Global Currents article

Beyond State Idolatry in Egypt

What we are currently witnessing in Egypt is a transformative moment that has been described by the pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets of Cairo as a “Tunisami”—a tsunami of social activism that first swept a despot in Tunisia from power and now in Egypt. The question on many people’s minds is: What comes next?

I hope Egyptians will embrace a lesson citizens in my own country of South Africa have learned the hard way: beware the idolatry of the state. After the first democratic elections in 1994, civil society organizations that were at the forefront of the struggle for liberation in South Africa became progressively weakened because the dynamic anti-apartheid leadership was absorbed into state structures. As a consequence, civil society in South Africa has become reliant on the state to provide solutions for the myriad social challenges that remain, and has lost the cohesiveness of the social movement that generated the demise of apartheid.

The lesson to be learned from the South African experience is simple: Be sure that civil society is not fully co-opted by the state, and strive to maintain strong and critically independent civil society organizations and social movements.

An Organic and Grassroots Social Movement

No matter what happens next in Egypt, the Middle East, Africa, and the world will never be the same. The three-decades-old despotic rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is over—thanks to the resilience of the Egyptian protesters who kept their street demonstrations going for 18 consecutive days.

Ordinary people in Egypt—poor, middle class, young, old, men and women, educated elites and workers—are using the power of collective action and social solidarity to shape their own destinies. Which is to say that this “uprising” is a genuine grassroots movement for social change and emancipation.

If there is any single significant element in the current protest movement in Egypt, it is the inspiring role of young people. They are creatively employing innovative social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and the internet, to mobilize their social movement. Many analysts have pointed out that there is no single dominant party in the opposition movement, nor a single charismatic figure leading the protests. Perhaps this is an advantage rather than a liability, since it allows for a resilient and organic leadership to be forged in the trenches in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the streets of Egypt.

Claim no Easy Victories

The sacrifices that the Egyptian people are making to transform their country are indeed enormous. And the lessons they have learned and nurtured along the way are priceless. The Egyptian people’s organizational strength and resilience will stand them in good stead in the post-Mubarak period when they face the difficult task of building a new social order.

Nonviolent revolution is thrilling—it’s hard not to cheer when the chains of autocracy are broken—but the real change comes after the revolution.When the bin Ali’s and the Mubarak’s of the world leave office, and new regimes are ushered in, independent civil organizations and strong social movements must continue to hold all those in power accountable to their moral and political mandate.

As any student of world history or advocate for social justice knows, regime change is no panacea. The end of a repressive regime is not the change but rather the opportunity for change. The power of the nation-state to transform its political economy and shape its own destiny has been drastically curtailed in our globalizing era. Powerful global economic and political interests will do just about anything to protect their economic and geo-strategic advantages.

The Egyptian people cannot become weary or let their guard down in the struggle for social justice and transformation. Every new day of the post-Mubarak era should be viewed as a new opportunity to reinvigorate their collective efforts to mobilize for social change.  Such organizational fortitude will enable the Egyptian people to face up to the difficult task of transforming and building a new social order.

Poverty Eradication: Barometer of True Democracy

A recent report by Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al-Masri al-Yawm, released information from Egyptian authorities investigating the former ministers, businessmen, and officials who were banned from traveling and whose assets were frozen. It shows that a number of former Egyptian cabinet ministers are millionaires, with Mubarak leading the flock, having assets conservatively estimated at between 40 and 70 billion Egyptian pounds (approximately 7-12 billion US dollars). All this while close to 20% of Egyptians live under the poverty line and unemployment is estimated to be as high as 30%.

This report speaks to the endemic corruption and greed that Mubarak’s regime has flaunted in the face of its struggling and poverty-stricken citizens for the past thirty years. The real challenge facing the Egyptian social movement will be not only to concern itself with free and fair elections in September, but more importantly, to build new democratic institutions that will root out endemic corruption and address the needs of the poor. I am optimistic that the rudiments of such a platform for social change exist among some young, grass-roots intellectuals in Egypt.

The Cairo School: Going beyond the State-Centered Paradigm

In the late nineties I was exposed to the innovative thinking of one such group of Egyptian intellectuals, who described themselves as the “Cairo School.” Combining the great intellectual legacy of Islam as well as the seminal work of the Italian social critic, Antonio Gramsci, the “Cairo School” argued that the pervasive power of the modern state has disempowered the masses and led to their political marginalization. Real people become a faceless electorate and mere statistics devoid of the ability to act in the modern political arena. Furthermore, the modern state has bred in individuals and groups low political ambitions and social inertia.

They thus argued that social activists needed a paradigm shift. Desperately needed, they proposed, is that citizens rid themselves of their ill-founded obsession with the state, as well as the lie that their fate lies with the state. They proposed that social activists focus their resources away from the state in the search for solutions to societal problems.

The innovative insights of the “Cairo school” resonated with my own experience in post-apartheid South Africa. Real change comes from below, not from above. It comes from civil society organizations, not from the state. These civil society organizations include trade unions, the media, educational institutions, civic bodies, youth and women’s organizations, environmental groups as well as religious institutions and organizations. Civil society is these non-government organizations, which are constituted by ordinary people and represent their interests.

The Struggle Continues after Mubarak

The “Tunisami” that inspired a huge social movement in Egypt, the Middle East, Africa, and indeed across the world cannot and must not retire. It must maintain its momentum and continue to pressure its new political leadership—and indeed world leaders in general—in order to fulfill the aspirations of all of us for a more just and humane world.

The critical question now is: Will Egyptians realize—as we South Africans learned too slowly and agonizingly—that the end of a repressive regime is not the change we have been waiting for but rather an opportunity for change?

A. Rashied Omar
A. Rashied Omar earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an M.A. in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where he is now a core faculty member. Omar’s research and teaching focus on the roots of religious violence and the potential of religion for constructive social engagement and interreligious peacebuilding. He is co-author with David Chidester et al. of Religion in Public Education: Options for a New South Africa (UCT Press, 1994), a contributor to the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2015), and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (Macmillan Reference USA, 2016). In addition to being a university-based researcher and teacher, Omar serves as Imam (religious minister) at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa, and an advisory board member for Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa.

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