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Mubarak’s Pyramid Scheme

February 13, 2011

Did Hosni Mubarak take Political Science 101 or its Cairo University equivalent? Maybe he did, but if so, he seems to have relied too heavily and for too long on the teachings of Machiavelli and Hobbes. He might have gotten an “A” in governing according to their doctrines, but eventually he fell victim to a dogmatic reliance on theories which are increasingly irrelevant in the digital world. In the age of Facebook, Twitter and the Internet, a government cannot sustain itself by creating and maintaining an environment of fear.

Mubarak would seem to have been a perfect disciple of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Over thirty years he built a pyramidal society with the mass of Egyptians on the bottom held captive by a small elite at the top. The Egyptian president held this rigid hierarchy in place with an effective network of informers and enforcers, and a secret police that instilled fear in the population. He chose, as Machiavelli suggested, to be feared, rather than to be loved, as a means to retain power. In the volatile Middle East he suggested that only he could protect a stable nation, albeit one with limited civil liberties, from the Hobbesian nightmare of chaos that would surely flow from the proponents of religious fundamentalism who waited in the shadows for an opportunity to seize power. Mubarak, consistent with Hobbes’ theories, believed that the Egyptian people would not rise up and overthrow their sovereign.

Yet, overthrow him they have. It cannot be predicted whether a stable government, political instability or the dreaded ascendancy of Muslim fanatics awaits Egypt. However, the inability of Mubarak to withstand less than two weeks of public protests in major cities in the nation suggests that an environment of fear can only go so far in maintaining a sovereign in power. Fear is an emotion based on the unknown. It is a feeling of isolation, of being left out, of having nowhere to turn. In the past, despots maintained their power through intimidation and force, turning people against each other, dividing and, therefore, conquering. The social media has changed that by forging bonds among the people that the terror apparatus of the State cannot tear asunder. People who can communicate with one another and thereby share their concerns and coordinate their actions are less likely to be paralyzed by fear. Mubarak’s scheme, like all pyramid schemes, was based on false perceptions which, when punctured by the reality of social networking, collapsed

7 Comments
  1. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    February 13, 2011 11:22 PM

    I don’t fault you for having this view since this is by and large what the media would have us believe – that the masses of Egyptians are oppressed by a dictator (though I don’t agree that Murabak is being Machiavellan since he has not fulfilled a core principle of Machiavelli’s theory – to do no evil and that the end goal should be the betterment of society. Ergo, according to your stance, Murabak is being acting in personal interests and hence, not in its truest sense, Machiavellan. I also think that a ‘Hobbesian nightmare of chaos’ shouldn’t be isolated to the consequences of a fundamentalist groups taking power, rather, if read in context with Hobbes’ other propositions, this ‘nightmare of chaos’ is the very state of human nature without a sovereign – whether or not they adopt fundamentalist ideologies).

    Having read both sides of this issue, I think that the Western media has overemphasized and animated this furor by dichotomizing this issue as a Democracy versus Dictatorship debate.

    I think the more pertinent point is that we shouldn’t take the western media for their word, rather, to consider that, apparently, many Egyptians are not up in arms over Murabak’s police-state tactics. Rather, they are expressing revulsion over his financial corruption.

    The other more pressing issue is now that Murabak is gone, who is going to be his successor. I’d urge that we consider that the Middle-East is an extremely unstable region and the Muslim Brotherhood – a rather radicalized Islamic political power who is Anti-American — has an extremely strong support base there. As such, with Murabak gone, the more pertinent question is who is going to fill this power vacuum and if the next leader is necessarily going to be a better one.

  2. Stephan Sakhai permalink
    February 14, 2011 4:37 PM

    To Jonalevy,
    I agree with most of your assessment on the current situation in Egypt. One question that bothered me throughout your post, however, is why, if this unity is because of the advancement of social media and the internet, did this revolution only happen in 2011? What stopped many of these revolutionists from revolting 5 years ago? 10? Yes, internet wasn’t as big, nor so widely distributed and owned somewhere like egypt, but there must have been some other underlying factor that led to his upheaval.
    Is it possible that the fear he has instilled within his people for the last 3 decades has been overtaken by an even stronger fear from the exponentially growing muslim-brotherhood?

