Understanding my ignorance and yours

Tewfick Aclimandos
Wednesday 11 Sep 2019

What do we really know about the Egyptian state and its institutions, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

The older I get, the more I understand how much and how deeply ignorant I am. The fact that this ignorance is our common lot is also not a consolation. In fact, it is disturbing.

I am wondering whether politics does not share this ignorance with social and political science, as politics is the art of doing sound things while having often very limited knowledge and understanding.

I do not say this out of modesty, false or real. It might be arrogance, but I also do not believe in relativism, as while things are surely relative this does not mean that relativism – meaning there is no truth – is a sound philosophical option. The same distinction goes for science and scientism. The fact that science has solved a lot of problems and is contributing to improving our lot despite its many shortfalls does not mean that science or scientists should govern us or that science has the solution to all our problems, or even a correct understanding of them.

Let us be more specific. On a daily basis, I read a lot of fine studies. Many of them are incredibly subtle, and before continuing I want to pay tribute to many of my Egyptian and foreign colleagues’ formidable ability, dedication and hard work.

Saying that we are all ignorant does not mean that all scholars are equal. There are some giants whose works are inspiring, and there are other people who are intelligent but say things that are terribly wrong. There are also people who are neither intelligent nor right in what they say.

Ignorance has degrees. For instance, we should draw a distinction between countries with reliable statistical data and those where this is unavailable. Having data does not protect you from errors, but it is necessary nevertheless.

The same thing goes for archives. I would like to warn against the fetishistic adoration of archives. Anybody who has experience writing a research report will know the limits of diplomatic correspondence or of the minutes of a meeting. I wrote one of the latter once, and from reading it you might get the impression that tension reigned at the beginning of the meeting, with insults and reproaches flying, only to give way to calm and technical discussion afterwards.

But this would be the wrong impression. In fact, at the beginning of the meeting people were joking, smiling and teasing each other. When the technical discussion started, hatreds became more palpable. It was as if I was watching killers trying to score points as if their lives were at stake.

But how can you write a serious study without using archives? Doing so is the lot of most political scientists and sociologists. They rely on observation, statistics, interviews, media monitoring and sound or unsound preconceptions. They may also “participate” in what they are writing about.

This is not the place to discuss the advantages and pitfalls of each of these tools. Suffice it to say that none of them is sufficient and finding the right combination is difficult. Starting a study with a hypothesis may help you find a way through a forest of details, but it may also blind you. Having no hypothesis is also misleading, as you then have problems selecting from the relevant details.

Adopting a method that relies on an extensive study of the details may not permit an understanding of the larger picture. For instance, studying the workings of a parliamentary commission dealing with a technocratic topic does not enable you to understand the workings and nature of the political system.

I am now near my two main arguments. In the social sciences, any scientific discourse has at some point to deal with “major narratives.” It includes some of their terminology and world views. The post-modern credo that says that such narratives no longer exist is simply another narrative, and a misleading one at that. Such narratives are necessary, unavoidable and sometimes useful. They may be “ideological,” “religious,” “philosophical,” or a mixture of some or all of these. But scientific they are not, despite their claims.

Make no mistake: some such narratives are enlightening, while others are stupid. Some studies can be used by any scholar, whatever his position on “meta-history.” Some are nearer than others to the ideal of scientific neutrality. But either they study small segments and their relationship with the broader picture has to be sorted out, or they deal with the broader picture and rely heavily on statistics and opinion studies. There are a lot of pertinent objections warning us against the meaning of such results and their exploitation.

My second argument is that in each society you study and in each domain in which you specialise, there is an unknown “black hole.” For one reason or another, these black holes are neglected by the majority of scholars. In most cases, they consider them to be both uninteresting and difficult to study.

For a long time, nobody in Europe was interested in the extreme-right movements, for example. They seemed to be something odd and belonging to the past that would soon disappear. But then the European academic community discovered in the 1980s that the extreme right was alive and kicking in Europe. It decided to consider it to be an illness, an approach that was sometimes illuminating and sometimes misleading. For instance, an illness can be cured and will then disappear. If it does not, it can weaken you or ultimately kill you. Right or wrong, the term is not neutral. It carries a lot of preconceptions, which might help us or blind us.

It seems to me that the European middle classes are understudied today, although things may be changing. I may return to this topic in another article.

In Egypt, the main such “black hole” is the Egyptian state. This set of institutions dominates society and employs millions of people. It structures their world view. Each state institution has its own culture, memory, corporatism, environment and construction of its relations with the environment. The whole set of institutions has its own culture. These institutions work together or fight each other. They have a kind of self-consciousness that evolves with time.

What do we know about the Egyptian state and its institutions? We quarrel over its proper characterisation, seeing it as authoritarian, bureaucratic, patrimonial, legal-rational, barbarian, suffering from oriental despotism, modern, and so on. We believe we are being smart when we use the term “deep state.”

But I think that in fact we know very little about it, and therefore that our knowledge of Egypt is vitiated. 


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

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