North Africa, West Asia

Egypt: an obsession with the state

The view that social struggle should be repressed is hindering the opposition. Unless the view of the state and its coercive apparatus changes, the chances of wide scale social transformation are limited.

Maged Mandour
4 August 2017
AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A homeless man sleeps during a hot summer day in the holy month of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt, June 18, 2017. Graffiti on the wall reads " Sisi is a hero, You saved us, Long life to Egypt." AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/Reuters/PA Images. All rights reserved.Ever since the 2011 eruption, the protest movement has vehemently attempted to refute the accusation that its goal is to tear down the state. This accusation continued from 2011, reaching its height with the coup of 2013, where all forms of protest were categorized as attempts to trigger a process of state collapse.

Many, especially those with urban middle class origins, rationalize their support for the military regime, despite its many economic and security blunders, as necessary to prevent state collapse. The phrase, “better than Syria and Iraq” are uttered whenever oppositional forces attack the regime or when justifications for state violence and repression are needed.

The logic of ‘you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette’ seems to prevail. A logic that is implicitly accepted by the bulk of the opposition, with some notable exceptions such as Dr Amr Hamzawi, ex-presidential candidate Khaled Ali, and movements like the Revolutionary Socialists and the 6 April youth movement. However, the vast majority voice support for the state, and especially its coercive apparatus, albeit with a qualification of the need for reform and transparency of operations.

Thus, the obsession with the state extends beyond the regime’s core base of support and includes the large segments of the opposition, which is a phenomenon that is in need of closer examination.

Unlike other opposition movements with declared goals of wide scale change, the bulk of the Egyptian opposition has accepted a theoretical definition of the state in a Leviathan and Hobbesian sense; the only barrier protecting men from each other in a full war, of all against all, is the state. 

The coercive apparatus of the state is idealised as a protector against chaos, and the conception of the state as an independent entity that operates separately from society is accepted. A paternalistic view of the state is adopted, as a protector of an infantile society, which without proper guidance will tear itself apart.

However, behind this rhetoric of fear of social chaos, one could argue that the real angst is that of social revolution and the possibility of change in class structure and the method of capital accumulation; change that would affect the urban middle and upper classes.

This view can be attributed to short- and long-term causes, some obvious and others subtler.

The more obvious reasons for this fear of state collapse are regional developments; from the 2003 invasion of Iraq till the eruption of the Arab mass protest movements and their aftermath.

Other more recent examples, most notably Syria, Libya and Yemen, only served to reinforce the view that stability, even a tyrannical one, is preferable to change that could potentially bring chaos, social strife and civil war.

The experience of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq – the dismantling of the state and what followed in terms of the sectarianisation of the political system and the devastating civil war – had a traumatic effect on Arab collective psyche. The state came to represent that last barrier holding the forces of chaos at bay.

This simplistic logic ignores the role Arab elites played in setting the stage for these devastating civil wars that followed, as well as their roles in creating cults that praise the military as agents of stability, or their contribution to the creation of advanced class and social conflict.

Another short-term cause for this view of the state stems from the chaotic period between 2011 and 2013, when there was a degree of heightened social conflict and the possibility of genuine reform of the political system.

During this period, numerous subaltern groups started to appear and have a direct impact on political and social life. The most notable examples are the Salafi movement, which was out of sight during the Mubarak years, and the urban poor who played a prominent role in clashes with the security forces during the first transitional period.

The prospect of loss of control and of majority rule created a sense of urgency among the urban middle class, who in a position of privilege in the political system heavily repressed these emerging groups, embracing the cult of the state, glorifying its coercive apparatus.

The increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its rural base, was seen as a threat to class structure in Egypt, and only pushed the urban middle class and the protest movement anchored in that class, to embrace coercion and state violence under the guise of preventing state collapse. Within this context, the preservation of the current class structure was the goal, not the protection of the state apparatus as such.

A deeper dynamic is related to the reformist nature of the protest movements; their conception of the state’s role in the process of social transformation. Unlike other movements for social change, the Egyptian protest movement did not seek to take over the state, nor did it challenge the state’s existential legitimacy.

On the contrary, it only wished to reform certain aspects of the state. It sought to liberalize without triggering a wider process of social transformation. Thus, the paternalistic view of the state is ideologically consistent with the goals of the protest movement: maintaining the integrity of class structure and the exploitive relationship between the different classes.

Finally comes the stranglehold of Nasserism, which still plays a significant role in the intellectual development of the urban middle class and its views on the role of the state. The Nasserists view social and class struggle as an alien Marxist invention and the natural state of society is one of harmony with the military playing a leading role.

The view of the military and state hovering above, and not a part of society, still holds. Their primary function being the repression of social conflict, which is seen as inherently alien and destructive. As such, the cult of the state and the justification for the use of repression go hand in hand. 

Based on the above one could argue that the cult of the state is an integral part of the Egyptian political ideological scene. It stems not only from fear of social chaos, but also from the nature of a big segment of the opposition with its limited goals and the view of the state as the guardian of society.

This view that social struggle should be repressed is hindering the opposition. Unless the view of the state and its coercive apparatus changes, the chances of wide scale social transformation are limited.

One only needs to remind state worshipers that a successful social revolution, from France to Russia and Iran, is the concentration rather than dilution of state power as it embarks on the mission to shape society to its will.                             

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