Books not to miss this book fair – State and identity: This is not the question

Dina Ezzat , Monday 27 Jan 2020

With the inauguration of the Cairo ‎International Book Fair (22 January-4 ‎February), Ahram Online offers a series of ‎recommendations for avid readers


El-Bahth aan Khalas – Azmat El-Dawla wel-Islam wel-Hadatha fi Masr (The quest for Salvation – The crisis of state, Islam and modernity in Egypt) by: Sherif Younis, (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation), 2014

A state stranded between an assumed, and in fact deceptive, dream of religion-based "imperialhood," and a failed dream of a strong nation state is inevitably a sad story. This is actually a story of failed institutionalisation of the modern state.

This is basically the argument that political historian Sherif Younis is arguing in his 2014 book El-Bahth aan Khalas – Azmat El-Dawla wel-Islam wel-Hadatha fi Masr (The quest for Salvation – The crisis of state, Islam and modernity in Egypt).

Published by the General Egyptian Book Organisation in the wake of the elimination of the rule of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, the first president to rule after the January Revolution, this book was designed perhaps to argue the case for the need of a modern state that is freed from the assumed – at times contradicting but not always mutually exclusive -  schemes of the "July Regime" or the "Islamist Movement".

Both schemes, which have used the highly misleading base of identity, one way or the other, Younis argues in a voluminous book of 400 pages, have failed the true requirements of a fully modern state.

The book is not offering any sympathy either for the regime that "the Free Officers assembled after their coup in 1952" – with all its manifestations from Gamal Abdel-Nasser to Hosni Mubarak – or to the "manipulative schemes of Islamsits, including the Muslim Brotherhood." It is rather critical of both concepts as inapt for modernity.

The fact that one of these trends would step in to fill a vacuum created by the failure of the other, Younis argues, is no indication that either could allow for Egypt to finally find its path towards true modernity. Neither has had the answer to Egypt's problem, he insists.

With a host of introductory chapters that set the reader into the mood of seeing the author’s distinct determination to separate the question of identity from that of modernity, when it comes to statehood, Younis is dedicating the biggest part of his 14-chapter book to depict the reasons behind the continued dilemma that haunted subsequent regimes, from that of the khedives as established by Mohamed Ali, in the early 19th century, and his heirs, through the monarchy and subsequent republic rulers.

In a very clever construct, Younis designs the sequence of his book in the order that would put the reader in a constant comparison between the "July Regime" that he argues saw its last days upon the January Revolution, and the "Islamist Movement" which he suggested lost its last bet post, or maybe during, the January moment.

For Younis, the failures were only inevitable for any type of "statehood" that is based on depending on the army to promise a modern state, as the July Regime seemed to do, or on the Quranic text to assume the legitimacy to rule, as the Islamists would claim.

As he argues his case, Younis is often offering the reader detailed pictures of the layered dynamics that often involve multiple agents – like political parties and religion institutions – that come together in a battle of power that is not conducive to the pursuit of modernity.

It is only when all these agents come to terms with the fact that it takes more than religion and more than an army, along with an ultra security mechanism, that Egypt would finally find the path of salvation from the long, redundant and false question of state and identity.

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