North Africa, West Asia

The new Janissary

Maged Mandour

The Egyptian revolt was not simply a revolt against the tyranny of the crony capitalist-military alliance, it was also a revolt against the prevalent Orientalist conception; the inferiority the Egyptian feels about himself.

Maged Mandour
10 December 2013

Dr.Mostafa Hegazy, the new advisor to the Egyptian interim President, appeared on television to hail the Egyptian people on the dawn of a new era; the era of the rule of law. The interview was given within the context of the need to abide by a new law regulating protests. Ironically around the same time, a group of young women were sentenced to eleven years in prison, a verdict that was later reduced to one year suspended sentences, after public and international outcry.

With perfect English, eloquence, a western education and a seemingly liberal outlook, Hegazy seems to embody what the urban middle and upper middle classes strive to become, namely more western and disconnected from the “uncivilized” masses. Dr. Hegazy, however, is not unique; he is part of a new kind of elite, an elite that I like to call the New Janissaries. The Janissary corps were an elite military unit within the Ottoman army; its members were Christian slaves taken from different provinces of the empire, as children, converted to Islam, and indoctrinated into the service of the Ottoman empire. They became intensely loyal to the Ottoman court, forgetting their homelands and loyalties.

There is a modern equivalent to men like the Janissaries, namely local elites who were indoctrinated into a certain part of western political discourse that act as agents to the centre, on the periphery. This indoctrination occurs in two new formulae, first in what can be aptly called “market fundamentalism”; they believe that the free market is a vehicle that can solve all social and economic problems, and that the only issue that the economy is facing is insufficient liberalization -  (a powerful illusion as Karl Polyani pointed out in the “Great Transformation”, an illusion that cannot be disproved, since the reply will always be that ‘liberalization’ has not gone far enough).

This indoctrination is coupled with another injection of western political discourse, namely Orientalist discourse about the nature of 'the Arab World'. In other words, these elites believe that their fellow countrymen are inferior; lack of education is often cited as a reason for this inferiority, or something that is fundamentally wrong with our “nature”. This of course, entails a conception of the Middle East as a place where time stands still, with little or no progress. If this is so then this progress must be attributed to the will of one man, a loving father figure who sacrifices and guides his children at great personal expense. There is an astonishing lack of societal analysis of the causes of societal change, let alone a historical view of societal development in the Middle East with the possible causes of decline or prosperity. And when the past is conveyed, particularly by Islamist movements, it is mystified and idealized in a manner calculated only to offer relief from the current situation, invoking a mystical goal that can never be achieved.

As Fanon argues in “Black Skin, White masks”, the elites in the then colonial world, traumatized by their encounter with the white colonizer, perceive themselves as superior to their countrymen and thus belonging to European culture. They consider themselves European and loathe their origins. When those elites travel to the centre, they are traumatized by the realization that members of the “superior” culture they consider themselves part of, view them as no different from the rest of their native communities. The best they can hope for is the “compliment” of being called “westernized”, a label that automatically creates a dichotomy between the civilized west and the barbaric east.

From personal experience, spending more than half a decade in the west, this process of alienation leaves the traumatized native elite with two options. The first, is to wholeheartedly embrace the label “westernized” native, which means that the person is partially accepted into the western society in which he/she lives, however, remaining a suspect of “de-westernization” and never fully accepted. The other is to revert to his/her native ways, and either return to the homeland, or live in a closed community with fellow “non-westernized” natives.                                     

The new Janissary, logically, embraces the second option, actively immersing him or herself into the Orientalist conception of the east and thus becoming active participants in the oppression of their own people. Rather than embracing the rich European experience of struggle for liberty that began, arguably, with the explosion of 1789, they embrace the colonial, conservative, and imperial aspect of the European experience. Their hidden intellectual ideals approach those of the men, like John Stuart Mill, who argued for the need to rule barbarian nations, since they themselves are not fit to do so. These new Janissaries return to their homelands, falling under the cultural hegemony of the centre as they participate in the oppression of their “non-westernized” fellow natives. The National Democratic Party (NDP), the ruling party before the Egyptian uprising, was filled with elites that fit into this model. This includes, but is not limited to, Youssef Botros Ghali, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Ahmed Ezz and of course Gamal Mubarak. They shared the same characteristics described above; the apparent belief in “market fundamentalism” coupled with the inferiority of the Egyptian people.

The situation has not changed with the advent of the Egyptian uprising; on the contrary the effect was the opposite. The failure of the Egyptian revolutionary movement to create counter-hegemony within the realm of civil society has led to its inability to break the hold of Orientalism. A large number of Egyptians firmly believe in their own inferiority and their inability to move the country out of its current backward state.

The failures of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the brief failed experience of free elections have also reinforced this trend. The performance of the Brotherhood, their apparent power grab, social conservatism and sectarian rhetoric, has reinforced the idea that - to quote the late Omar Suleiman “Egyptians are not ready for democracy”. There is now a strong sense that Egyptians should not be trusted with democracy, because when they were given the chance they made an incorrect choice. The coup was not only directed against President Morsi, in a wider sense, it was directed against this new consciousness that was developing; a consciousness that held the nascent promise of breaking down this inferior conception of one’s self.

The new Janissaries are back playing their traditional role, men that speak perfect English, and have apparently liberal credentials, actively participating in the development of the crony capitalist-military alliance at the expense of the possible development of a national progressive bourgeoisie that could act as the backbone of a genuinely democratic system. It is important to note that this process is not a simple linear process; not all members of the new Janissaries need to leave the county, they simply just need to fall under the cultural hegemony of the centre.

The Egyptian revolt was not simply a revolt against the tyranny of the crony capitalist-military alliance, it was also a revolt against the prevalent Orientalist conception; the inferiority the Egyptian feels about himself. In this aspect the role of the revolutionary intellectual is of the utmost importance. See the following quote from Edward Said:

“There has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals; conversely there has been no major counterrevolutionary movement without intellectuals. Intellectuals have been the fathers and mothers of movements, and of course sons and daughters, even nephews and nieces.”

Hence, resistance against the new Janissaries and the counter revolutionary intellectuals, needs to be fought on the terrain of civil society, where the revolutionary intellectuals deconstruct the current political order and open up the way for a direct assault on the state.                       

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