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On Power, Authority, and Egypt
Analyzing the Revolts
In a long analysis of the Egyptian unrest and the possibility of the overthrow of the Mubarak presidency, long-time left-of-center middle east observer Juan Cole wrote in “Egypt’s Class Conflict“:
Why has the Egyptian state lost its legitimacy? Max Weber distinguished between power and authority. Power flows from the barrel of a gun, and the Egyptian state still has plenty of those. But Weber defines authority as the likelihood that a command will be obeyed. Leaders who have authority do not have to shoot people.
With all due respect to the Professor, this is wrong.
The Egyptian state is nothing without human beings. What are weapons without people? They are rubbish. They are completely lacking in worth. It is human beings which make weapons effective. Until the day Skynet takes over and Terminators become reality, that will remain true.
President Mubarak is not going around shooting people with a gun in his 82 year old hands. As a practical matter, power is the ability to get people to obey your orders. If you can’t get people to do that, you have no power. The state may have guns, but they are of no consequence whatsoever.
The purpose of Professor Cole’s separation of power and authority is so that he may attack Mubarak’s authority as being illegitimate using an analysis bearing all the hallmarks of mainstream Marxist thought. I say this not as disparagement, but as simple fact; rare is the historian who does not pay lip service to Marxist historical analysis using class and economic grievances to explain every major social event. I will certainly not argue that such analysis is always wrong. I will only point out that such analysis is self-serving, as it reinforces the notion of immutable, unchangeable destiny towards revolution and “popular government,” when history has hardly proven this idea to be truth in all cases.
What history does prove is that it is the harder core, the harder working, the hungrier (in the figurative sense) and the meaner and nastier who tend to rise to power during a crisis. Let us bear this in mind when people argue that the Muslim Brotherhood, or something worse, are unlikely to gain power because a national unity government will drown Egypt in hugs and teddy bears and all will be well. The people who are organized, who can get their people to obey orders – it is they who have power, and that power has a way of coming out on top.
Ergo, religion is political power. Let us keep this in mind.
Legitimacy in Authority
The thrust of Professor Cole’s argument is backed by a recital of exhaustive facts about the urbanization of Egypt, the continuation of the Middle East’s trend towards higher population, unabated by the typical modern reduction in birth rates that occurs when religion loses its force and people can afford easy birth control. Alas, religion has not lost its force in Egypt and the majority are not able to afford modern birth control with the ease that a citizen of Western Europe can, so I don’t see why this should be surprising at all, really.
Anyway, the analysis continues to recite how an increase in GDP and trade left much money in the hands of the few rather than the many, how worldwide economic shocks both reduced the oil-producing countries’ revenue (which cut into Egyptian expatriate income, and therefore cut what they could send back to their families), raised food prices and inflation, and otherwise continues the same unhappy story we would find in most any country around the world today.
So, the point is, Nasser was great stuff because he made Egyptians feel like he ran Egypt for the Egyptians, whereas people now feel that Egypt is an economic scam being run on behalf of Americans and Israelis, so it is a combination of being on the wrong side of global politics (i.e. on the side of the United States) and not being enough of an economic re-distributor, so of course they want Mubarak’s head on a pike.
Fine and well, but seriously?
The Tangible Reasons For Loss Of Authority
Let’s have a brief mental exercise. What is modern Egypt known for in the world? Guess.
Peace with Israel.
Is this popular in Egypt? Well… some 30 years after it happened, with a great many young people who weren’t even born when it was signed, it probably is not.
So that’s one context, and it is a context which fits neatly with Islamist thought.
Second, the real problem with authority in a state apparatus sense is a weakened grip on the army, you know, the one the United States subsidizes with over a billion in aid per year as a sort of compensation package for not causing Israel trouble. It isn’t as if Egypt can’t find other countries to give it military support; after all, that $1.2 billion is for 100% list price of lavishly expensive American hardware; other countries’ weapons are usually spectacularly cheaper. The military-industrial complex is priced at what the American Taxpayer will pay, not what the global market would.
So why has Mubarak’s hold weakened? It’s really quite simple.
In all his years, Mubarak had not appointed a vice-president, until yesterday. You see, Mubarak had been Anwar El Sadat’s VP when Sadat was assassinated following peace with Israel. So, Mubarak – who represented the military’s interests – quickly took over. He learned the lesson that having a VP ready to take over encourages assassination… so he didn’t appoint one.
In fact, the buzz was that he was arranging a dynastic succession by bloodline for Gamal Mubarak, his son. This caused a great deal of heartburn in the military, and it’s not hard to understand why. The military has, after all, essentially picked who would run Egypt since the Suez crisis. A dynastic succession would rip that power away from the military… and greatly reduce the institution’s clout in the long-term running of the government.
You can imagine how the leadership was not… enthused.
Furthermore, apparently Mubarak had promised to appoint Gen. Omar Suleiman, his long-time intelligence chief and the Robin to Mubarak’s Batman, the indispensable sidekick who had his fingers in Mubarak’s every pie, a supporter without peer with impeccable military generals. Then, Mubarak reneged and caused his #1 man to resent him for the act. Through Suleiman, the military itself was slighted, and found Mubarak shunning it in favor of his own flesh and blood.
This is how Mubarak’s authority was damaged. It is hardly worthy of an air of mystery.
The larger problem is why younger members of the military are joining protesters or otherwise not exactly suppressing them. Well, that too is relatively simple: unlike the police/ internal security forces, the army is composed of draftees who are brought in from the general population. Therefore, these individuals are young, male, and really don’t have any special reason to love Mubarak. Certainly, no reason to favor him over the public at large.
Mubarak ran a police state, not an army state. Today, it shows. Without the police in the street and handling things, he has a critical lack of allies here.
Authority Flows From Power
It isn’t that Mubarak lacks power because his authority is weak. It is that he lacks authority because his power is a lot weaker than it has been in the past, and is being tested beyond the limits of his allies’ willingness to back him.
This has nothing to do with legitimacy. It has to do with force, pure and simple, and Mubarak doesn’t have enough of it vested in himself to guarantee a positive outcome.
Now, Mubarak’s made the simplest and most positive move he could make to rectify this: he appointed Suleiman as his vice-president. This makes it highly unlikely Gamel can succeed his father, and gives the army leadership a reason to save Mubarak’s skin.
The question is, is it too late? Can the army leadership save his skin? Or will the army rank and file simply refuse to obey orders?
Remember, weapons without people are garbage. They are utterly useless. It all comes down to organization.
Besides Islam, what holds Egypt together is police and military discipline. And with the police out of the way – for that matter, the army is actually helping keep the police out of the way – it comes down to how much military discipline these draftees have to spare.
If it comes down to who has the most discipline, the army or the Muslim Brotherhood, then Egypt as we know it is on borrowed time.
There are no guarantees here, but put simply, Mubarak got greedy. He openly led a campaign to cut the army out of its (self-styled) birthright to determine the fate of the state. As he is not loved, he put himself in a position where he had to rely on the fear his police generated; once this fear lapsed, and he actually had to rely on the army, he became its prisoner; and now that he is its prisoner, the army itself is a prisoner of its own rank and file.
In such a situation, people default to the strongest authority they know.
Do you really think that authority is democracy? Human rights? Economic resentment? Class consciousness?
Or is it Islam?
I guess we’re going to find out soon enough. – J