I view this week’s events in Cairo, Egypt through the lens of a strategic communicator. The military coup is the realization of a legitimacy gap between what Egyptians expected following the Arab Spring and what President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could deliver. When millions gather in a public square and cheer on the military tanks and helicopters, you know conversations to reach consensus have failed.
I try to put myself in a room with Morsi, imagining his consultants advising him on the issues of greatest potential importance to that country and reporting on the attitudes of the people with regard to his leadership bringing about a society in which financial prosperity, security, fairness, and equality are the aim.
Morsi warned in an emotional speech that military demands would “backfire” and is no doubt portraying the coup/intervention as an assault on democracy since he was elected and inaugurated just a year ago.
The military imposed a deadline for Wednesday and warned that if Morsi did not yield to the political demands of mass protests or step down, they would suspend the constitution and Islamist-dominated parliament and set up a civilian leadership council. Such a council would presumably enact the demands of the crowds.
This week, Americans commemorate a popular uprising against a tyrant who, 237 years ago, they perceived as marginalizing them. If King George III of Great Britain had employed some strategic communication instead of arrogance, he might have pacified the colonies rather than agitating his subjects and seeing his Empire unravel on the grounds of a violent response to moral outrage.
Our Declaration of Independence is not all that different from a Mission Statement created by any organization, spelling out values and attitudes.
Those in authority must assert and defend their interests by playing tough defense and smart offense. The key is to minimize unwise conflict and maximize collaborations with affected stakeholders.
In the case of Egypt, it appears the citizens are trapped in a bleak choice between a new version of the old regime and a theocracy.
According to an Al Jazeera article:
“The revolution was totally united against dictatorship and in favour of freedom and social justice. But as soon as it succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle in Spring 2011, there emerged contradictory interpretations as to what the revolution’s slogans meant or entailed. Short-sighted, the revolutionaries soon split as they rushed to compete in general elections without finishing what they started, the most important element of which was agreeing to a new constitution… What started as a unified revolution soon imploded and splintered into Islamists, nationalists, liberals and leftists, and more opportunists jostled for influence. As the revolutionaries and their allies bickered, bragged and drifted, the two pillars of the old regime – divided by the outsting of Mubarak – the military and the old political establishment – began to recover, converge and consolidate their efforts once again.”
The article states that Islamists’ takeover of more than two-thirds of the parliament “gave the military and the old bureaucracy the needed scare to unite their forces against the revolution. And once again, the youth found themselves alienated and isolated.”
Mubarak was the sacrificial scapegoat for the old brass who recognized the writing on the wall.
How do they fix what went wrong in Egypt? Could it be that democracy demands more than elections? Or that elections alone, without the structural backbone of a strong but just central authority, are not of much value?
America enjoyed the luxury of being a relatively new creature rather than the latest embodiment of an ancient civilization that included pharohs using slaves to build lavish monuments to themselves. Stories shared across generations sustain old grievances, whereas the boogeyman of the colonies sat squarely in London. What emerges from Cairo may not be very pretty, but neither was our process.
Five men were put in charge of drafting America’s Declaration of Independence, which was presented to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776. This committee included such intellectual power-lifters as Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
John Hancock and the others who signed the document essentially thumbed their noses at King George and committed treason against the British Empire.
One can imagine how dramatically different the U.S. Constitution might have been if Jefferson had not insisted on including the first 10 amendments guaranteeing rights and a man as selfless as George Washington had not been unanimously chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention. New aristocracies might have replaced old ones.
History reflects that serious conflicts arose from the outset, especially between those representing the small and large states. Three of the men refused to sign it, and North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified it only after Washington’s inauguration in 1789. They debated about whether to include slaves in population counts for proportional representation, whether to divide executive power between three persons or a single president, whether to abolish the slave trade, and how to choose judges, among other things.
When one considers how long it took before the abolition movement finally ended human slavery in the United States, we see that our process of forming our own government was often messy and preserved interests – and the operation of it is less than seamless. I mean, just last week the judicial branch told us it was okay for two consenting adults to marry whomever they love!
Perhaps it is naïve to think that the search for order in Egypt and other emerging Arab democracies is a simple of matter of joining hands and singing Kumbaya.
As we saw in Iraq when the United States invaded and disbanded the military, setting up a government to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime, you don’t simply eliminate those who hold power and expect them to be quiet about it. That was certainly the case with the slaveowners who would have watched our own constitution fail if their interests had not been preserved – and ultimately did try to exit the union, resulting in our Civil War.
Before real change can occur, leaders of a society need to be threatened by activists with the prospect that they must support a movement or lose their own authority and position. That’s what we saw at the Constitutional Convention when deputies caved in to pressure rather than be left out of the new union, and it is what we see now as lawmakers in contestable districts scramble to jump on the “right side of history” and popular opinion by attempting to get in front of marriage equality and immigration issues. When it came to slavery, I’m sure some were for it before they were against it.
If those in power pursue conflict rather than consensus, they risk legitimizing and energizing the activists.
The people in Egypt are bargaining agents for change, and they must decide what they want to channel that energy and outrage into becoming. It seems the best outcome is a country where majorities accommodate rather than simply dominate, where stability takes root so economies can flourish and hopes and dreams can be realized.
The people of the Middle East must find visionary leadership who can inspire them, achieve harmony and foster mutual interests. Someone who can articulate the path out of this mess – someone who can operate with ethical credibility (without favoring one religion over others), and persuade the people to respect the process and one another so that we aren’t here again, a year or three years from now, watching angry masses swell in Tahrir Square demanding to be heard.
For the sake of humanity, I hope the new leader of Egypt’s most effective tool for achieving harmony isn’t the barrel of a gun.