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22.07.2019 | Youssef Rakha
Populism – an organic excess of democracy itself!?

Youssef Rakha Foto: Youssef Rakha

Dear far-flung friends,

Let me start by confessing that I’ve found it much harder than I expected to contribute to our colloquy. This could be partly due to unrelated circumstances – my mind has been on other, less political things, for example – but mainly I believe it’s because the more I think about it the more I feel that populism is an aspect of rather than an attack on the Western liberal-capitalist model. Now since this model is what most people mean when they talk about “democracy”, and since I think we can agree that – notwithstanding “democracture”, the erosion of the unilateral world order and the emergent fight for world dominion – that model remains secure as the default “legitimate” mode of managing human affairs today, it seems paradoxical that, rather than an external encroachment on democracy, populism should turn out to be an organic (and, scarily, more and more significant) outgrowth of it. But as Agnes points out, the new populists (whatever we choose to call them) have come to power by and large through the ballot box. And, as Michael argues, they respond to a genuine need for clarity and security among an overwhelmed and often disenfranchised populace.

Regardless of actual Modis and Erdoğans, though, for a long time before this conversation I’d been thinking somewhat philosophically that a vote by its very nature reflects the lowest common denominator in a given society at a given time, and that, considering the compromises and the lies inevitably required of politicians in a complex and media-crazed environment, even when it is free of economic and cultural constraints, this is likely to place power in the hands of some of the least rational, least moral people. Let me say, preemptively, that I don’t know of a system that would be fairer or more sensible per se. But as long as value is assessed numerically, it seems self-evident to me that interactions will reduce to transactions, discourse to advertising and democratic process to a species of consumerism.

Aren't populists simply the Big Macs and Coca-Colas of the political marketplace?


Liberalismus, Kapitalismus, Populismus? graphicrecording.cool In this sense, aren't populists simply the Big Macs and Coca-Colas of the political marketplace? These thoughts seem to concur with Yvonne’s as well as Ágnes’s: in the absence of “a cultural elite” (a class of discerning consumers privileged or widespread enough to make a difference, and one that arguably was never allowed to develop sufficiently or even exist in the postcolonial world), why should we be surprised at “the majority” choosing caricatures and criminals?

But, aside from my theoretical issues with ballot-box democracy, one crucial issue that has not really come up is identity: ethnic, religious, tribal or, of course, national. Conceived in opposition to a helpless other who is held responsible for some imagined fall from grace, identity seems to drive any populist support base more than any other single factor. Its constructions always involve a nostalgic hankering to a mythical, purer and more prosperous past (the caliphate for Islamists, Ayodhya for Hindu nationalists, “making America great again” for rednecks, etc.) which is itself, ironically, a phenomenon of the hyper-accelerated present. But regardless of their historicity or rationality – by and large they are fictional and perverse – these narratives seem to fill a gap not in the kind of objective, material wellbeing that Jonas feels should suffice for the Swiss constituency to steer clear of populism but of a subjective sense of purpose or meaning once embodied by community, tradition, creed and other unifying factors. Evidently neither technological advances nor individual freedoms have been able to replace those subjective requirements. And so a sensible strategy for avoiding “cruelty” – from freedom of belief to free health care – will be presented as a concession to them and a betrayal of us. Identity politics deserves its own symposium, of course. But for now let’s see what we can do with populism.

I can only count on an older, better established mode of populism to save the country and my life in it.

My feeling is that, rather than a critique or explanation of populism as such, the more desirable outcome of our dialogue would be a way into addressing the populist discontents of liberalism. And so I think what I will do, modest as that remains, is simply show how potentially disastrous “democratic transformation” in Egypt following the so called revolution of 2011 actually was. A civil as opposed to a military head of state and relatively free as opposed to relatively stifled elections will lead not only to greater human rights abuses and disregard for the law but also to the very real possibility of Syria-style Armageddon. Much as this repels and offends someone like me, I can only count on an older, better established mode of populism to save the country and my life in it. But how do I think about the future?

