Sympathy for the New Pharaoh

December 1, 2012 11:13 am

Mohammed Mursi has recently given himself sweeping powers, leading to international condemnation for being a ‘New Pharaoh’, a potential despot even worse than Hosni Mubarack. There’s serious protesting again in Tahrir Square, and opposition growing against Mursi’s police. International powers are preparing to condemn the development.   After all, everyone remembers Baron Acton’s quote:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely

But I think we should wait and see.

Why?

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, that’s why.

Cincinnatus was a nobleman in 5th century BC, in a time when Rome was still a small Italian city-state governed by the Senate and its executive wing, annually elected Consuls. The level of democratic bureaucracy meant that Roman government could sometimes be sluggish, and so the constitution contained a failsafe – in times of emergency, the senate and consuls could nominate a leading citizen to be ‘dictator’, an official post with almost unlimited power. The danger with ‘dictators’ was that they tended to hang onto their power after they’d sorted out whatever emergency they faced – a little like Emperor Palpatine.

Cincinnatus was a disgraced nobleman, exiled to the sticks to scratch out a living on a small farm. The main Roman army was defeated and trapped by the Aequi and Sabines (hostile Italian towns) and Cincinnatus was chosen as Dictator. He came to Rome, gathered a citizen army, defeated the Italians, then gave up power, all in 16 days.

This surprised and impressed the Republic so much that they went and got themselves in trouble again, this time facing a conspiracy to make Spurius Maelius a king. Maelius was killed in an arrest attempt, and Cincinnatus gave up his commission, again.

Revolutionary Americans idolised the Roman’s commitment to republican constitutional principles, and compared him to George Washington, as he too gave up near-absolute power after the War of Independence.

The point I’m labouring is, sometimes you need concentrated power to get stuff done. Mursi might be the man to do it. There is clearly a danger that he’ll become another despot, but given how little the army like him and the circumstances in which he came to power, plus his dependence on US aid money, I really doubt it. I’m inclined to believe in him – surely there are lots of Mubarack cronies still in the courts and in government, and truly we have seen instances of obstruction in the drafting of a binding Egyptian Constitution.  If a few months of absolute power in the hands of a humble man is what’s needed to unpick the Egyptian mess, then I for one am willing to wait and see.

And I hope dearly that I need not eat my words.

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  • LJJP

    I’ve heard a similar point argued about e.g. Paul Kagame or Meles Zenawi – their breaches of democratic principles tended to be justified based on their achievements for their countries. But isn’t it worth putting up with a slower pace of change if that means that change is democratic?

    • I’m no expert on Kagame or Zenawi, but from what I know they went beyond
      a temporary suspension of democracy – human rights abuses, long term
      authoritarian press sanctions, counter-genocide – so I’m not sure I’d
      make the comparison.

      The ‘slower change’ argument is a bit
      dangerous given the region’s volatility and the danger (apparently
      perceived) that a pro-Mubarak coup is possible.

      In any case, he’s laid down his powers now. The constitution looks pretty dodgy, but I’m relieved he’s not the Pharaoh.

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