Reading Tony Judt in Cairo

A few days ago, the world mourned the passing of Tony Judt, a British historian of repute and engaged public intellectual. As his body wasted from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Judt spent the last year dictating, often while in great discomfort, a series of seminal articles published in the New York Review of Books, as if moved by the urge to leave as much of a legacy as possible before he disappeared.

Although he lived most of his life in New York, Tony Judt’s main interest was Europe, notably postwar Europe and its intellectuals. But throughout his life, his attention often turned to the Middle East. Once was passionate Zionist, Judt became disillusioned soon after Israel’s triumph in the 1967 War. He left Israel thinking that his fellow leftist Zionists were “remarkably unconscious of the people who had been kicked out of the country.” Judt came back to the question of Israel much later in his career, with a 2003 essay in the New York Review of Books that, for the first time in a major American publication, declared the moral failure of Zionism and advocated a binational state. He also denounced the pernicious role of the Israel lobby in American Middle East policy.

For this alone, many Arabs who care about the Palestinian cause can be grateful to Judt. But I want to elaborate on another aspect of his thinking late in his life, which may not seem of great relevance to the Middle East, but is nonetheless important. I heard about Judt’s death while reading his last book, Ill Fares The Land, an impassioned plea for the revival of the social democratic ideal. In this book, Judt lays out his analysis of a crisis in Western democracy. It's symptoms include the decline of the welfare state, the breakdown of collective trust, the disintegration of the public sector, the segregation of rich and poor into gated communities and banlieues, and the increased inequality that has reversed the post-World War II trend of improved wealth distribution which lasted until the 1970s.

The phenomena that Judt describes are, for many, only beginning to be recognized in the West, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis and the threat of permanently high unemployment. Political apathy among the young is one phenomenon that has been perceptible for some time–despite the short-lived enthusiasm generated by the candidacy of a quite conventional (aside from his race) American politician, Barack Obama. Another is the striking irrelevance (and just as often, connivance) of weak parliaments in the face of strong executives.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

The trends Judt describes appear to have an all-too-familiar trajectory for those living in the Middle East. After decolonization, Arab states–particularly the “revolutionary” ones–underwent a period of undemocratic rule with considerable social progress, with regimes benefiting from mass support by improving the lot of the majority of the population. Yet today, perhaps in Egypt more than other Arab states, any semblance of a social contract appears to have evaporated and these once partly progressive autocracies have foundered. With this, a deep individual mistrust of both state and society has settled in.

The crisis that the Egyptian regime is facing, and has faced for a number of years, is not merely one of presidential succession. It is also a moral one, the incapacity of political forces to articulate a compelling new social contract to replace the one that died a long time ago. In its stead the regime has allowed a climate of fear and disengagement from public life to prevail: stay away from politics, and you’ll stay out of trouble. This necessarily fosters a moral crisis in society, as manifested through epiphenomena such as the scandalous acceptance of routine sexual harassment, the rise of religious intolerance and widening social inequality.

In political life, no Egyptian has better warned against this crisis than Mohamed ElBaradei. In his first television appearance after returning to Egypt, the ex-chief of the UN's nuclear energy watchdog compared the very social-democratic Austria where he lived for almost three decades to present-day Egypt, and advocated a similar concern for balance and justice in his native country. This should be self-evident in any developing country, but this government finds it easy to privatize state assets against popular desires and leave the official minimum wage at the absurd level of LE36 a month for over 25 years. Meanwhile, it cannot implement a real estate tax that only affects the upper middle class and rich.

Such concerns, to varying extents, apply across the Arab world where, even as overall material conditions improve, rising inequalities have considerably escalated social frictions and popular resentment, as well as increased the power of money in politics. In democracies, this process leads to risks of political alienation, rising populism and, as Judt wrote of the United States, “plutocratic republics.” But in autocratic states, the end result is much worse: rule by corruption, a police for hire and the collapse of the rule of law.

In other words, a mafia state.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net. His column appears every Tuesday.

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