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Love And Fear in Egypt

August 9, 2015

Autocratic and democratic regimes are pretty much the same, says Joseph Massad in an article in the journal Public Culture. The chief difference is whether they seek to rule by love or fear.

Autocratic and democratic regimes are pretty much the same, says Joseph Massad in an article in the journal Public Culture. The chief difference is whether they seek to rule by love or fear.

“The people demand the old tear gas”

This was a slogan uttered by some of the crowds protesting the Egyptian army’s November 2011 turning on civilian protesters demanding the end of military rule using a new powerful tear gas that could cause unconsciousness and convulsions.

It’s a play on the ubiquitous slogan “The people want the downfall of the regime,” an act of black humor that captures, according to Joseph Massad in an article in Public Culture, “their loss of fear of their new rulers.”

In an article in Public Culture on the continued ramifications of the Arab (and especially Egyptian) uprisings, Massad ties this act of bravado to the advice Niccolo Machiavelli famously gave to the Prince: that ideally a ruler should be both loved or feared “but since it is difficult to accomplish both at the same time . . . it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

But Massad’s argument goes very much beyond repeating again the claim that the transformative element of the revolution was the loss of peoples’ fear in their rulers. The rulers of contemporary nation states seek to be both loved and feared in different degrees by different segments of the people at different times, argues Massad.

Most contemporary states involve institutions of both hegemony–ruling with the consensus of the governed) and coercion (keeping the ruled under control through use of force). They seek, that is, to be both loved and feared.

This is partly the result of policy guided by the regimes that support them, especially the U.S. Regimes that are loved “have legitimacy” in US parlance. As for “liberalization”, Massad wries:

when a regime still commands love (what is sometimes referred to as having “legitimacy”) but its use of too much coercion might threaten stability and could result in more popular mobilization against the regime rather than the desired demobilization (in which case the regime loses both the love and the fear of its people), less coercion and more hegemony is sometimes advised under the name of “liberalization” in order to restore stability.

In some ways, the revolution could be seen as an effort to replace rulers who are feared with rulers who are loved, that is, to replace rule that is primarily by coercion with rule that is primarily hegemonic.

Massad characterizes the post-Mubarak strategy as segmentary:

they used more coercion against the segments of the population that no longer loved or feared them and more hegemony toward the segments of the population that still loved them and were willing to obey them without coercion (these hegemonic methods included consultative and advisory councils, inclusion as ministers in the transitional cabinets, and parliamentary and presidential elections). But finally when all this failed and under US pressure, they had to submit to the rule of hegemony
and held relatively free elections that brought Mursi and the neoliberal wing of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and accepted Mursi’s subsequent decision to rearrange the military’s leadership. When Mursi’s government failed to establish hegemony over state organs or society at large, massive popular demonstrations urged the new army leadership to overthrow it and reestablish army hegemony, which it duly did in July 2013.

Certainly there can be little argument that al-Sisi swept into power on a wave of love; whether he can sustain it is another matter. It is one thing to invite investors to build a new capital city in the desert, and to preside (in uniform!) over the expansion of the Suez canal. It is quite another to maintain the pretense that actual progress is being made toward bread, freedon and social justice.

But if we extend Massad’s argument, we would expect the disillusionment with al-Sisi to set in gradually, allowing the regime to increase coercion in those segments most critical of the president–which certainly seems to be happening–so that we very gradually watch the shift from hegemony to coercion.

A regime could keep that up for a long time…three decades, maybe?

Here’s the abstract:

This essay questions the division between autocratic and democratic regimes and suggests that they are the same kind of regime but deploy differing amounts of hegemony and coercion to rule and to produce certain combinations of love and fear in the ruled. Using Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince as a frame, the essay analyzes these strategies of rule as they were used by the United States government and by the Arab regimes in the context of the Arab uprisings of 2011. The essay contextualizes these strategies in the history of the Cold War, the rise of neoliberal economics, and the struggle for accountability, representativity, and social justice in Arab countries.


Massad, Joseph 2014 Love, Fear, and the Arab Spring.Public Culture 26(1 72):127152.

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