Thursday, January 16, 2014

Does Being a Rubbish President Invalidate Democracy?

I haven’t smoked enough crack in my life to believe that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is a force for good in this world. Call me crazy, but I just can’t get down with that whole Jew/gay/woman/Christian/etc-oppressing vibe. And unlike the Brothers, I like the separation of religion and politics – I think it’s one of the great ideas of Western civilization.

Even so, I felt a bit sorry for Mohammed Morsi last week, as he suddenly discovered, much to his surprise, that he was not only an ex-president, but under arrest. I understand why the army locked him up: It would be very dangerous to have the rightfully elected president of Egypt running around, denouncing their coup. But try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything he had done wrong – other than being a rubbish president, of course. But that is not a crime.

There was always something hapless about Morsi. He wasn’t even the Brotherhood’s first choice, but rather a back-up president they wheeled out when their favored candidate was disqualified from running for election. And once he was in power, he ruled like a back-up president, ham-fisted and stupid, doing all the usual authoritarian things: putting comedians on trial and banging on about ideology when millions of his people had no money, no work and little food.
Morsi didn’t seem to grasp that money matters, and that Egypt gets much of its cash from infidels coming over to lie half-naked on beaches, ride camels and stare at triangular piles of bricks containing dead people. He was so oblivious – or indifferent – to this fact that last month, he appointed a member of the political arm of a terrorist group responsible for the murder of 58 tourists in the popular tourist destination of Luxor in 1997 as  governor – of Luxor. This was political incompetence as performance art.
It was obvious, then, that neither Morsi nor his advisors in the Brotherhood were very wise. Their goal was to Islamize Egypt, but they were going about it entirely the wrong way. They’d read too much Sayyid Qutb, and not enough Lenin. The Bolsheviks didn’t leap to collectivism overnight, they lied and obfuscated and advanced gradually. Lenin even allowed limited capitalism for a few years; he knew that if you boil a frog slowly enough, it won’t jump out of the water. The Brothers, they just blundered about, pushing for a massive cultural revolution overnight, but without the requisite willingness to butcher their opponents and terrify the masses into submission.
Indeed, it was almost as if… as if they really meant to give this democracy thing a go, as if Morsi really did believe that the most important qualification in a governor was his devotion to God, and after that the rest would take care of itself.
His supporters, meanwhile, are justifiably appalled: The Brotherhood won the vote honestly, and now the results have been canceled by men with tanks. Morsi really was a duffer, but so was Jimmy Carter, so was Britain’s Gordon Brown, and they were only ever overthrown at the ballot box. That’s how it’s done in a democracy.
Of course, the United States under Carter and the UK under Brown were not tumbling into the abyss as Egypt is today, so the comparison is moot. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but there’s no saying that these particular extraordinary measures will fix Egypt’s problems. The army is already talking about holding new elections soon, but what if a sadist wins next time instead of an incompetent? Or a raving lunatic? Germany was a democracy, yet the Nazis came to power.
When I was a student, I would get angry when I read economists argue that some countries are not ready for democracy. They were usually talking about China. The simple fairness of allowing people to choose their own leaders was self evident to me. Twenty years later, and increasingly uncertain about many things I used to know for sure, I see their point.
After all, it’s not as if democracy appeared in Europe overnight. It emerged over a couple of thousand years, mixed up with lots of other good ideas such as freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, the rights of man, etc. And so I wonder if extracting one of these ideas and inserting it suddenly into a radically different context is really all that clever. I mean, Egypt is about 5000 years old, and until last June the country had never had a freely elected leader. Maybe it would have been good to think and plan a bit first, rather than rush into a vote when the only functioning organizations in the impoverished country were the army and a few groups of radical beardy types.
I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. But although he was clearly wrong about many things, I still can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Morsi. He played the game, he tried his best; he just wasn’t any good – we’ve all been there. But very few of us have wound up under house arrest as a result.