Events in Egypt continue to emphasize what the liberals and reformers of the Middle East might gain from a careful reading of Carl Schmitt, but not because Schmitt’s personal anti-semitism and his collaboration with the Nazis might make him sympathetic as a figure to at least some forces emerging from the Arab Spring with shares in political power.
Schmitt’s gross personal and political sins have made a broad confrontation with his insights more difficult to conduct, even after they have been processed through the best left-academic filters on both coasts of the United States and in Europe, but the aspects of Schmitt’s thinking that apply incisively to Egypt as well as to other countries of the Arab Spring originated during the Weimar period, not the Third Reich. In brief, Schmitt positioned himself at the time as a would-be defender of the bourgeois liberal order as the political-institutional embodiment of the whole German state. At the risk of over-simplifying, we can say that he acted in this way not as a true proponent of liberalism, but from a Hobbesian perspective: Whatever he thought of the Weimar Republic and its hybrid idealist-realist constitution, the government was the only apparently available Leviathan, the only force available to hold the nation together against, to use the American legalism under the same problematic, clear and present dangers.
Both Schmitt’s unforgivable personal disgrace and his theoretical proof would be united by tragic historical irony in the form of the Nazi ascent to power and the full catastrophe that ensued: What he got wrong was what he got right, only much more than he could have anticipated in both respects. Long before that time, however, during the rolling crises of the German ’20s-’30s, he was still seeking to forestall the merely inchoate danger of political dysfunction and disintegration. The failure of liberal governance to cope decisively with the so-called “negative parties” (Communists and Nazis) eventually took the form of the inability or refusal of President Paul von Hindenburg to invoke the constitution’s notorious Article 48 which, in critically ambiguous language, established the format for emergency rule (later fully exploited by Adolf Hitler), specifically the use of the armed forces against threats to the integrity of the state, in temporary abridgement of specified constitutional freedoms. As Schmitt, as others since, pointed out, though Article 48 was confusingly drafted, it was hardly unique among constitutions, essentially all of which sooner or later, often quite explicitly, however paradoxically, must seek a legal framework for the collapse of legal frameworks, for a controlled return to and from the uncontrollable, for the moment in which “the law recedes, but the state remains.”
Even if we acknowledge precedents and worse alternatives, to say that Mohammed Morsi is undergoing his own Article 48 moment, but choosing Schmitt’s methods over Hindenburg’s passivity, is neither to approve nor disapprove of his conduct. One could easily – the liberalist Twitterati have shown little hesitation on this one – compare Morsi’s assumption of the right to rule by decree with acts by Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, or any of a wide range of autocrats including Morsi’s immediate predecessor. If inclined, however, to support or excuse Morsi, one might instead invoke Franklin Roosevelt after or even before the 1941 American Declarations of War, or Abraham Lincoln suspending the American Constitution to save constitutional order, or any of several American Founding Fathers: All were also called tyrants, traitors, or dictators by their enemies, sometimes quite openly, and even amidst undoubted states of emergency. Now many of the same men are simply, if not universally, called “great.”
A longer historical perspective, or an “as from Earth orbit” inquiry, will yield numerous similar examples, heroic and tyrannical and sometimes both more or less together, because the underlying questions are fundamental to the theory and existence of the state, of any political state at all. A full discussion along such lines in relation to the Egyptian predicament will have to come some other time, however: Events call for decisions and reactions from participants and close observers (while business calls the blogger to printing out invoices), not for open-ended Habermasian-Rawlsian preregrinations in political philosophy: Yet this very perception or reflex reminding us that time is short is itself a replication of The Moment, a declaration of the insufficiency of reason – ideal lawfulness – before the felt need to take some real and effective position right now.
Hussein Ibish has recommended that those interested in the Egyptian case follow a trenchant observer who blogs and tweets under the name “salamamoussa.” Though I have criticized the latter’s use of exaggerated language – “Egyptian totalitarianism,” comparisons of Morsi to Sudan’s accused genocidaire Omar al-Bashir – I will readily acknowledge his prescience regarding the shape of events, and I feel safe in presuming that he is vastly better informed on the details than I am. We can still hope that he is at worst only half right when he asserts on Twitter that “short of a miracle,” Morsi “will succeed and a dark dictatorship will settle over Egypt for decades.”
For my own part, I certainly do not claim to know whether Morsi has in fact overreached disastrously, or whether other forces and influences may restrain or moderate him and his allies. For now, we can first note that origination as if “from a miracle” also replicates Schmitt’s “political theological” concept of the effectively sur-rational emergence of sovereign power, and, second, from a distance (for me personally of thousands of miles), attempt a dispassionately cursory unpacking of salamamoussa’s assertion under the same framework:
1. If Morsi is to succeed, it will be because no one else is in a position in Egypt to constitute, integrate, and maintain sovereign state power. In this sense, Morsi’s assertion of authentic sovereign power under whatever terms would always be inherently illimitable, however legalistically expressed. The sovereign decision is the infinitely recursive power to establish power (and so on) brought to term. Its success is self-validating. It precedes the very possibility of its own legal rationalization.
2. For the same reason, from Morsi’s own perspective, he had to act sooner or later – since the only alternative would be the disintegration of the state.
3. Egypt is not Bashir’s Sudan, or Hitler’s Germany, or Caesar’s Rome. Neither is it Lincoln’s or FDR’s America. The Morsi dictatorship will last until some other locus (or loci) of power can supplant or replace it – concretely, not in the exaggerated imaginary counter-totalities of tweeps and dreamers.
Another tweep on Ibish’s feed asserted last night that there is “no such thing as a temporary dictator.” This view, which may be meant to evoke the temptations of power, is exactly wrong. Morsi is also mortal: All dictatorships are in this sense “commissarial” – Schmitt’s term for the dictatorship that is declared in order to protect and eventually to restore constitutional order and rule of law. If salamamoussa is correct, then the would-be lovers of Egyptian liberty, once they are through conveying their sense of tragic powerlessness by wringing their virtual hands on the internet, might inquire further as to what Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood apparently have more right about the real Egypt, and perhaps about the liberals, than the liberals do.