The taifas state

The clashes that broke out between police and army forces at a police station in New Cairo on 19 November 2012 elicits derisive laughter from followers of the developments of the modern Egyptian state.

State institutions are engaged in a battle over who is better able to violate the laws of the state, which they supposedly protect, as the modern state legend goes.

The Egyptian army's invasion of Qursaya Island one day before has also aroused fears over the deterioration of affairs in the Egyptian state.

In less than two years, the state has been gradually baring its defects, in what seems to be the fastest political striptease in modern history.

As Egypt makes the transformation from a police state under Mubarak, to a military state, deep state, Brotherhood-controlled state, failed state all the way to a laughing state, the 25 January revolution 2011 marks just about the most important happening in Egypt's modern history.

The revolution announces a close end to Egypt's historical slump from a modern authoritative tyrannical state with more failures than successes to a Mamluk-style state with the same conflicts over fiefdoms in Mamluk Egypt or the taifas’ kings wars of Andalusia after the fall of the Umayyad state in the 11th century AD.

The modern state

The modern Egyptian state, under the rule of Mohamed Ali and his sons, and then Nasser and his successors, was based on the idea of authoritative top-down modernization through a central state that forcibly regulates society. The suppression of society is understandable within a context that bestows an imagined historical legitimacy on a state led by an elite thought to have risen to power just in time to modernize a society swamped in economic, social and cultural backwardness and where progress is only achievable through the binary of suppressive modernization state versus suppressed backward crowds.

These elites were not necessarily secular. In fact, they had several religious orientations which provided the jurisprudential opinions they saw necessary for this kind of authoritative modernization. The religious elite has played a major role in legitimizing this authoritative form of modernization and forming its hybrid ideological content. 

Nasser and his successors made key structural contributions to this state, with regards to managing public affairs, allocating resources, making and implementing laws and establishing a social contract based on confiscating politics and the entire public sphere, creating the state of emergency and imposing guardianship on the people, reducing them to subjects rather than citizens.

These structural features determining the shape of the state and its relationship with Egyptians continued throughout the rule of Sadat and Mubarak, though with some tactical variations to accommodate the state's financial capacity. The liberation of the economy under Sadat and Mubarak is linked to the state's financial incapacity to bribe the people. This reshaped the ruling bloc to allow for oligarchical alliances with capitalists.

Tragically, the amount of violence used by the authoritative modernization state by far outweighs the modest and distorted amount of modernization it has achieved.

For instance, it has failed to bring about economic development, or put in place effective education and health systems. We have not seen competent state institutions, the rule of law nor a developed and strong military power. Furthermore, Egypt’s roads, railways and waters have become venues for mass death due to government corruption, weak infrastructure and lack of accountability.

Under Mubarak, the Mamluk-oligarchical nature of the state crystallized further, with Egypt becoming a group of separate institutions such as the military, the police, the judiciary, bureaucracy, businessmen and others. The general policies of the regime were determined through the random interaction of these sects, only influenced by the balance of powers and the nature of functional needs.

The 25 January revolution was launched against this fascist obsolete state. One of the major successes of this revolution was its ability to uncover the extent of tyranny, lack of development and the state’s eroding ability to deter and suppress the frustrated angry crowds. The tyrannical state was dealt strong blows and society was enshrouded in a political vacuum as historical alternatives for establishing a new political era were considered.

Meanwhile, the ailing tyrannical state fought on, even more ferociously, to remain alive.

What the Egyptian army did in Qursaya Island on 18 November 2012 is a frightening proof of the deterioration the Egyptian state has reached. Taifas’ kings are using all criminal powers to safeguard their interests in a flagrant violation of the law, killing whoever stands in the way in cold blood.

I'm surprised how the Egyptian media has not given the incident adequate attention. Instead of giving us a headache on the dangers the Palestinians pose to Egypt, it should have discussed how this behavior by the Egyptian army poses danger to Egypt.

The military institution, which already controls vast expanses of land, wants to control some land in Qursaya to achieve certain direct interests, using Mubarak-era laws or outright power.

Interestingly, in the last 10 years of Mubarak's rule, businessmen had their eyes on the same island. In blatant violation of a judicial ruling issued in 2010 that emphasized the residents' right to the land, the army dispatched its armed forces to evacuate the residents.

In a surreal scene, the soldiers were chanting Allahu AKbar as the residents dodged the fire, some of them jumping into the water for their lives. Not only that, the army also arrested some of the residents and referred them to the military prosecution. Then it issued a statement placing the blame on the dead victims.

