Goose bumps, whoppers and polliwogs

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

June 30 2011

Philip Whitfield

Cairo: Through the ages revolutionaries have pondered if lying is acceptable. What would your Mum say to the murderer banging on the door yelling: Is your son home?

Latin scholars might suggest: Non est hit, meaning he is not here with me, squirming out of a catch question because Johnny’s eating lunch on the kitchen table.

Casuists argue that’s not lying. It’s the foundation of a defense – in contract law to avoid honoring a signed agreement because of a misunderstanding: the legal argument non est factum.

Egypt’s diffidence, its horripilation or the national outbreak of goose bumps, is the angst of America’s Founding Fathers. Their heebie-jeebies at the thought of empowering people with democracy were understandable. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely – Lord Acton writing to his bishop adding: Great men are almost always bad men.

The Founders were determined to hold their leaders’ feet to the fire in the new democracy. They chose to bifurcate power between man and institutions. Good officials were recruited then shackled by law. The Founders believed human beings could not remain good for long when holding the reins of power.

Egypt doesn’t trust the meddlesome muckety mucks, mucking about from Mansoura to Mit Ghamr, the mines of Minya to the monuments at Marsa Matruh. They espy a mobocracy emerging, political control ceding to undisciplined indolents.

It was this skepticism that led to the American Constitution’s checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, and to a deliberate three-way arm-wrestle between the presidency, the congress and the judiciary.

Where did this novel idea come from? Philosophers look to Augustine, who framed the concepts of original sin and just war. As he sifted the ruins of Roman imperialist destruction and began City of God, he declared that left alone man would not achieve justice. The best that man could do would be to temper the effects of sin. Hence the conservative’s argument for limited government.

The present day philosopher Thomas Fuller said Thomas Jefferson’s point is not merely that the people ought to rebel whenever they are oppressed, not merely that they should rebel whenever there is a whiff of oppression. But that they should rebel regularly, whether they are oppressed or not – raise a little hell, tar and feather a few officials – just to keep officials uneasy in their seats of power.

Egypt risks taking the miasmic path to Utopia – no amount of horror or suffering is too great a price to achieve paradise on earth. Hitler, Stalin and Lenin fooled their fellow travelers for a while. History exposed their evilness.

The Founding Fathers’ vision of government power over society was Sisyphean, the mythological Greek king condemned to eternity in Hades. To try to escape he rolled a great boulder to the crest of a hill. But whenever he managed at great effort to reach the crest, the boulder rolled down again. Sisyphus would begin the struggle again, reach the crest, and again the boulder would roll down.

That’s the basis of the objectivism missing in Egypt today. Objectivism in this context requires a helmsman’s statecraft, not opportunism. Statecraft rounds out the political mix inserting a proper political philosophy as the Founding Fathers did. The paradox is that by demonizing the institutions of the state, utopian love of country is achieved.

If you correspond with the nobs in Egypt you can expect a letter in response that concludes: Your Obedient Servant. It’s deceitful. The petitioner is more often contemptuous of the receiver. The responder is anything but an obedient servant.

He looks in the mirror and sees a highfalutin honcho. Take a headcount in the executive wing at Tora Jail, Egypt’s Most Wanted and convicted in absentia and check out the empty palatial residences, their owners freely frolicking in the fleshpots.

In Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals Kant pronounced: Lying is wrong with no exceptions. Hang the consequences, he’d say.  Kant would tell the assassin at the door his son was chowing down in the kitchen.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion Kant equivocates. He offers a get out: The conception of right does not take into consideration the act of will as far as the end result is concerned. In other words Kant argues means can justify ends, in violation of all he previously said about truth.

Kant says the question of right should take into account voluntary choices if they are free so that one can harmonize with the freedom of another according to universal law. I disagree. That legitimizes terrorists.

There’s another problem. Averring to Franciscan thinking, the Catholic hierarchy maintained so-called mental reservation during investigations of allegations of child abuse. Caught out lying, the priests dug around in the philosophical toolkit and pulled out the verbal chisels of equivocation and evasion in their defense.

We never said we cooperated fully they fudged. Egypt’s public prosecutor says interrogating the Mubaraks is a nightmare. He says they are masters of evasion.

The hybrid of popular revolution and military coup in Egypt almost forces the powers that be to lie in Kantesque, Franciscan equivocation. The uniformed regime is involved in businesses ranging from munitions to tourism and olive oil production. That conflict of interest pits armed peacekeeper in tension with its role as employer/manager/custodian.

It is not a meeting of equal minds when one has an arsenal of weaponry to back up his argument and the power to throw adversaries in jail and try them in military courts.

Kant wisdom brackets authority to compel with right doing. Hence Kant’s broadside fired across the bows of skeptics: Now, everything that is wrong is a hindrance of freedom. Compulsion or constraint of any kind is a resistance to freedom.

The military did not create Egypt’s new freedom. They are nudging liberty’s progress forward – the Arab Spring becoming a Summer of Discontent.  Duty requires them to permit the founders of the new democracy to forge Egypt’s destiny. And those that step forward must prove themselves trustworthy, not polliwogs – tadpoles learning to swim with the frogs in the grown ups’ pond.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.


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