Monday, October 15, 2012

Chaos, or Anarchy?

As some may have noticed, I've been visiting Egypt a few times recently. And one thing about Egypt that most Westerners will immediately notice is the traffic. Especially around Cairo. It's quite simple, you do not mingle in Egypt traffic, as a foreigner, unless you have a death wish.

Roads around Cairo (or more specifically the use of them), at first glance, seems a total chaos. Lanes are largely disregarded, everybody merges wherever they like, there seem to be no rules on right-of-way and traffic lights, if present, are just a colourful way of lighting the tarmac.

Accidents are rife, and often terrifyingly tragic. And the ones that aren't still have consequences that are difficult to oversee as there cannot be any insurance on these roads. Conflict as result of damaging one's property needs to be resolved with the parties involved and right on the spot.

Yet, it's not true chaos. Of course not, there are humans behind the wheel. Humans can be irrational, emotional and illogical, but they also tend to be predictable. So, if not Chaos, then within the confines of my blog's context, it follows that I'm implying that Anarchy rules the Cairo Highways.

Anarchy, in one popular meaning, is a state of lawlessness and disorder. With the latter more or less by consequence of the absence of the former. For many a orderly society, the prospect of falling into anarchy is a near worst-case scenario.

But in another meaning of Anarchy, it implies a functional method of governance in a society... Namely one without the need of a hierarchically enforced, coercive, and authoritive set of rules. The anarchist's idealism proposes that people "voluntarily" living together in a society will tend towards a form of respectful working equilibrium.

In all fairness the roads around Cairo are "not entirely" without authoritive oversight. But the police is rather understated, understaffed and ineffective in the role as enforcer. About the best they can manage is to clean up the worst of accidents, some minor traffic-management during the worst rush hours and stage the odd checkpoint now and then, causing the general motorist to quickly put on their seatbelts to prevent a dressing down and providing extra income to the State.

And the "voluntarily" part of the anarchist's definition is pretty much substituted with "necessarily". The majority[2] of people here have a car, and a cellphone, but no hope or means of truly getting out of here.

Back on the roads around Cairo, as the driver brings me from A to B, I still cannot determine a set of rules, but I can sense they are there. There is a certain rule, a certain pattern, a certain signal in the noise, that these people on the roads are tuned in to, but that my antenna is failing to pick up.

Perhaps there's something a little more than "mere" anarchy. The ancient Egyptians had a philosophy of Ma'at [1]. Ma'at was the embodiment, the spirit, of truth, balance, order, law, morality and justice. It was a philosophy of living rightly and properly, embodied in 42 confessions (hieroglyphs on papyrus had a slightly higher data density compared to stone tablets, hence the Egyptians had space for more than 10, I guess). Old habits, old morals, die hard.

Whether the Cairo highway is a huge field-experiment in benevolent anarchy with 15 million participants, or a side-effect of a deeper ancient social-cultural disposition, I can't really tell. And it's pretty easy to see where the system has deep, and often fatal, flaws. But, there is one. And one that springs forth from the mere tiniest sliver of rule-of-law and nothing further than the common goals and necessities of man living together in close proximity.

A weave and evasive maneuver of the car breaks my reverie,
and I see we're close to our destination.

Time to go to work.

[1] Wikipedia page on Ma'at
[2] Edit: This I need to correct after reading an article on fuel subsidies. The huge traffic load of cars on the roads is caused by a very small minority of the people. Less than 5% of Egyptians own a car.