North Africa, West Asia

The capitalist roots of Egyptian authoritarianism: demystifying a state

The Egyptian state, did not evolve organically, an elite superimposed it, in order to fulfill dynastic ambitions.

Maged Mandour
11 August 2020, 12.01am
People wearing face masks while walking on a street in downtown Cairo
Picture by Gehad Hamdy/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Even though the ‘state’ features prominently in the rhetoric of the Egyptian regime, and the need to preserve it against the “people of evil”, is cited as the main rational for the horrendous repression unleashed by the regime, there has been little analysis of the nature of the Egyptian state. Neither by intellectuals nor members of the opposition.

Indeed, the idea of the importance of the state, in its current form, is hegemonic in Egyptian political circles, and an implicit view is adopted that it is an undifferentiated, blunt, instrument, easily democratized through elections. This completely ignores the lesson of the coup of 2013, where the state apparatus undermined a democratically elected president, and easily removed him from power, with popular support. Hence, there is an urgent task to understand the nature of the Egyptian state, placing it in within its local context, as well as, the position of Egypt in the global capitalist system.

In order to understand the nature of the current Egyptian state, one needs to understand its historical evolution. The founding of the modern Egyptian state can be traced back to Mohamed Ali, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt that came to power after a popular uprising in the early 19th century. The new Ottoman ruler had the personal goal of securing his position and that of his family after him; hence, he embarked on a modernization project that revolved around building a modern army, consisting of peasant conscripts.

This process, necessarily entailed the development of a state capable of harnessing the power of the peasant, by either forcibly conscripting him into the army, or as forced labour into one of the Pasha’s projects. This also entailed repressing the succession of rebellions against the new state that erupted due to the horrendous level of violence inflicted by the new state. On the other hand, in order to garner the necessary resources for the task, Egypt was being slowly integrated into the growing capitalist world system, as a producer of cotton. This involved mass use of repression, confinement to the villages, and forced labour to ensure that the peasants met the annual cotton quotas. In essence, capitalism was imported into the country, even though there were no Egyptian capitalists as of yet.

The evolution of the state was a pre-condition for a process of social engineering that involved the destruction of a deeply rooted way of life using mass repression.

Hence, the Egyptian state, did not evolve organically from local conditions, however, an elite superimposed it, in order to fulfill dynastic ambitions. The evolution of the state was a pre-condition for a process of social engineering that involved the destruction of a deeply rooted way of life using mass repression. This historical genesis has created a state that is relatively autonomous from other social forces, either the capitalists, traditional working class, or the peasantry, and laid down a pattern of social change that is driven by the state.

However, this autonomy does not mean that the state was not subject to crises and popular pressures. On the contrary, there are historical period where the Egyptian state responded and acted in a way that fulfilled many of the demands of the popular movement, most notably during the victories of the 1919 revolution and the Nasserist period.

Considering this historical context, one needs to examine the political economy of Egypt, and the role that the state plays in the process of capital accumulation, in order to fully grasp the nature of the social struggle. Unlike in the metropoles of the capitalist world, Egypt lies in the periphery of the system, and the local capitalist class is weak and state dependent. Hence, the process of capitalist accumulation does not depend on the creation of a sustainable economic advantage, the growth of an internal market or even production for the purpose of exports. Rather, capital accumulation is achieved through a process of appropriation of public funds, with the financial support of international and regional backers.

The international support stems from the strategic importance of the country, for regional security, mostly notably, Gulf security, as well as, acting as an important barrier to the flow of illegal migrants across the Mediterranean. This allows the state to create a group of state dependent capitalists who are unable and unwilling to oppose the autocratic nature of the state.

Besides questions of political freedom, the question of the role of the state in Egypt, in its essence, revolves around wealth distribution and access to economic resources

Moreover, the coup of 2013, and the subsequent overt dominance of the military over the state apparatus and its direct control over the executive, judicial, and legislative branches, has not only allowed it to dramatically expand its economic activities, but most importantly, to dictate the process of capital accumulation. Hence, any attempts to reduce the power of the state over society, will necessarily entail a drastic change in the process of capital accumulation. Thus, the question of democratizing the Egyptian state does not only refer to political liberalization, but also involve a structural economic change, where the power of the state to appropriate public funds would be curtailed and alternative centre of economic power would emerge.

Hence, besides questions of political freedom, the question of the role of the state in Egypt, in its essence, revolves around wealth distribution and access to economic resources, from which the majority of Egyptians are excluded.

The state is able to preserve its position as the dominant social force, and manage class conflict, through a twin process of ideological domination, and outright repression. The Egyptian state, very similar to other modern states, serves to mystify social relations in a manner that submerges class-consciousness in favour of individual and national consciousness. In other words, the state serves to strip the exploited classes of their class identity, replacing it with an idea of “Egyptianess”, which is deeply connected to patriotism, as embodied in the state.

However, this has a local twist, deeply entrenched in the state’s ideology through Nasserism. Simply put, Nasserism saw the nation as an military-led organic whole, without classes, united in a patriotic struggle against an “other”. The nation, as embodied in the state, had become a mystical fetish, which needs to be served at the expense of the citizenry. Under president Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, this narrative has been pushed to an extreme, with the propagation of conspiracy theories, as well as propaganda films and TV series produced by the military, and by the general political climate.

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, and members of the secular opposition are seen as outside the nation, hence the only way to deal with them is through repression. This pattern already started with the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood protesters at Raba’a, and has continued unabated, ever since.

Does this mean that the state is an impregnable fortress immune to the broader social struggle? On the contrary, one can argue that millions from the exploited classes are operating the state apparatus, either in administrative functions or even as members of its repressive arm. Hence, in cases of heightened social conflict, and greater level of class-consciousness, there is an increased possibility of carrying class conflict into the heart of the state itself. This would hamper the ability of the state to repress possible uprising.

This, however, does not mean that the state can be transformed from the inside, rather that in cases of revolutionary upheaval, the state apparatus can be dismantled to be replaced by other institutions that emerged from society, rather than superimposed on it. Hence, the key to achieve this, is breaking the ideological hold that the state has over the mass of the citizenry, and drastically changing the view of the state, as a source of social good, to a source of economic exploitation and political repression.

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