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The obstacles to democratisation
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 12 - 2012

There is a dense thicket of metaphors that need to be negotiated before we can find a way to analyse the developments that have taken place in the Arab world during the recent sociopolitical movements and revolutionary uprisings. Derived from an array of allusions, analogies and descriptive traits, these metaphors may sometimes seem to cloud our vision and impede precision in sense and significance.
For this reason, in this article I will be avoiding terms such as “revolutions”, “Arab Spring” and other such widely used and emotionally charged words that do little to help describe the nature, structures and interrelations of concrete realities. Instead, I will use the term revolutionary uprising(s). I will also affix “post-” to these phenomena since this conveys the idea of an overlap between the “pre-” and the “post-” as well as the dichotomies of clarity and ambiguity, and fluidity and coalescence, in the “post-” revolutionary period.
We find ourselves in the midst of a disturbing flux of concepts, constructs, perceptions, ways of thought, methods of work, policies, structures, political language and sociopolitical and cultural values. At the same time, we cannot speak of a “complete” Arab revolution, especially with respect to transformations tending towards the establishment of democracy in the sense of an institutionalised state, a constitution and legal guarantees for personal and civil freedoms, and a constitutionally defined system of government based on the separation of powers, clear checks and balances and regulated modes of cooperation between them.
The state of the Arab post-revolutionary uprisings points to a number of political, intellectual, cultural and social obstacles that underlie the confusion that has arisen in the visions, policies, decisions and methods that have been brought to bear in the manufacture of constitutional and legal architectures.
We need to study the problems of the transitional phase and how the political elites have been managing them if we are to get a clearer sense of the prospects of democratic development in the transition from sociopolitical and cultural authoritarianism to a constitutional democratic system. This, in turn, raises the question as to the nature of the political, social and cultural conflicts that are gripping the Arab societies in transition.
This article will examine the conflicts that persist from the pre-uprising phase and those that have arisen in the post-uprising phase and the ways they interact and impact on the democratisation process.
THE CONTINUATION OF THE AUTHORITARIAN STATE: I believe that in the post-uprising phase it will take more time and more political, social, intellectual and intergenerational ferment until we see the birth of visions and concepts, sociopolitical entities, and innovative programmes and ways of working that will help dismantle and lay to rest the deep structures, methods and legacies of the authoritarian state.
For there to be change, certain objective conditions have to be met in order to usher in new political elites that are revolutionary in their outlooks and policies. This will require a process yielding transformations in values, behaviour and attitudes, and, hence, a “revolutionary culture” that has both the time and the alternative vision of how to revolutionise the state and its agencies or how to renew it structurally on the level of the political and administrative organisation of the governmental authorities, institutions and state agencies.
From observing the Egyptian and Tunisian cases, it can be seen that there has been a continuation of the legacy of the repressive state and the policies of the pre-uprising period. This continuity is to be found in the government agencies, traditions, mechanisms, mentalities and culture, as well as in the modes of decision-making, law-making, and, indeed, constitutional declarations that perpetuate elements of dictatorial rule.
In the Egyptian case, the constitutional declarations, drafting process of the new constitution, and the recently produced draft constitution itself speak of the considerable ambiguity that surrounds political, constitutional and cultural concepts and principles. Such ambiguity also surrounds the potential for violations of basic rights and freedoms and the prospect of an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the occupant of the presidential office.
The revolutionary uprisings and the ongoing actions of the youthful revolutionary forces have brought about some limited, relative change. Yet, while the revolutionary uprising in Egypt gave its participants the rewarding surprise of the downfall of some key figures of authoritarian rule, both the old and the new opposition forces were even more surprised by the escalation of a social and political protest movement into a clamorous mass uprising.
As a consequence, these forces, both secularist and Islamist, were unprepared for the aftermath of these events and were poorly equipped with alternative visions and policies that would enable them to manage the transitional phases, with their range of conflicting pressures, rapid changes and diverse controversies, in a manner that would permit them to establish common ground, build consensus, and contain conflict and political polarisation sufficiently to avert any flare-ups of violence and help facilitate a smooth democratic transition.
At the same time, the vanguards of the revolutionary uprisings in both countries were ill-equipped to understand comparative revolutionary history, and their preparedness for the political, organisational and constitutional demands of the transitional phases was insufficiently informed by experiences in the transformation of authoritarian Marxist regimes towards European or US forms of democracy and by the democratisation processes in Latin America, Indonesia and South Africa, for example.
In Egypt, the political formations that leapt from the opposition onto the post-uprising political scene consisted largely of opposition movements that had previously worked both overtly and covertly, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and the traditional opposition parties such as the Wafd, the Tagammu and the Nasserist Party. These were joined by older or newer movements, such as some of the Salafist groups that had worked with the former regime and then formed political parties in the post-uprising period, including the Nour and Fadila parties.
These groups drew on their accumulated expertise as an official opposition through the token and restricted avenues available under an authoritarian regime. That expertise had generally been restricted to oppositional rhetoric, whose tone varied from gentle to occasional restrained toughness, and to some mass protests of pre-determined scope. The opposition discourse was thus quasi-reformist, or reformist, while some alternative elements of the official opposition that had been prevented from aspiring to formal legitimacy operated within the scope of a narrow reformism that did not exceed some limited representation and participation in parliament and other bodies or in the professional syndicates, such as the lawyers, doctors, engineers and teachers syndicates in Egypt.
