Egypt – Part II: Enlightened Despots and the Road of No Return

By Ismail Serageldin* | IDN-InDepth NewsEssay

This is the second of a three-part series reflecting on the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011, launched by millions of people from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds, demanding the overthrow of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had been at the helm of affairs since 1981. Click here to read part one.

ALEXANDRIA (IDN) – Whether or not those who control political power wanted it, they now find themselves at the helm of an increasingly autocratic and repressive regime. That paves the way to dictatorship.  Dictators are sometimes claimed to be enlightened despots, but to me the emphasis has to be on the word despot. Despotism is the opposite of democracy, and it has never been compatible with respect of human rights. Soon the autocratic regime throws its net wider, captures more and more of the opposition that it can label as terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers. Soon all opposition is suspect.

Soon the numbers in the prisons increase. Their rights are violated in the name of national security.  It is a road of no return. The forces of reason must stop the ship of state from embarking on that journey. If not, these violations, initially few, will become common, and then they become the norm.

Opposition, any opposition is soon considered unpatriotic and even treasonous. The dream of pluralism and inclusion and of building the mechanisms of democracy to allow a chorus of views to enrich public debate and engage the nation, fades away. Opposing views are censored. Discussion is derided as indecision and debate as obstruction. Instead, the pursuit of unification around national purpose is hailed as salvation. That national purpose is what the government says it wants for the good of the country. All those who oppose it are now not just suspect, but enemies to be crushed in the name of national security and society’s interest.

The Horror of Repression:

In invoking national security and the vague concept of the interests of society, the door is opened to moving from firmness in enforcing the law to repression. Opposing views are marginalized then outlawed. Dissent is derided then forbidden. Order has to prevail, and grey men who operate the machinery of the state start to wield enormous power that they never earned from the public they claim to protect.

Security services are the same everywhere.  They look with suspicion at all who disagree as the potential fomenters of trouble, as the potential artisans of terror.   Imperfect evidence is sufficient, due process is circumvented. Soon the innocent join the guilty in the prisons.  Treatment in the prisons worsens, and confessions are extracted from the incarcerated to justify their incarceration.

The renunciation of what the prisoner believed in, the necessary breaking of the person’s will to get him or her to admit the error of their ways, is the stuff of dictatorships based on political ideology.  It was the stuff of Stalinism at its worst in the Moscow trials of the 1930s, so vividly depicted by Arthur Koestler’s appropriately named “Darkness at Noon”, where renunciation and self-denunciation was a necessary prelude to the inevitable execution.

It is as if the tyrants needed to have confirmation that they were right in the murder of their opponent, or that at least they would use that final betrayal by the prisoner of all they had stood for as not only denial of self-worth, but a demonstrable proof to their comrades opposing the regime that they no longer deserved their support. No martyrs allowed.

But that is precisely why the approach to dealing with opponents driven by a powerful political ideology cannot be based solely on strength and coercion. Knowing this, the prisoners will find inner strengths to withstand psychological pressure and even physical pain, far longer than anyone would expect.

I once asked a colleague who, in his youth, had been imprisoned and tortured; why not just give the jailers all they want immediately. After all, everybody has a threshold, after which that confession or information would be torn from them, and the torturers, sadists all, would not tire out or give up before that threshold was reached. So it made eminent and rational sense to give them what they want and avoid the agony and the horror that was to come, or at least to minimize it.

His answer was compelling. It is not a case of rational argument here.  It is an emotional response to an extreme situation. Refusing to give in is not a matter of bravado but a case of trying to deny the jailers their victory and maintaining the dignity of the prisoner. By affirming their political belief in the face of coercive force and brute power, the prisoners were screaming their rejection of that barbaric state that would do this to its own citizens, and deny its agents, the jailers, the satisfaction of hearing their positions “justified” by the self-incrimination of the prisoners.  It was the last desperate attempt by those confronting the abyss to seek to affirm remnants of human dignity for the prisoner who has been stripped of everything.

Prisoners who have been abused and even tortured, do go back into society. They are never the same as when they went in. Some have been broken. A few have reflected and become wiser. Others are simply more cautious. Most are as headstrong as the day they were imprisoned, defiantly defending the worth of the cause they suffered for, and feeling more committed than ever because of the price they have had to pay, and because of the horrors that they were forced to endure by the agents of the state they oppose.

