The Egyptian State: Both deep and shallow

Hania Sholkamy , Sunday 3 Jun 2012

Revolutionaries have so far failed to unite and sever the former regime's long tentacles. With renewed anger generated by the Mubarak trial verdict, they mustn't commit the same mistakes again

A few months ago analysts started talking about “the deep state” of Egypt.  They were referring to the forces that have resisted the sweep or revolution and made the path to change and transformation both difficult and unclear.

The deep state is comprised of the security and administrative apparatuses and the interests and values that they represent and support that had begun to consistently endanger the future of a new Egypt.  It is truly astonishing that anyone was astonished to note that a counter-revolution was on the horizon!

The new political elites of Egypt, whether those installed in parliament or others adored by the media and respected by the public, have been naively complacent about this deep state.

For example, parliament did not get round to passing a law that curtails the political rights of the old guard until the nominations for presidential candidates had actually happened and the elections committee was about to terminate its deliberations on the eligibility of presidential candidates.

Only then did parliament literally make up a law on the hoof. In what was a sad day for Egyptian legislation, parliamentarians made a bizarre show of their frustrations and fears at the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq as they trampled on constitutional principles and passed what turned out to be an in-effective law.

Could they have not realised that the ‘deep state lay in waiting?  Why did they not pre-empt this deep state? Why did they wait to react to its emergence? But it is not only parliamentarians who are at fault.  The recent presidential election illustrates the extent to which chasm that is appearing in the country.

Why did 10 million Egyptians vote for the two strong political movements and forces that pre-existed the revolution? Why are court verdicts and sentences lenient with some and harsh on others? Why are people desirous of safety and of stability over change and transformation? The answers may be that the deep state is at work! There are three possible explanations for this stand off and for the intransience of this force in society.

The first concerns the immediate post revolutionary moment. During the celebrations and while basking in the glory of victory, the revolutionaries trusted in their own strength and prowess and forgot the urgency of the moment. They spent the spring of 2011 on television and the lecture circuits instead of in deep and disciplined work on capitalising on their courageous accomplishments and on the sacrifices of those who lost life and limb. Instead of consolidating, the revolutionaries dispersed.

No organised political force emerged to challenge the deep state at a serious level. It was all media talk and not about institutions or processes but about individuals and anecdotes. The revolution began to seem cliquish and personality driven thus permitting a revival of old political elites.

The second explanation concerns the nature of the Egyptian deep state itself. Despite what is often said to the contrary, Egypt is a country of institutions, procedures and processes. Revolution can remove a fragment of the edifice of the state but cannot do away with the whole structure. When a prominent left winger called for the destruction of the state itself as a necessary step towards revolution and transformation, the public and the formal political parties and politicians were worried and disenchanted.  No one in Egypt wants a blood bath or purges that may unjustly injure or dispossess the innocent. However the state in Egypt can only be transformed through a systematic and methodical engagement with its functions, values, and processes.  Otherwise and regardless of who is in parliament or in vogue, the state will guard its own interests and powers. To date none of the rising stars of politics have understood nor seriously problematised the state as a political agent .

This has meant that the ‘deep state’ has remained unchallenged.

The third element concerns the current political leadership in Egypt. Parliament, parties, presidential candidates, commissions and committees have failed to lead, give hope, forge a vision or rise above their limited (not to say petty) peeves and ambitions. No capable set of hands or heads has emerged to enable us to transition and transform. People have therefore looked back rather than forward since for millions there seems to be nothing to look forward to.

The heady days of what seemed like a quick and clear victory of protestors over president is long over.  The days when the families of martyrs were toasted and revered or when youth were applauded and championed are long gone. The deep state is back in the game but so are the millions who first started this road to a new Egypt. The ruling that freed senior officers of the ministry of interior has been met with anger and will not pass in peace. If a new revolution is brewing, I hope that this time the lessons of the past have been learnt and that politicians and protestors engage with and try to make peace with the Egyptian state so as to rid the state of its demons and rid the country of the elements that seek to keep it in turmoil and in despair.

The writer is assistant professor at the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo


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