The Guild Society
Wafd Party Women's Committee, al-Musawwar, 13 March 1925.
When Ahmed Nazif, our inept Prime Minister who doubles as a doormat, claimed that Egyptians lack the requisite maturity for democracy, it was not a gauche slip of the tongue but a well-rehearsed staple of the ruling NDP’s “New Thought” (Fikr Gedeed). “New Thought” has more than a whiff of agitprop; it is the centerpiece of the NDP’s facelift after the 2000 elections, the ideational armature that has smoothed Gamal Mubarak’s meteoric political rise.... I consider it beneath me to dissect the NDP’s new “ideas” but I note: these spurious claims are being recirculated just as Egyptians are rising up to demand their rights. And I seek refuge in the inconvenient truths the theorists of “New Thought” work assiduously to distort and falsify. What I want to show here is not that Egyptians are ready for democracy; that would be accepting the stupid and racist premises of the NDP’s fourth-rate intellectual apologists. Instead, I want to wade through some Egyptian history for the organisational roots of the intifada we’re seeing this year.
With their luculent demands for free elections and professional autonomy, Egypt’s judges have rightly captured the world’s attention and fired up the imagination of Arab democrats; Lebanese commentators have started a debate on their own judicial institutions (see an-Nahar of 19 and 25 May). Egyptian judges’ measured mobilisation also calls attention to the incremental but steady reawakening of Egypt’s other corporate groups: students, workers, journalists, lawyers, engineers, university faculty, even Sufi orders, even if these latter came down in favor of Mubarak.
Novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid is hoping that Egypt’s Writers Union will hop on the reform bandwagon (though good luck with Mohamed Salmawy as president). Egypt’s big businessmen are absent from the picture, probably too busy worrying about where to put their assets in the event of regime change, so tied are their fortunes to the fate of the Mubarak presidency. Egyptian businessmen are diffident democrats, to put it very generously. They’re perfectly fine with autocracy if it protects their right to make money. As for Egyptian workers, the most thoroughly muzzled corporate group, their reform stirrings have been perforce more muted, save for one notable protest on 7 May.
How can we explain this associational effervescence on the Egyptian scene? As usual, it’s propelled by a mixture of propitious opportunities and inherited organisational experience. It mimics notable moments in contemporary Egyptian history: 1919-22, 1946-1952, 1968, 1977-81. It carries within it the spectacular successes and crippling contradictions of those resonant turning points. It is also the most effective rejoinder to an avalanche of stale, sinister notions that are a persistent undercurrent in Egyptian public debate. Let’s look briefly at what these look like, and where they’re coming from.
The gurus of "New Thought", a cackle of presumptive “political scientists” headed by Alieddine Hilal and headquartered in the once-respected Cairo University Faculty of Political Science and the Ahram Strategic Studies Centre, proceeded to advance the view that Egyptians are not prepared for democracy, but must first acquire the requisite democratic culture and “values” before getting a taste of the sweet elixir. “You can't have democracy without democrats. You cannot have democracy imposed on authoritarian societies,” said Hilal (New York Times, 3 October 2002), back when he was Youth Minister before being booted in last July’s reshuffle (Pity, was Gamal not pleased with the performance of Dr. Hilal?).
In a speech on July 26, 2003, Hosni Mubarak claimed that democratising all at once is like offering liters of water to a parched man; he will die (al-Ahram, 27 July 2003). Better to introduce democracy in doses, to be determined by the self-appointed guardians of the Egyptian people: the Mubarak government and its allies, of course. Last week, Laura Bush kindly pitched in with her own theory of democracy, to buttress the intellectual exertions of the “New Thinkers”: “You have to be slow as you do each of these steps…You know that each step is a small step, that you can't be quick. It's not always really wise to be, but I'm very, very happy with the idea of an election here in -- a presidential election, and I think he's been very bold and wise to take the first step.”