The Legacy of Violence:

Egypt’s revolution has been claiming a number of young lives, and an even larger number ravaged, if not totally destroyed, by imprisonment, which not only creates a mark on their records that they will carry for the rest of their lives, but also – and perhaps more importantly – changes their outlook on life. Prison does that. It robs the interned of their idealism and their innocence; it destroys their dreams and leaves behind largely embittered souls.  Seldom does prison result in socially rehabilitating a person of criminal inclination. All the more so, when that person is incarcerated for political reasons.

Whether they were incarcerated as part of the political confrontations or whether they are the hapless families of those who died at the hands of the terrorists or state agents, grief and sadness give way to a demand for settling scores.

The anger at past misdeeds, combines with the desire to wash away the anger through the pursuit of justice, and the two grow into a fern of a thousand leaves each promising redress, solace, and closure.

Yet with the passage of time, justice shows that it is not the same as vengeance.  And the fern-leaves of the past wither, yellow and dry.  The drive for justice is gradually replaced by the desire for revenge.    The once bright green leaves become brown and lifeless.

And the anger and the desire for vengeance leave scars on the living that are fuel for resurgent hatreds.

O how mean the vengeful are.

O how embittered they become.

A sense of justice denied drives them to deny justice to those who hurt them.

The cycle of violence and of hatred feeds on such feelings

We need to learn from the noblest of our peers, those who were able to transcend personal tragedy to turn their hands and their energies at building a better future. For in truth there is no fulfillment in hatred and revenge. For revenge is an empty promise. The reason to seek revenge is sometimes lost in the fog of hatred of that unjust other, who once upon a time caused us pain and grief and even agony. Punishment becomes the purpose of the quest. Let violence be rained upon the head of those who initiated the violence.  Let them suffer as we, their victims, suffered once so long ago. The causes, the reasons, the justifications, are all there.  Pressed like a dried fern-leaf in the pages of the book of memory, it is there, but when you return to it, it is dead, brittle, and crackles into dust… so do not be afraid to confront the memories, to transcend them.

Transcend them to what?

Listen to the Better Angels of our Nature:

Remember the early days of the revolution. Remember the grandeur and nobility of the peaceful demonstrations that stunned the world and brought to life dreams of better tomorrows. It is now three years since we have launched our revolution. Many young people have paid with their lives for the pursuit of their dreams, whatever these dreams were. But the dead are still among us, not just in the grieving of those who loved them, but in the burden they pose to our memory.

This is a classical dilemma. Soyinka, a survivor of the Nigerian civil war, bears witness to this excruciating tension that comes to the sensitive ones who witnessed and participated in the events where comrades and enemies lost their lives. Soyinka wrote in his inimitable style of the “The Burden of Memory” and “The Muse of Forgiveness”. He showed how those who were present must bear witness to the sufferings of the victims of the conflicts…. It is almost criminal to think of forgetting them and moving on. To forgive and forget would be a form of treason.  And yet, societies must be able to move on. They cannot live in the past forever.  They must turn the page and create the new. The sins of the fathers should not be visited on the sons… and because of that Soyinka also writes of the “Muse of Forgiveness” and the tension that it creates with the necessary and unavoidable “Burden of Memory”.

And the two are there together. Frustratingly neither will go away. It is easy to succumb to the pull of memory with its rending call for closure and its siren’s song of justice and revenge.   Yet we know that we must think of the future. We cannot live in the past forever. That innate dualism of all things will remain within us, but the better angels of our nature tell us that it is better to let the wheels of justice guided by the due process of law deal with the murderous few and to forgive the many who may at some time, or even now, have sympathized with them. That is the path of national reconciliation and the only path to build a future for our children. The path that the better angels of our nature call on us to follow.

Even more, the great figures in our history all tell us so: The muse of forgiveness that exists within each of us is awakened and strengthened by reflecting on their example. Jesus calling forth to forgive his enemies “for they know not what they are doing”. The Prophet Muhammad entering Mecca after years of conflict with its inhabitants declaring a general amnesty for all.

And among our own too mortal politicians Lincoln freeing the slaves and covering with a blanket amnesty all those who caused and fought against the Union in the American Civil War. Gandhi reminding us that pursuing a policy of “an eye for an eye” will make everyone blind. Mandela despite the horrors of Apartheid, comes out of prison after 27 long years, not for revenge, but to dismantle Apartheid, establish democracy and bring about the reconciliation of his people.  Restorative justice by having the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hear the victims and record their grievances, but allow for reconciliation and rebuilding a new “Rainbow Nation”.

Or the “dreamers” like Monet and Schumann, who a few short years after the massive slaughter of World War II could articulate a vision of a single Europe, where a community of nations would collaborate and prosper in peace and democracy, outlawing war among their people. And they succeeded, for within a generation, young people in France and Germany could not imagine that their countries would ever go to war against each other.

