The political tumult in Egypt continues as the six-month anniversary of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak nears. The rising Islamist influence puts the possibility of a religious turn in the revolution on the agenda. But how real is this prospect? Tarek Osman assesses it by looking at the deeper forces that have shaped modern Egypt over the last two centuries.

In the six months since the forced removal of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt’s presidency on 11 February 2011, one of the issues most discussed has been the prospect of the establishment of an Islamic state in the country. Amid incidences of rising sectarianism and violence, and in the context of the conspicuous presence of many religious groups bent on Islamising Egyptian society, those who fear (or indeed welcome) this prospect can invoke evidence for their case.

But to assess its real likelihood, it may be helpful to examine some of the deeper currents that have underlain the formation of Egypt’s state, society and sense of itself over the last two centuries.

In this respect, five factors need to be understood.

The path to modernity

The first is that the modern state of Egypt – created in the first half of the 19th century by Mohamed Ali Pasha and his dynasty, and subsequently waves of Egyptian intellectuals – was an import from Europe and specifically from France. Indeed, senior figures within the religious establishment were vocal in legitimising that idea of importation.

Sheikh Mohamed Abdou, Egypt’s most influential religious scholar at the turn of the 20th century, lent invaluable support to the waves of modernity that Egypt’s ruling establishment had ushered in. Abdou courageously realised that modernity should extend from the acquisition of technology to other areas: the building of a modern army, new norms of administration, technical education, the functioning and frames of reference of the entire society.

Abdou was followed by leading intellectuals with real influence on decision-making in the country (for example, Taha Hussein), ensuring that this line of thinking prospered and buttressed the emergence of Egypt’s liberal experiment in the 1920s-1940s, including the drafting of the first comprehensive constitution in the region. At the same time, the creation of a modern Egyptian state was an elite project rather than the product of a social development where wide sections of the society came to assert their Egyptianism in the face of national challenges such as wars or internal crises.

After Arab nationalism

The second factor follows, namely how Egyptianism fared over the past six decades. A defining feature of Egypt’s social development was how Nasserite Arab nationalism, the most potent expression of Egyptian political will in the 20th century, discarded Egyptianism in favour of a collective Arabism. Nasser, who made the Arab-Israeli conflict his “epic struggle” and mobilised the society’s various powers and resources in its service by positing Arab nationalism – rather than the individuality and uniqueness of Egyptianism – as the overarching ideological umbrella of all Arabs, including Egyptians.

But with the fall of Arab nationalism, the dream of Arab unity and of resuscitating Arab societies into the position of a world power also disintegrated. In consequence Egyptian society, which had invested massive socio-political energy in that dream at the cost of major losses in blood, treasure, and self-belief, withdrew into its comfort-zone: religion.

Nasser’s successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, had political reasons for supporting that inclination. They saw the Islamic movement (especially in the late 1970s, in what proved to be the last years of Sadat’s decade in power) as a containable socio-political force that could be utilised in two ways: to distract Egyptian society while the regime was increasingly fixated on self-enrichment, and to aid their efforts to overcome the Nasserite legacy in the context of a transformation of Egypt’s foreign policy from pugnacious Arab nationalism to docility under the regional Pax Americana.

The social dynamics

The third factor is that the Islamic narrative gained ground and continued from the point it had left over before the onset of Arab nationalism. The waves of modernisation (and its accompanying westernisation) that Egyptian society had witnessed in the first half of the 20th century gave rise to a wave of Islamisation.

The Muslim Brotherhood was the most popular and powerful player in that new trend. Its foundational narrative, sharpened in the 1930s and 1940s, was political and social: politically, it accused the society’s then elites of surrendering to the west and giving away the country and its resources; socially, it emphasised that Egypt’s modernisation (and, crucially, its manifestations in secular as opposed to religious education, women’s equality, and liberal social codes) “plunged the society into sin”.

The burgeoning Islamic discourse, in effect, wove Egyptians’ national aspirations, hesitation at embracing modern moral codes, and piety into an Islamic frame of reference. Yet interestingly, that narrative proved too weak in the face of the strengths and achievements of Egyptian liberalism of the first half of the 20th century. The Muslim Brotherhood never managed to challenge Al-Wafd, Egypt’s most popular political party in the 1930s and 1940s, and the cornerstone of Egyptian liberalism at the time.

