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The Cairo massacre and winner-takes-all politics

In one of the more insightful comments on the Egyptian military coup, The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote back in July on the political culture of “winner takes all” that dominates the country in the post-Mubarak era.

Islamists and secular-minded Egyptians regard one another as obstacles to power, not as legitimate players in a complex game that requires inclusion and consensus. Versions of this mutual negation can be seen across the region, from the liberal mini-uprising in Istanbul’s Taksim Square to the brutality of Syria’s sectarian civil war.

Clearly, today’s massacre (is there any other fitting word to describe what took place?) should strengthen this view.

Packer attributes this culture to post-tyrannical regimes. I think that the more likely explanation has to do with the disintegration of national societies, caused by global capitalism and the technological changes of the last decades.

In fact, one could clearly see the emergence of “winner takes all” politics in the Western countries too – whether in the new partisan culture in Washington, or in the on-going effort by the Israeli right to change the rules of the political game.

We live in an age in which states are more powerful than ever, but the societies they claim to represent are breaking into pieces.

Those fragments are determined to take control of powerful state mechanisms, and when they do, they feel less bound to other groups under the same regime.

The post-tyrannical effect Packer mentioned may help explain the ruthlessness of the struggle in some countries as compared to other societies. But it could also just be a matter of wealth distribution. In certain places, it seems that people have way less to lose from the anarchy.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Joel

      Noam.

      Was there ever a ‘winner takes all’ culture in the Israel-Palestine conflict?

      Reply to Comment
      • But these are two separate societies. I was referring to forces within a given society.

        Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      I remember all the great enthusiasm here at 972 when Mubarak was overthrown. I recall Lisa Goldman quoted an Egyptian journalist that now Egypt was “the most democratic country in the Middle East and is putting Israel to shame”. This is all based on the hard-core belief of many people, including “progressives” but also righ-wing Americans like President W Bush, that democracy is the natural condition of all of humanity and if only we can get rid of whatever dictator is holding them down, the people will inevitably set up a Swedish-style Social Democracy.
      George Bernard Shaw once asked an anarchist how the world could operate without governments. The anarchist replied “people are by nature caring, sharing, loving and peaceful. They will automatically set up small, democratic self-governing units”. Shaw then asked if that was the case, how did all these evil, repressive governments come to power in the first place?

      Reply to Comment
    3. I agree with Noam that transnational forces are disntegrating national societies, but this has been the case ever since the beginning of western imperialism in the sixteenth century of the common era. What I find more interesting is that western media and elite sympathies are with the Islamists against the Army in this case, which is a diametrical reversal of the western view of ten, or even five years ago.

      There seem to be several reasons for this. One, the Army may be suspected of a revived Nasserism; two, despite all the endless nonsense about Islamic terrorism, especially al-Qaeda (which started as just a radical splinter of the Egyptian MBs), the West is actually trying to use Islamic radicals as if they were something you could squirt through a hose at the regimes you want to topple, without getting anything else wet.

      This started in the Balkans in the 1990s, then it was applied on and off in Iraq, with horrible results, then in Libya, also with horrible results that are under-reported, and most recently in Syria, which are reported in an almost schizophrenic way, full of spurious distinctions between Islamic ‘moderate’ guerrillas and ‘extreme’ guerrillas, a pretty unmanageable notion.

      Egypt has inherited this mindset, so that the Egyptian MBs are depicted in western media as something like the Noble Savage of eighteenth-century myth; valiant but impervious to western efforts at colonial betterment.

      Reply to Comment
    4. You are always there, Noam.

      Politics is mostly zero sum, even in Court decisions. Brown v Board did hurt some people. Rights formation and protection allow the emergence of alternative, usually later, in any meaningful political sense. One recognizes that the present win is not a fixed state.

      Zero sum outcomes have been accelerated and magnified by technology, from banking to media to transport to weapons. The US evolved in a much slower, lengthy time, and this both limited the effects of losing and allowed enclaves of alternative to emerge underneath the power of present force. But what you say of now has been said in some form throughout American history. Again, pace and scope were less, which limited the all of win, yet still howled against.

      My view of the Nasr City camp is that is was manifest livelihood. Sanitation, food, some medicine were provided; material imported by supports, with some in the camp going to day jobs and returning. It was mostly nonviolent, AI report notwithstanding. Having become an embedded livelihood sustained beyond itself, it was an indicator of a greater social political process. If assembly is an assay on resolve and support, certainly it was so there, and this is a major reason for the freedom of assembly. I am no MB, but I think McCain of the US was and is right: this was a coup, and the MB, as major political actor formerly with a marginally elected President, had to be part of any forward political path. This sometimes maverick Republican got this one right, his value placed on process over immediate outcome.

      Public MB remained nonviolent. Violent offshoots will now appear, and throughout Islam those arguing against democratic accommodation will speak more stridently. The failed elections of Hamas and Mosri will be example become proof for an exclusionist violent Islam, one not allowing loss as a short term result. Obama should have suspended aid as mandated by Federal Law after a coup. Now he will have to lie to himself even more. But he is in power, McCain not, and power drives us to act zero sum.

      For what it is worth, I have since 2004 hoped that jurisprudence could provide us a dodge away from zero sum.

      But the forces of hope are not done either. Battles are lost, the goal remains. The violent are not the only ones who can mouth that.

      Reply to Comment
      • moisés

        “The coup tha wasn’t a coup”.I explain:When religious,political,military power and majority of people agree to take out your government It isn’t a coup but the term more correct for me is an “overthrow”.
        I remember that the military chief warned about that Morsi and advised him to change but he didn’t listen to.
        In despite he was elected democratically(in a suspect election) he was governing only to interest of your party in a dictator way.
        By the way,the pacific(sic) MB burned seventeen Cristian Churches all over Egypt and killed 43 military until now.

        Reply to Comment
    5. rsgengland

      The Islamist Brotherhood were elected by a democratic vote, then promptly began tinkering with democracy.
      In 1933 Hitler was elected by a democratic vote, and then began tinkering with democracy.
      IMAGINE FOR ONE MOMENT; IF THE GERMAN ARMY WOULD HAVE MOUNTED A COUP AGAINST HITLER, HOW MANY LIVES WOULD HAVE BEEN SPARED.
      And if there was a coup against Hitler, imagine how the Western Liberal/Rightwing press would have railed against the loss of German democracy.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Richard Witty

      The features of democracy are:

      1. Majority rule (run-off formats are winner take all, parliamentary coalitions aren’t).
      2. Color-blind equal due process under the law.
      3. Right of peaceable expression (press, speech, assembly)

      Rsgenglan
      Your understanding of history is off on this. Hitler first ran in a coalition of right-wing military dominated conservatives. Even in 1933, his leadership was of the military coalition. The military had reservations about some of Hitler’s ideas, but was far far more an ally, willing to be led, than an opponent in any setting.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        I was not referring to the make up of Hitlers government, rather the fact that he attained power by democratic means.
        Hitler did not have voluntary consensus over the German populace or military at first.
        His power was attained by coercion and terror and general indifference.
        There was opposition to Hitler in the army.
        It was timid and disorganized, and thus ineffectual.
        But if Hitler had been deposed by the army, the same voices that are raised now against Egypt’s military, would have been raised against the army.
        Overthrow of democratically elected government.
        Death of the democratic system.
        Will of the people.
        Even though Hitler was a totalitarian dictator from the beginning.

        Reply to Comment

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