Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself as another person. Specialists say most children express empathy by age 4 but probably feel it much earlier. Behavioral research shows that most animals – dolphins, primates, rodents – empathize when a family member is in pain.
When empathy is absent, cruelty reigns, selfishness is celebrated, majorities oppress minorities. When present, empathy recognizes that other people’s concerns are valid, encourages mercy in victory, and tempers extremism. Empathy is the crucial factor in a healthy society; it undergirds moderation – but only if it goes beyond the surge of pity that most people feel when someone else is in distress. Empathy requires practical implementation.
You can see the need for empathy all over the world – from politically polarized Washington, D.C., where President Obama has talked of an “empathy deficit,” to austerity-constrained Southern Europe, where the brilliant promise of young people is clouded by debt and stagnation. But the need for empathy is perhaps most vividly on display in the Middle East.
The unprecedented protests, revolutions, and uprisings of the past two years began, in fact, with a massive upswelling of empathy. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, felt so desperate that he set himself on fire. Millions of people in the Arab world saw their own voiceless, oppressed condition in Mr. Bouazizi’s plight. The tumult that followed began with a we’re-all-in-it-together spirit. Anything but the status quo would be better, most felt. Why not freedom? Why not democracy?
But two years on, the spirit of the Arab Spring has been overtaken by anger, violence, and suspicion. Opinion polls continue to show that large majorities throughout the Middle East say they want democracy. But that is where consensus ends, especially in Egypt. Some people want Western-style pluralism; some crave order; some support democracy only if it gives a central place to Islam; and some are no longer sure they want an Egypt at all.
The long-persecuted Muslim Brotherhood now holds power, but as Dan Murphy’s cover story explains, even people who voted for it in the three democratic elections it has now won are beginning to sour on it for using state power to tighten its grip on the country. Technically, democracy has come to Egypt. People have voted, and power has transferred out of the hands of the military – at least on the surface – and into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. But democracy is failing in reality because the newly empowered majority has been silencing dissent and disregarding the interests of minorities.
Nations coalesce around many things – history, language, religious heritage. They can be held together by force, as Egypt was from the time of the Pharaohs until the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. As one authoritarian ruler weakened, another rose up. Although that pattern can persist, it is ultimately unsustainable. Democracies are sustainable – but only if parties that win elections actively understand that they, too, can become unpopular, resented, and vulnerable to overthrow; that they may one day be the minority. Self-interest, in other words, is a very good reason to empathize.
The paradox is that Egyptians, more than any other people, have vivid reminders of the fleeting nature of power all around them – a surfeit of pyramids, temples, and statues marking Pharaonic immortality. Every monument to the great Ozymandiases of their day is now a colossal wreck. What has endured are the Egyptian people. It is out of their lives and experiences – not just the fortunate few, not just the newly empowered, but all Egyptians – that a functioning nation must be built.
John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.