    As we are not in Egypt, and can really only take what western media outlets gives us, it is near impossible to know what is really going on in Egypt.
    Again, the real question is what is going to happen with the uncertainty that looms over the country? The military is in control, but what qualifies them to lead a country? The Egyptian stock market has been closed and plans to open on wednesday, how will that effect the people in that region who do care? And for those whom are pro-western and pro-Israel, what safety do we have from loosing one of the only peaceful countries in that region?

    Only time will tell.

  3. Joe Godlew permalink
    February 14, 2011 4:38 PM

    I don’t know that I necessarily agree with your assertion that “a government cannot sustain itself by creating and maintaining an environment of fear.” North Korea seems to exemplify a culture of fear amongst its citizens. Although the North Korean government is [arguably] not the most stable regime in the world, it has functioned as a cohesive entity for some time. There are certainly cases in which Machiavellian/Hobbesian disciplines can, in fact, be successful.

  4. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    February 14, 2011 7:03 PM

    This is an interesting relation of the current situation in Egypt to Machiavelli and Hobbes. It comes to show that each theorist does have flaws to their opinions, and in this case here is their flaw. A place ruled by fear can be overthrown, the people can turn against, violence will be there. This can be shown multiple times throughout history, an easy example being Hitler in his reign over Germany, though there are plenty other historical events that follow suit. Sure, a majority of the political theories Hobbes and Machiavelli are incredibly true, and work out, there is always a margin of human error in which the theories will fail.

  5. jonalevy permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:23 AM

    Joe Godlew’s reference to the continued existence of the North Korean regime supports, rather than contradicts, my contention that the teachings of Machiavelli and Hobbes have lost relevance in the digital world. Unlike the people of Egypt and Tunisia, North Koreans are isolated from the rest of the world. They live in an old-fashioned analog society and are, therefore, susceptible to the terror tactics of a State which preserves power through fear. It is significant that in the early stages of the Egyptian revolt against Mubarak, the Egyptian authorities, following the lead of their Iranian counterparts in 2009, attempted to block access to the Internet as a way to stifle dissent A key difference in the politics of Iran and Egypt today is that the Iranian authorities preserved their despotic regime by effectively disrupting the social network, thereby beheading the protest movement, leaving it without eyes to see and a brain to coordinate the disparate protest groups. The Egyptian government was less successful and could only temporarily disrupt digital communications. Had Mubarak’s minions been more technologically savvy he might still be in power today.

    As to Mr. Sakhai’s question as to why it took so long for the Egyptian people to utilize the Internet as a vehicle for political protest, the simple fact is that takes time for people to adapt to new technology. In today’s New York Times an article entitled, “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History,” by David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger notes that the link between protest movements in the Middle East, and especially those in Tunisia and Egypt, is the result of a “remarkable two-year collaboration.” Prior to that time, the political protest movement in Egypt “could not muster enough followers: arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties.” It was only when traditional outlets of dissent proved ineffective and dangerous that opponents of the regime turned to the social network.

    Finally, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam incorrectly identifies as a core tenet of Machiavelli’s theories a prohibition against the ruler doing evil. While Machiavelli warned that a ruler should avoid being hated (The Prince, Chapter 17), committing evil deeds was a different matter. Machiavelli advised that “[a] ruler… cannot conform to all those rules that men who are thought good are expected to respect, for he is often obliged, in order to hold on to power, to break his word, to be uncharitable, inhumane, and irreligious.” (The Prince, Chapter 18) Whether Mubarak outraged the Egyptian populace through his authoritarian rule or, as Ad maiorem Dei gloriam suggests, by his dubious financial dealings, or a combination of both, the fact is that, as Machiavelli preached, Mubarak used fear to retain his power and privileged position. He would have been better off jamming the Internet.

  6. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:30 AM

    I did not say that to be Machiavellian is to do no evil. Rather I emphasized that, if you do recall, that those means have to square up with the ends. Perhaps, the clip on Richard III desiring war for selfish reasons might jolt your memory. My point is that Murabak’s means (scheming as they may be) did not serve the ends (that is to built up the country) and this contravenes Machiavelli’s core tenet that the means should be used to meet the ends. As such, this post has adopted a rather selected interpretation of what it means to be Machiavellian while missing the point that to be Machiavellian, the ends (benefit for the entire country) are important.

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