Thursday, May 12, 2005

Despotism, Historicised

Sayed Ashmawi, Offense to the Monarchical Self: Demise of the Prestige of Absolute Personal Rule: Khedive, Sultan, King, 1882-1952 (GEBO 2002)

I love the severe, no-nonsense covers of GEBO’s series Tareekh al-Misriyeen (History of the Egyptians). The stolid government press makes absolutely no concessions to graphic design or any other marketing gimmicks. The template is always the same, the colors simple and bold, the titles pithy and clear, the emblem reassuringly constant. The content is almost always reliable too. Pick up any GEBO history book and you can always count on dry scholarly fare with lots of dates and long paragraphs; good, solid stuff compared to the effluvium in much of today’s print products. Nothing warms my bibliophilic little heart more than to be greeted by the piles and piles of indistinct paperbacks sitting forlornly in every GEBO bookshop. If one of these books promises that it’s “primarily motivated by developing a theory of citizenship,” the pedant in me is all aflutter.

This particular title caught my eye recently, not for the bold lemon-yellow border but because of author Sayed Ashmawi’s unusually heartfelt preface, wherein he reflects on his days of action: the February 1968 and January 1972 student protests, jail time with poet Ahmed Fu’ad Nigm and singer Shaykh Imam Eissa, and street protests against Sadat’s Infitah policies: “al-ra’is al-dimuqrati, ‘ayiz kull al-sha’b y’tati!” (The democratic president, wants the people to bow low!). A few pages in and it’s clear that this unlikely gem of a book takes a long hard look at the nitty-gritty legalese of Egyptian despotism.

Ashmawi is rightly intrigued by one of the most remarkable episodes in contemporary Egyptian history. Recall that on the ides of March, 1978, a military tribunal sentenced rabblerousing colloquial poet Ahmed Fu’ad Nigm to one year in prison with labor for delivering a poem mocking Anwar Sadat. At the same time, medical student Muhammad Fathi was sentenced to three years for reciting a poem deemed slanderous to the Egyptian president. How was this legally possible, and what were the charges?

Well, gentle readers, grab your nearest copy of the venerable Egyptian Penal Code, Qanun al-Uqubat, vintage 1937. No household should be without this foundational text, right alongside the 1971 Constitution whose rights it so neatly cancels. Turn to the section on Press Offences, Article 179. Behold: “A penalty of imprisonment for no less than one year applies to anyone who derides the president of the republic through one of the means specified.” The means specified are comprehensively listed earlier in Article 171: “Saying, openly announcing, or sending a signal, writing, drawing, using symbols or any other means of representation that are public.”

Ashmawi traces these notorious Articles back to their origins in the punitive French Penal Code of 1810, a harsh document seeking to codify the state’s power over individuals after the 1789 upheaval. Yet predictably, whereas subsequent French penal reform drastically reduced penalties in press offences and affirmed freedom of the press, Egyptian law tightened the screws. The French press law of July 1881 was in stark contrast to its Egyptian cognate of November of the same year. It’s a familiar and perhaps too neat story, but no less true for that: rationalization of state power in France, expansion of state control in Egypt.

“Deriding the president” betokens the glaring personalization of state power, shakhsanat al-sulta that plagues every aspect of our daily life. Ashmawi disavows “strict objectivity”, but is honest and declarative in his approach: “historical experience affirms that the source of backwardness and unenlightenment in Egyptian society is manifest in the presence and continuity of absolute personal rule,” (17). The legal props of personalized rule are the penal provisions criminalising “offense to the sovereign” (l’offense envers le souverain), or more precisely, offense to the “sovereign self.” The sovereign self is of course none other than the exalted self of the ruler de jour: khedive, king, president. And the ruler is the state, no distinction between person and office here.

But precisely what is offense to the sovereign self? It’s extremely difficult to pin down, and that’s the point. Capacious and ill-defined, it can include anything from libel to satire and everything in between, making it very easy for public authorities to criminalise political critique, disagreement, and dissent. Distinctions between ad hominem attacks on the ruler and political opposition are thus legally blurred, and thin skinned presidents like Sadat can easily throw people in jail for making fun of them. If Mubarak and his legal tailors wanted to, they could throw in jail all the protestors demanding that he step down, breezily arguing that in effect demonstrators hurt the president’s feelings. Such are the implications of the dangerously moralized Penal Code Articles.

