Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 6: The Freedom Theorist
Abdel-Rahman al-Kawakeby lived the last two years of his life in Cairo. The forty eight years prior he had spent largely in Aleppo and Antioch. Yet, his brief time in Egypt created his legacy and proved highly significant for Egypt’s modern culture.
Al-Kawakeby came to Cairo fleeing Ottoman limitations on his work. And it was in Egypt that he published his magnum opus “The Characteristics of Tyranny and the Killings of Enslavement”, a beautifully rhythmically title in Arabic.
The book has eight messages.
First, that the people, not the ruling elites, are responsible for the oppression they suffer. In his view, submission to and tolerating injustice gives rise to tyranny. The emergence and establishment of totalitarian political regimes is a bottom up process built on societies’ integration of fear in their prevailing culture.
Second, fear is not a superficial emotion stirred by tyranny’s coercion. For al-Kawakeby, fear seeps into a society’s collective consciousness as a result of how the society’s foundational ideas are perceived. Al-Kawakeby was courageous enough to say that, in the Arab and Ottoman East at the time, religion was the most important of such foundational ideas. This was a stark condemnation not only of the religious establishment, but of Eastern societies’ centuries-old understandings of religion.
Third, tyrannical regimes had learnt from centuries of experiences that selective learning is key to sustaining their rule. This meant promoting natural sciences but discouraging social ones; and supporting religious studies and encouraging debates about the nature of theology and its applications in life, but fighting the spread of humanities and the development of philosophy. For al-Kawakeby, social sciences and humanities engender a culture of freedom of thought and expression, tyranny’s nemesis.
Fourth, al-Kawakeby made a distinct difference between aiming for glory and seeking glorification. The former, in his view, stirred ambition, discipline, excellence, and self-control, the ingredients of being of service to oneself and others. The latter led men of ideas and actions to become subservient to authority, thus tools of tyranny.
Fifth, al-Kawakeby also made a distinct difference between governing and governance. In his view, without a good measure of the second the first invariably descends into tyranny. And the second could never be sustained without a culture of freedom, and so a good version of the first.
Sixth, he linked a ruling system’s quality of governance and a society’s political economy with social equality. And he saw that religion was a primary source of legitimacy for tyrannical systems in the East. And so, despite coming from a religious background and having been a pious man, al-Kawakeby ferociously attacked the religious establishment of the Ottoman and Arab East for promoting the idea that social inequality was an inherent aspect of the natural - and therefore societal - order. In his view, this rhetoric and world view strengthened the corrupt political economy structures that then dominated the East.
Seventh, al-Kawakeby observed that as tyranny establishes itself in a society and becomes the essential nature of governing, people’s value systems change. They become narrowly focused on their needs and wants and dismissive of these of the society as a whole. Most people become highly focused on fleeting pleasures. Frivolity, mediocrity, and coarseness take hold. And increasingly, most people become inimical to serious attempts to educate and enlighten them. In these situations, the victims of tyranny become its most efficient supporters.
From this, al-Kawakeby arrived at his final point. That is, in societies submissive to tyranny upbringing of children descends into a farce whose main victim is the children’s inner life. For al-Kawakeby, this denotes how families, across different classes, become blind to their own mental, intellectual, and emotional afflictions, and so they pass them on to the next generation.
For many, Al-Kawakeby was a new Ibn Khaldoun, the Tunisian, Cairene historian and philosopher of the fourteenth century, known for his “Introduction” (al-Muqaddimah), arguably the most important sociological study in recorded human history. Indeed there are similarities between the two men’s observations. But unlike Ibn Khaldoun, al-Kawakeby was not concerned with the spiritual and philosophical aspects of human refinement and social development.
This is important, because Ibn-Khaldoun, like almost all the serious thinkers of the Islamic (and Greek and Gnostic Christian) schools of thought considered human refinement and social development necessary routes for humanity’s progress from the density of matter to the lightness of spirit, basically humanity’s journey back to its Divine origin.
None of this concerned al-Kawakeby. This might make him a much lesser philosopher than Ibn Khaldoun. But, al-Kawakeby, much more than Ibn Khaldoun, was focused on the here and now of his time – explaining the nature of tyranny and how to overcome it, which he considered the quintessential struggle of Arab and Ottoman societies at the time.
Here Egypt enters al-Kawakeby’s story. Al-Kawakeby believed Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century had three advantages that gave her a much higher chance, than all other countries in the region, to become a centre of illumination for the entire East.
One, her political system then was by far more permissive and open to freedom of thought and expression than those of any Eastern country. And although he was not particularly fond of Khedive Ismail or Tawfik, he realised that the rule of the Mohamed Ali dynasty had established in Egypt a balance between different institutions and societal powers and constituencies that none was able to dominate all others. This then nascent form of checks and balances was, in al-Kawakeby’s thought, a unique asset Egypt, and not any other country in the region at the time, possessed.
Two, al-Kawakeby believed that Egypt had a much higher level of social equality compared to most countries in the region. Al-Kawakeby paid particular attention to the conditions of women and religious and ethnic minorities. And in his assessment, late nineteenth century Cairo and Alexandria were miles ahead of regional neighbours in these respects.
Third, Egypt at the time was nominally under the Ottoman Empire and actually a part of the British. But relative to its neighbours and to Turkey at the time, Egypt was socially open, economically thriving, and its rulers had considerable freedom in almost all internal political matters.
And like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (that the previous article in this series discussed), al-Kawakeby understood that Egypt’s then agrarian society and tranquil way of life on the Nile banks sustained social stability and cohesion which made it a natural base for building movements whose impacts could reach far beyond its borders.
Egypt had another impact on al-Kawakeby’s thought. Most of his articles in his most active years in Aleppo and Antioch invoked freedom of thinking and expression, the emancipation of minds, and the notions of public and private rights. In Egypt, however, al-Kawakeby wrote about societal conscience. Unlike Ibn Khaldoun and scores of other philosophers, al-Kawakeby did not evolve this moral notion towards the idea of refining individual and collective consciousness. Drawn to the practicalities of the here and now, and devoted to the struggle against tyranny, al-Kawakeby focused on the bedrock of values needed to strengthen a society’s moral fabric, something he believed essential if any society were to resuscitate its integrity, reclaim its glory, and defeat tyranny. Al-Kawakeby believed that, because of the three advantages mentioned above, Egypt had the potential to develop such a bedrock.
After over 120 years since he died, al-Kawakeby’s ideas might seem naive. Interestingly, however, these ideas not only found a large following in Egypt in the first quarter of the twentieth century; they indeed were among the seeds of Egypt’s liberal age.