Arab nationalism, with the emergence of the Nasserite project that dominated Egyptian society throughout the 1950s and 1960s, continued to force this Islamic narrative to the periphery. But the cultural and socio-political vacuum that Egypt went on to experience from the mid-1970s allowed that Islamist narrative to broaden its presence, move to the centre, and entrench its influence amongst the society’s demographic majority: the lower middle classes and poor.

These last three decades were in many ways the perfect milieu for Islamism in Egypt. The country was ruled by an unimaginative president who had no interest in connecting with his people, and who presided over a regime that repeatedly squandered opportunities to create national projects that could have harnessed the energy and aspirations of the country’s tens of millions of young people.

The regime over this period grew into a consolidated merger between power and wealth, a process paralleled by very significant shifts in the composition of the Egyptian middle class as a consequence of a number of dynamics: the move from strict state-socialism to a laissez-faire economic system, marked by corruption at various levels of Egypt’s value-chains; two major waves of immigration to the Gulf in pursuit of jobs; and the gradual but steady loss of purchasing power by very large elements of Egyptian society – including farmers and public-sector employees – that began to suffer crushing poverty.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Egyptian culture also witnessed a very low period. The values, refinement, and quality of Egyptian cinema, theatre, and art plummeted. During this period, Egypt’s Islamic movement cemented its message by providing arguably the country’s best run and least corrupt social-support system (in the form of affordable healthcare, housing to students from the provinces, transport solutions, and support in finding jobs). This practical, organised approach enabled the Islamic movement to build a huge socio-political infrastructure in the Egyptian street.

The Islamic case

The fourth factor is that, amid the prevailing political vacuum and the regime’s continual decline, the Islamic movement – whose narrative was becoming more sophisticated, nuanced and grounded – found it easy to evolve its message and presence into a call to establish an Islamic state. The Muslim Brotherhood, as opposed to various Salafist and regressive groups, adopted the concepts of “dual loyalty” (to the Muslim nation as well as to the Egyptian state); of citizenry (equal rights and obligations applicable on Muslims and non-Muslims); and, in what was commended as a great sign of progress, of civic, modern institutions.

The problem, however, was that most of these institutions – Egypt’s parliament, the public sector, the government, the presidency, most professional syndicates, labour organisations, and the universities – had been suffering decay and putrefaction for decades (in most cases under the supervision of the regime’s security apparatuses that valued loyalty to the regime above merit, quality, or of course, genuine representation). These institutions were effectively skeletons that the Islamic movement could easily take over and use as new vehicles of their own.

The state-society confusion

The fifth factor is the confusion between society and state. Any society can have a number of frames of reference corresponding to the wants, aspirations, and cultural orientations of its many constituents. A state, however, has an agreed-upon governing framework that all citizens share. Since Egypt has a sizable Christian community, and a rich heritage that has left a mixed cultural reservoir in its pulsating society, that framework needs in principle to be either secular and civic or – as is the case in Lebanon – proportional between the distinct confessional communities.

But Egypt, unlike Lebanon, is an old state; it has had the same borders for over 5,000 years. Egypt also boasts a large population and a geo-strategic importance nurtured over many centuries. In practice therefore, that continuity, size, and weight necessitates the adoption of a more stable – and advanced – political framework: not proportionality but the rule of secular law in a sophisticated political structure.

A key reason that the society-state confusion was to materialise – between a society in which a majority would naturally adopt an Islamic identity and a secular state – was the combined failure of Arab nationalism and of the governing modus operandi of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who together ruled for more than four decades. These failures allowed the Islamic movement to contrast these failures with the imaginary panacea it advocated. “Islam is the solution” and “subjecting the society to God’s rule” became easy, escapist narratives that millions of Egyptians, crushed by desperate socio-economic conditions and political coercion, found appealing.

It was always an artificial comparison. Sunni Islam has not, since the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty in the 7th century, had a theological state in the sense that Shi’a Islam or Catholic Christianity had. In the pious Egyptian society, religion (both Islam and Christianity) has always been the dominant societal force; but for the past 900 years, since Saladin abolished the Fatimid dynasty in 1171, Egypt was ruled by strictly political establishments detached from a caliphate based successively in Baghdad and Istanbul. Modern Egypt, the country that Mohamed Ali’s reforms gave rise to in the first half of the 19th century, was also a strictly secular state (its first prime minister, in the reign of Mohamed Ali’s grandson Ismael, was a Christian, Nubar Pasha).

The prospects of the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt will depend on the choices of the country’s enormous middle class. There is much in the inheritance of the six decades since the 1950s that supports intellectual reductiveness and escapism. But history and the heritage of a great old nation are, in the end, behind Egyptianism.

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