to the principles and actions of a truly special generation of political leaders. More typical, unfortunately, is the experience of France after 1789 where, as Hannah Arendt has argued, "constitution followed upon constitution while those in power were unable to enforce any of the revolutionary laws and decrees," resulting in "one monotonous record illustrating again and again what should have been obvious from the beginning, namely that the so-called will of a multitude (if this is to be more than a legal fiction) is ever-changing by definition, and that a structure built on it as its foundation is built on quicksand." More typical, as well, is France after 1848, when Alexis de Tocqueville, the great observer of democracy in America, participated in drafting a new constitution that soon gave way to the autocratic rule of Napoleon III. More typical, unfortunately, is the short story of the Weimar Republic in Germany, a democracy that collapsed due to a combination of factors, among which were a devastated economy and a lack of democratic political culture to help weather the inevitable storms of the first years of republican government.

If history has taught us anything it is that democratic rhetoric in revolution does not necessarily (or often) translate into stable democratic practice. Talk of democracy too often is used by those who seek power. In the wise words of Federalist No. 1, "a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants."

This is not to say that Egypt cannot succeed at crafting a new model for a democratic republic. It is only to suggest that we should temper our enthusiasm and not be bamboozled by the rhetoric of democracy and constitution. It is to suggest that neither the departure of Mubarak nor the formation of a constitutional commission necessarily means that democracy is coming to Egypt; nor does it mean that Egypt can avoid what the classical political philosophers always sought to emphasize -- the tendency of democracy to degenerate into class war, chaos, and ultimately tyranny. Perhaps our best hope is that Egypt (or any other nation in the region -- Yemen, for instance) avoids the fall into the sort of civil war that Hobbes saw as the essence of the state of nature.

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