The state, the street and the middle class

Tewfick Aclimandos
Wednesday 14 Feb 2018

Many commentators see the Egyptian state as being in crisis but for often very different reasons

In Egypt, almost all my friends are either scholars working for state institutions, including the media, or high-ranking civil servants. We have weekly discussions, and sometimes, like last week, we welcome newcomers to our circle. I also might be invited to join new ones. Most of these circles discuss domestic policy, or foreign policy, though a few prefer to focus on cultural life. While foreign policy is predominant in our discussions, we also spend time on the domestic situation. Sometimes we evoke specific issues, and sometimes we assess the situation as a whole.

My friends constitute a small circle, and they are definitely not representative. However, they have good memories, long experience, extensive networks and devote a lot of time to reflect on their own practice. There are also serious divergences among them. Most would probably disavow my summary of their discussions and have sharp words for my contributions. Nevertheless, I want to submit my own impressions. I do not claim that these are scientific, or that my method is beyond criticism. I simply hope to provide some insights.

This series of articles is the fruit of the coming together of three sets of questions, the first regarding the rationality of the Egyptian state and its relations with society. The second scrutinises the destiny of the Egyptian middle classes and the semi-permanent failure of the state to use them or to benefit from their material and symbolic resources. The late US economist Albert Hirschman once drew a distinction between exit, voice and loyalty. The question here is why so many members of the Egyptian middle classes have opted for “exit” or “exile”, either by retreating to the private sphere or through emigration. Of course, many others have chosen loyalty, though only a few have chosen “voice”. Once every 30 or 40 years, voice becomes the main option, however.

The third set of questions is a very recent one and is the direct cause of this series. The number of civil servants, judges and security officials who use the metaphor of the “street” instead of, or may be together with, the idea of “society”, has often struck me. They have construed an entity called the “street”, describing it, selecting some of its characteristics, and considering it to be a threat, a kind of sleeping tsunami.

This idea of the “street” might be a synonym for public opinion, which is how foreign pundits use it. For many of my friends, the “street” has been a symbol of lawlessness, anarchy, crime, secrecy, backwardness, confessional strife, and of course statelessness. It is a space where neither the law, nor religion or ethics are present, a space embodied by thousands of “street children,” who are also considered as a sleeping time bomb. The “street” has been the enemy.

Of course, the usage of this term by foreigners and by domestic officials has something in common. While the street may look quiet, it is potentially vociferous. Both sets of commentators also consider the “street” to be potentially dangerous to the regime. However, for many foreign pundits the “street” is also the society, whereas the officials either draw a distinction between two kinds of street, the good and the bad, or consider the “street” as a whole to be a threat to society.

The society, or the “good street”, is composed of decent people, rational and moderate in character, who are engaged in earning a living, maybe in an informal way, but a decent one nonetheless. The informal sector is often seen as being located somewhere between the decent society and the lawless street, with a foot in both.

Almost all my friends would admit that the state is in crisis. They would accept the broad picture depicted by scholars who evoke corruption, poor governance, a lack of transparency, authoritarianism, incompetence, bloated bureaucracy, nepotism, a lack of control and so on. But whereas some consider these things to be the result of poor choices that have not been corrected, others tend to consider them to be the results of poor education, backwardness, demographic pressures, lack of money and the vexing complexities of the issues.

The implications of both views are clear: for the former, the regime is responsible for the dire situation, whereas for the latter, the elites are operating in a terribly difficult context and our judgements should not be too harsh. The former consider the ruling elite to be part of the problem, whereas the latter consider it to be rational, if powerless, and to be the only hope for a solution provided it acts intelligently and is given enough time. Of course, many commentators may quickly change their minds and switch from one discourse to the other or combine the two sets of analysis.

Almost all agree that there is a problem of sovereignty and of the rule of law. One close friend thinks that many in the Egyptian elite no longer know what a sovereign state is, being one that is able to impose its will, protect the public interest and project power. He tends to link this with ignorance and corruption and not with a lack of means. Ignorance and corruption act together to destroy rationality and legality. A mixture of nepotism, depriving the state of competent elements, and ethnocentrism sustains ignorance.

He also thinks that the decline of the country’s university faculties of law has led to a decline in the judiciary and of the rule of law, putting sovereignty and the rule of law in danger as a result. Taken together, this means that the state is unwilling, and is more and more unable, to impose its will and that it is too prone to disastrous concessions that compromise the future.

Others see things differently. They acknowledge the sharp decline in the level of the bureaucratic elites, but whereas some say the syndrome is general, others consider some institutions to be immune to it. Some would even say the contrary and that the elites, given the paucity of means and the complexities of the issues, act quite rationally. This rationality is different from that identified by the German social scientist Max Weber, and it may shock those who are committed to it. Nevertheless, it is not absurd, and it is efficient, given the state of “society” or the “street”.

I confess that I have some sympathy for this view. I would not say it is correct in all cases, or even in most. But I would say that we should start by giving it a chance before reaching a diagnosis.

There are many disagreements about the rule of law in Egypt. Some would say that the state does not abide by the law and sets a poor example; others would say an absurd set of laws constrict its actions; and others still would say that the state is completely unable to impose the rule of law. All these commentators have a point.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: