We need a true Arab renaissance: Author of 'Arab Revolutions and Constituency Discourse'

Mary Mourad , Tuesday 31 Jan 2012

A discussion on the book 'Arab Revolutions and Constituency Discourse' criticises the 1900's political renaissance and pushes for a cultural and conscious discourse conducive to a true Arab rennaissance

Aly Mabrouk

An exciting discussion centred on the book, Arab Revolutions and Constituency Discourse, at the Cairo International Book Fair. The author, Aly Mabrouk; professor and philosopher, Abdel-Monem Tallima; and professor of philosophy at Helwan University, Anwar Mogheith led the discussion on what form discourse should take in Egypt post-revolution.

The title Arab Revolutions and Constituency Discourse implies that any action (such as a revolution) requires a discourse that identifies its path and future. The book compares the old debates to the new, post-revolution discourse.

The decaying discourse in Egypt started with the Arab renaissance in the early 1990s. With the advent of Egypt's revolution on 25 January 2011, however, the political future needs new lands and to recreate itself with a new discourse that supports it.

"It's an attempt through constant exploring and criticism of the past to find alternatives inspired from the events [the revolution]," Tallima described the book.

Mabrouk, went over the book's five areas of investigation. The first section criticises the discourse of the past, starting with the renaissance. The author claims that the renaissance seemed to politicise all concepts, like religion. A purposeful, political plan seemed to be the miracle answer for the Arab world to reach modernity, thus the focus on building large institutions, such as the parliament, cabinet, etc.

All these modern political concepts, however, did not make meaningful advances because time proved that authoritarianism was entrenched in Egypt.

Mabrouk then tackles the institutionalisation of the renaissance in the next section. There was a perceived need for an institution – in Egypt it became the university – to lead to modernity. However, the university fumbled because instead of being a place of innovation or teaching critical thinking it became an institution that simply compiled and passed on information.

The alternative, proposed in Mabrouk's book, is to think in terms of culture, making the discourse a conceptual matter and not so much an institution-building or political matter.

The next section deals with the superficial push for innovation through the renaissance that conflicted and was hindered by conservative- and heritage-based mindset. This reality is unbridgeable. The duality that emerged is a society with an old mind trying to move into the future with a modern body, which was nearly impossible to manage, as Mabrouk explains.

Mabrouk criticises the Arab mindset that has prioritised ideology over knowledge.

The book ends by applying these concepts to the Arab state that Mabrouk describes as "the modern state that is, yet, very traditional."

This traditional core is what ought to be reconsidered, asserts Mabrouk. Now, Egyptians are at a point where they can consciously guide the discourse – with the benefit of hindsight – to deconstruct and possibly build a new, both modern and mindful Arab state.

Tallima summarised the argument very well, "The revolution is a cultural action; therefore, we must deconstruct our state and move forward using the new definitions of culture, creating the new discourse based on the revolution itself and building from there."

Anwar Mogheith, commented first by stressing he agrees with many of the concepts, but voiced his various concerns: the first of which is Mabrouk's definition of "reality." Mabrouk described reality as "unknown." Mogheith seems to say that this pessimistic outlook makes progress unattainable.

Mogheith's second concern was Mabrouk's conclusion that there's a tendency to rush reforms without proper consideration. Mogheith argues that the outside world, and, in fact, Egyptians themselves, feel reforms are coming too slowly – with some steps seen as backwards, even!

Arab rejection of many concepts simply because they were born in the West, including liberalism, Marxism, secularism, etc. was also noted in Mabrouk's book. He fears that Arabs, out of pride, would waste time reinventing the wheel just to give it an Arab touch.

"We keep looking for our unique formula all the time, which was, in fact, what led to the previous regime and the dictatorship. It totally failed," Mogheith argued. He pointed to the previous regime's constant refusal to adopt human rights or certain reforms under the excuse that "it's not suitable for our culture."

Tallima wrapped up the session by highlighting that the book's most important point was to distinguish between political and cultural discourse, and that the book points out the need to refocus on culture, which has been long out of the picture.

"The world is waiting for Egypt to discover its new path, and if we choose to reject that relationship with the world and keep looking for our particularities, then we'll suffer seclusion. The term nahda (renaissance in Arabic) was popular throughout the last two centuries, as well as terms like culture, constitutions, revolution, justice etc. But today we must discover new, completely different definitions. We must break with the discourse that is linked to the dictatorship, whatever its source or implications," Tallima closed the session, leaving us to consider and rethink while we work to build the new Egypt.

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