While their arguments reveal their differences – and perhaps abridgement – when reading history (since each camp claims the identity they endorse is the only heritage), it also reflects their intellectual defeat in facing off with the allure of authoritarian rule.
Since its creation under Mohamed Ali, the modern Egyptian state appointed itself guardian over society. It reformulated it through educational and media institutions which it monopolised and used to recalibrate minds.
The state also used the security institutions to forcefully imposed structural changes (all undemocratic means that enabled the monopoly of knowledge generation tools and discourse in terms of printing presses, and devices of oppression such as security agencies). It dismantled existing social structures that resisted this absolute state, creating the awareness of “Egyptian” as a supreme or sole identity and affiliation at the heart of which was the modernist state.
Since its authoritarian creation, the state pounced on social structures (such as unions, mayoral and elders system, Sufism, judicial system, religious endowments and institutions) and overpowered them. This stripped society of its ability to self-organise and manage its own affairs, making administration “centralised” and “state-oriented” under the pretext of knowing public good and national interests. It was natural for the state, through its bureaucratic and military institutions (the incubators of Egyptian consciousness), to monopolise the output of political leaders throughout its history beginning with Ahmed Orabi, then Saad Zaghloul, Abdel-Nasser and his successors.
While revolution is not necessarily against the state every time, any revolution is certainly against an authoritarian state, since revolution is a move by the people to restore society to the heart of the action and its role as decision maker. This state, even without electoral fraud, has excluded society through political and legal systems imposed from above.
It seems, however, the state has “captivated” politicians of all stripes and thus they cling to its rationale – even in their revolutionary claims that are the most extreme form of opposition.
The state beguiled those who are terrified of changing its identity – mostly from the middle and upper middle class in big cities – who more than others were seduced by its allure because of frequent exposure and influence by its media and educational output, as well as legal systems and bureaucratic apparatus.
They saw in it an identity that needs to be protected from the danger of Islamisation and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a prestige that must be protected at any price because of its contribution to “maintaining social peace”. This, in reality, uses the power of the state to block any widespread opposition to existing social injustice.
They have forgotten that this state with this identity – and its attempt to reproduce society to conform to it – resulted in the persecution of those who are not in its image, such as Bedouins and Nubians. Since they do not comply with the Egyptian identity criteria, they continue to be viewed with suspicion. They were given the choice of abandoning their cultural identity and complying with the central authoritarian state in its educational, legal and other systems, or otherwise be accused of lacking Egyptianness. Thus, security measures became the primary means of dealing with them, similar to what ethnic minorities in Turkey faced during the rise of the national state.
Meanwhile, since its inception the state captivated Islamists during its quick rise at the end of the 19th Century which coincided with increasing interest in it. This did not take the form of a critical view of the consequence of its prominence, but instead shifted the focus of religious activism by some from the social arena to the political domain.
Religious action before that time was mostly focused on social aspects such as Sufism. Suddenly, it became political after politics invaded all spheres with the rise of the modern state, and thus the emergence of Islamist movements was the most notable manifestation of this transformation.
With the rise of the state and widespread practice of the law, the main mission of Islamists was to “codify Sharia” which shows their complete infatuation with the state. First, by transforming the “Sharia” project from a social one in all respects (as it was through mosques, Sufi groups, religious endowments and religious education) into a primarily political one (seeking to possess the state which is a tool for change, instead of objecting to the existence of such an unprecedented powerful entity that interferes in society from above).
Second, by surrendering to the notion of legitimacy in the modern state based on codification, which contradicts – because of its closed legal rules – the nature of open-format jurisprudence and holds society even more hostage to the state’s power. In the past, types of litigation were more encompassing and distant from the state. Thus, this acceptance meant abandoning any liberation projection aiming to rebuild the nation on the basis of empowering society, independence and non-exploitation.
Being captivated by the state is the reason behind major problems after Mubarak’s ouster, because it highlighted the wide gap between politicians – of all stripes and various degrees of infatuation with the state – who want to occupy the seat of power on the one hand, and society that no longer fits in the modules created for it on the other hand.
Because politicians embraced the rationale of state, they failed to provide the broad framework that society needs for movement, and thus failed to build any political system that is socially legitimate. This manifested itself in successive waves of violence and gradual decline of voter turnout in elections and referendums, starting with parliamentary elections in 2011 until the constitutional referendum in 2012.
Avoiding the allure of state does not necessarily mean overthrowing it altogether, but instead focusing on society and means of empowering and strengthening it so it becomes the foundation, and the one giving the state its identity not the other way around. Empowering society comes through activating self-government tools and limiting the influence of the state’s unified centralised laws. This is the best gateway for the revolution’s more just distribution and true meaningful democracy (not only relating to the right to vote but also the right to take decisions that are more relevant to the citizen’s daily life, whether on local government spending, how security agencies operate and their relationship to the local citizenry, oversight of them, etc).
This leads to accepting diversity to avoid stereotyping (which is a branch of making market value dominant), liberating the will (not only by voting but also protecting humanity from the bondage of a centralised state system that transforms people into tools like any other resource), restoring dignity, and creating hope in the future at a time when we desperately need it.