5 Jul 2013

The saviour who won’t rise from the streets

On Sunday (when I probably should have been in Cairo) I was at a Bruce Springsteen concert. One of my favourite songs has the lines:

“Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets.”

That’s exactly what we’re doing – looking for an Egyptian Nelson Mandela to rise above the mess and provide leadership. I do think Egypt needs a good leader, but it’s a mistake to concentrate on the individual above the institutions. 

President Morsi failed not just because he was a weak leader, but because he couldn’t operate the levers of power. In Egypt, the institutions of state – the police, judiciary and above all the military – are corrupt, entrenched and immoveable. They would not bend to the will of the Muslim Brotherhood, nor adapt to the beginnings of democracy. As a result, Mr Morsi ended up trying to rule by decree because he could not govern through institutions.

In Libya, by contrast, there are almost no institutions at all – Gaddafi ensured that the state was weak and ineffectual so he could hold all power for himself. That’s why there is chaos in Libya now, and why – even if they found their Nelson Mandela – he or she (oh, I know it’s not going to be she, but I live in hope) would find it impossible to prevail.

If this isn’t well understood, I blame the journalists. We are temperamentally opposed to bureaucrats, because we find their emphasis on systems and procedure boring. It is boring. But after all the revolutions and turmoil that I’ve covered, I have come to understand how necessary they are.

TV loves a good image and dramatic scenes of crowds in Tahrir Square, or young men madly firing their Kalashnikovs on the frontline in eastern Libya during the revolution in 2011, dominate the Arab Spring. Yet behind that, the Arab Spring is a story of failed institutions, which is not so easy to tell on TV. Those institutions need to be democratic and inclusive, but more than anything they need to function, to provide services and the mechanisms of government. More than anything else, Libya and Egypt need honest, effective bureaucrats within efficient institutions of state.

As a reporter and a Springsteen fan I hate to say it, but the answer to the problems facing Egypt and Libya are more complex and more boring than a revolution or a rock concert.

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5 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    But you also need capable and honest bureaucrats. Having worked in countries which the UK/UN/EU/OECD want to “improve capabilities”, you quickly discover which bureaucracies are corrupt, ineffective or terrified of doing anything because of the potential (personal/physical) consequences. Instead of the West sending soldiers & military aid to these countries, we should be sending experienced administrators who can develop the people & systems to create honest, accountable, effective organisations that can do what we take for granted in bureaucrats in the UK, etc. The Government should revive the Crown Agents who used to do this sort of thing. Instead, we now have a bunch of jackals known as consultants (usually in one of 4 or 5 large firms) who take the money, apply “their system”, and don’t really care if it fails to change the culture or the effectiveness of the country…indeed, if it worked, where would they get their next fat contract?

    1. Anne Mullett says:

      Want to make a colony of it? An independent country, bit strange.

  2. Anne Mullett says:

    Democracy is not served by a president, ignoring popular demand. He should have called new elections, as a democratic answer to public unrest. if anything, public and the army are saving democracy as best they can. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

  3. danny israel says:

    I’ve come over to Channel 4 because BBC news is infested with ‘celebrity endorsements’ and is now largely kitsch. It’s patronising but it also smacks of creating news before reporting it, in the sense that you create these names, Springsteen in this case, and then start telling us their opinions, as though we care. ‘As a reporter and a Springsteen fan I hate to say it, but the answer to the problems facing Egypt and Libya are more complex and more boring than a revolution or a rock concert.’, so why mention it. I do wish you would stop pretending to be the viewer, and just do the job of reporting news first hand. It can’t be that difficult…… I’m sure you are all nice people.

  4. peter brown says:

    Personally, I thought it was informative and well written journalism, entertaining too and I don’t she how she can be accused of “pretending” to be a viewer!

    The Muslim brotherhood spokesperson on tonight’s channel 4 news, however was pretending, pretending to be a representative of a Party which had been established and fighting elections for many decades, a party with a manifesto clearly understood by voters and standing against similarly established parties… the reality is that the brotherhood were elected after a REVOLUTION which expected far more than the corrupt and inept Morsi Govt. could deliver. To imply, as this dishonest spokesman did, that the Egyptians had placed a cross on a ballot paper and should now be silent and obedient until the next time they are called upon was crass. The revolution could not be allowed to slip. The election was the product of the revolution for the revolution. It was not in any conceivable manner a normal situation. Whoever was given power by the people would have to prove they listened to others and understood the circumstances of their “victory”. The Muslim Brotherhood ignore the ideals and aims of the revolution and seemed to believe that they had won the right to take turns in managing the dictatorship.

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