As a result, it is little wonder that the leaders of the revolutionary uprising and the pre-uprising opposition forces, who had never imagined that their social/political/religious protests would gather sufficient scope and impetus to sweep away the old regime and position them on the threshold of power, were somewhat disoriented and confused following the fall of the previous regime. It is no wonder, either, that they were prone to some erroneous decisions, as was manifested in Egypt in some of the policies of the de facto rulers that assumed power after the uprising, notably in the defective roadmap for the transition and the subsequently non-transparent and erratic performance of the elected authorities.
Ultimately, such factors contributed to further uncertainty and political fluidity and led to the reproduction of the kind of authoritarian laws and modes of behaviour that had previously prevailed, and, indeed, to violations on the part of the elected authorities of the principle of the separation of powers and the perpetuation of repressive practices on the part of the state security agencies, including the maltreatment, torture and killing of some revolutionary youths.
As a result, the most salient trait of the post-uprising period has been the continuity of the authoritarian, bureaucratic and security apparatus within the framework of an elected authority that has variously girded itself with thunderous revolutionary slogans, slogans of constitutional and parliamentary legitimacy, and, at other times, alternative forms of sloganeering of a crude and politically immature nature.
AUTHORITARIANISM AS THE CULTURE OF THE REGIME: Authoritarian political culture as a mode of awareness and an approach to political, social, religious and cultural life was never the sole preserve of the ruling elites and their working environment, methods of operation and styles of decision-making from the inception of the post-independence state until the Arab revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The culture of authoritarianism and tyranny also pervaded the pre-uprising opposition forces and, notably, the political Islam movement with its particular admixtures of politics and religion, openness and secretiveness, proselytising and activism, and strict organisational discipline and unquestioning obedience behind a dark cloak of secrecy. What, so far, has been the product of this authoritarian culture that has prevailed among the Islamist newcomers to power and some of the older and newer political parties?
The answer is that it has led to the continuation of the methods of work, thought, opposition and rule that have been shaped by the same ongoing authoritarian approaches to, and methods of, handling issues, crises and lawmaking. In the Egyptian case, this manifested itself in the former ruling military authorities' promulgation of a series of constitutional declarations, decrees and other laws for the management of the political transition process, most of which echoed the pre-uprising authoritarian mode of governance.
In like manner, the laws issued by the post-uprising legislative authority and the constitutional declarations issued by the following de facto authorities were also manifestations of the same authoritarian mindset and its utilitarian approach to constitutions and laws which they regarded as instruments to impose their policies without consensus or respect for the balance of interests between rival and sometimes conflicting political players and stakeholders. Among the many examples of this, the following can be noted.
- The constitutional declaration issued by the elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in accordance with which he ushered out the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as the sovereign authority, withdrew its legislative powers and changed the SCAF leadership. A broad range of political forces which had long wanted to remove the military establishment from government welcomed the move. However, it also paved the way for the assimilation of all legislative and executive powers into the hands of the president. This totalitarian inclination and practice came as a shock after a revolutionary uprising that had been waged in the name of liberty, democracy and human dignity.
- The president's constitutional declaration of 22 November. With this declaration, the president handed the Shura Council legislative powers and immunised it against a possible Constitutional Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of the law that had governed the elections to the current Shura Council. In addition, he immunised the second Constituent Assembly tasked with writing the country's new constitution against a possible Constitutional Court ruling on the constitutionality of the law that had governed the selection process for the assembly. This action constituted a gross infringement of the authority of the judiciary and a violation of the principles of judicial autonomy and the separation of powers.
- The call for a referendum on the draft constitution produced by the Constituent Assembly whose constitutionality was in question as well as the very substance of the draft constitution. Apart from its being stylistically clumsy and riddled with ambiguities, the draft constitution flings open the doors to authoritarian and religious restrictions on personal and civil rights and on women's rights, and it grants the president almost absolute powers due to the sweeping authority conferred on this office by the conceptual framework of the authoritarian 1971 constitution.
These unmistakably authoritarian tendencies in the post-uprising period have precipitated and broadened sharp rifts in Egyptian society, especially between Muslims and Christians, while eliminating all rights for adherents to non-Abrahamic religions, such as the Bahaai, and of non-Sunni Muslim sects such as the Shia. These tendencies have also deepened horizontal polarisations on the basis of social affiliation and political and religious affiliation, further charging the sociopolitical climate with tensions and political instabilities at a time of grave economic problems.
THE GENERATION GAP OF AGE VERSUS YOUTH: The Egyptian state, as embodied in its political, bureaucratic and security elites, has a geriatric problem. Drawn from the military-technocratic establishment, its entrenched elites consist primarily of politicians and officers belonging to the 1940s through to the 1960s generations, though an element of younger blood from the 1970s and 1980s generations was injected into the former ruling National Democratic Party and its various political committees in tandem with the emergence of the hereditary succession project that sought to pass power to former president Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal.
However, this geriatric problem is not so much a question of age as it is of generational rigidity under moribund political rule. The stagnation in the relationship between the generations among both the ruling elites and the opposition forces in the state and its authoritarian system and agencies has had several dimensions, prime among them the following:
- Stagnation in professional and occupational skills and know-how and the attrition of intellectual capital because of an inability to refresh and develop it due to a lack of processes to train new administrative and ruling elites. The result has been the recycling of old ideas and methods that have been employed long beyond their sell-by dates at the security, bureaucratic and technocratic levels.
- An element of active exclusion of the political and professional generations of the 1970s, 1980s and subsequent generations from incorporation into the political elites. This practice extended beyond the leadership echelons of the authoritarian regime to those of the opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wafd Party and the Tagammu. Exceptions were to be found among the radical Islamist movements, such as the Takfir wal-Hijra, the Islamic Jihad and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya.