No action is complete, and imperfection is the lot of all our human attempts. But we know within our hearts that ultimately we in Egypt, like others who came before us and others to come after us, will have to transcend the violence and move on to national reconciliation.  But is our public ready to listen to such thoughts now? Or is the war on terror taking its toll in our demand for a strong and muscular path to put an end to the chaos and the killing and bring about a return to normality and security?

The Seduction of Ambition, the Corruption of Power

The political leaders of a country with a vast and powerful army, and a well-established police force and security apparatus, especially when called forth with a popular mandate to stamp out terrorism, bring back stability and launch the country on a road to prosperity, have all doors open to them. They often want to emulate the great leaders who have put their stamp on the history of their countries. Legitimate ambitions, no doubt, but that give an opening to the artisans of the black arts of conspiratorial politics, the Machiavellian grey eminences who can only flourish in the shadow of the leader.

It gives such people, and there are many of them, the opening to insinuate themselves around the leader, and to keep all other voices away from his ears. They control access to the leader. Praetorian guards or their modern equivalent, they create an iron circle around the leader controlled by gatekeepers from among themselves. They keep the leader in a bubble, harping on the historic moment that calls him to greatness, if only he would consolidate his power here, and pull in the opposition there. A nip and a tuck, and a consolidation of power here and a suppression of dissent there… all in the name of realizing their destiny to achieve greatness.

The media, no longer a watchdog, but a propaganda machine, reinforces and magnifies that call that the leader is the indispensible man at the historic moment, and who really has no ambition for himself, only for the country. No personal gain, it is for the vast and underprivileged masses that he speaks. Ambition thus thinly disguised is still very seductive, for we all want to believe that we are acting out of noble motivations and for altruistic purposes to serve the public interest. And who does not want to leave a legacy of great achievements for his country and his people?

But the seduction of ambition is invariably followed by its twin: the corruption of power. As Lord Acton famously said: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And it does.

The persons who are corrupted by the process of ruling over others are not innately evil. They usually begin as honest men, with a desire to accomplish things that they believe to be in the public interest. And having power, they use it. Then they encounter opposition from equally well-meaning persons who have different views on how to serve the interests of the people, and sometimes it is difficult to find a common meeting ground. Sometimes it is difficult to have to explain and gain support of the many, especially in dealing with technical issues. Both sides may be motivated by purely patriotic and altruistic reasons, but the one wielding power has a shortcut way to enforce his views.

That is where the danger lies. The more the person in power finds that they can more easily get their way by imposing restrictions and compulsions on others, the greater the strain on their own morality.  As the appetite for using force against people increases, the leader believes in the unquestionable wisdom of their desired course of action.

Such leaders not only cease to become accountable in any meaningful way, they also tend to increasingly surround themselves with advisers who not only share their general viewpoint, but who must also be seen as slavishly loyal to the leader. Such advisors and assistants also seem to derive a peculiar pleasure from forcing others to obey their orders. Friends and supporters are appointed to easy jobs of questionable necessity.

Corruption sets in. Artificial jobs are created for those supporting the regime. Ventures are given monopolies or land transactions are allowed to benefit the well-connected who in turn share their ill-gotten gains with the Leader and/or his cronies. Loans from public entities are given and not repaid. Prestige projects take precedence over the basic necessities of the people, and in all this the opposition is silenced by the exercise of power, which prevents any meaningful accountability. Elections become rituals of reaffirming power to those who already possess it. The leader and his surrounding elite lose their ability to distinguish between what is morally right and what is politically expedient. The regime is thoroughly corrupt.  That is how unchecked power corrupts those who wield it.

That is why the systems of governance we seek to construct are not those that are designed to make exceptional men shine, but those that ordinary persons cannot destroy. For it takes an extraordinary individual to come into power and resist the seductive call of personal ambition and reject the corrupting influence of the exercise of power. Sometimes, providence does send a nation such a man, as it did with George Washington at the time of founding the United States. His exemplary restraint made a government of laws possible, made the separation of powers a reality.

*Ismail Serageldin is Director of Egypt’s centre of excellence, Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria). He is a member of IDN’s Editorial Advisory Committee. He was a former Vice President of the World Bank and Chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. He has published over 60 books and monographs and over 200 papers on a variety of topics. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cairo University and a Master’s degree and a PhD from Harvard University and has received 33 honorary doctorates. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 28, 2014]

The writer’s previous articles on IDN:

Picture: Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on November 27, 2012 | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Send your comment | Subscribe to IDN newsletter

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook:

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top