The right comparison?

Tewfick Aclimandos
Saturday 28 Sep 2019

Are there other comparisons that could be made when trying to understand Egypt’s historical experience, asks Tewfick Aclimandos

In my previous article, I suggested that the “democratic transition” paradigm, which has unquestionable virtues, was the least appropriate for trying to understand what is going on in Egypt. Then I mentioned many others, but I did not elaborate on them.

In pro-regime intellectual circles in Egypt, everybody agrees that we are witnessing the unfolding of an “authoritarian modernisation” approach, perhaps a “modernisation from above” scheme familiar from various other historical examples. Many then start to discuss whether the South Korean, Indonesian or some Latin American experience should be our guide.

I am no expert on these countries, however. Therefore, I feel disoriented, or even estranged, when such discussions start.

I also have a soft spot for other comparisons, one of them being that between Egypt and Russia. These days, I am reading books on Russia that include some by US and French authors. Martin Malia’s “Russia Under Western Eyes” is a masterpiece I strongly recommend. Alain Besançon’s “Holy Russia” and “Soviet Present, Russian Past” are also two great books that have been enthralling me. 

Sooner or later I will return to UK author Sir Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated book “Russian Thinkers”. Of course, I am also keeping an eye on the Websites of the US journals Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, among others. As a teenager, I was a voracious reader of Russian literature, and for me Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Vassily Grossman were the greatest writers of the last century. All this, of course, does not mean I am an expert on Russia, however.

Let us start with some common features between Egypt and Russia and from the starting points of the Russian tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 17th century and Egypt’s ruler Mohamed Ali 100 years later.  

Both men ruled backward societies that were frequently invaded and had unmanageable frontiers. Both societies were deeply religious. Both rulers wanted to modernise their countries and to build powerful armies for defensive or offensive purposes. This entailed the importation of Western knowledge and the building of a powerful centralised state. Funding such efforts required and legitimised the horrible exploitation of the people. This delayed or hampered the development of a powerful civil society that would be able to sustain itself without the state’s intervention. 

Both men failed to disseminate such new values into their societies, with the relative exception of the upper classes. Later, urban middle classes adopting modern values and ways of living emerged, but this was not to happen for some generations. 

The failure of both men to modernise their countries’ popular culture may have had something to do with the influence of men of religion, who had tremendous influence in their respective communities together with a commitment to inherited worldviews and a reluctance to adopt new ideas. But on many counts, these things did not really disturb the rulers.

In fact, they did not need to concern themselves with the failure to modernise their societies since their armies quickly became impressive tools. We tend to forget that the Russians reached their military peak in 1815, when they occupied Paris. Some 50 years previously (1762), they had nearly destroyed Prussia. Similarly, Egypt during Mohamed Ali’s reign conquered many nearby regions and seriously threatened Istanbul. 

However, in both the Russian and the Egyptian cases, society remained backward and poor despite such top-down successes. In both cases, the contrast was striking between a powerful army and a poor and backward country.

The successors of these founding fathers had to find some solution to this paradox. In order to enforce reform, consent and obedience, they needed the survival of traditional values and in some cases the support of men of religion. Put differently, they needed citizens to adopt some Western values, while at the same time agreeing to remain slaves, or at least subjects. They also needed slaves who would stop behaving as slaves on specific issues. 

In other words, the logic of these systems required the best of both worlds: a population of citizens accepting slavery, or a population of slaves behaving from time to time as citizens. Of course, this paradox was impossible to achieve.

Nevertheless, middle classes that were more or less independent of the state grew slowly and relentlessly in both countries. These classes were modern, and they had an interest in developing a society that would have a say in political decision-making. However, the bureaucracy and the population as a whole disliked these new classes. They did not like their individualism, or what they perceived as their greed. They did not like their tendency to give lectures or their ways of living. We may add that they did not like their perceived foreign connections.

Of course, things were much more complicated than this brief comparison suggests. But what matters is the following: the preeminence of the state was seldom questioned in either case, and when this happened, chaos reigned. Even the modern middle classes then accepted the return of an authoritarian state. Generally speaking, most Russians and Egyptians still seem to prefer top-down approaches.

Culturally speaking, Western values progressed in both countries, but these were countered by various romantic discourses. Many stressed Egyptian or Russian exceptionalism. Many said something that is quite silly – namely, that the West may be superior to us in material goods, but we have true religion, spiritual values, and are greatly superior to it in the things that really matter. 

We may add that there was a belief that this superior essence would appear when things turned critical, when it would become clear that “we” were the better warriors and would be able to achieve outstanding results when things really mattered. There was a belief that “we” understood the West but that the West did not understand us.

The two peoples have also had a complicated relationship with factual truth. Besançon has some impressive pages on this aspect of Russian culture, pointing out that it is often despicable and often admirable by turns. Both countries also have had a restless intelligentsia that is both creative and innovative but that can seem to lack both common sense and political flair.

I do not want to minimise or underrate the huge differences between the two countries. The Russian tsar was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and he had more than a say in theological disputes. The head of the later Soviet Communist Party was also the custodian of that doctrine. In Egypt, neither the rulers of the state, nor the men of religion, have ever had this kind of legitimacy, though this was not for want of trying. 

Egypt did not go through the same horrible ordeal of the last century’s world wars. It never experienced total collapse. The state established in Egypt after the 23 July Revolution had nothing to do with the Soviet one, and its repression was considerably milder than Lenin’s or Stalin’s. Most importantly, nobody ever said of Egyptians, unlike of Russians, that they oscillated between extreme evil and sublime good, occasionally combining both. In fact, a colleague once told me that a Soviet officer had once told a friend that “you Egyptians are not serious: you work half-heartedly, you take vacations half-heartedly, you make war half-heartedly. You never go to extremes.”

Despite the towering figure of late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian literature is much less impressive than Russian. Nowhere else than in Russian novels can you find a woman who is simultaneously a saint and a whore.


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


*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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