- Modes of accommodation between the regime and the opposition within the boundaries of the authoritarian regime's façade of political pluralism and in accordance with the regime's rules of a game of “government and opposition” that the opposition rarely broke.
On the whole, the social and political protest movements and groups in the pre-uprising period pursued conventional methods and had limited aims. Their protests voiced demands for specific political, constitutional or social reforms, rather than radical reforms or the comprehensive overhaul of the political and social systems.
The generational shift and its political manifestations in new ways of thought and instruments of action began with the digital and grassroots activist groups that emerged from the virtual world of the Internet and then recoiled back into that virtual world until they succeeded in launching the major mass mobilisation on 25 January 2011.
Of particular note in this regard are the 6 April group that made its initial mark in 2008 and the We Are All Khaled Said group, named after a 28-year-old Egyptian who was brutally tortured and killed by two police officers in Alexandria in June 2010. These two groups epitomised the rise of a new generation that was part of the world of blogging, Facebook and twitter and that was very different in mentality, discourse and tools to the older generations of the political elite.
In like manner, there has been a major perceptual, psychological and political gap between the revolutionary youth and some of the newcomers to power from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, as well as some of the elders from the political opposition parties and movements and the Islamist groups. Politically, this generational gap has been articulated in the conflict between the rationale of the de facto, and then the elected, authorities of containing the revolutionary process under various pretexts and the young activists' rationale of sustaining the revolution, and between the logic of political stability and the continuity of some old political structures and policies and the logic of revolutionising society and radically restructuring the constitutional and political order.
In the centre of this generational conflict there has arisen a new type of revolutionary youth. Rebellious, defiant and opposed to the de facto rules of the game that were set by the older political elites and that preserved too much of the old ways of doing things, these youths have pitted themselves resolutely and powerfully against the security agencies and the new ruling elites. Primarily drawn from the middle classes, their age group ranges from 14 to 20, and it is they who battled the Ministry of Interior forces in the area of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Qasr Al-Aini Street and Simon Bolivar Square in the heart of Cairo during the second wave of revolutionary contestation.
It is important to bear in mind that people under 30 account for 60 per cent of the Egyptian population. Clearly, the current political generational conflict is part of a much larger social dynamic, especially among the 14-20 year old age bracket of the middle classes in Cairo, Alexandria and other urban centres. The young iPad, Blackberry, Facebook and twitter mindset is qualitatively different from that of the older generations who are now managing the affairs of government, controlling the state apparatuses and heading many of the current political parties in their various ideological, religious and social guises.
The Karama (Dignity) Party perhaps most clearly embodies the majority of the new digital generation, in particular among liberals, leftists, Arab nationalists and independents (although the phenomenon may also extend to some in the 14-20 year old age bracket among the Muslim Brothers and Salafis) that no longer blindly venerate presidents, ministers and the other patriarchal figures of the caretaker state.
These young people have dismantled the aura of sanctity and awe that surrounded the political elites of the 1952 order and helped them to perpetuate their grip on power in the framework of a cultural structure that supported the kind of “oriental despotism” that had long characterised the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in Egypt. Equally, if not more importantly, they broke the barrier of fear during the 25 January Revolution. No longer do the majority of these young people, and, indeed, no longer do many other Egyptians, fear the brutal violence brought against them by the authorities, the truncheons of the riot police, the Ministry of Interior's armoured vehicles, the tear gas, the water canons and the bullets.
All this has given rise to a totally new environment. On the one hand, some young rebels from the middle and lower middle classes have been ready to brave death in clashes with the central security forces. And on the other, political attitudes and awareness opposed to military rule have spread beyond these groups to large segments of the country's youth, particularly among the politicised civil and liberal forces and especially following the SCAF's failures in administering the country and its accommodations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis during the first and second transitional phases.
This is an environment that could become increasingly charged with the potential for violence the more the current political, religious and social polarisations and tensions increase. Such an environment, fed by flare-ups of verbal and material violence, the Salafis' recourse to the weapon of the charge of heresy, and other factors, could snowball into increasing violence, not only because of actions on the part of the hardline Islamists, but also because of the possible intervention of even more vicious parties. The danger looms even at this moment.
The new 14-20 year-old Internet generation also has the potential and the tools to build organisations and networks that could practise organised violence. Its strength could be derived from the military knowledge and know-how that is available on the Internet and is no longer the preserve of the military and security establishments, or it could come from some jihadist organisations and terrorist groups with militant theological and political outlooks.
This makes it all the more important not to ignore the political and ideological demands and aspirations and the social interests of this segment of the younger generation which has now entered the political and intellectual domain. A refusal to engage them in constructive dialogue and a failure to understand their problems and concerns will only further alienate them and broaden the gap between them and the older generations and between them and their generational peers in Islamist political groups who have been overbearing in asserting their theological and political doctrines and have been rhetorically and organisationally violent in their political practices.
An example of this came in the demonstrations and sit-ins they organised in front of the country's courts in order to intimidate the judges. The broader these gaps grow, the greater the risk that explosive friction and clashes will jeopardise the ability to sustain a minimal level of social cohesion and political and social stability, both of which are still in a worrisome state of flux.
The ways of thinking of this Internet generation, drawn from the urban middle classes of Egypt's major metropolises, regarding the meaning of government and the nature of checks and balances, civic freedoms and human rights, and the proper guarantees for these rights and freedoms, seem miles removed from how the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis understand the functions and powers of office and the methods of rule and decision-making processes.