I consider it beneath me to dissect these ideas, not least because it places undue strain on my sanity and fouls up my mood. Instead, I note: these spurious claims are being recirculated just as Egyptians are rising up to demand their rights. And I seek refuge in the inconvenient truths the theorists “New Thought” work assiduously to distort and falsify. What I want to show here is not that Egyptians are ready for democracy; that would be accepting the stupid and racist premises of the NDP’s fourth-rate intellectual apologists. Instead, I want to wade through some Egyptian history for the organisational roots of the intifada we’re seeing this year. Ours is a country rich in associations, orders, guilds, and syndicates. Belying false models of Egyptian history as a tale of a gargantuan state preying on a prostrate society, or an enlightened state leading an immature society, Egyptian history is full of stories of associational activism and spirited, organised sparring with the state. If you want to believe Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy, I feel sorry for you. If you want to understand the historical roots of what’s happening today, I hope this story will engage you.
A masterful new study unearths this fascinating period of Egyptian history, when the sturdy guilds came apart under the twin assaults of state control and Egypt’s integration into the world economy. Mining the documentary gems in Dar al-Watha’iq, John Chalcraft’s wonderful The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories (2004) traces the process of guild transformation into modern trade unions in the 19th and 20th centuries, complete with fascinating stories of petitions and protest by Cairo’s cabbies, Boulaq’s carters, Port Said’s coal heavers, and Alexandria’s porters.
As we know, the latter half of the 19th century was an incubator for all sorts of organisations, plebeian and patrician alike. As the Europhile Khedive Ismail was energetically bankrupting Egypt in his quest to turn it into a piece of Europe, Egyptians were coming together in a dizzying array of associations. Masonic clubs shared social space with cultural salons, philanthropic societies, workers’ fledgling unions, and secret societies. Associationalism was tinged with all sorts of ideological hues: Islamist, constitutionalist, nationalist, nativist, and everything in between. Membership consisted of Egyptian Muslims, Christians, and Jews, though class and education mattered more than religion. Three issues galvanised associationalism, writes Juan Cole in his Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East (1993): European control, viceregal absolutism, and overtaxation and oppression of ordinary people.
Take the Helwan Society, for example, a group of elite politicians who came together in 1879 in the wake of the state’s declaration of insolvency. The Society opposed Dual Control (British and French supervision of the expenditure of Egyptian revenues) and distributed 6,000 copies of their anti-foreign, constitutionalist manifesto. The society took its name from the sleepy retreat where its members were kept under strict government surveillance. The zeitgeist climaxed in the Urabi movement against British control, but it could not survive in the face of British force majeure. The British invaded in September 1882; their last troops left in December 1956.
Between 1882 and the next iteration of mass upheaval in the spring of 1919, association-building was the order of the day. Egypt’s first political parties mushroomed in 1907, and its first professional union saw the light in 1912. Egypt’s venerable bar association was chartered by the state to co-opt leaders of an increasingly central profession, but the association’s lore says it came into being as a response to lawyers’ outrage at the ransacking of a Tanta lawyer’s office by police. The apocryphal story is probably an added accretion reflecting decades of subsequent adversarial relations between lawyers and the state, a tussle that culminated in the massive 1994 lawyers’ protest against the death in police custody of lawyer Abdel Harith Madani.
One of the most remarkable features of ’19 was the mobilisation of peasants. Witness this spirited telegram from residents of Daqahliyya on 23 March 1919: “The Egyptian “fellah” (farmer) has been charged as being ignorant of the rights of his country, but to-day we take part in the demonstration with our Egyptian brethren for the liberty and independence of Egypt. With one heart and tongue we are ready to participate in liberating Egypt and to confront every one who disapproves of this right. We vigorously protest against the internment of Egyptian statesmen and the shooting our liberals with rifles. We hope that these feelings will be confirmed and transmitted to the Peace Conference, in order that it may prevent our blood from being shed, which we never forget until we secure our demands.” What a delicious slap in the face of the NDP’s “New Thinkers”, methinks.
The roiling 1940s witnessed a spurt of organisation-building, as eight new professional unions saw the light, right on the heels of the Judges Club in 1939: journalists in 1941, engineers in 1946, and then in 1949: doctors, dentists, veterinarians, pharmacists, agriculturalists, and teachers’ unions. This decade was also the moment when the committee (al-lajna) took center stage as an innovative organisational tool of political protest, building on a practice pioneered in ’19. When political parties, unions, and professional syndicates proved too restrictive or exclusive to carry forward pressing socio-political demands, citizens from diverse social sites banded together in the form of the public committee, such as the high-profile 1946 students and workers committee. Recall the opening scene of Henri Barakat’s film Fi Baytena Rajul (A Man in our House), a powerful depiction of the massacre of committee students and workers on the Abbas Bridge, orchestrated by a demonic chief of police played by the masterful Tawfiq al-Diqqin.
