Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient Athens, Modern Egypt

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient Athens, Modern Egypt

Article excerpt

Whatever problems Greeks and Romans faced, a politicised priesthood was not one of them. They might have made three observations on Egypt's current plight.

First, though Roman emperors were autocrats, the plebs regularly expressed their displeasure at them, sometimes in street riots, over matters like food shortages. But they did so fully expecting the emperor to respond.

Only very rarely did he fail to do so. He was not that stupid: for all his power, he knew he had to keep the plebs onside. This basic insight seems to have escaped the fanatic ex-president Morsi.

Second, the most important consequence of the Athenian invention of democracy was to generate a politics in which decisions were reached not by force but by public persuasion. So policy was determined not by the sword but by free debate between citizens in the Assembly, followed by a free vote. As a result, the only power that Athens' big political beasts wielded over the people was their capacity to convince.

But Egypt's generals make their own law and enforce it - the mark of the hated tyrannos the world over. …

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