Egypt’s leap off the cliff

Legitimacy in any state derives from the willingness of the vast bulk of the people to cooperate with or at least tolerate the regime. Now we get a view of what happens when that breaks down.

We in the West have become accustomed for centuries to a functioning civil society, voting, political parties, and various other mechanisms of accountability and feedback between people and government. Even if a government collapses, the residual structure is still there to keep things going.

In Egypt, and in Arab countries and much of the third world, there is limited or corrupt or zero intermediary levels of structure. That has been by design: the kings or dictators have systematically prevented or actively destroyed any other independent centers of stability or power. That’s the situation in Egypt–without Mubarak and the army, there is little meaningful or legitimate structure.

We tend to forget, the institution of Kingship (with its attendant ‘divine right’) derives originally from the sheer ability of one person, via his charisma and ability to orchestrate (usually an army), to bring order where there was chaos.

The Egyptian people rightly want to destroy the existing regime, not just musical chairs at the top. But there is no reliable structure if it falls–and unlike in the West where even protest movements have strong traditions and agreed-upon morals and implicit structures, Egypt’s mass protests only have inchoate rage and a provisional so-far-so-good nonviolence. Which is not something that can be counted on, in an age where gov’t provocateurs and media can easily make the protesters look violent even when they’re not. Egypt now is giving us a taste of what kind of pure chaos might look like– and I will be curious if someone’s charisma rises to channel the ‘will of the people’ and bring order to the chaos that’s developing.

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