Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 March 2012
Issue No. 1087
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

The pharaoh and pharaonism

Beware the tyranny of the majority, warns Abdel-Moneim Said

The "pharaonic state", alongside "oriental despotism", the "Asiatic mode of production," and the "bureaucratic state", is a term coined by political scientists and Middle East studies scholars to refer to a mode of dictatorship What sets the "pharaonic state" apart from other modes is that it originated as a "hydraulic- bureaucratic" state founded on the need for a centralised system of water distribution. The "pharaoh" occupied a realm midway between the heavens and earth, a notion that gave rise to the idea that the semi-divinity could be "immortalised" through the mummification, ie the preservation, of his body. The "pharaonic state" comprised a complex hierarchy, with the pharaoh at the top surrounded by priests (or the intelligentsia), and below them the scribes (bureaucrats) who regulated the affairs of the state and society.

Whatever its distinguishing characteristics the pharaonic state falls under the category of dictatorship, even if the pharaoh sometimes basks in a little adoration from his subjects or the people feel that he has a part to play in protecting state and society. It was not that surprising when president Anwar El-Sadat insisted he was the "last pharaoh" and the "lord" of the Egyptian family. As it turned out Sadat was wrong. There was another pharaoh, one whose rule culminated with his deposition and trial rather than assassination, yet who remains bewildered by the failure of his people to appreciate the services he has performed for them.

Although the Egyptian revolution of January 2011 sought to overthrow the pharaoh developments over the last year have made it possible to separate "the pharaoh" from "pharaonism". Whereas "the pharaoh" refers to a particular tyrant with a name and face, "pharaonism" is a phenomenon based on a set of rites and rituals and inequitable arrangements in the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. That the former could be removed while the latter remains in place is one aspect of the "Arab Spring" over which democracy appears unlikely to prevail.

The revolutionary masses in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya may have raised the banners of freedom but they do not always appear ready to translate those banners into the kind of legal and procedural reality that can govern their daily lives. Is it any coincidence that the rate of violence in Arab societies has increased in tandem with the broadening debate on public and personal freedoms and mounting pressure on women and minorities? Despite the spirit of tolerance that was displayed in Tahrir Square churches have been set on fire and people killed because their religion is not shared by the majority. Crowds have been massacred for no comprehensible reason, as happened in Port Said.

"Pharaonism" without the "pharaoh" can best be understood as the "tyranny of the majority", a term relatively unfamiliar in the Arab world despite it being an important concept in democratic literature which holds that the political and non-political rights of minorities are an integral part of democracy. In a democracy, the majority, however numerous, does not have the right to deprive a person of the right to free expression, the right to belief and the right of worship, let alone the right to life. Yet by sheer virtue of numbers the majority will seek to retain the power to assert itself in unjust ways, making it necessary to formulate institutionalised guarantees capable of checking its excesses and preventing it from becoming a dictatorship, even, perhaps, blatantly totalitarian order.

This applies even if the system of government provides for periodic elections. Without checks the dictatorship of the majority may not necessarily produce a pharaoh but it can reproduce the pharaonism. Through the unrestrained flexing its numerical weight, whether in parliament or in the street, the majority can generate a climate of fear and intimidation and prevent the rise of healthier and fairer conditions.

Even in a long-established democracy such as the US it was impossible for a Catholic to become president until 1960, and that occurred only once. It was impossible for an African- American to become president until this millennium. In the opinion of some observers, Mitt Romney's chances of occupying the White House are slim because he is a Mormon.

The tyranny of an unrestrained majority also has the ability to create unrestrained violence, especially when numerical weight combines with revolution or severe depredation. If revolution feeds the sense of might and deprivation fuels hatred, both feed the desire for control and the lust for unleashing this violently against the weakest and most defenceless members of society. Not that such violence necessarily requires a majority. A numerical minority could also have the same capacity if it possesses the weapons, know-how or other instruments that give it hegemonic powers. The Sunnis in Iraq, the Alawis in Syria, the Maronites in Lebanon and the Tutsis in Rwanda, for example, all succeeded in creating pharaonist conditions in the absence of both a pharaoh and a numerical majority.

A year after the onset of the Arab Spring the Arab revolutions, as different as they are in form and attendant conditions, appear at odds with the general concept of democracy and, at times, in open conflict with it. This is not just due to the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although it is now prepared to accept democracy in its procedural sense, and although they have given assurances that they do not plan to produce another pharaoh, the Muslim Brothers have had no qualms in asserting their numerical majority in parliament and looking the other way when it comes to violence against minorities. If the Muslim Brothers have taken a step forward, the Salafist and jihadist hordes have not: they have swarmed onto the scene with flagrant calls for a pure theocracy to be topped by a caliph at some as yet unspecified point. They want the full package, pharaonism complete with a pharaoh.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? The revolutionary masses that cried for freedom, justice and dignity not only appear loath to pen the word "democracy" but seem prepared to rebel against that the added degree of formal democracy we have seen since the revolution. It is as though they are hastening the re- conjunction of the pharaoh and pharaonism, in spite of the fact that the separation between the two was one of the most important accomplishments of the revolution. I doubt there is any immediate solution to this problem. In the West the growth of democracy took a succession of revolutions, some in the form of breakthroughs in public education, technology and industry, others in the form of revolutionary struggle, at times in rebellion against chaos. Gaullism and the birth of the Fifth Republic in France was an example of the latter. In Egypt, today, people are speaking of the "second republic. We have a long way to go.

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