The army is dealing with the people like an occupying force deals with the natives. And this time, the army is not using violence to quell political protests, like it did during the interim period, but to defend its commercial and economic interest like any armed Mafia would.

The Brotherhood

Some may disagree with me when I say that the Muslim Brotherhood is part of this failed modernization project. I would say, however, that they represent the more culturally conservative part of that project which finds its roots in the religious components of the authoritative modernization project.

Their ability to mobilize people feeds on economic and social crises and the distorted public sphere produced by this state with its structural distortions. Also, their ideology on the relationship between religion and the state does not contradict with the legal and constitutional legacy of this hybrid modern state.

The Brotherhood's political project is an Islamic authoritative modern state that inherits the same modern state with its power, authoritativeness and guardianship on the society, granting that blend an Islamic flavor that draws on the conservative religious components of the state.

In addition to that, and since the Brotherhood followed a strategy of horizontal growth under Mubarak, it was imperative that the fragmentation processes working in society at large have their impact on the group. The Brotherhood, hence, became a closed group, organizationally and intellectually, particularly in light of the selective and haphazard security suppression, which led their members to align together behind their organization's unified and static view of the world, and stand up for the groups circles of interests and leaderships.

As such, there was no room for the development of the group's ideas or political orientations. The Brotherhood as an opposition was nothing more than the other face of the regime.

It should not therefore be surprising that the Brotherhood does not have a fresh vision for the relationship between the state and society, let alone a democratic vision based on political representation and pluralism. The Brotherhood's alternative, in its current version, is not in fact an alternative, but a part of the old game and a remnant of the legacy of the failed state against which the revolution was launched.

The Brotherhood's incorporation into the ruling bloc, through parliamentary and then presidential elections in 2011 and 2012 successively, added an old partner to the taifas kings state. This new partner is supposed to hegemonize the electoral sphere. It aims at presenting a ruling elite that leads the same authoritative state that staggered after the revolution in search for a new conservatively competitive political sphere that would safeguard the interests of the taifas’ kings.  

The unified position that the ruling partners in the taifas state took on the dictatorial constitutional declaration issued by President Mohamed Morsy and on the Constituent Assembly’s farce is important in this context.

The proposed draft constitution preserves the pillars of the tyrannical state, keeps its guardianship on society, confiscates rights and freedoms, upholds the economic, social and institutional privileges of the taifas state and opens the door to privileges for new parties. And the unity between the old and new ruling partners regarding it is an attempt on their part to reproduce the old authoritative state in a new mold. 

But authoritativeness is helpless if it lacks the tools suitable for the historical context. Besides the fact that the state's repressive apparatus is less able to suppress, there is also resistance to the current ruling project.

The uprising against the constitutional declaration, the massive 27 November protests and the clashes between pro and anti-regime protesters against a backdrop of extreme political polarization have proven that the revolutionary democratic bloc is shaping up and its ability to mobilize diverse Egyptians is remarkable. 

On the other hand, the Islamists use of violence to deter society has been challenged by the empowerment of several strata and their ability to take to the streets after the walls of fear collapsed and the grip of the police state loosened.

Lastly we should not forget that the legitimacy of the current regime, in the eyes of its supporters locally and internationally, largely depends on its ability to keep stability and avoid chaos. Hence, the high cost of political fascism and its resulting suppression and scenarios of social chaos and violence — in light of the resistance of the revolutionary democratic bloc — will keep the authoritative aspirations of the current regime in check.

However, this non-democratic-non-fascist state cannot form the basis for the democratic alternative that Egyptians revolted for.

We can now notice the unity of the discourse of the advocates of the "prestige of the state" and those worried about the "production wheel" with that of the Brotherhood and Salafis. They all now call for stability. They all propagate a haughty discourse that looks down at ordinary Egyptians telling them "We have no money to provide for your needs".

This discourse seeks to divert attention from the fact that the economic and social crises result from the disintegration of the failed state in Egypt. It also represents a helpless attempt to defend a fragile and perilous status quo.

Besides that, the regime has failed to achieve any breakthrough or build democratic institutions on the political and social levels.

The social and political vacuum will remain in Egypt until the historical conditions required for filling this vacuum and presenting a new political alternative, based on a democratic vision of the relationship between the state and its citizens, take shape.

Ashraf El-Sherif teaches political science at the American University in Cairo.

This article was originally published on Jadaliyya and was translated by Dina Zafer.

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