The industry of social despotism
Rising religiosity, itself a reaction to tyranny, is giving rise to a straightjacketed and uniform political and social culture, writes Azmi Ashour*
For reasons having to do with the nature of the Egyptian state, reform in this country has originated more from the state than the public. The open-door policy of the 1970s was launched by the state. The switch from a one-party to multi-party system was also sponsored by the regime. It was the state that endorsed the privatisations of the 1990s. And we wonder why reform doesn't work.
The state has a role in reform. This much is not in question. The state has the power to change political, ideological and social values, as well as economic opportunity. What the state does in this respect is perfectly legitimate, so long as it is responding to social needs. The state, after all, is an arbiter of social and economic interests. Actually, the vitality of any state is measured by its ability to anticipate and meet social needs. But there is a catch.
In Taking the State Seriously, Eric Nordlinger contrasts strong states with weak ones. A strong state, he says, is one that has a high degree of independence as well as solid social support. A weak state is one with a low degree of independence and social support. Despite their heavy- handed security policies, Egypt and most Arab countries belong in the category of weak states.
In weak states and societies, pathological religiosity is common. One can even argue that there is a correlation between the state's inability to lead and the religious yearning for the past. This extraordinary situation, with its debilitating ramifications, is an outcome of despotism. Its worst symptom is not that it curbs the freedom of expression. It kills any idea before it is born.
The success of religious groups in controlling the thinking process is a result of the weakness of society and state. Young men turn to Islamic groups for inspiration, and to vent their anger against the state and make up for their cultural, social and economic deprivation. The sense of belonging that comes with affiliation to these groups offsets the alienation that comes with political suppression.
Our state and political parties are simply too fragile to reverse the tide. These institutions, which should have nurtured political culture, exist only in name. They are all form and no substance. As a result, Islamic groups have filled the vacuum. They sweet-talked the youth, both in urban and rural areas, into following their path. Because Egyptians are not exactly rationalists when it comes to religion, the task of Islamist groups was far from difficult.
To their credit, Islamic groups often stepped in where the state failed. They provided educational and health services, even financial assistance, to the needy. Much of what they did should have been done by civil society, but the latter was often nowhere to be seen.
The religious revival in Egypt amounts to a culture coup. Egyptians used to have a solid sense of identity. Their national character had many roots: Pharaonic, Roman, Islamic, European, etc. Throughout the centuries, various cultural tributaries merged together, creating a strong sense of self. Not anymore. Radicalism is twisting to fit into an Islamic pattern, one that is hardly contemporaneous. Food and clothing habits have acquired outdated, even Salafi, characteristics.
The dominance of the Islamic current is creating a new culture, one that supplants what we've known before. Look at the proliferation of taboos in this country. Anything can be banned or prohibited with no regard to modern needs. Life becomes stereotyped, straitjacketed, imprisoned in an idealised form of a distant past. Original thinking is discouraged.
Consequently, a vicious cycle of social and religious tyranny is upon us. The irony here is that religious revival, itself a reaction to despotism, only fuels further despotism.
Eventually, society slips into a passive mode of thinking, with little -- aside from taboos -- to consider. Look at how much time we give to questions of the halal (permissible) and the haram (forbidden). People are no longer developing ways to conquer poverty, improve education or enhance life in general. They get trapped in vicious cycles, and grow used to it.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Dimoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.