Why Did the Cairene Cross the Road?

To help Americans understand how democracy works in the Middle East.

I owe my life to Umm Ahmad. Shortly after I moved to Cairo, a friend suggested I hire her to be my shaghaalah (maid). She did a great job of keeping Cairo’s notorious dust under control, but that’s not why she saved my life. After our first meeting, during which she took stock of my scant supplies, Umm Ahmad took me to a local shop to purchase a mop, broom, sponges, and a variety of cleaning fluids. On our trek back to my flat, as we walked the wrong way down what was supposed to be a one-way street in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood, a bus careened toward us. Umm Ahmad motioned me out of the way as the bus came screaming past us. It came within no more than 2 inches of Umm Ahmad, but she didn’t even flinch. She just kept walking. And so began my introduction in how to negotiate and, crucially, survive Cairo traffic.

To the uninitiated, Cairo traffic is ferocious and dangerous. (The July 17 New York Times described it as “chaos.”) Yet Cairenes think nothing of walking in the street (unavoidable, given the dilapidated or nonexistent state of sidewalks in many areas), darting across four lanes of traffic, and wading into masses of oncoming cars, buses, and trucks. Although Egypt has its share of traffic deaths (about 6,000 per year, not too much more than Turkey—a country of roughly comparable population—which averages 4,500 traffic fatalities a year), most Cairenes seem fearless. After a few months, even I had no problem ambling through traffic along Cairo’s central axes. Why? Well, I didn’t go to Egyptian driving school, and I didn’t study Cairo’s traffic laws, because they don’t matter much. Instead, like most Cairenes, I became habituated to the informal rules of the road. I eventually grew to learn—after quite a few near misses—when to cross a busy street, when to stay put, when a car would swerve, and when it wouldn’t. As a result, Cairo traffic doesn’t look so menacing to me anymore.

The point of all this is not simply to reminisce, but to point out one of the least understood but critically important factors that influence politics: informal institutions. These uncodified rules shape people’s behaviors and expectations and contrast with formal institutions—such as constitutions, laws, decrees, and regulations—that also frame the way people think and act.

It goes without saying that informal institutions are not solely Middle Eastern phenomena. In the United States, advantages that accrue to those with access to “old boys’ networks” and the often pernicious effect that money has on politics reflect the power of informal institutions. Understanding these uncodified, unwritten rules and norms helps provide an accurate and sophisticated understanding not only of the way Capitol Hill works but also how the Middle East works. Nevertheless, judging from the superficial initiatives and programs instituted by the current administration, the concept of informal institutions seems to be lost on the architects of the Bush strategy to promote change in the Arab world. Policy-makers failed to grasp how the uncodified rules of society often trump the formal institutions of Middle Eastern states.

If someone who grew up in a box were to one day emerge and read the constitutions of a variety of Middle Eastern states, this person would not be crazy (other than suffering the aftereffects of having grown up in a box) to believe that these countries were democratic. But Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Syria—all countries with window-dressing constitutions—are far from democracies for two very important reasons. First, there is the problem of small print. In recent years, Arab governments have often trumpeted political reforms that are said to be ushering in a new era of more open politics. But when these measures are scrutinized carefully, it is abundantly clear they are “reforms” in name only. Consider, for example, Egypt’s amended Political Parties Law, which the parliament passed in 2005as part of the ruling National Democratic Party’s “New Thinking and Priorities of Reform” campaign. The new law actually makes it harder for opposition parties to organize than the old, rather restrictive law did. This is not the kind of reform the Bush administration had in mind when it launched its “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East in 2003.

Second, and in many ways more important, is the way in which informal institutions can limit what is possible in the political arena. Think about the question of presidential succession in Egypt, where historically a base of support within the military has been an informal requirement of the presidency. Egypt’s various constitutions have all specified in detail the procedures for selecting a new president should the incumbent retire, resign, become incapacitated, or die. In practice, though, Egypt’s heads of state have been selected through the military—the backbone and defender of Egypt’s political order. When Anwar Sadat chose air force Gen. Mohamed Hosni Mubarak to be his vice president in 1976, the move was widely regarded as both Sadat’s effort to further undermine his opponents among the cadre of officers who were involved in the 1952 coup and an acknowledgement that the commanders who took part in the 1973 war with Israel would become politically influential. Although constitutionally the speaker of the People’s Assembly, rather than the vice president, is next in line to the presidency, there was never any question that Mubarak would succeed Sadat after the latter’s assassination in October 1981. As the prospect of a leadership transition in Egypt becomes more urgent given Mubarak’s age (he turned 79 in May), there is considerable speculation that his son Gamal will succeed him. Since the younger Mubarak never served in the armed forces, he will need strong ties to the military establishment to secure his position. Indeed, in keeping with the informal institutions that shape Egyptian politics, Gamal is reported to be cultivating connections to the senior command.

Or consider the case of Saudi Arabia, where informal institutions are at work in a somewhat different way. In Washington, the standard narrative often criticizes Riyadh for foot-dragging. The Saudis claim that they have been moving forward with once-unthinkable political and social change. Why the disconnect? Primarily because U.S. officials have very little insight into informal institutions and the effect they have on Saudi politics. King Abdallah is not a king in the absolutist Louis XIV sense. To be sure, Abdallah rules by decree, and he has the final word on all aspects of Saudi domestic and foreign policy, but informal institutions shape the process. Abdallah must engage in protracted consensus-building negotiations among members of the Saudi royal family, heed the concerns of major tribal leaders, and pay attention to the sensitivities of religious constituencies on policy issues of major importance. It’s hard for outsiders—even those who live in Saudi Arabia—to see how this process works, because it is rooted in past practices around which certain norms and uncodified rules have developed. The unwritten exigency of consultation with the king’s disparate, and at times implicitly hostile, constituencies tends to constrain Abdallah’s policy options. Nevertheless, this is a tradeoff that Abdallah and other Saudi leaders are willing to make. According to Saudis, without this consultation, the cohesion and stability of the kingdom would be in jeopardy, raising the specter of a return to tribal conflict in the Arabian Peninsula. From this perspective, Saudi foot-dragging looks more like a measure of pragmatism.

When you think about how informal institutions shape politics, a much different picture of political change in the Middle East emerges. Suddenly, Washington’s recipe for democracy promotion—whipping up some civil society, mixing in some economic reform, and adding elections, as well as a dash of external pressure—seems out of touch with reality. Even if Washington manages to build civil society in the Arab world and generate economic reform, the power of informal institutions will make the job of even the most ardent Middle East democracy-promoters more uncertain and difficult. All is not lost, however. Just as I now feel perfectly safe wandering into Cairo traffic, awareness of the unwritten rules and norms of politics should provide a more accurate reflection of politics in the Middle East and, as a result, a better understanding of how and when change will take place.