Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ducking Egypt's Pro-Stoning 84%

In an analysis of how democracy could take root in Egypt, Fareed Zakaria (the young pundit Richard Nixon would have most enjoyed though not always agreed with) describes how the rising expectations of an improving economy actually helped make problems for Hosni Mubarak:
Dictatorships find it difficult to handle change because the structure of power they have set up cannot respond to the new, dynamic demands coming from their people. So it was in Tunisia; so it was in Egypt. Youth unemployment and food prices might have been the immediate causes, but the underlying trend was a growing, restive population, stirred up by new economic winds, connected to a wider world. (Notice that more-stagnant countries like Syria and North Korea have remained more stable.)
Zakaria doesn't mention that this is exactly what happened in Iran in the late 1970s. Our post-Vietnam and -Watergate media were fixated on Shah Reza Pahlavi's notorious secret police and his status as a CIA-abetted U.S. client and proxy (that's he with Richard Nixon). Most overlooked how his policies of economic and cultural liberalization had provoked the same kind of dislocation and unrest that Zakaria describes in Egypt, especially among Iranian young people who had flocked to the city but couldn't find work and so went to demonstrations instead.

So let's not reassure ourselves just because, for now, the Egyptian revolution looks more secular and economic than religious. Besides, as Zakaria writes about an April 2010 poll of Egyptians' attitudes by the Pew Research Center:
Pew found that 82% of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, 84% favor the death penalty for Muslims who leave the religion, and in the struggle between "modernizers" and "fundamentalists," 59% identify with fundamentalists.

That's enough to make one worry about the rise of an Iranian-style regime. Except that this is not all the Pew surveys show. A 2007 poll found that 90% of Egyptians support freedom of religion, 88% an impartial judiciary and 80% free speech; 75% are opposed to censorship, and, according to the 2010 report, a large majority believes that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.

Since stoning people for adultery and leaving Islam are, by virtue of being savage, medieval acts, utterly irreconcilable with almost all the good stuff in the second paragraph above, I guess we've got to figure out what Egyptians are most passionate about. In making that determination, it's important to recognize that people almost always want democracy on paper. Most modern totalitarian regimes have had democracy on paper. I'd also bet that a poll of Iranians in April 1978 would've shown pretty much the same views when it came to government and, ironically enough, less extreme ones on religion.

So as much as I honor public opinion as a general rule, at the moment I'm counting on the same relatively moderate, secular-minded, authoritarian, anti-stoning elites who have held Egypt together for the last 3o years and are trying to promote a smooth transition of power.


J.C. Marrero said...

That is about the most horrible image I've ever seen. So much like a cruxifiction. The only ones deserving that are those doing it.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Juan. If you do a search on the subject, there are some more graphic images. But the expression on this victim's face is beyond words. I don't think there's anything that's brought me up short in the last two weeks more than the poll result showing that four out of five Egyptians are in favor of murders such as this. It has pretty much put me back in the pro-Mubarak party.

Anonymous said...

The problem with taking those poll results at face value is that you miss nuance and context.

It is precisely because of Mubarak's smothering rule that used religion as a distraction from his own abuses that you get that kind of wide-spread extremist opinion. When no one holding opposing opinions is allowed any sort of public speech, it should be no surprise that a majority of the population believe the only side of the story they are permitted to hear.

As for the comparison with Iran, it not just nuance that's missing, its straight-forward historical fact. Iran's revolution wasn't hijacked by the extremists, they were central to it. It was like how the US teamed up with Stalin to beat Germany - no way we could have defeated Germany without Stalin's help. Just as there was no way the intellectuals could have beat the Shaw without the help of the extremists. In both cases the liberal sides miscalculated as to the costs that followed victory - Stalin put the boot to the throat of Russians and we got the decades of international cold war, the intellectuals in Iran lost the internal power struggle and got more than just a boot to the throat too.

Egypt's got to deal with the societal damage of the strongman's use of religion as a decoy, but the revolution itself didn't need the religulous to succeed so they don't have anywhere near as strong a seat at the table as they did in Iran.