In their attitudes and practices, these newcomers to power have demonstrated that they have departed little from the authoritarian traditions that have prevailed over the past 60 years. A glaring example of this has been found in the constitutional declarations issued by the president in inappropriate contexts and in conflict with the necessary conditions and regulations for such declarations.
This authoritarianism has also been clearly evident in the bid to consolidate power in the executive branch of government, to forestall a court ruling against the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the constitution, and to immunise the Shura Council against dissolution on the grounds of a court ruling on the unconstitutionality of the electoral law that gave rise to it. However, evidence of the authoritarian attitudes of the new Brotherhood and Salafist ruling elite has also been found in their consummately self-serving utilitarian approach to the constitution and lawmaking in general, which is only too reminiscent of the mentality and operating style of the military and technocratic order that prevailed during the various phases of the July 1952 regime.
MAJORITARIANISM VERSUS INCLUSIVISM: A majoritarian mindset clearly prevails among the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis and others in the Islamist fold. They have demonstrated their disinclination to engage in participatory and consensual politics at virtually every step along the way to the production of the draft constitution, from the creation of the first and second constituent assemblies to the drafting processes themselves.
The result has been a draft constitution laden with vague Islamic and legalistic terms that are clearly designed to furnish loopholes that can be used severely to restrict personal and public freedoms and liberties. There are also provisions that impinge on judicial autonomy and grant sweeping powers to the president, namely Mohamed Morsi.
Moreover, the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis have also inserted a provision in the constitution that is explicitly designed to restrict the interpretation of “principles of Islamic Sharia”, which, in its Article 2, are defined as the chief source of legislation. Although all the political forces had agreed on this article, which offers legislators some leeway in promulgating laws consistent with the broader spirit, values and principles of Sharia, to the majoritarians this was not enough. They therefore imposed a definition that not only places this spirit and these values and principles in a straightjacket, but also furnishes the theological and legal keys to undermine Egypt's modern legal system, which is part of the world of modern law that prevails among the civilised nations. This definition could be used fundamentally to alter the nature of the modern Egyptian state and chip away at its political and cultural heritage.
More immediately, the loopholes and ambiguities in the constitutional document that was put to a popular referendum will most likely be turned towards curtailing the impact of the revolutionary uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The performance of the Islamists currently in power in Egypt betrays no small inconsistency between their understanding of a state governed by the rule of law and its constitutional, political, and institutional ramifications and the universal understanding of this concept elsewhere.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis' relentless assault on the autonomy and prestige of the judiciary is a telling sign of their approach to managing the separation and cooperation between authorities and the political sensitivities surrounding the rules and criteria for the distribution of powers and jurisdiction between those authorities. This assault has not been limited to rhetorical harangues and vitriol on the part of a number of Islamist parties and figures. There has also been an escalating campaign of demonstrations and blockades against the judiciary, prime examples of which occurred when the judges were reviewing the following cases:
- The eligibility of Hazem Abu Ismail to run for president. On this occasion, the Salafi leader's supporters staged protests in front of the prosecutor-general's office demanding his resignation.
- The president's attempt to dismiss the prosecutor-general and appoint him ambassador to the Vatican. His refusal and the support he received from the Judges Club occasioned another anti-judiciary protest.
- The second dismissal of prosecutor-general Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud and the appointment of a replacement by decree in the form of the president's 22 November constitutional declaration.
- The “immunisation” of the Shura Council against dissolution by a Constitutional Court ruling and the granting of this body, whose legitimacy is in question, legislative authority until the election of a new People's Assembly, both of which actions were also ordained by the same constitutional declaration.
- The “immunisation” of the Constituent Assembly against a possible Constitutional Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of the law governing its formation.
- Demonstrations, sit-ins and threatening heckling in front of the Constitutional Court building in order to prevent justices from entering the building.
This behaviour on the part of the authorities and their Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi supporters towards the judiciary is indicative of an ongoing state of animosity between the Islamists and the judiciary. More importantly, their totalitarian bent tells of a lack of faith in the modern concept of the state as characterised by the rule of law, the effective separation of powers, and a robust and independent judiciary.
THE CONFLICT OF LEGITIMACIES: The conflicts between the Islamist and the modernist constitutional concepts form one of the most salient features of the political, rhetorical and lexical situation at the present time. A fierce tug-of-war between the rival political players is in progress over modernist political language, with each side fighting to impose its own perceptions of the terms and concepts that define the political values and rules that underpin the constitution and the frame-of-reference for the legal system and its subsidiary branches.
At the heart of this process is the terminological and conceptual mêlée between the Islamists and an array of political forces that, in Egypt, are referred to as “secularists”. In addition to the problem of imprecision in the use of terms, the deliberate attempts on the part of each side to impose interpretations and bend meanings has had the effect of stretching these terms to the point of their total distortion. Unfortunately, this is part of a common problem in Egyptian public debate between political groups, in the media and sometimes even in academic circles.
Following the inception of the transitional “roadmap” that arose from an accommodation between the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi allies, the concept and lexicon of “revolutionary legitimacy” became the flashpoint for rhetorical friction. This was a facet of the fight to monopolise the right to speak in the name of the revolution, and it played out not only through participation in rival demonstrations in Tahrir Square, but also in attempts to manipulate the narrative of the revolution, as well as in the type of mudslinging that consisted of words such as “traitor” and fulul (remnants of the former regime) being used and other such accusations of collusion being made with the counter-revolutionary forces.
However, if for a while both the Islamists and the secularists continued to duel in terms of the lexical set of “the revolution”, there eventually occurred a shift whereby the main Islamist contenders for power withdrew from “the square”, apart from a couple of exceptions, and from the lexicon of revolutionary legitimacy and began to speak in terms of the legitimacy of institutional continuity, as epitomised by the “roadmap” that resulted from the constitutional amendments passed by referendum in March 2011.
