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On the absence of Arab intellectuals: a class under siege

The urban middle class in Egypt is averse to situations where class conflict is heightened and thus justifies repression by the state.

Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images A poster with a picture of the head of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, is pictured in Cairo, Egypt. August 2013. Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA ImagesThe peculiar case of the Arab middle class came to the fore during a dinner with some friends and their parents in Germany. As I was sitting there enjoying my meal, the mother of a friend, aware of my opposition to the military regime in Egypt, started to attack me for my views.

What was clear to me in her verbal tirade is the inherent fear of social upheaval; the loss of what she perceived to be “Egypt”, which to me appeared to revolve around housing compounds, shopping malls and jobs in multinational companies.

The fear was palpable and real, which made me think once again about the inability of the Arab middle class to produce intellectuals capable of providing an ideological project that can envision and lead the process of social transformation.

This class seems to have become the main bulwark of support for Arab dictators, providing support for repression and wide spread state violence. Unlike other revolutionary crises, the Arab intelligentsia did not perform a progressive function.

On the contrary, they provided justification for repression and were easily coopted by the ruling military elites. This can be attributed to the ideological and class consciousness of the Arab middle class, traceable back to Nasserism and its material backbone, state capitalism, which played a significant role in the ascendance of this class.

Based on the Nasserist doctrine, ideas of class struggle, political pluralism, and social conflict were considered dangerous Marxist intrigues and were replaced by ideals of social harmony and cohesion.

For example, a union of the nation’s productive forces was introduced into the official doctrine and included the middle class, working class, and peasantry, led by the military. These groups would consistuite the “people”.

Opponents of the regime, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the communists, were considered to be outside this organic construction. Class consciousness was deliberately replaced by national consciousness, a feature that would become the hallmark of the urban middle class.

Even though many aspects of Nasserism collapsed and state capitalism is all but gone, the notion of social harmony as the natural state of affairs, with the clear hierarchy of classes and the trumping of national consciousness over class consciousness, remains hegemonic.

This has had a number of repercussions on the intellectual development of the urban middle class. Even though still a small minority, this class has recast itself as the representative of the nation with its class norms, practices and interests. The country has become the nation of the urban middle class, marginalizing and ignoring the vast majority who no longer fit into this narrative.

The most prominent example of which is the reaction to the transfer of two Egyptian islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. This transfer elicited the first mass protests, led by the middle class, against the regime. A reaction that is entirely consistent with the nationalist image this class holds of itself as the “protector” of national sovereignty.

On the other hand, there is mounting evidence of mass abuses and extrajudicial killings in Sinai. This, however, has produced no response from the same class, as the inhabitants of Sinai are not considered part of the “people”.

This notion of natural social harmony also acted to define the urban based protest movement, anchored in the middle class, as a reformist movement that has had no desire to take over the state apparatus. The primary goal during revolutionary upheaval was to pressure military elites to achieve short-term strategic goals, like the removal of Mubarak, rather than wide scale social transformation. The military was seen as a naturel ally that embodies national interests.

As such, there is no inherent hostility between these two social groups. The aim was to restore the natural equilibrium of harmony, which was seen as having been disrupted during the late Mubarak era as class conflict had intensified to a degree that could no longer be ignored.

Thus, the aim of the protest movement was a restoration of the “old” through the liberalization of the political system without any economic or social transformations that would lead to deep structural changes.

The urban middle class is averse to situations where class conflict is heightened and thus justifies repression by the state. Class conflict is seen as an existential threat to the nation.

This outlook has paved the way for the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Those participating in social protests are identified as outsiders and, naturally, agents of hostile powers who are hoping to disrupt social harmony and destroy the nation.

The primary focus of the urban middle class is to preserve the nation, which it implicitly identifies as an extension of itself. This has had a significant impact on the intellectual development of the Arab middle class, and the political movement that arose from it.

The Muslim Brotherhood, with its roots in the middle class, for example, did not have a coherent ideological vision of social transformation; they were limited to a project of individual moral reform, which they argued would eliminate moral decay and government corruption.

On the other hand, the left and the Nasserists, who are more sympathetic to the working class, did not attempt to lead and radicalize the labor movement. They chose to focus on limited economic demands from the paternalistic state, ignoring the social realities of the urban poor who played an integral role during the mass protest of 2011 and 2012.                                           

These examples illustrate the condition of the Egyptian intelligentsia who are still under the stranglehold of Nasserist ideals of social harmony. This has had a number of repercussions on the political climate of modern Egypt.

First, they focused their attention on issues of corruption and governance, rather than social structures and their historical development. Thus, the dominant notion is that if a limited number of elites are changed, societal issues will be resolved. The removal of a sitting leader becomes their grandest goal.

Second, there is clear denial of Arab societal problems being the product of social structures and social struggle, since the view of natural social harmony would then be shattered. This stunts Arab intellectual development, causing it to act as a tool for the justification of existing elite structures rather than a way to challenge and alter them.

Third, the casting of the middle class as the embodiment of the nation marginalizes the vast majority of the other classes and relegates them to the background, which impedes the creation of cross-class coalitions.

Finally, and most importantly is the development of a siege mentality by the urban middle class in situations of revolutionary crisis when class conflict is heightened. This only results in the urban middle class coming into closer alliance with military elites, who are viewed as the only protection against those who threaten their perception of the nation.

Thus, rather than perform a progressive function, it provides justification for state repression and violence, even though the military elites are accumulating wealth at the expense of all the classes, including the middle class.

Unless there is a substantial change in the view among Arab intellectuals of class conflict and social struggle as drivers of social change, the development of a revolutionary framework will be limited and the Arab intelligentsia will only act as junior partners in state repression and the degradation of Arab societies.


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