But before I get into the meat of my letter, two brief, somewhat oblique remarks that I think are very relevant: (1) It’s important to distinguish American college campus-led liberalism from what, erring on the side of convenience, I’m going to call Enlightenment values: reason, empiricism, secularism and egalitarianism. The former has devolved into a demagogic space for micro-identity and discourse-regulation politics that is at best of impossibly narrow significance. It is certainly true that people have lost their jobs and worse for perceived breaches of the dogma of political correctness. But, apparently unlike Yvonne, I’m not enough of a postmodernist to feel we can simply discount Enlightenment values as unnecessary or culturally specific, especially not in the light of the unequivocally devastating effects of tribalism, sectarianism and nepotism on my part of the world. But college campus liberalism, I feel, has contributed to making the liberal status quo an alienating and inquisitorial space not only for “the masses” but for intelligent and open-minded intellectuals as well. And (2) I think it should be clear by now that democracy is not penicillin. By that I mean that – unlike the products of the natural sciences, which can be trusted to function more or less totally regardless of culture and psychology – the political science recipes peddled out to “the developing world” by monolithic “global” institutions can evidently be trusted only to perpetrate disaster. Before it begins to inspire faith as an alternative to populism outside the West, or as anything more than a cosmetic foil for the dictatorship of global finance within it, the ubiquitous mantra of Democracy, Human Rights and Rule of Law needs to be critically parsed in specific contexts.

It is a consensual conception of power and hierarchy so deeply rooted in the culture and so prevalent in the collective psyche that it supersedes modern rational and moral imperatives.

In fact I was about to thank you for giving me such a multifaceted perspective on the crisis of democracy when it occurred to me that it would be dishonest not to make it clear that I’ve actually had very little experience of the system. Since the declaration of the republic in 1953, no Egyptian head of state has willingly left office while alive and no house of representatives has managed or even tried to operate independently of the presidency. For a good two thirds of the 66 years since republican Egypt was born, the president took office and was reelected by referendum, with contested elections restricted to parliament and their results often secretly prearranged between the ruling party and the opposition through (if not rigged by) the security apparatus. Where the constitution has prevented a president from being reelected, the constitution has been amended. With one brief and largely deplorable exception, the inviolate patriarch has always come from the ranks of the army, whose commander he automatically becomes by taking office. Not only the voting process but checks and balances, government posts and even the law itself are routinely subordinated to the will of the president and other powerful officials. And the idea of inalienable rights is seldom regarded as meaningful or binding.

Since 2011 I’ve come to believe that, contrary to oppositional discourse in the Arab world and political-science theorizing about conditions there, this is not – or at least not just – a matter of “tyrants abusing the people” or corrupt individuals ruthlessly seeking self-interest at the expense of the common good. It is rather a consensual conception of power and hierarchy so deeply rooted in the culture and so prevalent in the collective psyche that it supersedes modern rational and moral imperatives. (I honestly have no idea what it would take to change that, but unlike many Arab Spring activists I’m disinclined to risk open-ended civil war to see if that might work.) For one thing there seems to be a need for the figure of the all-good, all-powerful patriarch at the top of the social pyramid. Even when the people revolt against a given “leader”, this need ensures they will be looking for another to grant him the same status, tolerating the same abuses from him for as long as possible and remaining in denial about their fear of power changing hands. For another, there seems to be a tendency to regard contractual and civic law as a matter of appearances, an external garb that – unlike common, martial or religious law – can neither reflect anything of value nor effectively regulate life. Until these mechanisms for abnegating responsibility and subverting modernity are exposed and the cultural-psychological issues associated with them dealt with, no amount of protest, rights discourse or democratic procedure can change the picture.
Früher war ja alles besser... graphicrecording.cool

The populist appeal was the only factor in Egypt in the 2012 election.