This shift was solidified during the People's Assembly and Shura Council elections in the winter of 2011-2012, which yielded Islamist majorities in both houses of parliament. In the rhetorical battlefield, this was reflected in the contest between “parliamentary legitimacy” and “revolutionary legitimacy”, while, in the public debate, it was reflected in a clearer demarcation of the lines between the Islamists that now dominated parliament and their “secularist adversaries”. On the ground, it was reflected in a clearer demarcation of the battlefields, with, once again, the Muslim Brothers and their Salafi allies camped out in parliament while the youth from the urban middle classes and the revolutionary coalitions continued to stage demonstrations, marches and strikes in the cities streets and squares as their media mouthpieces continued to proclaim that “the revolution continues.”
The contest between these two legitimacies and its rhetorical and political manifestations are still a part of the unfolding political dynamic.
Nevertheless, the battle over the claim to monopolise “revolutionary legitimacy” was far from over. Most recently, the Muslim Brothers and their Islamist allies have seized upon it in order to combine it with their claims to “parliamentary legitimacy” in their fight with the judiciary. In the course of the latter they have unleashed a barrage of criticisms in the name of the revolution and the revolution's martyrs, accusing the judges of being fulul and appointees of the former Mubarak regime. The Constitutional Court ruling against the constitutionality of the electoral law that gave rise to the last People's Assembly, which was accordingly dissolved, rang in the first major round of this front of the rhetorical and terminological battle.
Following the presidential elections and the victory of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi backers, “constitutional legitimacy” emerged to lock horns with “revolutionary legitimacy”. But even then the situation was not clear cut, since the president and the Muslim Brothers and Salafis have been drawing on both concepts and their lexical sets depending on their particular aims and strategies at any given moment.
One can readily observe occasional synchronisation between the rhetorical uses of “revolutionary” versus “constitutional” legitimacy and the war of wills these represent. In the millioniya marches in Tahrir Square and in front of the presidential palace and in the counter-demonstrations that have taken place in front of Cairo University and in other squares around the country, each side has used its respective strengths in rallying numbers in demonstrations as a means to support the validity of its particular rhetoric regarding its respective sources of legitimacy.
This phenomenon has been indicative of the marriage between the might of numbers, or popular strength, and symbolic might. In late November and December, the contest of legitimacies in the battle between the Islamists and the “secularists” over the nature of the state and government reached a head with the president's constitutional declaration and the railroading of a draft constitution to be put to public referendum.
THE FREEDOM OF THE POLITICAL MARKETPLACE: One of the principles or strategies adopted by the Islamist forces and some secularist ones in the post-uprising period has been to impose political bans on “remnants” of the former regimes through laws or even constitutional provisions.
In Egypt, the first of these attempts met with failure during the first round of the presidential elections. The People's Assembly had passed a law intended to ban certain candidates from running in these elections on the grounds that they were affiliated with the Mubarak regime. The candidate in mind was the then presidential contender Ahmed Shafik. The law was overturned by the Constitutional Court.
The draft constitution that is currently being put to referendum contains another attempt to ban such fulul from participating in politics. It is to be found in Article 232 of the constitution in the section on interim provisions, which states that “leaders of the dissolved National Democratic Party shall be banned from political work and prohibited from running in presidential or legislative elections for a period of 10 years from the date of the adoption of this constitution. Leadership includes anyone who was a member of the secretariat of the Party, the Policies Committee or the Political Bureau, or was a member of the People's Assembly or Shura Council during the two legislative terms preceding the 25 January Revolution”.
The notion of a “political ban” was part of the history of Egypt's authoritarian order after the 23 July 1952 Revolution. The regime wielded it against the social and political ruling class that had prevailed before the 1952 coup, when it abolished political pluralism and scrapped the 1923 Constitution.
“Enemies of the revolution” was the most commonly used pretext for imposing political bans and, hence, of depriving many of the ability to exercise their political rights. This was the basis of one of the harshest criticisms that has been levelled against the post-1952 order and former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. To incorporate a political ban into the current draft constitution is no less than an attempt to implant a principle that flies in the face of civic freedoms and to use constitutional devices to contradict the constitution.
THE SACRED AND PROFANE: The conflict between the different schools of interpretation of political and religious discourse and regarding the religiously sacred versus the positivist and profane in politics is a conflict regarding the role of religion in the state and society in Egypt.
The public and private spheres have long been the privileged domains for this conflict between the religious and the positivist outlooks, and they remain so today in spite of the fact that the personal status system in Egypt is subject to religious laws — Sharia law for Muslims and Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant law for Christians in Egypt.
Political, social and symbolic conflicts have assumed various religious masks and metaphorical guises since the founding of the modern state. Their major focus has been the Egyptian legal system, following Egypt's incorporation into the international capitalist system during the rule of the Khedive Ismail and the beginning of the process of borrowing European constitutional and legal architectures and modifying and adapting them to Egypt's indigenous social and cultural composition.
This remarkable experiment in domestication succeeded, in spite of the fact that it was fraught with tensions. If initially the contest was over how to eliminate the contradictions between positivist laws and the principles of Islamic Sharia, the focus soon began to shift to the very nature and form of the state and its legal architecture following the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Youth of Mohamed in the liberal period before World War II. The tensions intensified with the establishment of the July 1952 order, a major repercussion of which was the dissolution and banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and the arrest and trial of some of its leaders and prominent members.