To his considerable credit, Ashmawi spurns the stale trope of millennia-old Egyptian despotism thrown about with such cavalier assurance by lazy minds and government sycophants to justify continued repression, especially these days. If he convinces people that it’s historically false to claim that Egyptians are congenitally passive and masochistic, Ashmawi will have done a tremendous scholarly and public service. He plunges into the hard work of describing the architecture, legal development, and historical contingency of codified personal rule. If you’ve always been irritated as I have to no end by stupid generalizations about the “nature of the Egyptian people”, then you’ll be delighted with this book. But if you happen to believe in said generalizations, then you also need to read this book and come to grips with some challenging historical facts. It seems to me this is especially important nowadays, as Egypt is swept by dizzying changes, leading us to rethink old assumptions about popular impotence and canned “explanations” of popular inaction.

Yet Ashmawi’s very strength is also his disappointing failing. He’s seduced by the historical patterns he discerns to advance another, more highbrow version of the above trope. Let’s call it the continuity thesis; the claim that Egyptian history is an uninterrupted chain of despotism and personalized central rule, where the present echoes the past and the past portends the future, in one seamless, unruptured line. Surely you’ve encountered this before: Egyptian history as the drama of despotic rule and popular disenfranchisement punctuated by sporadic, short-lived rebellions. In many ways this is the story of our region; I know that strains of Iranian popular culture have a similar transfixion with the master narrative of istibdad.

Ashmawi notes the recurrent pattern in Egyptian history of brave activists and intellectuals hurled with the charge of causing offense to their respective sovereigns. By observing and describing the cases of Mahmud Ramzi Nazim, poet Bayram al-Tunsi, journalist Ahmad Hilmi, Dr. Mahmud Azmi, Ahmed Fu’ad Nigm and others, Ashmawi means to make a broader philosophical claim about the direction or nature of Egyptian history as a core, unchanging script with different actors. Obliquely, the author seems to repackage the familiar view of Egyptian history as a dialectic between state repression and popular resistance; not collective, political resistance but cultural resistance in the form of jokes, satire, and other implements of a “literature of resistance” or an “underground culture of resistance” as he dubs them. Part II of the book is devoted to the specific ways in which Egyptians mocked and verbally ravaged their rulers from Pharaonic times down to the late 19th century. It is this dialectic that the book’s mouthful of a title alludes to: Offense to the Monarchical Self: Demise of the Prestige of Absolute Personal Rule: Khedive, Sultan, King, 1882-1952 (2002).

All well and good, certainly entertaining, refreshing even, but ultimately unsatisfying. Every society can be read in terms of an absorbing drama of political repression and popular resistance; “weapons of the weak” are as ancient as political authority itself, its trusty nemesis even, and I’m sure every country has its own lore of “speaking truth to power.” In my opinion, however, we haven’t learned much if all we’re left with is that Egyptians had the wherewithal to resist, poke fun, and lampoon their rulers. Of course we did, and still do. But that’s not all Egyptians did (nor do), there are alternative, more revealing, more insightful, more dynamic ways of understanding big historical processes. Its valiant esprit and careful historical narration notwithstanding, Offense to the Monarchical Self still leaves us unclear about why and how big changes in Egyptian terms of citizenship occur at all.

This is especially ironic since the book’s last chapter is a wonderful account of the roiling 1930s and 1940s, where a weakened state and an emboldened society duked it out and culminated in the fateful regime change of 1952. Accusations of offence to King Faruq were legion in the 1940s, “trendy” as Ashmawi quips, at precisely the moment when organized political groups and associations were demanding new terms of citizenship and the de-coupling of state power from the person of the sovereign. I find another Egyptian historian much more sagacious and illuminating on these change points in our history, a thinker who more than any other has shaped my understanding of not only Egyptian history but the craft of analysis in general. His story is one I will tell one day.