The Case for Egyptianism

The rising sectarianism, violence, and the conspicuous presence of many religious groups bent on Islamizing the society in Egypt in the past three months since the forced removal of President Mubarak raised the prospect of the establishment of an Islamic state in the country. To assess whether or not that prospect will transpire, five factors need to be understood.

The rising sectarianism, violence, and the conspicuous presence of many religious groups bent on Islamizing the society in Egypt in the past three months since the forced removal of President Mubarak raised the prospect of the establishment of an Islamic state in the country. To assess whether or not that prospect will transpire, five factors need to be understood.

First: It is salient to remember that the modern state of Egypt which Mohamed Ali Pasha and his dynasty and subsequently waves of Egyptian intellectuals created in the first half of the nineteenth century was an import from Europe and specifically from France. Interestingly, senior figures within the religious establishment led the legitimisation of that imported notion. Sheikh Mohamed Abdou, Egypt’s most influential religious scholar at the turn of the twentieth century, lent invaluable support to the waves of modernity that Egypt’s ruling establishment at the time had ushered in. Abdou courageously realised that modernity should spill over from exposure to technology, the building of a modern army, new norms of administration, and technical education to the functioning and frames of reference of the society. And because Abdou was followed by leading intellectuals with real influence on decision making in the country (for example, Taha Hussein), that line of thinking prospered and buttressed the emergence of Egypt’s liberal experiment in the 1920s-1940s, including the drafting of the first comprehensive constitution in the region. But the creation of a modern Egyptian state was not the evolution of a social development in which wide sections of the society came to assert their Egyptianism in the face of national challenges such as wars or internal crises.

And that takes us to the second factor: how Egyptianism fared over the past six decades. One of the defining features of social development in Egypt was how Nasserite Arab nationalism, the most potent expression of Egyptian political will in the twentieth century, discarded Egyptianism in favour of a collective Arabism. Nasser, who assumed the Arab-Israeli conflict as his defining struggle, mobilised the society’s various powers and resources in the service of that “epic struggle” by cropping up Arab nationalism as the overarching ideological umbrella of all Arabs including Egyptians – not on the individuality and uniqueness of Egyptianism. When Arab nationalism fell, the dream of Arab unity and resuscitating Arab societies into a world power to be reckoned with disintegrated; the Egyptian society, which had invested massive socio-political energy in that dream and upon which that ambitious project had exacted major losses in blood, treasure, and self-belief, withdrew unto its comfort zone: religion. Nasser’s successors, Sadat and Mubarak, supported that inclination; the Islamic movement, especially in the late 1970s, was seen as a containable socio-political force that could be employed to distract the society while the regime was increasingly fixated on self-enrichment and to confront Nasserism when the regime was transforming Egypt’s foreign policy from pugnacious Arab nationalism to docility under the Pax Americana in the region.

Third: The Islamic narrative gained ground and continued from the point it had left over before the onset of Arab nationalism. The waves of modernisation that the Egyptian society had witnessed in the first half of the twentieth century gave rise to a wave of Islamization that was a response to the Westernization of society. The Muslim Brotherhood was the most popular and powerful player in that new trend. Its foundational narrative was political and social: it accused the society’s elites (in the 1930s and 1940s) of surrendering to the west and giving away the country and its resources; socially, it emphasised that the modernisation that the country witnessed at the time (and crucially its manifestations in secular as opposed to religious education, women’s equality, and liberal social codes) “plunged the society into sin”. The burgeoning Islamic discourse, in effect, weaved Egyptians’ national aspirations, hesitation at embracing modern moral codes, and piousness with an Islamic frame of reference. Interestingly, that narrative proved too weak in the face of the strengths and achievements of Egyptian liberalism of the first half of the twentieth century; the Muslim Brotherhood never managed to challenge Al-Wafd, Egypt’s most popular political party in the 1930s and 1940s, and the cornerstone of Egyptian liberalism at the time. Arab nationalism also forced this Islamic narrative to the periphery; the Nasserite project dominated the Egyptian society throughout the 1950s and 1960. But the cultural and socio-political vacuum that Egypt had witnessed in the past 35-years allowed that Islamist narrative to broaden its presence, move to the centre, and entrench its influence amongst the society’s lower middle classes and poor (the demographic majority).