In the Sadat and Mubarak periods, the conflict over the relationship between religion and the state and the relationship between Sharia and modern positivist law intensified once again. Some Islamist forces heightened their drive to promote the Islamic and the sacred in defining the nature of the state, which some wanted to transform into an Islamic one in which Sharia would prevail, while some went further by espousing the revival of the Islamic caliphate model in the context of an all-embracing pan-Islamist project.
During those periods, the conflict over the nature and identity of the state was part and parcel of the identity politics that prevailed in the political, social and cultural conflicts. Many of the provisions in the draft constitution that is currently being put to referendum epitomise this conflict, and they have become a focal point for the sharp divisions and polarisations in Egyptian society today. But there have been many stages along the way in which Islamist forces — primarily the Muslim Brothers and Salafis — have sought to pit their interpretations of the political sacred against the political profane in their campaigns against their adversaries and their drive to advance their political ambitions.
Notable landmarks here are the 19 March 2011 referendum on the 1971 constitution, the millioniyas known as Kandahar 1 and 2, the parliamentary elections and presidential elections, and other mass rallies in the name of the “defence of legitimacy and Sharia”.
The tactic of using interpretive religious rhetoric regarding the “sacred” in politics is, in fact, a consummately human practice and one not restricted to the political Islamists. Instead, it is a more general phenomenon and one in which the ruling elites have taken part since July 1952, whether as a tool against their adversaries, as was the case with the Free Officers in their conflict with the Muslim Brothers when they seized power in the 1950s and with subsequent rulers in their power struggles with various political forces, or as a way to justify and mobilise support for policies and laws, or even as an instrument to promote foreign policy.
While the interweaving between the sacred and the profane has taken on many forms and operated on many levels, the vehemence of religious rhetoric, terms and frames-of-reference has skyrocketed in the political realm over the past four decades, reaching the degree of promoting theological and legal justifications for the recourse to violence against authoritarian regimes and a political atmosphere that has been awash with accusations of “heresy” hurled against advocates of differing opinions outside the Islamist camp.
In the post-uprising period there has also been a marked increase in the exchanges of such accusations between factions within the Islamist camp itself. Tunisian Salafis have fired off accusations of “infidel” at members of the Islamist-oriented Al-Nahda Movement. In Egypt, some Salafis have lashed out in similar terms against political stances and actions taken by the Muslim Brotherhood and president Morsi, in spite of the fact that Salafist thought is a component of the Muslim Brotherhood's ideological frame of reference.
At a broader level, the sacred has become intertwined in the language, terms, symbols and value judgements of daily life, and it has contributed to shaping some social networks. The sacred and the human task of interpreting it is no longer the monopoly of preachers and other clergymen. In some social circles, it has become part of the contest to gain social status, prestige and power on the basis of displays of pietism that, in turn, have led to a kind of religious one-upmanship in the discourse over what is and what is not Islamic and on whether women should wear the headscarf, niqab, or full face veil.
It has also given rise to the phenomenon that the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein once called “street preachers”, even if some of the most conservative views are aired by imams who lead the prayers in some government office buildings. Incidentally, the phenomenon is not restricted to men. Some retired stage and screen actresses and other women who have donned the veil or niqab have also become “street preachers”, albeit in the women's religious social groups that have become increasingly common since the 1990s.
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this ongoing spread of lay preachers and interpreters of the sacred is that such networks are being used by hardline Islamists to disseminate their particular judgements on human life and affairs and politics through ancient fatwas and jurisprudential opinions that are borrowed, recited and expounded upon outside of the times and contexts in which they were written and which were vastly different from our own age and the needs and concerns of our lives.
This particular brand of the Islamist sacred has been utilised intensively in the political squabbles since the 25 January 2011 uprising against the political, social and cultural profane.
FROM COOPERATION TO RIVALRY AND CONFLICT: Since the rise of the modern state in Egypt under Mohamed Ali Pasha and the Khedive Ismail and the subordination of Al-Azhar to the ruling authority, the “preacher of technology” (as Abdallah Al-Irwi put it) and the technocrat began to gain ascendancy over the clergyman — preacher, mufti and jurist — in government and politics.
Following partial independence from Britain in 1936, these figures were joined by the military officer from the Egyptian military establishment. More importantly, the modernist intellectual also came to play a major role in the construction of the modern state and its institutions, as well as in the processes of social change, whether through social criticism or the bridges that were created between Egyptian and Western European culture through study in European universities and the translation of French and English works into Arabic.
Conflict, competition and coexistence between the politician, the preacher, the intellectual, the technocrat and the army officer continued to imprint themselves on political and social evolution in Egypt. With the death of participatory politics following the 23 July 1952 coup, the military man in the shape of the Free Officers gained ascendancy and shunted aside the politician that had arisen during the semi-liberal era and its educational and political formation. The critical intelligentsia remained in muted tension with the July 1952 authorities, although some cooperated with, or let themselves be co-opted by, these authorities for various reasons in the then highly circumscribed political domain.
The preacher, who had long functioned under the umbrella of the state and was shaped by the official Al-Azhar religious establishment, began to go off on different ways. Some, having made their peace for a certain time with the modern state, joined the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Sadat period, younger elements swung toward the more radical Takfir wal-Hijra, while others headed towards the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula where they were heavily influenced by Hanbali and Wahabi schools of Sunni jurisprudence.
Later, with the spread of satellite technology there emerged the figure of the television preacher and eventually of religious and Salafist television channels. This satellite and digital media was highly instrumental in the rise and spreading influence of Islamist tele-evangelists in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Indeed, some of these could now be said to be international Islamist luminaries in view of their influence over Muslim audiences worldwide.
