Modern Egypt — (VI) The freedom theorist

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 8 Nov 2022

Tarek Osman writes on Abdel-Rahman Al-Kawakibi, an originally Syrian thinker who spent his last years in Cairo, as part of his series of articles on the makers of modern Egypt


Abdel-Rahman Al-Kawakibi lived the last two years of his life in Cairo after having spent the previous 48 years in Aleppo and Antioch in his native Syria. Yet, his brief time in Egypt created his legacy and proved highly significant for Egypt’s modern culture. 

Al-Kawakibi came to Cairo fleeing Ottoman limitations on his work. It was in Egypt that he published his magnum opus, “The Characteristics of Tyranny and the Killing of Enslavement,” a title that rhymes beautifully in the original Arabic.

The book contains eight main messages. The first is that the people, and not the ruling elites, are responsible for the oppression they suffer from. In Al-Kawakibi’s view, the submission to and toleration of injustice gives rise to tyranny. The emergence and establishment of totalitarian political regimes is a bottom-up process built on fear in the prevailing culture. 

Second, fear is not a superficial emotion stirred by tyranny. Instead, it seeps into a society’s collective consciousness as a result of how that society’s foundational ideas are perceived. Characteristically courageously, Al-Kawakibi argued that in the Arab and Ottoman East of his time religion was the most important of such foundational ideas in a stark condemnation not only of the religious establishment, but also of centuries-old understandings of religion. 

Third, tyrannical regimes had learnt from centuries of experience that selective learning is the key to sustaining their rule. This meant promoting the natural sciences but discouraging the social ones and supporting religious studies and encouraging debate about the nature of theology and its application to life but fighting the spread of the humanities and the development of philosophy. For Al-Kawakibi, the social sciences and humanities engender a culture of freedom of thought and expression that is tyranny’s nemesis. 

Fourth, Al-Kawakibi drew a distinction between aiming for glory and seeking glorification. The former stirred ambition, discipline, excellence, and self-control, the ingredients of being of service to oneself and others. The latter led men of ideas and action to become subservient to authority and thus the tools of tyranny. 

Fifth, Al-Kawakibi also drew a distinction between governing and governance. In his view, without a good measure of the second the first invariably descends into tyranny. The second can also never be sustained without a culture of freedom, and so is a good version of the first. 

Sixth, he linked a ruling system’s quality of governance and a society’s political economy with social equality. He saw religion as a primary source of legitimacy for tyrannical systems in the East. Despite coming from a religious background and having been a pious man himself, Al-Kawakibi ferociously attacked the religious establishment of the Ottoman and Arab East of his time for promoting the idea that social inequality was an inherent aspect of the natural and societal order. In his view, this worldview strengthened the corrupt political structures that then dominated the East. 

Seventh, Al-Kawakibi observed that as tyranny establishes itself in a society and becomes the essence of governing, people’s value systems change. They become more narrowly focused on their own needs and wants and dismissive of those of society as a whole. People become more focused on fleeting pleasures. Frivolity, mediocrity, and coarseness take hold, and people become inimical to attempts to educate and enlighten them. In such situations, the victims of tyranny become its most efficient supporters. 

Al-Kawakibi thus arrived at his final point: that in societies that are submissive to tyranny the upbringing of children descends into a farce whose main victim is the children’s inner life. Families of different classes become blind to their own mental, intellectual, and emotional afflictions and pass them on to the next generation. 

For many people at the time, Al-Kawakibi was a new Ibn Khaldoun, the originally Tunisian historian and philosopher of the 14th century CE who is known for his “Introduction” (Al-Muqaddimah) that is arguably the most important sociological study in history. Indeed, there are similarities between the two men’s observations. But unlike Ibn Khaldoun, Al-Kawakibi was not concerned with the spiritual and philosophical aspects of human refinement and social development. 

This is important, because Ibn Khaldoun, like almost all the serious thinkers of the Islamic (and Greek and Gnostic Christian) schools of thought, considered human refinement and social development to be necessary routes for humanity’s progress from matter to spirit, basically humanity’s journey back to its divine origin. 

This did not concern Al-Kawakibi, perhaps making him a lesser philosopher than Ibn Khaldoun. But much more than Ibn Khaldoun he focused on the here and now of his time, being concerned to explain the nature of tyranny and how to overcome it. He saw this as the quintessential struggle of Arab and Ottoman societies at the time.

It is at this point that Egypt enters Al-Kawakibi’s story. He believed that Egypt at the end of the 19th century had three advantages that gave it the opportunity, far more so than all the other countries of the region at the time, to become the centre of illumination for the entire East.

Egypt’s political system was far more permissive and more open to freedom of thought and expression than that of any other Eastern country. Although Al-Kawakibi was not particularly fond of the khedives Ismail or Tawfik, the rulers of Egypt at the time, he thought that the rule of the Mohamed Ali Dynasty had established a balance between different institutions and societal powers and constituencies in Egypt such that no one of them was able to dominate the others. This nascent form of checks and balances was, in Al-Kawakibi’s view, a unique asset that Egypt alone possessed of all the countries of the region at the time.

Second, Al-Kawakibi believed that Egypt had a much higher level of social equality compared to most other countries in the region. He paid particular attention to the condition of women and the religious and ethnic minorities. In his view, late 19th-century Cairo and Alexandria were far ahead of their regional neighbours in this respect. 

Third, Egypt at the time was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire but was actually part of the British Empire. However, relative to its neighbours and Turkey at the same time, it was socially open and economically thriving, and its rulers had considerable freedom in internal political matters. 

Like his contemporary Jamaluddin Al-Afghani, the subject of the previous article in this series, Al-Kawakibi understood that Egypt’s then agrarian society and tranquil way of life sustained social stability and cohesion, making it a natural base for movements whose impacts could reach far beyond its borders. 

Egypt also had another impact on Al-Kawakibi’s thought. Most of the articles he had published during his most active years in Aleppo and Antioch had discussed the freedom of thought and expression, mental emancipation, and public and private rights. In Egypt, however, he wrote about societal consciousness. Unlike Ibn Khaldoun and many other philosophers, he did not write about the development of individual consciousness. Instead, drawn to the practicalities of the here and now and devoted to the struggle against tyranny, he focused on the values needed to strengthen a society’s moral fabric, something he believed was essential if it was to resuscitate its integrity, reclaim its glory, and defeat tyranny. 

He believed that because of the advantages mentioned above Egypt had the potential to develop such a bedrock.  

Some 120 years after his death, Al-Kawakibi’s ideas might seem naive. However, they did not only find a wide following in Egypt in the first quarter of the 20th century, but were also the seeds of Egypt’s then liberal age. 

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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