Wanted: A “Spare Tire” for Egypt’s Non-Islamist |Opposition

Nov 23

When the Freedom and Justice Party nominated Muhammad Morsi for the Egyptian presidency, many Egyptian pundits dismissed him with the contemptuous title, “istibn,” or “the spare tire.”The fact that they chose to use that term, however, is revealing not only for their lack of respect for the Muslim Brotherhood, but also for their own, personality-driven conception of politics.  It turns out that their use of the term “spare tire” as an insult has a lot of power in explaining why non-Muslim Brotherhood forces have proven so inept in electoral politics in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation.

Democracy is not only about guaranteeing each citizen a share in making decisions that affect his life; it is also about having sufficient collective discipline to abide by the decisions made collectively.  Part of having effective collective-decision making institutions is having “spare tires” in the event one’s plans go awry, as they almost always do.  The only reason the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to dominate the post-Mubarak transition is that they appear to be the only group in Egypt with any kind of collective discipline.  My Egyptian facebook friends mock Muslim Brotherhood members as people who are drones, who follow the principle of “we hear and we obey,” even when they might disagree with the decision of their leadership.  But, collective action, to be successful, requires a commitment to adhere to legitimate decisions, even in circumstances where one disagrees with them.  Internal discipline within a political party is a political virtue, not a vice!  If I reserve the right to withdraw from a political coalition every time I disagree with a decision, then I am not part of a political community; I am just an individual with a view, who constantly is willing to renegotiate his political commitments. If enough people share this approach, collective action becomes impossible, and all one can do is tread water.  But even the strongest swimmer, if he is reduced to treading water, will eventually drown.

I humbly suggest to the Egyptian non-Islamist opposition that it is time to understand that “we hear and we obey” is not necessarily a political vice, and indeed, the sine qua non of a legitimate political order is that it has the right to claim obedience from its citizens.  More modestly, can we at least hope that the opposition can show the same internal discipline that the Muslim Brotherhood rank-and-file show?  Party discipline means that some people will accept being spare tires.  The fact that there are people in the Muslim Brotherhood willing to be spare tires explains why they have been relatively successful.  The failure of the opposition to recognize the importance of spare tires explains their relative failure.  So, I ask “Who is willing to be a spare tire for the opposition?”

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