The authority of the Islamist, and especially of the Salafi, tele-evangelists has altered the religious outlooks of large segments of the Egyptian public among the rural and ruralised urban popular classes in particular. Salafi sheikhs have also become more influential than others on the religious orientations followed among the lower middle classes and some middle-class businessmen and tradesmen.
The Islamist and Salafi preachers have also become increasingly assertive in social and public affairs, frequently intervening in political and sectarian issues and mobilising and/or inciting their followers under the pretext of defending the faith against its enemies. Vivid examples of this occurred in response to offences against the prophet. Nor have these preachers been passive players, since some have been instrumental in instigating sectarian crises, or mediating to calm such crises, as occurred in the flare-ups of sectarian tensions and violence between Muslims and Christians since January 2011 through December 2012.
That the “politician”, or more appropriately the de facto authority, the “army man”, would turn to the Muslim and Salafi preacher after the Egyptian revolutionary uprising underscores the relative decline of the authority of the politician in the turbulent transitional period. The phases of “parliamentary and constitutional legitimacy” brought the Salafi sheikhs squarely to centre stage as political players in Egypt, further underscoring the intensive interweaving between religion, the state, political parties and lawmaking. At the same time, the formation of political parties and the entrance into the political processes have undoubtedly had an impact on some quarters of Salafist thought.
AWAKENING OF THE URBAN MIDDLE CLASSES: The Egyptian “revolutionary” uprising voiced a social and political demand for freedom and human dignity on the part of the urban middle classes in Cairo and other major urban centres, as well as on the part of other sectors of society, such as the industrial working classes in Suez and Mahalla Al-Kubra in the Delta.
In the convulsions of the interim period one can clearly see the beginning of an awakening and a political revival on the part of a middle class that, historically, has formed the social backbone for the rise of the modern state, its institutions, and its cultural, academic and technical human resources.
The clashes between some Islamist forces — primarily the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis — against some liberal, Arab nationalist and leftist forces are a further indication of this awakening as it plays out in various domains of political and social action that will contribute to the further development and crystallisation of its constituent parts. This applies in particular to the new generations of the middle classes, regardless of their ideological and partisan affiliations. Involvement in the political fray will engender more debate, fermentation and refinement of ideas.
In this regard, it is interesting to note a pragmatic trend among this segment of the population, especially those from the 14-18 year-old age bracket who, after being fired upon during protest demonstrations, sit-ins and courageous confrontations with Ministry of Interior forces, quickly began to grapple with the various aspects of participatory politics. I anticipate that boys and girls from the 10-14 year-old age group will quickly develop political interests and soon engage in the heated controversies raging on the ground, the television and the Internet.
As the foregoing suggests, political life has revived in Egypt. Politics is no longer the preserve of a relatively narrow military, technocratic and bureaucratic elite that once played a guardianship role over the Egyptian people. The involvement of ordinary people in the various domains of political action and interaction will soon stimulate profound sociopolitical changes, putting paid to that tendentious and hackneyed assertion that “the Egyptian people are not ready for full democracy.”
This claim rested on arguments that pointed to traditional and modernised modes of patriarchal culture, caretaker forms of social organisation, prevailing notions of obligatory conformity that often rested on selective interpretations of religious strictures, the frailty of the culture of individuality, and other such phenomena that impede the formation of the sociocultural and political and religious foundations for democracy. However, one needs only to recall that this claim featured prominently in the discourse of the ruling military, technocratic and entrepreneurial elites throughout the 60 years of the July 1952 order.
Embellished and propounded by the intellectual pundits of such elites, it was, and remains, a despotic discourse that rests on a self-assigned mandate to speak on behalf of the Egyptian people, granting the authorities the right to monopolise the expression of the people's will, expropriate their basic civic freedoms, and ignore their real interests and welfare.
In the long run, the revival of political life in Egypt with the entrance of broader segments of society and youth into the field will create broadening margins between religion and politics, or the political and social “sacred” and “profane”. While the intense and even fierce interplay between diverse and even antithetical perceptions, ideas, attitudes and modes of behaviour will, in the short and medium terms, generate considerable friction, over time it will ultimately curtail the social and religious fuses of violence and limit their impact on political processes and dynamics.
Eventually the stereotyped images and generalisations regarding the Islamist trend will fade. Even if they continue to be fed for a while by religious vitriol on the part of the more fanatical preachers and politicians from this camp and by outbursts of incited violence, such phenomena are likely to subside the more the affiliates of this trend are compelled to come to terms with the complex riddles and challenges of reality.
The shock of reality may lead Islamist hardliners to modify or revise some of their ideological doctrines and theological and legal outlooks, as they realise that some of their borrowings from ancient authorities are insufficient or inappropriate for handling intricate contemporary social and political questions and that there is a genuine need for creative thinking in order to develop Islamic jurisprudence and its tools and approaches.
An indication of this possibility is that the semi-liberal period of the early 20th century in Egypt gave rise to an array of intellectual, political and religious controversies, some of which involved prevalent modes of jurisprudence and Al-Azhar religious education. In the relatively open culture of that period, numerous profoundly stimulating questions began to challenge the Islamic scholastic authorities at Al-Azhar, Dar Al-Ulum, and the departments of Islamic law and jurisprudence in university faculties of law. The intellectual efforts of the time furnished various answers to the difficult social and political dilemmas of the time, and it is, therefore, no surprise that the various faculties of Al-Azhar produced some of the leading Egyptian intellects in what was termed the modern Egyptian and Arab intellectual and cultural renaissance.
