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The stubborn Egyptian state is the biggest obstacle

January 27, 2014 at 1:44 pm

It goes without saying that Egyptians are divided. They were divided before the January 25th revolution of 2011 and they were divided once again after the short honeymoon period following the revolution.

The Egyptian people were divided before the coup against their President Dr. Mohammed Morsi and they were divided after the coup as well. What I mean by this is that all Egyptians are politicised including the partisan and non-partisan political elite.

There is no doubt that the decision to depose President Morsi using military force was the moment that sharply defined and crystallised these divisions after a consensus could not be established in a politicised Egypt during its two and a half years of free democratic life. It is naïve to believe that what we witnessed on July 3rd in Egypt happened as a result of political divisions or that the political forces in opposition to the Islamists and President Morsi’s rule, and their supporters, were the perpetrators responsible for toppling President Morsi, leading Egypt into its current state.

The Egyptian state is responsible for portraying President Morsi as a failure during the first year of his presidency. The state deposed Morsi, who was new to the government and all of its traditions and legacies, the minute they felt that he was suspicious of their attempt to monopolise the decision-making process in various governmental institutions. The aggravated political divisions in the country gave the state the opportunity to reassert its control over Egypt after the January 25th revolution in 2011.

There is no way to clearly identify the components of the modern state, whose early stages began to take shape in Western Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century and were clearly defined by the early nineteenth century. Afterwards, the state model was implemented outside of the European context, as many considered it to be the most effective way to govern a nation. First of all, it is difficult to define a modern state because the socio-political phenomena that surround it tend to be rather ambiguous.

Secondly, the various phenomena that have accumulated over history usually defy definition. In the early twentieth century, Max Weber offered his definition of a state, which was based on the idea that there exists a link between the institution of a state and a monopoly over the use of force and violence. This meant that in order for the state to enforce order, it had to use violence that was superior to any other forms of violence available to the people. However, Weber’s definition clearly took into account the repressive nature of the state due to its ability to command and control the largest reservoir of violence. It is obvious that this definition omits the other capabilities of a modern state such as the advantage of having legitimacy, which the state thoroughly enjoys; not to mention the power of effective speeches, which in most cases is integral to maintaining control and hegemony without resorting to violence. This definition overlooks the affiliations linking the people to the state, which took root over the last two centuries in countries with national content.

A few decades ago American sociologist Charles Tilly summarised the major features and social conditions of the modern state in the introduction of a book he edited on the emergence of the modern state in Western Europe.

He made the following points:

  • A modern state maintains authority over a well-connected and clearly defined area of land. In his opinion, this is the highest form of legitimacy on earth because possessing a clearly defined area of land allows for the implementation of laws and legislation.
  • All power is centralised within the state and the state possesses a level of centrality that is superior to any other institution.
  • The state is a superior institution that is distinct from any other institution.
  • The state can impose or claim control over the areas it governs by using a monopoly over force.

In Western democratic countries, the modern state generally ensures the following rights without the influence of a third party; the right to assemble, freedom of the press, the right to recourse, and the right to defend one’s life and property. This model for the modern state was established in Istanbul, Cairo and Tunis, as part of the modernisation endeavours carried out by the Ottomans in the mid-nineteenth century. This model also strongly took root in Algeria and India under the mandate of British and French colonisers.

Around a century later, in the mid-twentieth century, the institution of the modern state had become the prevailing state model not just in the Arab and Islamic world, but also on the global scale. There had not yet been a state established that adhered to the modern sense of a state. Furthermore, a failed state is categorized as one that does not have the authority to place itself in an international system and it also cannot gain membership to the United Nations.

All modern states seek to maintain dominance and control over their territory and people. All states want to establish a governing system that can be maintained generation after generation and era after era. The democratic system cannot be pulled apart from the state; however, this does not undermine its ability to maintain control. Although it may differ to varying degrees depending on the cultures and contexts of different countries, a democratic system determines the relationship between the state and its people. In this sense, the democratic system makes the people its partners in the decision-making process and allows them to periodically contribute to state affairs by choosing their representatives. The features of a state and the relationship between the state and the democratic system are never fixed or rigid.

