Egypt: Back Against the Wall, a Tyrant Embraces Anarchy

According to Aristotle there are, as is well known, six forms of government. Three of them are good, three of them are bad. Monarchy is good, or can be good, tyranny is bad. The bad news about monarchy is, that it has a tendency to become tyranny. And so on: aristocracy can be a good form of government, but it tends to become an oligarchy, bad. And finally of course democracy. The bad news about democracy is that it tends to become anarchy. Bad.

The worst case scenario. Nobody wants anarchy, chaos is dangerous for everybody. So, what does that teach us about Egypt? Egypt of course is — you have to be idiotic or hypocritical not to know after thirty years — a tyranny. When the tyrant is in trouble, what can he do? Two options: make tyranny worse by declaring a state of emergency: curfew, suspension of all civil liberties, etc. . . . But when tyranny is really in deep shit because of internal turmoil and uproar, it can enhance anarchy. That is exactly the function of the police forces that were signaled by several sources partaking in the looting in Caïro. Or even being its main perpetrators. So first lesson: tyranny can resort to anarchy to save its skin. The strategy of chaos.

But Hobbes teaches us that anarchy is a dangerous game. It can become a relapse into the state of nature, the war of everybody against everybody. Hobbes himself says that the most concrete example of this relapse in the state of nature is: civil war. Second lesson: Civil War should be avoided at all cost, because it traumatises society for decades, if not forever.

The political theorist Carl Schmitt (who for a while was member of the National-Socialist Party in Germany) teaches us that at the exact opposite of anarchy/state of nature/civil war we find the state of exception/state of emergency/martial law. The state of nature is bottom up implosion of sovereignty, the state of exception is a top-down excess of sovereignty. In the extreme case, not only the state of exception is installed, but the sovereign can resort to what Foucault calls thanatopolitics (deathpolitics): the sovereign exerting his fundamental, defining, ultimate right: to take the life of his subjects. So this is what could happen, that the police or the army or the republican guards unchain a bloodbath. Third lesson: the strategy of death.

Here one of the most brilliant pupils of Schmitt enters the picture, Leo Strauss, the philosophical father of neoconservatives, direct teacher to Wolfowitz and others of the neocon cabal. In On tyranny, a commentary on a dialogue by Xenophon, Strauss points out that tyranny can be good, if and only if the tyrant listens to the advice of ‘wise men’, the philosophers. Strauss in his ‘classical political philosophy’ says that it is the true esoteric doctrine that politics is based on ‘pious lies’ and ‘useful myths’. His philosophy is classical in the sense that it is what empires have done since they came into being. The neoconservatives were claiming that they were promoting democracy to Iraq, but in fact they were bringing anarchy. Or, a truly classic one in American foreign policy — from Pinochet to Mubarak — is preaching about democracy but in reality supporting tyranny. Because, of course, Strauss was right, as long as Mubarak listens to the wise men in Washington who tell him to be a lackey to the US and Israel, he is a ‘good tryant’, meaning reliable.

So Obama is in a tough position, but he could once more since his election be on the good side of history: by being serious about democracy, and not just using it as a useful myth. If he has the courage to whisper in the ear of the tyrant to step down. But alas, this opportunity is also a dilemma. If he supports democracy, foreign policy hawks across the board will nail him, and Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in America will never forgive him. If, on the contrary, he supports the tyrant, he will forever lose his credibility. That is the last and fundamental lesson we can draw from Strauss and against neocon cynicism: if he finds the courage, the turmoil in Egypt is Obama’s chance to once again write history, simply by letting the people of Egypt write history.

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). He published several books: on contemporary art, experience and modernity, on Walter Benjamin and more recently on architecture, the city and politics. Beside this he published poems, columns, statements, pamphlets and opinion pieces.

His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.