Book Review: Crisis of state legitimacy or Islam?

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Tuesday 11 Nov 2014

Sherif Younis shows how Islam and nationalism have fought for the hearts of Egyptians over the last 70 years

Book Cover
Book Cover (Photo: Other)

Al-Bahth 'an Khalas(Searching for Redemption) by Dr. Sherif Younis, General Egyptian Book Organization, Political Library Series, 2014. pp.415

Despite the book's title, Searching for Redemption, it doesn't offer any redemption, but instead presents a critique of two narratives -- nationalist and Islamist -- about Egyptian modern history. At the same time, Younis is completing his intellectual and historical project in criticising the Nasserist experience in two books starting with The Holy March (2005) followed by The Call of the People (2012) and criticising Islamic fundamentalism in Sayyid Qutb and Islamic Fundamentalism (1995). In the same context, Younis translated a considerable number of intellectual and historical works relevant to his own project, such as Khaled Fahmy's books All the Pasha's Men and The Body and Modernity, and others.

The book traces the path of modernising the state and Islam in Egypt through presenting a different narrative from prevalent ones about the crisis of the legitimacy of the Egyptian modern state and the consequent crisis of Islam. From the first moment, the modern state was established in an authoritarian way from the top during Muhammad Ali's reign. Thus, the crisis was simply a difficult and strenuous path resulting from modernisation that was imposed from the top over the population from the outset.

Throughout the book's five parts, the author began constructing his historical structure slowly, in order to reveal the truth behind the crisis which the Egyptians lived and were being caught between the hammer of political Islam – mainly the Muslim Brotherhood faction – and the anvil of the 23 July regime.

On another perspective, we can consider that the first three chapters are more like laying the foundations and tuning the basic concepts and notions regarding religion and power. Then the author moves towards launching modernisation since Muhammad Ali's reign and his successors during the Khedivate era who sought to establish a strong central administration connected directly to the population, collecting taxes from them without mediators, interfering rudely in their economic activity, investing them in the context of its seizure of almost all the surplus to provide the human and financial resources to set up a strong modern army.

Laying the foundations also included shaping the political sphere in Egypt and the emergence of Egyptian nationalism. The foundation part ends with a chapter on the rise of the Brotherhood. If this group began as an advocate group doing charitable work, its ultimate objective crystallized, namely to establish an Islamic state and restore the caliphate. What accelerated this crystallisation is the contact Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, made with the Royal Palace, then his absolute support for the King and his group lining up behind the Palace as soldiers of the king.

The case was that the group wasn't built as a political party and didn't aim at attaining power through elections, but it was a kind of a missionary religious faction built on individual recruitment and reshaping the awareness of individuals and their relationships, adopting special beliefs and a vision of the world in which the group becomes its pivot.

Within this context, it can be understood why the group chose violence and political assassination in the second half of the 1940s. This violence didn't stop at throwing bombs at buildings, but it transcended this to assassinating the judge who convicted the Brotherhood killers. This drove Mahmoud Fahmi Al-Nuqrashi, Prime Minister at the time, to dissolve the group, which retaliated by assassinating him. The next prime minister's response was plotting the assassination of Hassan Al-Banna himself.

As for the three following parts, the author devotes them to rereading the last six decades of the modern Egyptian history since the rise of the July regime until the decay of this regime, the downfall of Mubarak and the revolution's break-out. During those decades, the author discusses the rise of Qutbist current and its predominance within the Brotherhood, the collapse of the political regime, the role Anwar Sadat played in this respect and the Islamic awakening on the eve of the January revolution 2011.  

Regarding the rise of the of the July regime, the Free Officers decided after their successful coup in July 1952 to abolish political life with the support of the Brotherhood, then the confrontation that occurred with the group itself following the assassination attempt on Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1954. The new regime solely dominated the universities, suffocated the students movement and controlled the syndicates, associations and newspapers in order to evacuate the public sphere from any opposition. Soon the political organisations, which the July regime established, collapsed one after the other: Liberation Rally, the National Union and the Arab Socialist Union.

Younis dedicated a special chapter to the Qutbist current, through which he traces the biggest contribution that Sayyid Qutb has made to the Brotherhood. For he sees that Qutb's thesis is a "radical reframing of the religious reformation thought," setting up a new point of departure, which doesn't start from the reality of modernity and its requirements but refusing it utterly from the outset.

While Qutb convicted any interpretations in the detailed principles of canonical law related to life during the modernist circumstances, he saw that interpretation lies in reading the Holy Qur'an and the Prophet's life in its entirety in search of the original divine plan for empowerment implicitly lying there, because it is the only right plan. From the Qutbist current, a number of off-shoots sprang out which were more extremist such as the Excommunication and Exodus group (Takfir wal-Hijra in Arabic), or the other Jihadist groups until reaching the Al-Qaeda organisation. 

Through this logic, Qutbism can be considered an "Islamised national trend and even the Qutbist discourse at the end of the day is a national discourse." In order to achieve those objectives, Qutb presented his conception regarding the "Believers League," which is a kind of an organisation gathering those believing in the "True" religion. The League raised the question of taking charge and directly ruling to become the state of Islam an embodiment of the League, thus eliminating the difference between religion and power. Younis states the project was basically imaginary.

The next chapter is devoted to the crack in the ruling regime, for in the last days of Nasser the right has risen to power. After Nasser's death, Sadat made a palace coup which led, following the October War's end, to totally changing the political agenda and beginning the so-called peace with Israel, the connectedness with the USA, the rise of political Islam and making alliance with it to strike the Nasserites and the communists, culminating in Sadat's assassination by the groups which he provided with all the elements of growth.

Finally, Younis' alternative narrative doesn't present the story of the Egyptian state and Islam with modernisation only, but it also puts it in its international context and recounts the emergence and development of the legitimacy crisis which surrounded the Egyptian modern state since its birth, hindering its transfer to democracy.



Short link: