Friday, April 17, 2015

Does Anyone Want Egypt to Succeed?

I have now been in Egypt for 9.5 months, during which I have only had the opportunity to talk about the Egyptian economy once, last month, at a small workshop, attended by roughly two dozen people.

At that workshop, I made the off-hand, but quite deliberate, remark, in reference to the recent Dubai-style conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, that, fortunately, there are many who don't want Egypt to fail, headed, of course by the U.S. and GCC countries (sans Qatar, which is very confused). In the meantime, I suggested, the U.S. and GCC countries also do not want Egypt to succeed, hinting that the current trajectory is so incredibly reminiscent of elements of the Nasser era and elements of the Mubarak era that it must raise very serious concerns in these countries -- making them deliberately not want Egypt to succeed, as currently configured.

[A full fledged Mubarak regime would be very welcome by the GCC, (sans Qatar, which is quite confused), in my opinion, but not necessarily by the U.S., which has been recognizing, increasingly, that authoritarian bargains often backfire: like debt finance, authoritarian bargains eliminate high-probability low-magnitude disturbances, but amplify low-probability high-impact ones... and you know what they say is the definition of insanity ("doing the same thing, repeatedly, expecting a different outcome.") A full-fledged Nasser regime would be alarming to all, but is impossible to take place post cold war, so, any such attempt may morph into a Pakistan-like version of the bargain, which is extremely ugly and dysfunctional, but workable. I hate to admit it, but Ann Patterson, I'm guessing based on advice from Vali Nasr, may not have been completely off base when she thought that her understanding of Pakistan may be more relevant for Egypt than I had ever thought possible.]

A written question (they were all written at this workshop) came to the session chair, asking me if I thought that the Muslim Brotherhood want Egypt to succeed. The session chair hesitated, but showed me the question, and I indicated that I will be happy for him to read it, and will be happy to answer it. I proceeded first to clarify what I had said previously: I had said that the U.S. and GCC don't want Egypt, as configured currently, to fail, but also don't want it to succeed, due to worrisome similarities to previous episodes. Given how MB were ousted, they obviously don't want Egypt to succeed as currently configured, and MB-like millennialist/Islamist groups generally want success only on their own terms. So, I concluded, I guess MB would like Egypt as currently configured to fail. This was an off-hand remark that was less deliberate or carefully thought through. A better answer would simply have been that it is not clear if MB is sufficiently well organized now to have an opinion on whether they want Egypt to succeed or fail, or even if they want any measure of success under the current configuration, not to mention that their definition of success may be very different from the questioner's.

The more difficult question is whether anyone inside Egypt wants Egypt to succeed. Countries fail (and I am not citing Acemoglu and Robinson here, quite yet, but simply stating an obvious fact), when they fail at solving collective action problems. Every group wants success on their own terms -- identifying the collective good as their own, just like the president of a corporation may convince her or himself that whatever is good for them is good for the corporation, and vice versa. This is simply a human trait, that, as the saying goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's why we need systems of checks and balances for good governance, corporate or national (and here I may cite the institutional economics approach of Acemoglu and Robinson, as well as many earlier studies, including, most prominently, the voluminous and brilliant work of Douglas North and many others).

How we get from here to there is an even more difficult question. Why would those who possess power give it up, when they think that what they are doing is in the best interest of the corporation or nation, and doubt that others, with whom they may or should share that power, would have the intelligence or ability to do what's in the entity's best interest? Indeed, the Qur'an warns us all:
 وإذا قيل لهم لا تفسدوا في الأرض قالوا إنما نحن مصلحون * ألا إنهم هم المفسدون ولكن لا يشعرون 
[And when told: "Do not cause corruption on earth," they say, "but, we are reformers." Nay, they are the very corruptors, although they do not feel it; The Cow: 11, 12].
It is too facile to use this verse against others, even when done courageously in confrontation with those who claim to be reformers, but we believe otherwise. It is much more difficult to be able to intuit our own limitations, and to trust the judgment of others sufficiently to have a greater measure of actual success.

How can any one (individual or group) of us know if we are the ones driving our institutions or nations to success or failure? An aphorism that my late father used often to say is that "when they distributed wealth, nobody found theirs sufficient; but when they distributed brains, everyone found theirs more than sufficient." The same applies to integrity, etc. I don't believe that anyone looks at her or himself in the mirror and says: "I am going to do some bad today." I believe that they all think: "I am going to do as much good as I can today, even if the poor souls that I am trying to help misunderstand me." [Remember Rousseau's oxymoron that man "must be forced to be free."]

So, I ask myself again: Do any of us want Egypt (or our corporations) truly to succeed? At a superficial level, we will all say yes, even though we may have opposing views on what success looks like and how it may be attained. I am not sure that I necessarily buy the line that the dentist turned novelist Alaa El-Aswani used to write at the end of his columns: "Democracy is the solution," or the more elaborate institutional solutions that institutional economists have written and documented empirically -- simply because some of the achievements that they see as success, mostly in the industrialized West, may be seen by others as less than successful, and many side effects that we all agree are failures may not be as salient in our minds when we are trying to sell a particular method. Sometimes, we may be trying to delude ourselves that there is a method that will be the magic silver bullet to kill all our problems, whether that mythical solution is a political process (like the mirage of democracy, which I have never found real in any country), a religious doctrine (claiming access to supernatural Divine knowledge), a mythical leader (that the Arabs call "the indispensable man," الرجل الضرورة), or any other. Gandhi famously gave the witty reply to the question of how he found "Western Civilization." "It would be a good idea," he said. But hasn't "Eastern Civilization," ancient or contemporary, also been horrific in many ways? Has there ever been civilization in the sense that Gandhi's answer suggested?

This is all to say that answering the question whether any particular individual or group wants the nation state Egypt, or any other entity, to succeed is ill posed. Perhaps like the U.S. and the GCC (sans Qatar, which doesn't know what it wants), we all don't want Egypt to fail, but also don't want it to succeed, necessarily, in the way that many others may think that it can, or want it to.

Perhaps that's the problem. We know what failure is much more uniformly, so we don't want our institutions and countries, or others', unless they are sworn enemies, to fail. However, we don't agree, and often do not know, what success is, so we end up not wanting success, either.


Post a Comment

<< Home