Egypt and the Rule of Law, Not of Men


Anti-Morsi demonstrators in Tahrir Square


I’m watching the events in Egypt with sadness and concern.  Massive new demonstrations are occurring on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a place that I know extremely well.


I’m with them in spirit, if not in physical reality.  I love Egypt.


I wasn’t even slightly unhappy to see the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  In fact, during my last several visits to Egypt prior to his overthrow — amidst his omnipresent pictures on billboards and the sides of buildings, and hearing rumors that he was grooming his son for a dynastic succession, and seeing the plain evidence of corruption and economic failure all around — I found myself marveling that the Egyptian people hadn’t already tossed him out.


But I wasn’t optimistic about what would follow Mubarak, and my fears seem to have been justified.


Mohamed Morsi’s assumption of essentially unlimited dictatorial powers last week — powers that, he claims, are not subject to any control by the Egyptian judiciary — was anything but a surprise.  But it’s extremely dangerous, and it needs to be resisted.  (Is the inept Obama administration up to the challenge?)


Even if Mr. Morsi himself is a man of principle, self-restraint, and democratic instincts — let’s assume this to be so for the sake of argument — it’s far from certain that he’ll remain so, given such an absence of legal restraints.  “Power tends to corrupt,” says Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


Moreover, it’s virtually guaranteed that his successors in an unlimited autocratic Egyptian presidency would, sooner or later, be tyrants.  The worst, in such systems, find their way to the top.  It isn’t just head-scratching who-could-have-predicted-it? coincidence that Lenin, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein, and Hitler were the leaders of their respective totalitarian regimes rather than anybody resembling, say, St. Francis of Assisi or Father Damien.


An important aspect of the genius of the American Founding Fathers is their incorporation into the United States Constitution of the principle of separation of powers or, more relevantly expressed here, checks and balances.  They no doubt hoped, and certainly preferred, that the federal executive, legislative, and judicial branches be occupied by good, principled, sincere, and patriotic people.  But they knew that human beings are flawed, that we’re tempted by (among other things) power and adulation and greed.


“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers, “no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”


So they created a system in which the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch of the federal government would, if nothing else, eye each other with at least some degree of mutual suspicion, and, even if only motivated by jealousy and self-interest, would keep each other roughly under control.  The system is by no means perfect, but it has worked remarkably well for more than two centuries.


Do these checks and balances sometimes get in the way of good things?  Are they often inefficient?  Yes.  Certainly.  But that’s by design.  They also get in the way of bad things, and they create obstacles to the implementation of evil, stupid, and foolish ideas.


Mr. Morsi argues that his assumption of vast and dictatorial powers will help him to accomplish a great deal of good for Egypt.  Perhaps he’s right.  But it’s never wise, I think, to trust a politician in such a way.  And, even if he himself is entirely sincere, and even if he were able to do good for his country — though I’ve seen little evidence, thus far, to indicate that he or his government really understand economics or have a sound view of international relations — his aggrandizement of the Egyptian presidency will, I’m confident, do even more damage to his country over the long term if it’s permitted to stand.


I never tire of this passage from Robert Bolt’s great play about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, in which his son-in-law, William Roper, has complained about Sir Thomas’s commitment to procedure and method and legal details when, if he were just to ignore them for a little while, he could perhaps accomplish a great deal of good:


William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! 
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!


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  • David Kent

    In answer to your question about the Obama administration, No! They’re not even willing to condemn the power grab by Morsi. Sad.

    • danpeterson

      Four more years!

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    When he wants to claim an understanding of Islam and Muslims, Prez Obama cites his several years growing up in Indonesia. He doesn’t seem to describe it as growing up as the stepson of an Indonesian Muslim, or as the son of a Kenyan Muslim, which are the facts that some folks use to argue that he must be a Muslim. But I haven’t seen any particular evidence that he understands Islamic societies any better than the rest of us, any special insight that has let him accomplish anything that a non-Muslim like Geoege W. Bush could not do. His primary accompkishments in the Middle East have been permitting military forces to kill Muslims.

    As an expert in Islam who is personally familiar with Egypt and that region, can you tell us that there is ANYTHING in Prez Obama’s foreign policy that demonstrates any special knowledge of Islam or Muslim societies?