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Whittling away absolutism.

Summary: His authority, allegedly conferred by the Spirit in the Sky, was absolute. He had to say only 'wine' and his advisors, drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy, i.e. his relatives, would be at the Great Rectangular Table in two shakes of a flunkey's bell rope. 'Indeed, wine shall be banished from the kingdom, sire,' or 'All wine shall bear the seal of His Most Serene Majesty, Ruler of the Waves and the Skies,' they would suggest. Did we not say that his word was law? Or most of the words in his regally copious vocabulary became law in some shape or form on the same day they were pronounced.

By Simon Willis

'No, you dolts,' he would snap, 'Can't one of you numbskulls get me a goblet of wine that does not have bits floating about in it?'

The advisors bowed and simpered. Their profuse whispered apologies for misinterpreting the sovereign's word filled the lofty state chamber like incense.

The trusted advisors were incensed later when the king decided to punish one of them by confiscating his land and burning the villages and their inhabitants alive. The offense? The advisor, whose vineyards extended for hundreds of hectares, were said to have produced wine with bits floating about in it.

The advisors met without the king's permission and decided to tell the king that he had gone 'too far'. An audience with the king was sought and, after a few minutes of reasoned argument that included a pledge to tighter quality control, the king signed a promise never to confiscate property without 'due cause' and without consulting his advisors. A few months later, the king died and the throne passed to his alcoholic son, whose blood was impure. Court physicians spread the rumour that the new king's blood was red and had bits floating about in this. In a sober fit of rage - which was all too often - the king ordered that the physicians be put to death, as well as their families, their servants and pet dogs, and that all their properties would be forfeit to the crown.

The new advisors, whose predecessors had died in suspicious circumstances in the early days of the new king's reign, resolved to guarantee their survival by drawing up a petition to the king, stating that the sovereign authority should not extend to disposing of functionaries and physicians in gruesome ways to satisfy the king's bloodlust.

An audience with the king was sought and, after a few minutes of reasoned argument that included a pledge to validate the qualifications of physicians and not to render consultative bodies whose services were sought by the king into corpses, the king signed a promise never to do away with them and confiscate property without 'due cause' and without consulting his advisors.

Fast forward to the reign of the king's great-great-great-grandson, when the peasants revolted against yet another tax levied without discussing the plan with the 'Assembly' as the advisors now styled themselves. 'Assembly' had undertones of solidarity and, gasp, authority. Even though the king was still free to do as he liked, he was better advised to seek advice of the Assembly. Besides, some members of the Assembly could read and write, unlike the monarch who could barely scrawl a cross beneath the royal seal on documents presented to him by his advisors. And those documents were invaluable records and could be thrust under the nose of king should he decide to ignore precedents, such as when the current king's grandfather declared war on another kingdom that was twice as large as his, and twice as rich and prosperous.

As for taxation that left the poorest strata of the population in deficit, that was sheer folly. When the peasants turned up en masse outside the king's castle, brandishing pitchforks and scythes, the Assembly saved the day by hanging the ringleaders, negotiating with a few simpletons who signed a pledge not to get above themselves. Meanwhile, the king in an advanced drunken state, was sitting in an empty coffer and wailing about the fact that he had no money left to wage war with...the name of the country escaped him for the moment.

Several generations later, the monarch was literate, which meant that the Assembly had to be particularly skilful with wording the documents that served as memoranda and pledges, but were, in fact, a means of circumscribing the monarchical powers. In the meantime, the Assembly acquired greater authority by claiming that it acted in the name of the sovereign, which was fair enough, as the crowned head had eyes that could be seen only through the bottom of a wine bottle. Then came the rumblings of discontent from outside the sumptuous building where the Assembly met. Some of the peasants had grown rich from new inventions and the industrial development they accelerated. Now, they were clamouring for their say in affairs of state, especially with respect to their pockets. They demanded representatives in the Assembly. Sending in sabre-wielding soldiers to silence them was no longer an option. The Assembly told these upstarts: You can choose some members of the Assembly as long as you earn more than three-hundred standard gold ingots a week.

Fast wind another century: the Assembly is getting too big for its boots. The main member, upon whom several kingly duties have been delegated, has made some pretty stupid decisions in recent years, such as declared war on another kingdom that was twice as large as his, and twice as rich and prosperous. As for taxation that left the middle classes in deficit, that was sheer folly. When the petty bourgeois turned up en masse outside the Assembly palace, brandishing petitions, the Assembly suddenly formed an Internal Affairs Committee, to act as a channel of communication between them and the voting public - all 400 of them, who made the highest income bracket in the kingdom.

And so to the present day, when everyone has the vote - even embryos. (Yes, even the unborn have a spokesperson.) But still not everyone is happy. The monarch is around...somewhere...on his bike, or opening a supermarket in a new pretentious suburb of his capital. Indeed, democracy takes time. Still people elsewhere, democracy is still something you watch on television after the kids are in bed. Even when the kids are grown up, the seeds of democracy might be germinating...a bit.

Copyright Eltahir House 2012

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Publication:The Egyptian Gazette (Cairo, Egypt)
Date:Dec 20, 2012
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