Egypt’s Intractable Dilemma

The late (d. 1997) historian and political scientist P.J. Vatikiotis’s prescient (and well-nigh timeless) insights on Muslim Egypt must be urgently re-considered


Ibrahim Nawar, an outspoken advocate of press freedom in Araby, has just published (Thursday 1/10/13) a wistful lament in Al-Ahram about Egypt’s predicament since Mubarak was deposed, two years ago, till now. Although Nawar’s observations are overly (if understandably) sentimentalized, they contain critical, honest insights.

Most importantly, Nawar accepts that Egypt has failed to come to terms with the diametrically opposed traditionalist Islamic views of the Muslim masses, “the Egypt of the countryside and the big-city slums,” and what he characterizes as “the wealthy, the educated and the cultured who are open to the outside world,” which “lives closer to the top, in the big cities.” Moreover, confirming hard polling data I have repeatedly highlighted demonstrating that 2/3 (at least) of Egyptians profess a traditionalist Sharia supremacist worldview, Nawar candidly acknowledges that this disproportionate “divide,” favoring the Sharia thirsty masses, was

…reflected in the 75 to 25 percent vote on the 19 March 2011 referendum as much as the elections-first vs. constitution-first disagreement. It was geographically delineated in the parliamentary elections and, most recently, the referendum on the new constitution (with roughly the same ratio), with Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta as well as the slum areas in Cairo and Alexandria supporting the Islamists and the urban population voting against them.

Yesterday, I re-read a remarkably compendious essay published in 1983 (pp. 55-72) by the consummate political scientist and modern Egyptian historian, Panayiotis Jerasimof (P.J.) Vatikiotis (1928-1997), which framed Ibrahim Nawar’s current lamentations within two centuries of failed efforts to reform, i.e., secularize, Egypt. This failure occurred despite what Vatikiotis characterized aptly as the “forceful despotisms” of Muhammad Ali and his grandson Khedvie Ismail, who, beginning around 1820, “introduced and pursued a relentless and massive process of modernization—in those days, Europeanization,” culminating under British rule (after 1882), “in the ultimate expression of the secular basis of the state with the adoption of a constitutional parliamentary system in 1923.” But as Vatikiotis points out, these reforms were doomed because the secularists never resolved the stark contradiction between “their newly adopted secularism and the native religious tradition,” noting further that, “the secularists comprised a very small group who, in their pursuit of the advantages of secular power, became totally separated from the mass of the population.” Even the 1920s era secularists and their 1923 constitution, Vatikiotis concludes, did not address the legitimate re-organization of governance on a truly secular and pluralistic basis:

Neither authority nor the source of law, despite all the state-promulgated and decreed legislation, was clearly divorced from its ultimate divine source and sanction. The [1923] constitution itself proclaimed Islam as the official religion of the state, inevitably undermining its other provisions relating to the rights of citizens such as freedom of worship or belief, speech, and so forth. Thus, such a provision was fundamentally contrary to the conception of a secular state because under the constitution the latter still sought and recognized a legitimacy based on a divine [Islamic] sanction. [emphasis added] The transcendent referent for authority and political power remained partly divine and not purely secular. The uniformity of individual citizen rights therefore remained unattainable. It is clear then that despite the continuous retreat of religion from the affairs of state over a century [through 1923], the more fundamental problem of the relation between religion and state remained unresolved. It was put in abeyance only to return to plague the Egyptian body politic. A concept of citizenship based on a clearly secular idea of identity for the individual and the society did not materialize, and the alienation of both from the state persisted.

Six decades later, in the wake of burgeoning Islamic militancy (during the 1970s and early 1980s), Vatikiotis (circa 1983) recapitulated, with great prescience, the essential dilemma—lack of bona fide secularism—which continues to plague Egypt till this day:

The absence of a constitution or its precarious state is a measure of the difficulties. As long as Egypt has no political order that is clearly based on a secular consensus, it will remain afflicted by religious and communal antagonisms…Until a secular formula of identity and social cohesiveness is found that is acceptable, the religious or traditional one will dominate the social order. And to this extent the question of religion and state will remain unresolved. But that will require a commitment on the part of the leadership to remove religion from the public realm and relegate it to the realm of private belief. However, as long as it insists on identifying itself with the theoretical unity of the umma, the Islamic community, it will always suffer the consequences of the fusion, real or assumed, between sanctity and power.

…[T]he Egyptian state, more than any of its neighbors, has over the last 150 [now nearly 200] years tried to control, loosen, manipulate and exploit the relation between religion and politics. But it has done that at the expense of a clear, unequivocal option for a secular polity.

Finally, Vatikiotis, although a native Middle Easterner (born in Jerusalem, and educated, originally, there and in Cairo), was an unabashed champion of the Western, secular model of government. Notwithstanding long periods of imposed secular-leaning autocracy, due both to her dire economic needs, and forced suppression of Islamic traditionalist militancy, Vatikiotis concluded his essay by boldly identifying an enormous cultural obstacle to Egypt’s secular evolution:

It may be, of course, that a secular political order is the peculiar, nay singular, product of a particular political culture, the ethical, philosophical, and moral basis of which lay in ancient Greek science and rationalism and Roman law and humanism, rediscovered and developed further by the Renaissance, and the institutional basis of which lay European feudalism in the Middle Ages. Yet its final consecration occurred with a specific philosophical and institutional commitment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. None of these foundations seem to exist in Muslim societies, including the Egyptian. Their antecedents rejected classical rationalism and humanism, and their more recent precursors simply superimposed a veneer of secularism on the state in an emulative way.[emphasis added]



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