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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