Egypt: Cause for Pessimism

February 13, 2011

The Egyptian people have managed to throw out a strongman and install a military junta.  Following this dubious achievement, power may fall into the hands of another strongman or to a democracy.  A strongman or a dynasty will likely repeat the Mubarak scenario.  A democracy will likely throw power into the hands of a cabal of primitive Islamic clerics.  Neither course would yield a regime that promotes either human rights or economic liberalization and prosperity, which is the key to political stability.

The strong man dynamic is well established.  We cannot tell what will happen in Egypt, but history can tell us what can happen. 

In Niccolò Machiavelli’s day, his home town of Florence, Italy was ruled not just by a strongman but by a dynasty of strongmen, the Medici.  The founder Cosimo, succeeded to the strongman role in 1434, after a revolution that ousted the previous leader.  Cosimo consolidated power and restricted government to a small coalition, but in the process repressed influential rivals, and thereby created resentment.  When he died, other powerful and resentful leaders challenged his son and successor, Piero (the gouty). 

Piero survive the challenge by applying military force, by appealing to leaders who had a strong interest in restoring order, and by further restricting freedoms.  Piero emerged from the challenge stronger, but in the process, increased repression and public resentment. 

Piero’s son Lorenzo (the magnificent), took office without challenge but had to cope with an assassination attempt.  The disturbance gave Lorenzo a pretext to impose still more repressive measures, which generated still more resentment.  When Lorenzo died in 1492, his power passed smoothly to his son, Piero (the fatuous).

In 1494, the fatuous Piero made a strategic error in dealing with the the French invasion.  His successors may have been able to recover from such a disturbance, but by 1494, resentment had grown to the point where the people drove Piero and his family out of the territory of Florence.  Sixty years of power came to an end in a few days.

The Medici story should sound familiar.  The spiral of disturbance, repression, resentment, disturbance and so on, ends in catastrophe.  In Egypt, we have just seen the catastrophic ending.  There is little reason to think that the result will be constructive.  One possibility, the most likely one perhaps, is simply another seemingly stable strongman government that masks another spiral of building resentment and looming catastrophe.

The history of Florence suggests another possibility.  In Florence, the 1494 revolution produced an ineffective democratic republic.  The key figure who pressed for a more democratic form of government was Girolamo Savonarola the fanatical Dominican cleric who also staged the famous bonfire of the vanities in which he urged Florentine citizens to burn their cosmetics playing cards, and irreplaceable Renaissance paintings.   It makes sense that clerics like Savonarola would encourage democracy, because they believe that they can control the people.   In the end Savonarola failed because he was simply an unarmed profit and secular Europe was already emerging from the Middle Ages.  In 1527, the republic collapsed and troops of the Pope and the Hapsburg Emperor restored the Medici. 

Thus a second option for Egypt is the Savonarola scenario, where those who press hardest for democracy are those who least want the people to have freedom and human rights.  The friends of democracy in Egypt will not be those who are pushing for freedom of religion, separation of church and state, or free speech, but simply those who believe that they can control a democracy, i.e. dangerous Islamic religious fanatics from the Middle Ages.

Neither the Medici scenario, nor the Savonarola scenario, nor an ineffective mixture of the two will lead Egypt to economic liberalization, efficient commercial law, and prosperity.  And without prosperity there can be no long-term stability.


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