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The discourse on Egypt

Some colleagues who recently went to Europe were appalled by what they heard from various officials there. “They still do not understand the true nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are still unaware of our predicament,” these colleagues said.

I discussed the issue with them, and many preferred an explanation emphasising European bad faith.

“The Europeans are afraid of radical Islam. They know it is here to stay for some time, so they prefer to placate it and to deflect its fury, with Arab societies paying the price,” they said.

My colleagues did not understand why many of our Western colleagues “persistently underestimate the risk of civil war,” and they did not understand how “post-modern” societies such as those in Europe could seriously “think extremism does not pose a threat to women and minorities”.

They did not understand why many European analysts and scholars could spend so much time studying “stupid thinkers” belonging to the Islamist camp.

“These thinkers simply eructate, belching out high-sounding nonsense, and the European academics say this is deep and beautiful logic.” A few Egyptian colleagues think the European discourse is the legitimisation of an ongoing plot.

While I share my friends’ concerns, I believe the story is a much more complicated one. It may be useful to try to understand it, if we are to adopt a critical perspective on such discourses.

I would like to begin by dwelling on two issues. Are we sure, as Egyptians, that we understand our own society better than foreigners? Is Egyptian society a “likeable” one for everybody?

This article can only suggest tentative answers to such questions. We should admit that Western academia has produced a lot of deep and useful knowledge about our society. Mentioning my own personal debts to it would require a book, and I am fully aware who my teachers are.

The main problem would seem to be that syntheses of this knowledge have either not been available to students or have gone wrong. It has not been summarised as a totality, and it has not been effectively transmitted.

Governments focus on listening to what academic specialists on extremism have to say and pay little or no attention to others who are often more knowledgeable.

We should also admit that our own knowledge is both limited and reliant on narrow perspectives. Egyptian academic discourse is too often Cairene.

It can, of course, study Egyptian villages and the Egyptian countryside, but it looks at these things through Cairene eyes. Even scholars whose own roots are in the countryside quickly adopt Cairene lenses.

Every country produces its own norms of political correctness, and these are a dangerous foe of knowledge. Political correctness often hinders critical thinking.

It always hinders discourse, as an important part of knowledge is oral, not written, and it has the virtues and the drawbacks of orality.

The main sponsor of Egyptian research in the social sciences is the state, or other Arab states, and many sponsors do not publish the results of the work they commission.

Last, but not least, Egyptian scholars often have to work in increasingly difficult conditions.

Each camp is quick to detect the ideological biases of the other, but each is largely oblivious to its own. The situation is made worse by the self-righteousness of contemporary academia, an infantile disease whether it is post-modernist or nationalistic in origin.

Let us be clear in saying that we should not overestimate our own knowledge of our own society and let us admit that this deserves serious criticism.

But it should also be clear that we have our own virtues. We instinctively know what religion is and what it means, for example, and we understand the difference between religion and ideology. We know what kind of passions religion can arouse.

The US academic Mark Lilla once claimed in one of his books that the West had “crossed a river” some centuries ago as far as religion is concerned and that it was no longer able to understand those who had not done so. I think he was right, with of course some qualifications.

We also know the actors involved, or at least many of them. We often have to deal with them on a daily basis, or on a professional and personal level.

We know their networks, their past, their evolution, their official and not so official discourses. Of course, a Westerner can know them too. It is not impossible. But many are unwilling to make the effort and are content with quick interviews with them.

We are also more aware of the cultural complicities in our own country and of the tacit general acceptance of things, patterns and norms that may look strange or even unacceptable to foreigners.

Being a foreigner has its own virtues, of course, as it can make an individual more alert and more curious. If he makes the effort, he can understand two different cultures, and this is a huge asset. But there is also a trap, or a circle, that threatens everybody whatever his origins in that anyone who studies Egypt brings with him his own preconceptions and questions.

Study should lead the researcher to modify these, if only because a subject seldom yields the answers one expects. But modifying views requires time and an agile mind.

There needs to be a willingness to reconsider assumptions and the social and academic context that allows this to take place. Moreover, any modification should not be seen as a threat to the researcher’s own discourse on himself. It should be seen as a way of bettering it.

These considerations are incomplete, but I prefer to switch to another issue. Any young person, Egyptian or foreign, who studies Egyptian society after finishing his formal education has many reasons to be shocked.

Relations between those in power and those in subordinate positions often look like master/slave relationships, for example. The work ethic is not our strongest virtue.

Relations between women and men are often despicable. The crude differences between rich and poor can be heartbreaking. Worse, fewer and fewer people can climb the social ladder. Despite talk to the contrary, there are low and not so low levels of violence. Political behaviour is often grotesque.

A young scholar then has a choice: he either thinks that this is appalling and that the country needs a revolution, or he recognises the strangeness all about him while seeing that it seems to work. His task then becomes how to understand it and how and why it reproduces itself.

Recent years have seen an expansion of the radical left on Western university campuses and of radical Islam on ours.

Therefore, the option of identifying revolutionary forces and supporting them has become more and more popular in the West. While the second option also had many supporters, the Arab Spring and the general mood in Western academia largely destroyed it.

Even the second option was not hostile to extremism, however, and it praised Political Islam’s ability to help the poor through charitable work and so on.

A proper study of the origins of the discourse on Egypt that prevails in European and French academia today would need to investigate the evolution of the radical left after 1968 and the collapse of Marxist thought in Europe during the 1970s.

We should keep in mind how many of the continent’s leading thinkers of the time switched from Trotskyism and Marxism to a human rights discourse and multi-culturalism, often in response to the ideas of the late Michel Foucault and Edward Said.

We should also track the evolution of those on the French left who were what the French call tiers-mondistes and who actively supported different national-liberation struggles in the Third World.

