Melvyn L. Fein: Could crisis lead to a democratic Egypt?
by Melvyn L. Fein
February 01, 2011 12:00 AM | 950 views | 2 2 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Some people have gotten their hopes up. They view the recent disturbances in Egypt as an opportunity to plant democracy in the heart of a truly ancient part of the world. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has been appropriately cautious. It sensibly fears that things might go drastically awry.

And they may. The Middle East has not been fertile ground for Western style democracies. Time and again, we have seen tyrants arise, even as they promise to be champions of the people. Not long ago, Hosni Mubarak was himself one of these “reformers.”

The difficulty is that the Middle East is not like us. We live in a techno-commercial society, whereas nations in that part of the world cling to an agrarian-military tradition. As a result, democracy is integral to our history, but not theirs.

True, some non-Western nations have in recent years made enormous strides toward democratic institutions. Japan and South Korea immediately come to mind. But these countries have also moved toward techno-commercial institutions. Both have roaring market economies grounded in technological sophistication.

The Middle East is different. Most of it (save Israel) is still grounded in a medieval mindset. Its peoples have neither the skills, the attitudes, nor the economic resources to sustain governments over which they are allowed veto power.

Consequently, when ordinary people rise against oppressive regimes, the outcome is usually the imposition of an equally repressive government. The outstanding contemporary example, of course, is Iran. But this tradition also existed in medieval Europe. Back then, popular insurrections, called Jacqueries, invariably gave way to the re-imposition of aristocratic rule.

The reason was simple. The ordinary people were not organized to rule. However optimistic their hopes, they did not have the staying power to implement these. We may well be witnessing the same sort of deterioration in Iraq. Despite American encouragement — and the horrendous example of Saddam Hussein — Iraqi politicians are by habit intransigent and its average citizens are given to violence when frustrated.

Into this sort of vacuum generally rides the military or the clergy. Either the army takes over and re-imposes order or the clerics do the same and impose a theocracy. Sometimes — as was the case in the Middle Ages — religious and military power is combined in a single source. Then, as occurred in Iran, the repression becomes truly draconian.

So what is to be done? The first step is to realize that our ability to control events is limited. We can encourage democratic elements, as well as provide limited assistance in organizing, but as outsiders with an alien tradition we are liable to spark opposition merely because we are different. From the point of view of the indigenous people, we will appear to be invaders bent on conquest. Moreover, our very successes will remind them of their own failures.

This means that sometimes our only option is to do nothing, while hoping for the best. We can mouth words intended to offend none of the participants and cross our fingers that those who hate us are not provided with an excuse to impose a regime hostile to our interests.

But we can do something more. We can turn to a “containment” policy, much as we did with Stalinist Russia. Our goal then was to protect ourselves by limiting the ability of a potential opponent to harm us. We did not actively attempt to control the Soviet Union, but sought to limit the contagion.

If a similar policy is followed with respect to the Middle East, it is doubtful there will be meaningful reforms for the foreseeable future — by which I mean at least a century. Samuel Huntington was correct in describing this as a clash of civilizations and further implying that civilizations do not change quickly.

If so, our best hope is to become less dependent on foreign oil. If this resource ceases to be a source of wealth for those who hate us, they may sink back into an impotent poverty. And if they do, we may not need to worry about how they choose to govern themselves.

Melvyn L. Fein. Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.
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February 02, 2011
Doctor Fein-

Good article! On the money.

Many talking heads will explode with joy at the prospect of their definition of democracy in Egypt. But,are the people of Egypt ready for it? Have they,culturally, matured to the stage that they can sustain a republic or a democracy? I am just one small person, but I think not.

It is my belief, that Egypt will fall under the influence of the strongest group that appears post-Mubarak. As an American, my concern is that some of those groups who vie for the Egyptian leadership are strongly anti-American.

Woe to America,(and the western world), should they succeed.

The man at the head of our country is one of those, quite like the Jacques of the middle ages, whose perceptions of wrongs leads him to believe ,as most liberal minded folks do, that all will be fine if we just share the wealth. They believe that if we topple the masters , all will be well. They truly have no plan and no consideration for the rule of unintended consequences.

This attitude defies historical fact. So long as man is on this planet, there will always be war. There will always be one man/group/country desiring what another man/group/country has, even if what they have is better. (Remember the old "grass is greener".)

Save for existing energy sources, America is a self-sustaining society. The efforts afoot by the current administration to force us to remain dependent on other countries for our energy supply leaves us totally vulnerable at times like this with the threat to the passage of oil(Suez) and the sprawling effects of uprisings surging throughout the rest of the Middle East.

February 02, 2011
Thank you, Dr. Fein. You have put a framework around events that helps.

I wonder if this better educated Egypt, with cell-phones and computers, and some knowledge of what works in democracies, might do better than we fear. Islam needs their own versions of our Founding Fathers - extraordinarily intelligent and well educated leaders who can draw a line between the roles of civilian government and religion.

And, yes, we need to get away from dependence on foreign oil. As unpopular as it is to say, we need nuclear power plants, we need to develop technology to have clean coal, we need to develop solar power, better batteries for electric cars, research into LNG powered cars - then we need to invest in the infrastructure that allows these energy sources to become wide spread.

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