f 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.
That little 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 economic modernization.
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.
The meltdown 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 liberalization.
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.
The negotiations 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 of Fears.)
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. interest free).
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.
Middle Eastern 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.
- Mr. Kurtz is also a fellow at the Hudson Institute