When a state has a long and connected history, as is the case in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey, the conditions and attributes of that state develop within that country’s social, historical, and geographical context, making it unique. For example, the attributes of a state like Turkey, which has never experienced a long occupation, will differ greatly from a state that remains closely linked to a foreign imperial metropolis like Algeria or Tunisia. Turkey has faced a long, sixty-decade struggle on the path towards democratic transition, which began with the first multi-party elections in 1950. Due to this history, democracy is deep-rooted in Turkey’s political culture, despite the fact that it was plagued by a series of military coups. There is also a dominant social and political elite. Although a well-established modern state institution governs Egypt and it possesses a large army that occupies a privileged place in the structure of the state, it lacks the democratic culture that exists in Turkey.

The January 25th Revolution succeeded in overthrowing the authoritarian regime and the key figures of the ruling class that spoke in the government’s name. However, the revolution did not affect the deep-rooted and large institution of the Egyptian state. The revolution was a brief moment that occurred rapidly in history; therefore, there was no need for a confrontation between the forces of the revolution and the institution of the state. What needed to occur right after the revolution was a comprehensive reform of the state apparatus that would subject it to the will of the revolution. This did not occur because the people chose to go on a constitutional, or quasi-constitutional, path during the transition period as opposed to a revolutionary path of reform.

When President Hosni Mubarak stepped down he handed over the reins of power to the Supreme Court and the armed forces. The country and its political forces accepted this decision. After the revolution, there was no initiative whatsoever to reform the Supreme Court and although there are many reasons that explain why this is, one of the main reasons is that the Supreme Court is among one of the oldest institutions of the state. Another reason is that the short-lived consensus and national unity among political forces had virtually vanished and the political divisions that marred the Egyptian political arena before the revolution had become more exacerbated than ever before. Political divisions have been a common characteristic of Arab and Islamic political society since the mid-nineteenth century. Yet in this particular context, the context of the modern state and the predicaments of reform and adaptation, divisions hold a crucial significance.

Every member of the Arab elite, whether they identify themselves as Islamic or not, and whether they affiliate themselves with liberalism, nationalism, or patriotism, are products of the modern state and its climate. This includes their education, causes, constitution, culture, and artistic production. The relationships between these elites and the state are not the same and their vision for the state is not singular. For decades, the state considered Islamic political forces to be external forces and a form of radical opposition whose place, at best, would always be in the remote margin. Thus, Morsi’s victory in the presidency is considered to be a blatant inversion of the modern state and its relationship with political Islam. Due to the profound political divide after the revolution, the Supreme Court did not exert enough pressure on the Armed forces to reform and adapt to the democratic way of life that was expected after January 25th.

After Morsi won the presidency, the political divide was a huge obstacle in the reform process. Morsi knew that the reform process and adapting to the democratic transition were the biggest tasks of his presidency. He considered them to be far more important than facing the economic crisis. He was probably well aware of the state’s vision for the presidency; however, he also felt restricted by the constitutional path that the country chose (or found themselves in) after overthrowing the former regime. The severe political divide and the bias of liberal and semi-liberal, nationalist, and traditional Egyptian political forces for the old state apparatus ultimately created more restrictions. Thus, reform came at a slow and stuttering pace and with each step the political crisis in the country deepened.

The semi-abstract entity of the state has a very specific essence and it retains specific forms of language, traditions and legacies that remain loyal to it. When placed together these characteristics form a complex network of perceptions and interests. Furthermore, it is not easy for a political movement that is unfamiliar with the institution of the state and one that had been considered a hostile rival, to move from the margin to holding the reins of power. The truth is that the transition was, in theory, ineffective after Morsi’s first year of presidency. The state’s concerns were escalating because a newcomer was sworn in for presidency and an alliance was formed between liberals and Egyptian nationalist forces, who ultimately saw that returning to the heart of the old state was better than the presence of Islamists in power. Due to the political divide, this alliance occurred in spite of former criticisms of the state. Out of this alliance the events of July 3rd were born, giving the former state the perfect opportunity to reinstate its dominant role and regain control.

Translated from the text which appeared in Al Quds Al Arabi on 14 August, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.