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Egypt's Psychological Furies

17/08/2013 17:04 BST | Updated 16/10/2013 10:12 BST

The old men who this week instructed their young uniformed soldiers to fire live rounds into the t-shirted chests of thousands of other young men, have unleashed the psychological furies in the minds of tens of millions of Egyptians.

It will take nothing short of a miracle - whether Islamic or Christian - to prevent these untethered psychic demons from bringing down civil society and thousands of lives with it, in this densely-packed country. No wonder there was an undertone of weary impotence in Barack Obama's voice as he spoke from his vacation in Martha's Vineyard.

Let's start with the grandfather of the furies - a low, grumbling sense of loss which predated this week's deaths. This is known as the "endowment effect": if I give you a mug and then a few minutes later ask for it back, you will pay more to keep it than if you had to buy the mug in the first place. This happens because human beings suffer from "loss aversion" - they are pained by losing the things they already hold.

Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood was a mass movement which worked for 90 years to achieve political power, finally doing so last year. They held this power for one year and three days before it was stripped from them by the military.

And so the first psychological fury was unleashed: the pain of losing something so precious and so long-sought after will have created the most intense psychological pain in tens of millions of people who felt themselves finally holding something of ultimate value - power. There is no political campaign, no propaganda, no education, no drug - which could produce such a massive reshaping of the minds of tens of millions of people at a stroke.

Of course Morsi's government did not behave well, among other things tampering with judicial constraints on democratic power. And yes, a vast secular movement gave the military moral cover for their action. But as I said in my blog the day after this coup, mob power can corrupt too, and the ego-distorting effects of exerting raw power, whether in a mob or as a General, will usually end in appallingly-judged actions of the type we saw this week.

The central feature of democracy is that the individual ego - including the mob ego - must submit to an abstract principle of law and of democratic principles. Only that will tame the second of the psychological furies - the lust for power driven by a belief that brute force is the only means of achieving or holding it.

Morsi's attempts to impose religious laws on a secular population, and his constitutional tamperings, no doubt raised warning flags about his party's commitment to the democratic process. But who could have any faith that Egypt's current rules can have a shred of commitment to democratic principles after their espousal of mass murder of peaceful protestors? Yes, there were concerns about Morsi's democratic credentials, but about the current leaders, there are no doubts whatsoever.

The Egyptian military leaders, it seems, run much more than the armed forces. The military runs a vast industrial empire with senior officers retiring into lucrative directorships when their military service to the nation ends. The men who gave the order to fire live ammunition into the chests of peaceful young men and women may have done so as much to preserve personal financial interests as to act in the interests of the secular protestors on whose side they ostensibly intervened on the 3rd July.

In general, the wealthier a person is, the more likely he is to feel that ordinary laws do not apply to him - at least to the extent that he subscribes to the 'greed is good' ethic. Great wealth empowers and sometimes corrupts. Military power empowers and sometimes corrupts. Great wealth combined with military power is an explosive combination that no human brain can cope with and stay sane.

As I have shown elsewhere power is one of the most potent brain-changing drugs known to mankind, and like all brain-influencing drugs, it greatly diminishes the capacity for sound judgment and logical thinking. I can only assume that the leaders who took this week's decision to shoot these young men were, through excessive power of wealth and military might, grossly impaired in their decision making.

There was a third psychological fury released by these men bewildered by power. But that is too big and too awful a fury to deal with in this blog and must wait the next one. That fury is revenge.