When today's political Islamists begin to take their cues from the innovative minds of Al-Azhar who played such an important part in enriching the intellectual, literary and legislative life in Egypt, it will also become necessary to change and discard some of the stereotypes that currently prevail regarding Islamist preachers and politicians.
POLITICAL ISLAM AND THE STATE/RELIGION DIALECTIC: Looking at some Islamist theorising on the state and the Islamic constitution and democracy and human rights, it cannot be denied that there is evidence of some new or fairly new thinking, regardless of what one's own opinion of it may be. The following reasons might be given:
- Large political changes over the centuries have given rise to entities, relations and systems that transcend the boundaries of the worldview that shaped Marudi's and Abu Yaala ibn Al-Farra's jurisprudence for the Sultanic empire, its subsidiary provinces and the concept of the Islamic umma, as founded on the bond of religious affiliation, the notion of the dhimmi communities that defined the relationship with non-Muslims in the House of Islam and, indeed, the concept of the “realm of Islam” versus “the realm of war”.
- The modern nation as it has evolved in the 20th century and beyond, combined with the evolution of the international and globalised order, has rendered obsolete some theories about the state in some portions of Islamic political jurisprudence, compelling some thinkers to re-examine earlier or more conventional juristic concepts on the state and its relations with the world as a whole. Admittedly, this intellectual effort was limited to a minority of religious scholars, and it receded in the face of the rise of radical Islamist groups and the Salafist movement whose ultraconservative and fundamentalist ideas began to flood the religious marketplace.
- Some contemporary Islamic theorising on the state and the constitution draws on the traditional French and Latin sources for public law jurisprudence within the framework of the state. Even if some of the concepts, criteria and rules are reworked or dressed up to conform with the linguistic and terminological vocabulary of Islamic jurisprudence, the trend reflects a positive interaction on the part of the Islamist political and juristic mind with contemporary developments in political science, law, sociology and other fields that concern the state, sociopolitical and cultural stakeholders, their networks of interaction, and the frameworks for regulating sociopolitical rivalries and human and civic rights.
While these developments are all healthy ones, they still fall short of much-needed comprehensiveness and coherence. Jurisprudential theorising is still riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies, and it is still strongly affected by the prevalence of a formalist textualist approach to dealing with such issues as the state/nation, political and social systems, and international relations. These approaches, which in themselves require critique and revision, are one of the chief causes of the crisis in academic legal discourse and study in colleges of law and Islamic law.
The formalist method, which largely involves the explication of the body of the text, the marginalia, and then the marginalia to the marginalia of the texts on the curriculum, is no longer commensurate with the tasks of describing, deconstructing, analysing, interpreting, reconstructing and developing constitutional, legal and administrative systems and practices, let alone the development of academic study and inquiry.
Perhaps because of the foregoing, the intellectual debate on the state, the constitution, identity, Islam, and the law has been fraught with tensions and discord, what with traditional and rigid theories and views battling with others that are overly simplistic and reductionist. It helps little that some of the theorising and ideas reflect a paltry understanding of the history of the evolution of the political, social, cultural and cognitive systems in the modern world, or of the elements that shaped their political, philosophical and legal ideas.
Modern and post-modern political and intellectual thought in a changing globalised world poses some unfamiliar and unprecedented and, perhaps, unique, challenges to Egyptian Islamist thought and, indeed, to other political and intellectual trends.
CONCLUSIONS: The fluidity of the aftermath of the post-revolutionary uprisings has cast to the fore a host of structural challenges that must be addressed by the state, the ruling and opposition political elites and parties, and other sociopolitical players.
The most important of these is the pressing demand for freedom, dignity, equality and justice on the part of an emergent generation that has begun to rebel against the authoritarian cultural and political legacy that shaped the minds and attitudes of the older generations. Against this backdrop there is the problem of a widening generation gap, stagnation in the generational transfer of expertise or influence, and intellectual and attitudinal rigidity among the older generations combined with a lack of familiarity with the skills, know-how and ideas to communicate with and respond to the needs and demands of the younger generations.
There are also new gaps emerging within the younger generation itself that are not necessarily shaped by education, social status or religious affiliation, but rather by shared perceptions, terms of reference, or political affiliation or degree of political activism. This, when combined with the rapidity of change, has given rise to what we might call a youth-youth generational gap, evidence of which could be seen in the 14 to 18-20 year-olds who participated in the battles of Mohamed Mahmoud and Simon Bolivar streets and then later in the sit-ins in front of the presidential palace in Cairo.
It is not just the establishment elders, but also those in the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements, who are out of touch with the aspirations of broad swathes of young men and women from this generation. The phenomenon is especially apparent in the perceptual gap between the reality of young Egyptian women and the ultraconservative attitudes and opinions of older Islamist and Salafi leaders and traditional Islamic jurisprudence. The growing involvement of women in politics and in the revolutionary uprising suggests that the needs and demands of young Egyptian women will pose a major challenge to the Islamist movement in general and will compel it to address some theoretical and actual dilemmas pertaining to the status and role of women.
The challenges of the post-uprising phase demand new and innovative answers from Islamist sociopolitical thought and jurisprudence in the light of the complex, multifaceted and interwoven realities in Egypt, the region and the world. For decades, Egyptian political life has been crippled by stagnation and intellectual inertia across the political and ideological spectrum. But there has now been an awakening, and over time the generational conflict, the youth movement, the interplay with the actual and virtual world, and developments in our globalised world will alter the ideas and the configurations of the social, political and religious players in Egypt.
The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Social and Historic Studies.

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