One of their favourite remarks is that “you Westerners once claimed that former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was a fascist, and you were proven wrong. Do not make the same mistake with today’s Islamists.”

Nevertheless, in this article I will choose another starting point, with the important proviso that this piece is meant as simple testimony and not as a piece of scientific work relying on the archives.

It recounts what I saw first-hand in the 1970s and 1980s. It also may not be absolutely reliable: while I have a good memory, I was young and naïve at the time and did not have the kind of knowledge I later acquired with the years.

At the time, the Western press and many in Western academia relied on Egyptian left-wing intellectuals as a source of knowledge on Egypt.

In fact, they “borrowed” their analysis, information, and networks. I myself met several times with the late Lotfi Al-Kholi, Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, and Ismail Sabri Abdallah, all brilliant left-wing intellectuals, at dinners with the foreign press at the time.

Yet, for different reasons, many people then started to think that these figures were somehow “out of touch” with the realities of Egyptian society and the Egyptian state.

They talked dismissively of the burgeoning Islamist movements, which were clearly the most relevant players in the field at the time, at least as far as the opposition was concerned.

More often than not, these intellectuals’ predictions and their analysis turned out to be wrong. The foreign press and those working in Western academia were implacable in their diagnosis. These brilliant intellectuals were the prisoners of their own left-wing ideology, they said.

Suddenly, at some point between 1980 and 1982, many French academics studying the Arab world including Gilles Kepel, Henry Laurens, Alain Roussillon and François Burgat discovered the towering figure of Egyptian commentator Tarek Al-Bishri.

The latter had just published his celebrated magnum opus Muslims and Copts, and he was about to publish a new edition of his The Political Movement in Egypt with a new preface elaborating his views.

Al-Bishri was a lawyer and a former leftist who had written many articles that were especially harsh about the Muslim Brotherhood. However, in the 1970s he distanced himself from the left and slowly became a prominent Islamist theoretician.

While Al-Bishri’s views developed, they can be summed up by saying that in Egypt there is a permanent dialectical relationship between “authentic thought and practices” (Islam, of course) and “imported thought and practices” (the modern state and non-Islamist ideologies).

During the 1980s, Al-Bishri was keen to insist that the “secular school” did not have real roots in Egypt but had only gained legitimacy as a result of its leadership of the national-liberation struggle.

He also said that Egypt would not be able to improve its lot unless the two sides in the relationship reached an historic deal and started to understand each other’s concerns.

The secularists would need to understand that “cultural authenticity” and the “defence of identity” were crucial issues that would need to be addressed if modernisation in the country was to succeed.

The Islamists would have to understand the need for guarantees to be given of the rights of Christians and women, among other things, and that these things were not irrelevant details that could be sorted out later.

Al-Bishri also thought that secularists and Islamists could agree on the need to counter American imperialism and Zionism.

I was young at the time, but despite my comparative lack of experience I was able to point, in the event to no avail, to two huge problems with Al-Bishri’s analysis.

The Islamists wanted Sharia Law not because this would defend authenticity and identity, I said, but because it was God’s Law.

Their starting point was not the same as Al-Bishri’s. Their interests were also simply not the same as those of the secularists. I simply could not see how the two camps could reach a deal that would last.

Slowly, Al-Bishri’s own views changed and headed in two different directions. He tried to build a solid Islamic foundation for citizenship and for equal rights for people regardless of their origins, and the late sheikh Mohamed Al-Ghazali approved of his conclusions.

However, he also started to say that he considered what he called “imported thought” to be that of a minority of Egyptian society, though of a majority of the Egyptian state, and that there was an abyss separating the two sides.

Those people who were attracted to “imported thought” did not really know Egyptian society, he said. They were isolated in their own country, and they systematically scorned its people.

The late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said was also saying something like this at the same time, holding that the racist West had scorned oriental people and had educated an orientalist elite that had adopted the same views.

Al-Bishri never stopped dwelling on such themes, also arguing that the secularists’ struggle against the former Mubarak regime was ridiculous.

They wrote papers about it in a language that no one apart from them could understand, and they would never be able to organise any collective action since they did not know how to mobilise people behind their views.

At the same time, they had very modest and very unrealistic aims in trying to convince Mubarak to change the country’s constitution and so on.

The only serious opponents of the “authoritarian regime”, Al-Bishri said, were the Islamists who had a popular base, a common language with the people, and the necessary will to bring about change.

Al-Bishri also developed a conceptual reading of Egypt’s history that sounded much more interesting than the “leftist blah-blah” (not my view) and the “positivist history” that had prevailed in the past, he said.

Starting with Mohamed Ali at the beginning of the 19th century, “imported thought” had decisively strengthened the state while disrupting the equilibrium between state and society.

As a result, the society in Egypt was weak and was not able to oppose the hegemony of the state and its ever-increasing intrusiveness into people’s lives. It was from here that modern tyranny had developed, Al-Bishri said.

The civil society and the new professions that had emerged at the end of the 19th century organised according to “Western principles” were too weak to reverse this trend, he said, though they did play a key role in the anti-British struggle.

The Nasser regime then killed or neutralised civil society, never feeling the need for it. Nasser thought it had been useful as long as the state was controlled by the stooges of colonialism.

However, once “real patriots” had seized power, the state was in charge of the national-liberation struggle and there was no need for civil society.

All this deserves close examination, and I will devote my next article to some criticisms of it. Not everyone in French academia bought this narrative.

But most adopted Al-Bishri’s reading of the Islamist movement and his devastatingly unfair criticisms of the country’s elite.

The French academics also had their own criticisms of the latter, feeling that Egypt’s secularists did not really understand the Western tradition.

A version of this article appears in print in the 11 and 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

Dr. Tewfik Aclimandos
Chief of European studies unit

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