Since its emergence through a coup d’etat between 1952 and 1956, the military regime – especially in its Arab nationalist and socialist moments – has presented itself as a grassroots answer to the British occupation and the by then weak monarchy (a non-Egyptian Ottoman general’s line of descent, originating in 1805). Populism has therefore been written into governance from the start. In my own time, however, the more overt and obvious populist strands have tended to come from the opposition, especially the Islamist opposition (people whose ultimate aim, let there be no mistake about that, is some version of the caliphate under sharia), who played not only on sectarian, ultraconservative and misogynistic sentiments but also on such long-standing “emotional” topics as the Palestinian cause (so much so that, though arguably nothing has hurt the Palestinians more than political Islam, fighting for Palestine is now largely synonymous with Islamist sympathies). From the age of 5 to 35, I lived under Hosny Mubarak, the longest serving of Egypt’s first four presidents and the one who, perhaps as a result, moved furthest from the military core of the republic. By seeming to endorse plans for his son to take over the presidency “democratically”, but also by becoming the first to run in a contested presidential election in 2005, during his last ten years in power Mubarak seemed ready to pilot the country’s transition to a fully civilian, liberal-capitalist system of government. When, inspired by the Tunisian president’s ouster at the end of 2010, unprecedented mass protests broke out against him in January 2011, the army was more than happy to step directly back into the power game, ousting him in February and managing a chaotic transition that ended with a very “traumatic” presidential election in June 2012 (I put the word in quotes in order to reference Carol’s suggestion that psychological trauma is relevant to politics, which I think is spot-on).

Perhaps – if you feel it’s relevant – there will be space to get into the ins and outs of the revolution itself in another letter. For now I want to focus on the fact that – even though this had started out precisely as a call for democracy, human rights, rule of law and other “universal values” – with the exception of extra-electoral intervention, populist appeal was the only factor in the 2012 election.


The sanctity of the vote graphicrecording.cool (By “extra-electoral intervention” I mean a Qatari-funded Obama administration eager to hand over the entire republican Arab world to representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood – hence my own moment of Trump-win schadenfreude! – and the Muslim Brotherhood itself, having pledged not to run in the presidential election, now publicly declaring that if its representative, the late Mohamed Morsi did not win there would be blood on the streets.) Building up to 2012 there had been 18 months of non-stop chaos, verbal and physical violence, demonstrations, counter-demonstrations and media campaigns in which by and large no policies, rights or issues (such as the police abuses that triggered the protests in the first place) were ever seriously discussed, let alone resolved. In effect the only question was who should be handed the reins, and the debate centred on the Brotherhood and/or its allies’ divine vs the army and/or its supporters’ historical right to power.

Predictably considering such polarization and desperation, the run-off vote was between Mubarak’s last prime minister (a former army general) and Morsi. In a subsequently contested result which was arrived at under duress anyway, the latter won by a small margin. And so began a period of absurdly aggressive Islamist democrature through which the Islamists shot themselves in the foot in every imaginable way (having complained of torture in political detention for decades, members of the Muslim Brotherhood ended up torturing protesters, notably Christians on the streets!) To this day it remains unclear how anyone, not excepting “the revolutionaries” (or, naturally, the liberal world community that supported them and/or was prevailed on to support the Muslim Brotherhood) could see this this as an improvement on Mubarak. “Egypt’s first elected, civil president” was the representative of a terrorism-touting if not terrorist, openly sectarian and largely anti-state, anti-civic law organisation whose effect on human rights and rule of law could only be disastrous. And, true enough – to cut a very long story short – by the time the late Mohamed Morsi was ousted following huge mass protests, due largely to Islamist aggression, duplicity and excess, there was a very real threat not only of complete institutional collapse but also of civil war (a mini civil war did break out and is ongoing in Sinai). This was all the army needed to step in for the second time, embraced by a sweeping majority of people now readier than ever to deify a new inviolate patriarch and start a new cycle of the same old story…

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