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Egypt's Neverending Story Of Incomplete Revolutions

Throughout the country's turbulent history, efforts to establish a government by and for the people have always come up short.

Egypt's Neverending Story Of Incomplete Revolutions
Belal Alaa

CAIRO — A revolution once spread across the world and triumphed. It was a revolution of the mind, one that firmly established the idea that any system of government must rule on behalf of the governed. And it seems that no counterrevolutionary force will be able to defeat this idea in the foreseeable future.

This idea prevailed to such an extent that people began to consider it self-evident. Yet this very intuition may be one of the reasons its triumph remained trapped in the realm of the mind and didn't cross over into material reality. It is true that all other systems of government are incapable of justifying themselves with any coherent discourse — they are forever condemned to rhetorical defeat — but that does not mean the original causes of their de facto victory were lost.

Like any victory, the idea of a government by the people and for the people only triumphed after smaller revolutions first paved the way. The triumph — of the idea that individuals have control over their lives outside of family or tribal ties, and the idea that all people are equal, regardless of class — only came in the wake of an earlier crucial victory: the criminalization of slavery. And finally, came the triumph of the idea that a communal, worldly utopia is possible and that all modern states must work towards it, regardless of the various ideologies prescribing different ways to achieve it.

The sweeping triumph of this revolutionary idea was not matched by a victory on the ground, though it did strip regimes of their perceived legitimacy. Governments became incapable of justifying their legitimacy to their people — and more importantly, to themselves. So they were forced to play rhetorical games by including "people" in their discourse in an attempt to recreate legitimacy, while at the same time excluding people from their private circles of power.

Anti-government protests in Mahalla, Egypt in 2008 — Photo: Jameskbuck

The idea emerged of a communal, universal utopia — a republic — based on a committed citizenry that is eager to participate in its own rule. Such a republic would have renounced the belief that there are certain cliques that have the divine right to lead, and that those same groups — from royal dynasties to religious leaders —lost their self-evident right to rule.

This intellectual revolution had to undergo a lengthy process to come to fruition. First, countries had to go through actual revolts. Then the demographic of people in whose name governments would rule had to be expanded. And finally, distortions of republican thought — in which rule by the people is rhetorically championed without actually involving people in governance — must be repeatedly repelled. These distortions turn proactive citizens into an undifferentiated mass that cannot hold rulers accountable. Rulers are then seen as having the sole authority and vision to lead people to utopia. Ultranationalism is the most recurrent of these distortions due to its striking ability to disguise itself as republicanism.

Our conversation here, however, will be about the outposts of this intellectual revolution, those places where the self-evident idea of republicanism took hold but the balance of powers prevented them from being able to form a republic. Namely, places that did not have a solid bourgeoisie class to participate in governance (an emerging class that historically owns more advanced means of production and sees itself as more worthy and efficient in governance than its aristocratic counterpart) and that would then implement a series of successive reforms allowing for the inclusion of more groups.

In these outposts, which include the Arab world, republican ideas won out in a decisive victory. Yet they remained mired in traditional power structures that are typically controlled by groups such as tribes, notable families and armies. The legitimacy of royal rule collapsed and it was no longer possible to establish new kingdoms. But there was also no appropriate power base to establish a republic — namely large, stable middle and bourgeois classes looking to participate in representative, democratic rule that were not divided by substantial ideological differences.

As such, people officially went from being subjects to citizens; yet they became citizens in name only. They joined the political sphere as nothing more than a theoretical component in order for the ruling regime to be able to legitimize itself. Royal legitimacy may have been defeated, but the conditions for its continuation remained. The unwillingness or inability of the masses to participate in politics and bear the consequences persisted. People were unable to formulate their own original republican dreams in a way that expressed their desires, as opposed to merely regurgitating ideologies of the educated elite who remained isolated and incapable of adequately motivating people to political action.

