“What Killed Egyptian Democracy?” — An Egyptian Friend Says “I would say a deep-seated corrupt anti-intellectual culture permeating a mafia state controlled by armed thugs.”

Jan 25

Earlier this week, the Boston Review published an essay of mine titled “What Killed Egyptian Democracy?”  An Egyptian friend of mine, an academic who completed his Ph.D. in the US and then returned to Egypt to teach, sent me his own reaction to my essay.  I reproduce it below (name omitted):

Yes, I have read your BR article. It actually made me try to answer
the same question in its title. I guess a couple of important points
are missing in the analysis. Specifically, Egypt, to quote Yezid
Sayigh, is an “officers’ republic” and contemporary Egyptian culture
containes numerous elements diametrically opposed to
intellectualism and social progress.  Here are my thoughts without any
attempt to organize them:

-Since 1952 Egypt has been an officers’ oligarchy. This is one of the
fundamental problems facing Egypt. This is a group of truly
incompetent people who have never won a war against an external enemy,
but are totally convinced of their superiority and are obsessed by the
idea that they are entitled to govern Egypt and that their way is the
only way that suits the Egyptian mentality and character. This is not
just something I read about. I have close relatives who are/were in
the army and I actually hope that the above is not an understatement.

-Sorrowfully, the vast majority of “reformists/revolutionaries”
completely missed this characteristic feature of Egypt, thinking
instead that corruption revolves around Mubarak’s clan and some
businessmen like Ahmed Ezz.

-I personally neither trusted nor respected the army. However, I
erroneously thought that they are rational and would not engage in
excessive violence. When Morsi ousted Tantawi and Anan, I thought that
this would serve the army’s interests better. I was wrong because I
resorted to a thinking methodology that, like Game Theory, presumes
rational actors/players.

-In this regard, I ignored the profound experience I gained through my
work in Alexandria University from 2007 to 2010. The Egyptian
educational system is in ruins. The value of learning and education is
almost nonexistent in Egyptian society. Intellectual consistency
is not something that people care about. Critical thinking is absent.
I have witnessed this first-hand in electrical engineering students who
are supposedly among the most brilliant in the country. You can easily
extrapolate this to the rest of society.

-I think that no analysis of the situation in Egypt can proceed
without accounting for the dismal state of Egyptian intellectuality.
We are not talking about people who think and make mistakes. We are
not talking about people who know what they know and know what they do
not know. We are talking about a corrupt culture that is very
superficial, myopic, self-indulgent and does not shrink from espousing
inconsistencies. It is not just that Egyptians have some
misunderstandings regarding liberalism and democracy. It is not the
case that some were idealists. The problems run much deeper. There are
several types of rationality. For instance, epistemic rationality
regarding one’s ideas and beliefs, and instrumental rationality
regarding how one can effectively and efficiently achieve certain
objectives. The Egyptian culture is severely wanting in both types.
For example, what was the plan of those who wanted a comprehensive
regime change? I can be considered to be one of those guys. However,
and after a particular demonstration on May 27th, 2011, I began really
to question this slogan of الشعب يريد. Who will carry out what the
people want? Can mere verbalization turn an idea into objective
reality? It seems that this is what Egyptians believe. I later
convinced myself of accepting the reformist track because of this
issue. If one cannot formalize a clear plan for a genuine revolution,
then at least one has to espouse the nascent democratic process hoping
for long term change.

-Are there Egyptian liberals? Are there Egyptian revolutionaries? I
doubt the existence of these categories. Have you read Wael Ghonim’s
book on Jan. 25th? I read carefully the Arabic and English versions of
his book. There is no way to say that this guy, who was supposedly a
high IQ person relative to the others, is a revolutionary. He is just
a confused, perhaps well-intentioned,  middle-class guy with very
superficial understanding of almost everything starting from social
media and the Internet to the meaning of social consensus. Is Alaa
“Democracy is the Solution” Aswaany a liberal? He is just an immensely
overrated novelist who despises the masses and has no real
understanding of what democracy means in the short and long terms. I
know that you may have sounded like a racist if you mention stuff like
this. Nevertheless, I do think that Egyptians and their “elites” could
not be seriously engaged as you are trying to do. Just think about
Mubarak himself. Was bequeathing Egypt to Gamal a real issue? Many
Egyptians may give you that impression, but this is not the actual
reality. Nepotism is a religion in Egypt. It is everywhere including
in Egyptian universities. Mubarak was just mirroring a common Egyptian
practice. I claim that those genuinely opposed to this idea constitute
a very tiny fraction of the Egyptian population.

-The good stuff that have emerged during Jan. 25th was just a
confirmation that there is still goodness in the Egyptian people and
that, given a proper context, this goodness may be exercised. But
there was nothing magical or extraordinary. I can tell you many
negative aspects that have emerged during the 18 days and which later
were swept under the rug to sustain the stupid narrative about
Egyptian exceptionalism and the most wonderful “revolution” that has
ever occurred. But, for instance, as explained in the particularly
insightful book The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, similar aspects to
the “Tahrir Utopia” were observed during the Iranian revolution.

My last point is intended to say that I am not just a self-hating
Egyptian. I still believe that cultures can change. But for this
change to occur one has to understand, especially the deeply
entrenched, faults. What killed democracy in Egypt? I would say a
deep-seated corrupt anti-intellectual culture permeating a mafia state
controlled by armed thugs.

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