you want to understand the impasse at which the Middle East has
arrived, a good place to begin is distribution time at an Egyptian
food co-op. Say that a relatively rare shipment of chicken and cooking
oil has been received by the co-op. A crowd will quickly gather,
perhaps surging forward while employees try to beat it back with
cooking utensils. Older women might be ejected from the crowd with
their head-covering pulled off and their clothes set askew, while
young men get into fights over their position in line, as others
attempt to pull the combatants apart. Those unwilling to face the
fray might hire young boys to brave the crowd and return with a
chicken. And boldly holding their own in the crowd will be the female
peddlers who are the backbone of the Egyptian black-market system.
The peddlers, and others with personal connections to co-op employees,
return again and again, coming away with boxes full of scarce items
for resale at black-market prices, or for distribution at cost to
neighbors or family members.
The scene puts
one in mind of the old Soviet Union. And despite its ongoing efforts
at economic liberalization, the Egyptian government's commodity
distribution and central-planning apparatus is all too reminiscent
of the bad old days of Communism. The International Monetary Fund
has been trying to get Third World governments like Egypt to drop
their food subsidies for decades, but the riots that follow cuts
in government price supports threaten to topple these weak regimes.
So market mechanisms are suppressed, and the shortages continue.
scene at the food co-op is one of many places where the two halves
of the Middle Eastern world butt up against one another. Think of
the Islamic Middle East as a split-level society. On the one hand,
there's the government, with its bureaucratic rules and periodic
attempts at economic modernization. And counter posed against the
government (and a relatively small modernized elite) is a world
of traditional family solidarity, where ties among neighbors and
extended kin spell the difference between survival and disaster.
The inability of the government to deliver the material or political
benefits of modernization drives the populace more deeply into their
traditional networks as the only defense against chaos. Or is it
the other way around? The reliance of the populace on traditional
social forms continually undercuts the government's attempts at
The split between
the state and society-at-large has a long history in the Middle
East. The governments of Mohammad and his immediate successors,
the "rightly guided Caliphs," were successful theocracies.
But as Islam's empire grew, the Caliphs were forced to resort to
strategies of authoritarian rule and hereditary recruitment that
violated strict Islamic principles of equality and consultation.
The result was that the state itself lost legitimacy. Righteous
Muslims grew more interested in avoiding the state than in serving
it. The image of Mohammad's just theocracy lived on, and religion
was still blended with everyday social practice through the regulations
of Islamic law, but for much of Islamic history, the state itself
was devalued and delegitimated.
That was less
of a problem before the modern era. The great Islamic empires ruled
their subjects lightly taxing and offering military protection,
but for the most part depending on tribal ties and kinship (along
with Islamic law) to regulate the daily business of life. The rulers
stayed out of the day-to-day affairs of the people, and the people
liked it that way. The old system allowed Muslim governments to
cobble together huge empires out of essentially self-governing populations.
Yet under modern conditions, the traditional split between the self-contained
world of tribe and kin, on the one hand, and the state on the other,
sets up a debilitating struggle between tradition and modernity.
in the Middle East has been fueled by massive population growth
and a flood of rural immigrants into cities like Cairo and Istanbul.
Governments have been hard pressed to provide the new urban immigrants
with municipal services, much less jobs. That's where those kin
networks come in. In European history, even in rural areas, extended
kinship ties grew progressively less important, until the collapse
of feudalism and the rise of cities created a society of truly modern
individuals. The new European society was ruled by powerful centralized
governments, and bureaucracies that applied the law equally to all.
But unlike the urban masses of Europe, the rural migrants powering
the Middle East's urban population explosion have brought their
traditional kinship networks with them. Those networks offer support
to the common man where weak Middle Eastern governments cannot
while also making it impossible for a modern political and economic
system to take root. Family connections get you food when neither
government nor the economy can provide it. But the corruption fueled
by the family ethos sabotages the government's distribution plans,
undercuts the government's legitimacy, and blocks the path to societal
If you want
to get a sense of how split-level society in the Middle East really
works, there's no better place to turn than American University
political scientist Diane Singerman's book, Avenues
of Participation, from which the I took that story of the
Cairo food distribution co-op. What Singerman shows is the ongoing
and overwhelming importance of family connections for ordinary city
dwellers in the Middle East. Marriages in Cairo are still arranged.
Love is almost beside the point in unions designed to insure the
flourishing of the family as a whole. Not that couples don't look
forward to marriage. On the contrary, since virtually everyone lives
at home and under the authority of their parents until they marry,
marriage is the route to domestic power and sexual fulfillment.
and the process of mutual family scrutiny that lead
up to marriage in a city like Cairo are almost unbelievably complicated
and dangerous. A single untoward remark or social misstep by any
family member can sink the entire enterprise and failed negotiations
put family reputation (and thus the marriageability of every family
member) at risk. But the scrutiny matters because the families you
ally yourself through marriage effectively control your access to
education, housing, charity, food, credit, child-care services,
care in old age, and more. (If you're lucky, you might even manage
to marry into a family with connections to a government food co-op.)