Amidst this impasse, the idea of a worldly utopia became blurred. In light of this fundamental inability to transition to a republic, the act of transitioning itself became the goal.

Moving without advancing

The Mamluks rose to power in Egypt as a result of a similar interruption in legitimacy. The Ayyubid state collapsed without leaving an heir after the Mamluks overthrew Al-Muazzam Turanshah, the son of Sultan as-Saleh Ayyub. There was no solution but to make Shajarat al-Durr, al-Malik al-Salih's widow, the sultan of Egypt for a brief period of time, before she relinquished the throne to her new husband, Izz al-Din Aybak. Later she killed Aybak, and was subsequently killed by Aybak's supporters, after which the Mamluk Sultan Qutuz took over the throne.

Qutuz ruled briefly without facing any questions of his legitimacy due to the threat of the Mongols. Yet as soon as they were defeated in Ain Jalut, Qutuz was assassinated. Baibars then took over Egypt fully aware of his fragile claim to power. He could not declare himself king, but nor was he simply a vassal of the caliphate, which had completely collapsed after the Mongols invaded Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Baibars came up with an ingenious solution: He appointed one of the remaining members of the Abbasid family as caliph, who then gave Baibars the mandate to rule. This delegation of authority became the legitimizing process of Mamluk rule, whereby Abbasid caliphs would be appointed only to delegate authority to Mamluk leaders. This system sidestepped questions of legitimacy that could have plagued the Mamluks, who were originally slaves trained to be warriors that did not have any sectarian allegiances or a legitimizing discourse that could withstand the test of time.

The Mamluks therefore depended on the absent caliph who was only present to further their rule. They prayed for him at the pulpit, without granting him any authority. His only job was to attend the crowning ceremonies of new sultans and to delegate power to them.

The delegation of authority by the Abbasid caliph to the Mamluk sultan was performative yet indispensable — the only practice that could protect the structure from total collapse. And this token act by the Mamluks mirrors the electoral process in states that haven't fully transformed into modern republics, where the people take up the role of the caliph. Similar to the Abbasid caliph, the people participate on paper in an electoral process whose results are mostly predetermined from the start. Despite its superficiality, this process is essential for the continuation of the regime — a necessary act of political theater.

"Charge of the Mamluks' by Francisco Goya Source: Wikimedia Commons

The fall of the Abbasid caliphate marked a major catastrophe for a country whose royal family, the Ayyubids, had fallen too. This is why the Mamluks summoned the ghosts of the Abbasids so they could contain the crisis and legitimize their rule. In reality, the Abbasid caliphate had collapsed and could not be revived, nor could another family rise and legitimately claim the right to rule. Appointing the Abbasid as caliph, who was in fact powerless, was a way to pretend that nothing had changed. This act of political theater would last for centuries until the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which claimed caliphal authority through expansion and conquest.

The Mamluk answer to the question of legitimacy was not to solve it, but rather to postpone it indefinitely and run in place as best they could. This is precisely the opposite of what modern ideologies espouse: that individuals are capable of reshaping the world and that nations have to transition to a worldly future that is more beautiful than the present. That a better future is possible is an essential pillar of participatory republicanism, one where different segments of the public have the capacity and strategy to achieve it.

The magic of the future

People's desire to participate in politics is the basic foundation for a republic. They have to believe that they will actually participate in governance and not just be pawns in a political game that does not involve them, as was the case throughout most of human history. This conviction was prevalent in the secular and liberal ideologies of Western nations, which encouraged segments of the bourgeoisie to participate in politics and undermine the institutional power of the clergy. Shifts in economic thought and the demise of feudalism also pushed these classes to embrace self-rule.

But it's not enough for people to believe in their right to participate in shaping their own future. They must also have at least a basic vision of what this future looks like and how to achieve it. This is one of the obstacles to a successful transition. Even though the self-evident idea of republicanism was transmitted from the West to us, the theories outlining the ways to achieve it were not transposed in the same way.

