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An act of the state

January 29, 2014 at 3:29 pm

There is nothing new in saying that the Egyptians are divided. They were divided before the fall of Mubarak and continued to be so after his fall; before the election of Mohamed Morsi as the first post-revolution president, and are still so after the military coup that forced him out of office on July 3. The army’s move to bring Morsi down was no doubt carried out in an astounding manifestation of this division, and the failure of the Egyptian political forces to find common ground during the two and half years after the January 25 Revolution. However, it will be highly simplistic to assume that the overthrow of the first ever freely-elected president of the republic was the outcome of political opposition to his rule. What worked assiduously and tirelessly to undermine Morsi’s presidency was the Egyptian state. Once the state felt that the president was about to consolidate his position, it decided to remove him. The exacerbation of political division in the country was only a convenient moment for the state machinery to reassert its control over post-revolutionary Egypt.

The concept of the modern state, the centralised, pervasive and hegemonic state, was born in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century but did not reach maturity until two centuries later. During the nineteenth century the new model of the state, seen as highly effective and efficient, started to spread into other parts of the world, whether as the choice of modernising local officials or the power of colonial administrations. By the end of the nineteenth century, almost all countries in the Muslim world, colonised or independent, beginning with Egypt, India and the Ottoman Empire, had already acquired fully functioning institutions of the modern state: A central legislative authority, elected or otherwise; a modern judiciary; centrally controlled education; an outstanding army; a police force; and hierarchical bureaucracy.

Hegemony, control and transcendence are inherent attributes to all states of the modern world. As they become entrenched and secure, they tend to develop their own culture, values and exclusive interests. Democratic systems do not uproot the modern state, nor do they undermine its aptitude for domination. In various degrees and different fashions, democracies work by rationalising the relationship between state and society, providing the people with a stake in the decision-making process and granting them a regular opportunity to choose their political representatives, with the aim of overseeing state institutions.

The transformation from dictatorship to democracy, however, is not a straightforward process, especially in countries with a long-established and uninterrupted modern state. In Turkey, which knew its first democratically-elected government in 1950, the struggle against the authoritarian elite of the republic and the military’s recurrent interventions in politics continued for more than half a century, laying-down strong democratic traditions in the process. Egypt, with a colossal state bureaucracy and an enormous military with vast economic interests and an intrusive role in other institutions of the state, lacks such traditions.

In the January 25 Revolution, the Egyptians succeeded in bringing down the 30-year, authoritarian, corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak, together with a number of the leading members of the ruling class. The revolution, nonetheless, did not touch the two centuries-old preponderant state. The revolution itself was short, and once Mubarak decided to relinquish power many Egyptians did not see the need for what seemed to be a gruesome and protracted confrontation with the state machinery. Yet, it was widely recognised that all branches of the state, especially its judiciary, police and security apparatus, required comprehensive and profound reform, not only in order to subordinate it to the will of the democratic revolution, but also to make its institutions more professional. This project never started.

The first reason for this concerned the legal, semi-constitutional path, not a revolutionary one, which the country opted for in the transitional period. In his final speech, Mubarak handed over the reins of power to the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a step that was accepted by the people and the vast majority of the political forces in the country. SCAF, being an integral part of the old regime, was not interested in launching a process of state reform. In fact, none other than Mubarak’s last prime minister, General Ahmad Shafiq, headed SCAF’s first government. The second reason related to the fast evaporating atmosphere of political unity, which characterised the few weeks of the revolution and its immediate aftermath, and the return of political polarisation in a more exacerbated form. Division and the lack of consensus has been an inherent feature of the Arab-Islamic political community since the mid-nineteenth century; in this particular context, however, it acquired specific implications.

All Arab political classes, whether Islamist, liberal or nationalist, are the products of the modern state’s ambience; part of its education, arts and constitutional and legal cultures. Yet, the relationship between the state and the political forces in the country are not of the same type, nor are the state’s views of these forces identical. For almost a century, the state saw the Islamic political forces as outsiders and radical opponents, whose place is either on the margins of public life or in jail. Morsi’s triumph in the presidential elections, therefore, was not only a shocking surprise but also a challenge to the state’s legacy and its long held characterisation of the political community.

A former member of parliament and head of the political bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi recognized that reformation of the state was his presidency’s first priority. He was most likely aware that the success and failure of his term in office would ultimately be contingent upon his ability to recreate the state institutions and place them at the service of the nation. In reality, he was not helped by the conditions surrounding his coming to office. As his first and only year as president demonstrated, Morsi’s capacity to act was restricted by the constitutional-legal path of the transitional period, as well as the chronic divisions within the political arena. Every single step he took to protect the people’s will against the entrenched state’s institutions was thwarted by a grumbling judiciary or confronted by fierce opposition from suspicious liberal and nationalist groupings, precipitating another political crisis. Accused of seeking to turn Egypt into a Brotherhood state, Morsi’s attempts at state reform were unsure, piecemeal and on several occasions subject to reversal.

The abstract entity which we call the state has a soul and discourse of its own, and possesses an exclusive legacy and traditions, on which a highly complicated network of interests and power relations usually rest. It was never easy for a president, a stranger to the state institutions and coming from the oldest Islamic political force, to move from the margins of political power to holding the reins of power. Yet, given the unfavourable circumstances of his presidency, Morsi was admirably determined and persistent in carrying out his constitutional duties.

It was this persistence and determination that heightened the state’s apprehension and fear, and led subsequently to the state’s rejection of its first ever elected president. Conveniently, the state found an ally in a range of liberal, semi-liberal and nationalist groupings which, burdened by revived hatred and suspicion of their Islamist counterparts, opted for embracing the state rather than consenting to the presence of an Islamist in the presidential palace. Bolstered by the backing and encouragement of anti-democratic Arab Gulf rulers, the Egyptian state deployed its most powerful instrument, the armed forces, to put an end to Morsi’s year in office. July 3 was the outcome of this particular configuration of power, and the state’s unrelenting search to reassert its control and hegemony.

Dr Basheer M. Nafi is a historian and an expert on Middle Eastern affairs.

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