This is why a practice like, say, veiling is so difficult to dislodge.
With female modesty tied to family reputation, refusing to veil
is liable to cost you and everyone you care for and depend
upon their marriage prospects and with those prospects,
the key to social success. (For more on this, see my Veil
So Middle Eastern
parents sacrifice their own material needs to the overriding goal
of accumulating the massive trousseau and other expenses necessary
to marry off a child. It takes years to save for a child's marriage,
and Middle Eastern parents put the same sort of effort and care
into it that American's put into saving for a child's college education.
Yet the truly massive resources that Egyptian parents set aside
for their children's marriages are kept out of the modern economy
and exempted from government taxation. That's because parents typically
place their marriage money with neighborhood associations that shelter
the funds from taxation. And those same neighborhood financial associations
grant loans to hard-pressed parents on Islamic principles (i.e.
In short, the
entire kinship system and its associated economic apparatus constitutes
almost a society within a society, the massive holdings of which
aren't even counted toward Egypt's GNP. Or maybe it would be more
accurate to say that the modern Egyptian government and economy
are virtual alien implants, floating lightly on the surface of a
still remarkably traditional society, even in a big city like Cairo.
Yet people still expect the government to deliver cheap foodstuffs
and other staples. It's the government food subsidies that enable
parents to squirrel away money for their children's marriages
alliances that cement social connections that bring the security,
opportunity, and prosperity that the government cannot deliver.
That's why threats to the food subsidies bring riots.
A man can't
marry without a proper job. So there's also pressure on the government
to provide positions in the bureaucracy, where security and benefits
are good. The result is the proliferation of make-work bureaucratic
jobs that impede efficiency and further alienate the public from
the government. But attempts to thin the ranks of the bureaucracy
have only increased the waiting time between graduation from college
and eventual government employment to three, four, five, or more,
years forcing the postponement of many a wedding. Of course
private-sector jobs could relieve the pressure, but the government
food subsidies, bloated bureaucracy, and corruption fueled by the
family ethos itself inhibit economic growth. And not only has the
government's effort to trim the bureaucracy lengthened engagements
into years, it has helped to drive legions of overeducated, unemployed,
and frustrated Egyptians into the arms of the fundamentalist opposition
with relatively little expansion in the private sector to
show for the political costs.
So this is
the sort of situation our emerging
imperial presence in the Middle East may soon land in our laps.
There is no doubt that the mere fact of ignominious defeat will
do much to undermine the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism, and of
Middle Eastern dictators like Saddam Hussein. A new and successful
American-installed government in Iraq, even if not in Afghanistan,
may stand as a symbol of the benefits of capitalism (and eventually,
of democracy) for the entire Middle East.
But there is
only so much to be gained from the shifting winds of reputation.
To date, Middle Eastern autocracies and colonial powers alike have
been notoriously unsuccessful at making serious changes in the day-to-day
structure of Middle Eastern life. And in the end, the success or
failure of modernization in the Middle East depends precisely upon
that structure of everyday life.
governments have shown themselves highly adept at the business of
political repression. Yet most of them recoil in fear when the populace
grows angry at policies that interfere with the substance of their
day-to-day life policies like subsidized foodstuffs. The
separation of society and the state that has long characterized
the Islamic Middle East cuts two ways. The people quietly, if grudgingly,
put up with almost any sort of government so long as it doesn't
interfere with the networks of tribal and kinship ties that truly
matter to them. But any such interference spells trouble. So it's
unclear that American pressure to liberalize Muslim economies and
societies will succeed where present governments have failed. A
serious reaction against disruptive, American-imposed efforts at
reform is a real possibility. At minimum, it behooves us to be aware
of the dangers of pushing ourselves too forcefully on conquered
Muslim countries, even as we sanction experiments in economic liberalization.
Remember, Japan's success came from adapting its traditional system
to modernity, not from a futile attempt to destroy it altogether.
And what about
democracy? That is also a bit of a Catch-22. To democratize the
Middle East when the popular opposition in almost all Muslim countries
favors the fundamentalists risks a rapid replacement of democracy
with theocracy. Yet only a democratically elected government may
have the legitimacy to undertake experiments that would unsettle
the old economic guarantees, in return for a shot at genuine development.
So either approach has its perils.
In short, the
Middle East is a mess. And soon it may be our mess. Let us at least
enter upon our new responsibilities with open eyes.