We can discuss both liberalism and communism in this context. Liberalism takes freedom as its fundamental value and the market as the starting point of its economic theory. It is associated with the presence of a relatively large, secular bourgeois class that regards itself as more capable in governance than the monarchy and aristocracy. Communism, which is based on equality and justice, views the state as the central tool for regulating the economy and depends on the presence of a large, organized working class.

In practice, the two theories were missing the main social subject that they claimed to represent. For the most part, both liberalism and communism were supported by bourgeois individuals with a distinct, alien culture that belonged to political parties which viewed independence as the earthly utopia that people sought after. But there were religious and societal obstacles to the spread of the principles of both theories. Both require an audience that has distanced itself from religious, tribal and familial ties, and is comprised of ambitious individuals looking to reach a worldly paradise. But this audience did not exist.

It is true that values such as equality and the right of all people to participate in politics have almost completely prevailed; but these values could not hold up in the face of material factors such as colonization and the vast disparities between economic classes, whose pre-modern iterations often persisted. There were still rich classes with close ties to the ruling elite (closely resembling the aristocracy, not an independent bourgeois class that aspires to participate in governance) as well as masses of poor people and effendis who were separate from the government but who strongly held onto religious or nationalist goals, such as the restoration of the caliphate or national independence. The goal of these masses was not to achieve paradise on earth. They instead assumed that with national independence or the return of the caliphate, economic conditions would surely improve.

The nature of the Ottoman Empire — which was based almost entirely on coercive power and did not appeal to a coherent discourse to legitimize its religious claim to rule — helped facilitate the successful transfer of republican ideas. There is a rich history of Arab intellectuals calling for self-governance — from the Levantine people calling into question the Ottoman Empire itself to the Egyptians fighting the Alawites. But there were a number of factors making it difficult for other accompanying ideas to prevail, such as freedom, religious reform, individualism, and — more importantly — imaginations of a worldly paradise to come.

In the context of occupation, the republican idea of "the people's right to govern themselves' positioned "the people" as a unified bloc against a foreign bloc to be disposed of, and not as a diverse group of people facing off against a small ruling class. This semantic displacement was not entirely alien to the eventual fate of republicanism itself, which, for completely different reasons, underwent similar distortions by extreme nationalist ideas in the West, such as fascism, which positioned the people/nation/homeland/state as one bloc facing off against the "other." The sovereignty of the people became the sovereignty of rulers in the homeland who confront the other (with the other being both the hostile foreigner or the skeptical citizen) as opposed to the sovereignty of the people as individuals and diverse groups who have direct control over their fate.

Taking to the streets

Before 1876, Egyptians saw their public affairs, and in fact their private affairs, as the property of their supreme ruler and his deputies. The ruler manages their affairs according to his will. Their happiness and their misfortunes are entrusted to his honesty and fairness, or betrayal and injustice. They do not believe they have the right to have an opinion about the governance of the country nor the ability to take action for the public good.

— Mohamed Abdo, part one of his complete works.

Egyptians entered politics through the gateway of anti-colonial resistance and independence movements. Prior to that, people were not present in politics as such. It is true that there were successive uprisings against injustice, conscription, and high taxes, but those never amounted to a political class being formed that aspired to rule itself.

The Orabi Revolution, of which Mohamed Abdo himself was an early enthusiast, marked the first real appearance of the Egyptian public in politics. Yet the people were secondary to the group of army officers led by Ahmed Orabi, who had grievances over their low status in the military compared to their Turkish counterparts. Nevertheless, they did have a number of explicit demands for political representation, such as establishing a parliament and sacking the cabinet — in addition to more direct demands to improve the conditions for low ranking Egyptian army officers.

After the defeat of the Orabi Revolution, the imprint of this movement hovered in the background until the people decisively rose up in the 1919 Revolution. This time, people chose the Wafd Party as their representative — a representative other than the king — becoming politically present outside the confines of the monarchy.

