Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Strengthening state and society

As important as outreach is, whether for investment or diplomatic support, Egypt will not surmount its troubles until it builds its internal capacities, writes Ayman Abdel-Wahab

Al-Ahram Weekly

The present situation in Egypt leads to an inescapable conclusion. The process of democratic transformation and sustaining the momentum for it following 30 June 2013 necessitate the reorganisation and stimulation of political and social institutions to confront the current state of political and social fluidity.

The building process requires, above all, an effective marshalling of resources and capacities in a manner that enhances the quality and optimises the use of both human and natural resources. Diplomatic drives, relying on foreign assistance and even the ability to attract investment, are no longer sufficient to guarantee the construction of a modern state to address an array of challenges that extend beyond domestic building requirements.

The changes that have swept the Arab region over the past four years threw into relief a gamut of problems that confront the Arab nation state and the capacity to establish and sustain its foundations and structures. They revealed to an equal extent the difficulties involved in fortifying society or sustaining its cohesion and resilience against many forms of penetration and exploitation of areas of weakness and diversity in many Arab societies that experienced the mass uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

Numerous variables that combine to shape the climate that supports mass movements reveal the impact of many factors, if in varying degrees. Foremost among them are the growth of the influences of cultural and moral penetration due to questions related to globalisation and the IT revolution; second, regional challenges associated with the growth in the manifestations of “creative chaos” and the fourth generation of wars that depend on igniting sectarian and ethnic strife; third, developments in the instruments of terrorist groups that exploit the Muslim faith and in the numerous and intertwining facets of extremism; and fourth, deficiencies in the process of building societies and organising their social institutions so as to facilitate and contribute to the processes of development and modernisation.

This brings us to the crucial correlation between the empowerment of the citizen, society and the state, and the need to reassess the form and nature of this relationship. Academic studies and practical research on development, civil society and democratic transformation have focused on people and the individual and attempted to shed light on the requirements for their empowerment and to identify the modes of their relationships with society and the state.

But moving away from the many theoretical details involved in academic debates regarding the exceptionalism of some societies and possibilities of generalisation, or the capacity to disseminate ideas and values in the absence of social and cultural contexts and socioeconomic conditions supportive of such ideas and values, a cursory glance at realities in the Arab region compels us to give pause to the many structural questions related to the trilateral correlation between the individual, the society and the state, and to attempt to dissect this reality independently from the strategies and interests of world powers in the region.

The threats and dangers menacing this region have become too great to continue to harp on notions of social contradictions, the failure of developmental policies, and the eruption of the questions of plurality, diversity and minorities.
The current situation in many Arab countries, and Egypt above all, compels us to go straight to the question of the citizen and his/her relationship with the state at a time when many are seeking to consign all the old rules to the past and to establish new rules that do not enjoy a general consensus or that have not even been put to a proper public discussion.
In a socio-political environment that is at once extremely fluid and highly polarised, there are vying sentiments of considerable frustration and vast aspirations, and there is institutional weakness in tandem with attempts to advance individual interests and to forge new social power balances.

These restrictions or pressures assert themselves on so many aspects of the situation in Egypt that many are unable to comprehend the nature of the transformations and transitional phases that impacr the lives of the Egyptian people. The problem resides in the costs of living that are effectively sustained by poor and ordinary citizens who had always borne much of the brunt of rising economic growth rates before 25 January 2011, which exceeded five per cent and in some estimates neared six per cent.
It was clear that support by the ruling elite in the Mubarak regime for the requirements of globalisation, especially in the economic domain, had a negative impact on the larger public. The policies of privatisation and the shift to a free market economy were crucially instrumental in the decline of the role of the state and, hence, the mechanisms for distributing the returns of growth to the poor and those of limited income.

Thus, rising economic growth rates came to represent a major paradox that underscored the lack of vision and deficiencies of mechanisms for social justice. The pre-25 January regime lacked the capacity to realise development inclusive of the elimination of the manifestations of social and economic exclusion.

Therefore, to me, empowerment of the state means to empower the state to serve the individual citizen and society. To many, this seems to put the equation upside down, as empowering the individual or society requires a strong state (and not just a strong system of government) capable of establishing security and stability, enforcing the law, entrenching the values of equality and citizenship, exercising its powers without authoritarianism or violations of rights, and strengthening and safeguarding social cohesion.

It may be useful in this regard to consider a study by Eric Nordlinger that divides the relationship between the state and society into four levels: a strong relationship in which the state enjoys society’s support, the autonomous state in which the state lacks society’s support, the responsive state in which the state is not as autonomous but enjoys greater support from society and, lastly, the weak state which is neither autonomous nor supported by society.
It is possible to register a number of reservations on this categorisation, especially with regard to the fourth. Some states are weak but enjoy relative autonomy due to the inability of social forces to assert pressure in order to attain their interests. This categorisation also raises the question of plurality and the degree of homogeneity in the state.
In states where there is a high degree of ethnic and religious plurality, diverse social forces affect the composition of the state and the dynamics of conflict within it. Therefore Joel Migdal posits the notion of complementary hegemony whereby the state possesses a power that complements the power of the social forces in it.

He transcends the previous theory of the state, which views control from a single perspective, and underscores the importance of social forces and their ability to influence the nature of domestic organisation, bureaucracy and ability to martial resources.
Migdal’s depiction, moreover, points to the limits of the powers of the state and society and suggests that the relationship between them should not be competitive or adversarial, but rather cooperative and complementary.

Absence of trust between the two sides entrenches vertical associations that foster nepotism, favouritism and corruption which, in turn, aggravates the climate of mistrust, weakens society and ultimately generates a state of social, political and economic stagnation.

This is the challenge that the political leadership, intelligentsia and social forces must address. The responsibility of building is a responsibility that must be borne by all. Accordingly, a vision for building the state must rest on an integrated set of economic, social and cultural policies that support the concepts of social justice and balanced development and that seek to attain sustainable development.
To rely solely on providing social services, whether this task is performed by the state or civil society, offers little more than palliatives. Problems such as unemployment and poverty are too deep to be remedied by band-aid treatments or even relying on community organisations to furnish essential services.

According to some studies, the majority of sectors of society benefit from such services directly or indirectly. Social services activities target 54 per cent of children, 38.2 per cent of women, 33.2 per cent of youth, 12.3 per cent of the elderly and 9.3 per cent of the handicapped.
Therefore, development frameworks and policies must be integrated between the three sectors (governmental, private and community) by identifying areas of participation, responsibilities and roles. This process, in turn, must take into account a number of factors that will enhance the concept of participatory development.

These include a strategic vision, supportive official discourse, participation in planning, a civil society perception for the concept of participatory development, meeting the conditions for achieving participatory development by identifying the roles of the state, the private sector and civil society; appropriate legal and legislative framework (which entails the ability to legislate accordingly); and how municipalities or local councils can contribute to the realisation of participatory development.

Meeting the foregoing requirements are among the many challenges facing Egyptian society, but they constitute a starting point to address numerous threats and hardships, from those associated with the environment and health, to human security, socio-political and ideological polarisation, to economic conditions that lead to marginalisation and poverty.

The road is long and the challenges are formidable. However, the will to build, the existence of a strategic vision, and possession of necessary instruments are the ultimate prerequisites for generating the social momentum to drive the wheel of construction and end the interim phase. It follows that the desired strength of the state will be contingent on the ability foster policies that contribute to fortifying society and securing its support.

The writer is editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Ahwal Masriya.

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