Sunday, April 3, 2011

Turmoil in Egypt and Its Link to Antiquity

The current turmoil in Egypt reminds me of the fall of the Soviet system in 1989: a wave of political emotion which erupted when countries with a common cause chose a path for change. The Soviet house of cards fell without a whimper.

Now we have the same thing happening in the land of Arab dictators.

The majority of Arab states are currently controlled by dictators, including Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. The recent unrest in Tunisia has sparked a new wave, which has already spread to Egypt and Jordan, and may go further depending on the momentum created.

Looking at these events from a theoretical standpoint is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we are seeing people come together to demand freedom and move to overcome a repressive regime. Although we don’t know the outcome, we hope for a change for the better in these countries. Second, we are witnessing history real time: the history we read about in the ancient world and wish we had experienced.

From a practical standpoint, we hope that bloodshed is minimized. This is certainly a wild card which depends on the path the regime wants to take.

I am reminded of the Age of the Tyrants in ancient Greece (650-510 B.C), which was referenced in an article I posted on November 3rd 2009. The Greek tyrants were an intermediate step between aristocratic political systems and the advent of the Polis. Tyrants rose to power because the aristocratic forms were oppressive and the people chose to support anyone who could replace the old rulers. Oddly, the tyrants were benevolent rulers in most cases and avoided the oppression we associate with the classical definition of a tyrant. Ultimately, they were deposed when their rule proved uneven and their attempts to establish hereditary control failed. The result was the Polis; a kind of evolved balance of power between the wealthy and the commoners.

Does any of the history relate to what we see in Egypt today? Revolutions often start with mobs, because mobs have uncontrollable power. But they are only the catalysts, not the engine of change, because mobs cannot run a government and they do not have the power to take control. The engine of the revolution is the power class and usually the military. Egypt’s last three leaders have been military men who have been closely aligned with and supported by their troops, so in this case the military is critically important. Whatever transition is derived from the current unrest must be formulated by a combination of those who will allow power to flow in a new direction and those who will take that power to lead.

How different are today’s events from those of the time of the Greek tyrants? One factor in the modern case is the students, who were not an organized block in ancient Greece. The Egyptian students are educated but have no prospects for jobs because of the economic situation in their country. They have heard how life can be better by communicating with their peers in other countries. So we have the second factor of technology at work. We can see how the internet and cell phones have destroyed a government’s ability to control the flow of information and prevent their people from finding out the truth.

The rest of the story is the same across the centuries.

Egypt was a British protectorate until given independence in 1922. The British stayed until 1956 when Nasser took over and created a form of socialist government, later undone by Sadat and Mubarak. Their goal was to increase the private sector economy, but change has been slow and a centralized government continues to rule without legitimate opposition. We have power and wealth on one side against those who are deprived of freedom and opportunity.

In the case of Athens under the tyrants, the same forces were opposed. Clisthenes gets the credit for breaking the mold and building a democracy after the tyrant Hippias was deposed. Clisthenes broke the back of the powerful by dividing four tribes into 139 demes, diluting their power. He then created the assembly of 500 elected by lot to prevent any aggregation of power. His solution worked for two and a half centuries.

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