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Egypt – Mursi and the Law of Reciprocity

November 26, 2012

Whether he intended it or not, Mohammed Mursi is using a classic influencing technique to achieve his objectives.

The Law of Reciprocity dictates that when you give, you put the recipient under moral obligation to give something back. According to Robert Cialdini, psychologist and author of several books on the subject of influence, a small gesture is often rewarded with something much more valuable.

But there is another technique within the Law of Reciprocity. Cialdini calls this “Rejection then Retreat”. Before we get on to Mursi, here’s a story from my life.

At the height of her raging teens, one of my daughters came to me and said “Dad, I’ve got no clothes to wear”. She was conveniently ignoring the fact that we almost had to re-mortgage the house to keep her supplied with clothes as she went through the teen fashion repertoire – I think she was just moving beyond Goth at the time – and that those clothes were lying in a crumpled mess on her bedroom floor like the seven layers of Troy.

“No”, said Heartless Mum, “you have more than enough already and you don’t look after what you have – look at the mess in your bedroom”. Conciliatory Dad, the Kofi Annan of the family, asked what she thought she needed. “Oh, two tops, a pair of jeans, a party dress and a pair of shoes” she said, in that Australian inflection she learned from Neighbours in which a statement sounds like a question. Even the UN secretary general agreed that this was outrageous, and joined Heartless Mum in a firm no.

Then followed three days of sulking, recrimination and rows, mainly with poor old Heartless Mum, while Kofi took refuge in the study. Daughter gave it her best shot, including going for the nuclear option of emotional blackmail: “I don’t feel confident in the clothes I have”. The shock wave resonated round the house. OUR DAUGHTER HAS LOW SELF ESTEEM! WE HAVE FAILED AS PARENTS!

As the emotional ashes were settling, and both parents were suffering from increasing debilitation thanks to the pervasive hormonal radiation, daughter came to Kofi Annan, aka Conciliatory Dad, with a proposal. “OK, I can probably live with the clothes I have for the moment, but please, please, please can I have the shoes?”

Hasty conference between Mum and Dad, and – in the interest of returning to a quiet life – the request was granted. Immediately, all was peace and light. Mum was no longer Heartless and Kofi returned to his ivory tower in New York.

Result: by climbing down from her extreme position, daughter got what she always wanted, even though nothing was on the table in the first place. Rejection then Retreat. That girl will go far, I thought at the time, and ten years on, I still think it.

So back to Mursi. He’s frustrated at being unable to untie the Gordian knot of competing interests, and decides to follow Heracles and cut the damned thing. He assumes sweeping powers that lead to his opponents accusing him of becoming the new Pharaoh, worse even than Mubarak.

Riots break out across Egypt. His party’s offices are firebombed. One person is killed. So what happens next? We got our answer this morning. The BBC website reported his statement to the effect that the powers he granted himself were “only temporary”:

“Mr Mursi said on Sunday the decree was temporary and not intended to concentrate power in his hands. He was committed to finding “common ground” with other parties, he said. He also hoped to reach consensus on a new constitution currently being drafted, he added, and the decree was intended to prevent democratically elected bodies from being undermined.”

As of this morning, it appears that he is ready to meet the judiciary in order to find a compromise.

Unless I’m much mistaken, that compromise will lead to Mursi achieving the core objectives he was aiming for in the first place, including the replacement of the Mubarak-era chief prosecutor. All, no doubt, in the furtherance of national unity.

Once again, Rejection then Retreat – rejection of an extreme position, then retreat to the achievable that might not have been achieved had the extreme position not been taken in the first place.

That man will go far. Unless of course the Egyptian opposition proves more resolute than Heartless Mum and Conciliatory Dad.

From → Middle East, Politics

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