The last three decades were in many ways the perfect milieu for Islamism in Egypt. The country was ruled by an unimaginative president who had no interest in connecting with his people, and who presided over a regime that repeatedly squandered opportunities to create national projects that could have harnessed the energy and aspirations of the country’s tens of millions of youths. The regime also grew into a merger between power and wealth at a time when large social segments were suffering crushing poverty. The move from strict socialism to a laissez-faire economic system, marked by corruption at various levels of the economic value chains in the country, and two major waves of immigration to the Gulf in pursuit of jobs, resulted in very significant shifts in the composition of the Egyptian middle class. Colossal social sectors, for example farmers and the employees of the public sector, were gradually but steadily, losing their purchasing power; many were effectively falling into poverty. In the 1980s and 1990s, Egyptian culture also witnessed a very low period. The values, refinement, and quality of Egyptian cinema, theatre, and art plummeted. Also at the time, the Egyptian Islamic movement cemented its message by providing arguably the country’s best run and least corrupt social support system, usually in the form of very affordable healthcare, housing to out of town students, and transportation solutions, as well as support in finding jobs. This approach enabled the Islamic movement to build a huge socio-political infrastructure in the Egyptian street.

Fourth: it was not difficult to evolve this message and presence, in the prevailing political vacuum and the continual decline of the regime, into calls for establishing an Islamic state. The Islamic narrative was also getting more sophisticated, nuanced and grounded. The Muslim Brotherhood, as opposed to various Salafist and regressive groups, adopted the concept of  “dual loyalty” (to the Muslim nation as well as to the Egyptian state), citizenry (equal rights and obligations applicable on Muslims and non-Muslims), and in what was commended as a great sign of progress, the concept of civic, modern institutions. The problem, however, was that most of these institutions – the parliament, the public sector, the government, the presidency, most professional syndicates, labour organisations, and the universities – had been suffering decay  and putrefaction for decades (in most cases under the supervision of the regime’s security apparatuses that valued loyalty to the regime above merit, quality, or of course, genuine representation). These institutions were effectively skeletons that the Islamic movement could easily take over and use as new vehicles of their own.

Fifth: there was confusion between society and state. The society can have a number of frames of reference corresponding to the wants, aspirations, and cultural orientations of its many constituents. The state, however, has an agreed-upon governing framework that all citizens share. Since Egypt has a sizable Christian community, and a rich heritage that has left a mixed cultural reservoir in its pulsating society, that framework needed to be secular and civic – or proportional as is the case in Lebanon. But unlike Lebanon, Egypt is an old state; it has had the same borders for over five-thousand years. Egypt also boasts a sizable population and a geostrategic importance nurtured over many centuries. That continuity, size, and weight necessitated adopting a more stable – and advanced – political framework: not proportionality but the rule of secular law in a sophisticated political structure.

A key reason behind that confusion between a society in which a majority would naturally adopt an Islamic identity and a secular state materialised because the combined failures of Arab nationalism and the governing modus operandi of Sadat and Mubarak (who have together ruled for more than four decades) allowed the Islamic movement to compare and contrast between these failures and the panacea that they advocated. “Islam is the solution” and “subjecting the society to God’s rule” became easy, escapist narratives that millions of Egyptians who have been suffering from devastating socio-economic conditions and political coercion found appealing. It was an artificial comparison, however. Sunni Islam does not, and since the establishment of the Ummayad dynasty in the seventh century, did not, have a theological state in the sense that Shii Islam or Catholic Christianity had. In the pious Egyptian society, religion (Islam and Christianity) has always been the dominant societal force, but for the past nine hundred years, since Saladin had abolished the Fatimid dynasty in 1171, Egypt was ruled by strictly political establishments detached from the Caliphate (in Baghdad and later in Istanbul). Modern Egypt, the country that Mohamed Ali’s reforms gave rise to in the first half of the nineteenth century, was also a strictly secular state (its first prime minister, in the reign of Mohamed Ali’s grandson Ismael, was a Christian, Nubar Pasha).

The prospects of the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt will depend on the choices of the country’s enormous middle class. There are many failures inherited from the past six decades that support intellectual simplicity and escapism. But history and the heritage of a great old nation are behind Egyptianism.

Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010). He has published extensively on Egypt and the Middle East in leading UK, US and Continental European publications. His work has been cited widely, including in The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, The Economist, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Jerusalem Post, Open Democracy, The Forward, De Volkskrant, La Republica, and Singapore Straits. He has commented on the Middle East for CNN, Al-Jazeera, Sky News, BBC, ABC, WNYC, and Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and was the keynote speaker at a number of conferences organised by leading international think tanks and corporations.