Sometimes simpler things help explain phenomenon easier than profound works. I happened to watch the latest Superman film, Man of Steel, in the wake of having read a book by three American economists, Barry Weingast, John Wallis and Douglas North. The film was a great help in deciphering the theory on “Violence and Social Order”.
The story is about a planet Krypton getting destroyed due to its unstable core. But the destruction is preceded by infighting when General Zod declares martial law on Krypton and kills the scientist (Superman’s dad) Jor-El. Now, this is what our economists would describe as a “fragile natural system” or a “limited access order”, which does not have a streamlined system for elite negotiation. Their theory is that natural states limit violence by political manipulation of the economy to create privileged interests. In a fragile state, however, the elite use violence to renegotiate the political position that will then be used to draw rents. It is also believed that there are three kinds of natural states: fragile, basic and mature, and states can shift from one category to another, back and forth.
According to this typology, Krypton seems to be a planet between basic and fragile because it has a system whereby Zod is punished and he and his supporters put in incubators and shipped out to the “phantom zone”, where they remain until Krypton gets destroyed and they are released. Meanwile, Jor-El has put his newborn son (Superman) in a ship to planet Earth but also infuses the child with the codex or the genetic code for recreation of Krypton. The boy grows up in Kansas, USA, with special powers and later meets the heroine who helps him around when General Zod, who has gotten free due to the destruction of Krypton, returns to fight superman so as to recreate his own planet. She supports him because Superman is trying to save the world from takeover and destruction by General Zod.
Obviously, General Zod is the villain, who claimed (in the film) to want to destroy anything that came in the way of him defending Krypton. In many ways, he is much like Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah alSissi, who claimed to have sacked the elected President Mohamed Morsi to save Egypt. There are quite a few Arab Springers in Egypt who are willing to buy his argument that destroying an infant democracy in the country was driven by the need to save it from a bad politician who was not listening and was unwilling to bring about national unity. The takeover is, in fact, a move to do so. Of course, alSissi will not disclose the fact that the takeover is not about Egypt but about the military’s institutional interests and the personal interests of the generals. Morsi became unpopular in the eyes of the military not because of his ideology but because he had bulldozed the military and was challenging their rents. A more stable “natural state” described by the above economists would have guaranteed that the elite (religious, political, economic, social and intellectual) respected one another’s boundaries in order to establish a stable system guaranteeing maximum rents for all. Like Zod, alSissi used threat of violence (by taking over power) to maximise his own gains.
The Egyptian general, of course, has an edge over his counterpart in the film because he does not have to fight the US and its security establishment, which is happy to see the back of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was in control of the Egyptian state. Since a major setback in Iran during the revolution, when Washington was caught with its pants down supporting the Shah, the US administrations have become adapt at hiding their true loyalty to a regime. For example, it was so willing to be seen on the right side of Morsi when he was in power that some liberal political and women activists were not invited to diplomatic functions by the US ambassador. Now, the tide has turned and things may change.
In order to survive, General alSissi must try to play the “divide and rule” game, which is easy in a society that is already divided between the conservative Islamists and the liberals who tend to see Morsi’s departure mainly as “good riddance of bad Islamism” (the whole thing makes one miss the late Soviet Union more. To think of times when liberals would stand against military regimes). The genetic codex to recreate an Egypt where the military will remain powerful, requires incubating the society with a mindset that begins to see the armed forces as a necessity. The liberals can be permanently confused through the understanding that it is the military which stands between them and Islamism. Moreover, the tool for planting the mindset lies in the neo-capitalist system. In an age where people are keen to make money and idealism is kind of dead and everyone is willing to justify their behaviour as pragmatism or political realism, the Egyptian military could posit itself as the key source of power that everyone must cosy up to for maximising their rents. The current dispensation in Cairo will soon learn that numerous actors ranging from bureaucrats, and businessmen to media, academia, the NGO sector and more will all happily negotiate and surrender.
The main issue is dealing with Morsi’s supporters for which a mix of coercion and co-option will work. Though the international media will report instances of human rights violations, the military regime may not face a lot of resistance, certainly not from the region where the monarchies were already worried to see Morsi come into power. Be it the Alawite rule in Syria or the Salafi-supporting Saudi monarchy, the political development in Egypt had made all unhappy.
General alSissi will realise soon that with most things in his favour, hard coercion will take him a long way until he could turn to soft coercion, which is easier to hide and to fool people in believing that the military has the country’s best interest at heart. This way he can ensure that a “superman” is never born in Egypt.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2013.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.