In praise of polarisation

Mona Anis , Thursday 4 Aug 2011

The implications of last Friday's show of force by the Salafists has to be read within the wider context of the limitations of the rest of the political forces now competing in Egypt

On Friday 28 July, a great many liberal or socialist Egyptians were jolted out of their apparent slumbers when they heard tens of thousands of people chanting “Islamic, Islamic, neither eastern nor western” in the streets.

Over the course of the previous week, they had been trying to negotiate a kind of consensus with the representatives of the various Islamist groups regarding the slogans and ideas that were to be promoted on the different podiums that Friday, including the largest, that run by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, when Salafists from different parts of the country poured into Tahrir Square from the early hours of Friday morning onwards, waving black Jihad and green Wahabi flags and carrying placards demanding the application of Sharia Law (Islamic Law), it became patently obvious that a week’s negotiations had come to nothing.

Dr Amr Hamzawy, a liberal political scientist and a participant in the negotiations, wrote in his daily column in the newspaper Al-Shorouk that “what took place in Tahrir Square has demonstrated the limited ability of the Islamists to build a societal consensus and to abide by any agreement reached between them and other national [political] forces.”

Hamzawy, who had been advocating consensual politics and warning against polarisation over the previous few weeks, seemed now to have changed his mind, since he argued that “we are back to square one, with polarisation between advocates of a religious state and those of a civil state, the former claiming to monopolise religion and wrongly accusing the latter of being sacrilegious and wanting to exclude religion altogether.”

His advice was that all the political forces in the country that had previously been engaged in forming electoral alliances with the Islamists should now pull out of any such alliances and form a “National Front” to defend the civil state instead.

However, the problem with an argument of this sort is that the concept of the civil state is itself quite nebulous. This is a concept that is often used as a euphemism for secularism or the separation of church and state, but we live in the 21st century and have not been ruled by church or mosque since the beginning of the 19th. As for Hamzawi’s claim that “civil forces,” whichever these are, do not want to exclude religion from politics, this is also hard to make sense of. If these forces do not want to do that, what do they want?

It is also disheartening to see that the Islamists are more rigorous in their use of terminology than are their adversaries, the beneficiaries of modern western educations. In their attempts not to antagonise the conservative majority, Egypt’s secularists have been trying to avoid using this term, instead hiding behind terms like “civil forces” and advocating a “civil state” and a “civil society” without ever really defining these terms.

In his groundbreaking essay “State and Civil Society: Observations on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Political Parties in Periods of Organic Crisis,” collected in Prison Notebooks (written in prison between 1929-1935), the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote that “at a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’. ”

As is well known, Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini, who, following an attempt on his life, decided to end any semblance of bourgeois democracy in Italy in 1926. Gramsci was arrested in 1928 and given a 20-year sentence. “For 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning,” declared the Italian public prosecutor at Gramsci's trial. Suffering from a deteriorating state of health, Gramsci was moved to hospital in summer 1935, dying in April 1937. Yet, throughout his prison years, Gramsci worked on refining many of the concepts we discuss today, especially those pertaining to the “exceptional state,” with fascism being the example he pointed to.

In his essay on the state and civil society, Gramsci examined many of the concepts we use today, prime among them the twin notions of civil society and hegemony. According to Gramsci, civil society is not the opposite of religious society, but is the form through which social classes resist the state during wars of position before any more outright conflict takes place. “A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise ‘leadership’ before winning governmental power,” Gramsci wrote, since “this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power.”

Hence, the present decision to exclude social forces that adopt a religious ideology from the civil struggle is an erroneous one, as civil, picking up from Gramsci’s characterisation, is not the opposite of religious and if anything is the opposite of military.

The opposite of religious ideology is secular ideology, and secularists should have the courage to call themselves by that name. Our parents and grandparents dared to call a spade a spade. Without polarisation on every front, theoretical and otherwise, we will just keep running round in circles, always ending back at square one.

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