Colonization changed people's relationship to traditional monarchy. The palace either failed to resist colonial power or appeased it to maintain its royal privileges, and people seized this state of affairs to become politically active. Yet while colonization unintentionally offered people an opportunity to form a new political identity and build a modern state, it also created a deep crisis by limiting people's imagination to a dream of independence. This dream had to first be realized before they could dream of anything else.

Therefore, the discourse of independence was not formulated by blocs of distinct individuals demanding their right to rule their country. Rather, it appealed to the people as a whole, with no regard for pluralism, in order for this united public to defend the country against the colonial power. To some extent, the demands reflected a desire to have a republic, but this republic would be a tool to first achieve national independence, before any demands for participatory democracy. Aside from gaining independence, other questions about progress, backwardness, modernity, science and religious reform erupted in occupied countries like Egypt.

The realities of colonization can often free individuals from their traditional ties and create the possibility of dreaming of a new society with new values — a utopia. However, this proved very difficult. The religion of colonial powers was different from that of the local people — colonialism was often perceived as an extension of the Crusades against Islam, which heightened people's religious sensibilities. Religion was one of their traditional weapons in the fight for national liberation, and it was a quick and effective means of mobilizing people to resist the occupying power. Later, religion was incorporated into a nationalist discourse that, for understandable reasons, made independence its primary dream, not any other worldly paradise.

During the 1919 Revolution, Egyptians emerged as a people demanding independence for the first time. As a result, a semi-democratic system was established — one in which representatives of the people would take part in governance alongside the monarchy and the British. It is true that this democracy was incomplete, partial, and frequently threatened by the dissolution of one parliament after the other. But there was also constant pressure by people to bring the Wafd to power, which kept this incomplete democracy intact.

Protestors during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919— Source: Wikimedia Commons

Popular enthusiasm for the Wafd Party eventually withered for a variety of reasons — the party failed to represent people's ambitions in a unified way, and demands for independence declined in favor of debates centered on national and religious identity and questions of feudalism. Meanwhile, undemocratic forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Young Egypt Party, rose in the public sphere. Those were republican forces insofar as we characterize the desire for public participation in politics as a republican value. But they were also not republican in that they initially rejected and criticized democratic rule. At the same time, they fundamentally opposed partisan politics and believed it divided the body politic.

In a sense, they expelled people from politics again, but only after first speaking in their name. Although these groups were radically hostile to pluralism, the political climate from which they emerged, which was centered on the struggle against British occupation, also fed their tendency to treat the people as a solid bloc that must be led to a better future.

It is no accident that what the 1952 regime inherited from these discourses was an aversion to pluralism and diversity. The regime's main goal was a national struggle for independence and sovereignty in the homeland, not the formation of a republic. From that point of view, there is no need for political pluralism to achieve this clear goal. Destiny dictated that the army do this job and that others stay busy at work.

In his book The Philosophy of the Revolution (1954), Gamal Abdel Nasser narrates his visits to universities and conversations with professors, with whom he was quite irritated because they spoke a lot. "Every one of us can create miracles where they are. A person's primary duty is to put all his effort into his work," he wrote. "If you, as university professors, focused on your students and made them — as you should – your primary job, you would be able to provide us with tremendous manpower to build the nation. Each of us must stay in his place and labor in it. Do not look at us. Circumstances have forced us to step outside our places and do a sacred duty. We had hoped that the nation would only need us as professional soldiers, and we would have remained there."

The army has an aversion to the hustle and bustle of the masses, but at the same time, it does not want the monarchy back. It wants people to be present in politics as an undifferentiated mass, but absent as a pluralistic society made up of diverse groups, each with their own voice and perceptions. In this formula, the individual can only participate as a ghost — an invisible individual in a populous crowd — that occupies an ambivalent position between citizen and subject.

This aversion to republicanism and people's right to disagree cannot explicitly present itself as such — as opposition to individual freedoms — since the aversion itself remains a product of pre-republican ideas that despise the masses and idolizes individual rulers bestowed with divine powers that cannot be contested. Those ideas cannot be explicitly expressed today because they have been completely vanquished on the discursive level, yet they remain deeply ingrained on the psychological level.

The deferred republic

Catching up with modernity is an endless pursuit that allows political regimes to last forever.

"The path is one of political and economic freedom. Our role is to guard this path, nothing more and nothing less. The guard is installed for a limited period of time. Our people can be compared to a caravan that was supposed to take a specific route, then it got lost, faced obstacles, thieves, and bandits, was misled, and eventually got scattered. Every group got displaced in a different place, every person walked in a different direction. Our task is like that of the guard who will bring all those who got lost and were wandering back to the right path, then let them continue on with their journey."

– Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Philosophy of the Revolution.

That the limited period of military rule that Abdel Nasser was referring to never ended was not simply an act of deception. For the most part, political plans that center on "catching up" with something tend to go on forever, because what they are chasing continues to evolve and change. Catching up with modernity is an endless pursuit that allows political regimes to last forever. Furthermore, the desire to have a strong state — which grew out of the narcissistic wound inflicted by colonization — can never be satisfied either, insofar as there are no criteria for measuring how close a state is to attaining that status.

The Russian Revolution followed a similar trajectory. After the communist victory, the regime sought to catch up with industrial modernization and strengthen the state apparatus, a process that lasted for more than 70 years without ever reaching its desired goal. It is not surprising that the communist dream did not salvage the Russian situation. After the revolution, the victors had to face the real conditions of their nation, which forced them to gradually distance themselves from their slogans and ideals.

In general, less developed countries faced a real dilemma. The worldly — and mainly western — utopia they tried to catch up with was constantly changing, as future utopias kept emerging on the horizon. It becomes impossible for less developed countries to reach this utopia, a situation that called for temporary measures. These often culminated in the centralization of state power so that the state could mobilize the strongest possible push forward, only to find itself continually falling behind. The antidote to this predicament cannot be to strive towards self-sufficiency and isolation from the world. Such a goal is unattainable in a world that is economically interdependent and has modern, industrial centers that cannot be ignored.

This particularism reproduced reality, or rather society itself.

Western nations formed not only the centers of wealth and power, but they also played a central role in imagining these future worldly paradises. These imaginations transformed along with the transformation of Western states, which created a hurdle for other nations that sought to catch up. It was the same for both the government and the opposition. States usually found themselves in a state of emergency, whereas the opposition would continue developing their own utopias without their society ever evolving with them. The opposition would then be pushed further away from realizing their dreams, as they become ever more separated from large segments of society that do not share their dream. And when those segments finally begin to be convinced of such ideas, we find that others have already moved on to seek other utopias. Certainly, the internet has shortened the distance between people around the world, which in turn has allowed some utopias to be more accessible to a collective conscious, but this has not been sufficient alone to break the deadlock once and for all.

Throughout all of this, there have been attempts by Islamist and nationalist groups to resolve this problem by promoting cultural and societal particularism in order to break free of the dilemma of progress and backwardness. But this particularism was not meant to create a worldly utopia, where people have the right to rule their nation, enjoy their freedoms, and achieve some version of economic justice. This particularism reproduced reality, or rather society itself. At times it even led to a regression back to what was deemed a more authentic iteration of society — which theoretically meant a refusal to move forward. And if it was necessary to have a dream, it borrowed the dream of catching up with the West and strengthening the state, the same vision of the state that these forces of particularism opposed. More importantly, despite their claims of particularity, they did not have a conception of the state that was different from the republican conception. The only difference was that they did not actually want to actualize this perception because it promoted values they opposed, such as individual freedom.

Ultimately, these particularist views were only trying to evade the reality of the state itself: a republic deferred, forever.

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