An important aside: the committee is the parent of the even more ephemeral, loosely-structured cross-partisan alliance. Both have resurfaced in the 1990s-era Palestine solidarity committees, out of which morphed Kifaya. I reviewed this process here.
Egypt’s three presidents have alternately sought to constrain and co-opt both the leaders and rank and file of socially influential interest groups, with varying degrees of success. Let’s review the record. Gamal Abdel Nasser inherited a remarkably organised, institutionally dense society, which he proceeded to demobilise and contain through a carefully orchestrated regime of legal repression, co-optation, and reorganisation of the structures of interest representation. In 1953, he outlawed political parties, a move from which they have never recovered. Contemporary Egypt’s highly contrived, distorted political party life is the relic of Nasser and later Sadat’s planned demobilisation. After the March 1954 crisis, Nasser punished all those social organisations who sided with Muhammad Naguib, principally the legal community. He passed laws intervening in their affairs, packing their general assemblies with public sector lawyers, and curtailing the right to litigation, thus immunizing entire categories of administrative action from judicial oversight, in the process trimming the purview of the judiciary.
In 1960, he nationalised the press, to the unexpectedly enthusiastic response of many journalists, as reported by Salah Eissa. In 1961, he brought the historically independent ulama of al-Azhar firmly under state control, the same year that he nationalised the remaining private vestiges of the economy. But because of his political acumen, charisma, legitimacy, and command of valuable state resources, Nasser was able to manage this taming game with few regime blunders. He was also able to see through a maximum disarming of the opposition. I’ve always enjoyed this description, from the New York Times’ correspondent Jay Walz, writing of the preparatory committee debates of December 1961:
Television viewers have enjoyed the sight of the President matching wits and ideas with some of the country’s best brains—university professors, writers and lawyers, including not a few articulate women.
These “working sessions,” on view every night from 6 o’clock to 9, have given Egyptians their first experience with a spectacle to be compared with a Congressional hearing in the United States.
No one is necessarily on the spot. But it has been fascinating to watch Mr. Nasser, seated at a table before the assembly, listening to the theorists and academicians and exhorting them to come up with practical solutions for Egypt’s vast social problems.
At the working day’s end, Cairo residents crowd the tea shops, chairs and tables spilling right out into the street, to watch the broadcasts. The sessions have had a maximum popular audience, such as the infrequent telecasts of the old National Union Assembly meetings never enjoyed.
The President listens intently and takes copious notes when others speak. Frequently he smiles when someone ventures the opinion that certain solutions offered by the Nasser regime in nearly ten years of revolutionary government have been inadequate.
Once, Khaled Mohammed Khaled, a prominent Cairo writer and journalist, declared that the first thing that should be done was to “give back to the people, even the reactionaries, all their freedoms.” Mr. Nasser arose to defend the right of anyone to differ.
But affability and intelligence were not enough to see Nasser through the most challenging crisis of his rule, the 1967 war. In February-March 1968, a year after they spontaneously poured out onto the streets demanding that Nasser stay in power, Egyptians rose up to demand their pilfered rights, despite their bruised organisational structures. Nasser’s concession of the 30 March 1968 Program promising a return to pluralism and the rule of law was the concrete outcome of the popular intifada, led by students, workers, lawyers, and judges. Sadat’s commissioning of a new constitution was his concession to the pent-up pro-democracy demands.
Sadat’s sparring with organised unions and syndicates was much more adversarial than Nasser’s. Possessing none of his predecessor’s charisma, legitimacy, nor resources, Sadat soon found himself encircled by the very institutions he had himself unleashed, and street protest returned to Egypt with an intensity unseen since the 1940s. Three days after the January 1977 “bread riots”, the New York Times of 21 January reported:
The rioters’ wrath was clearly directed at least in part against President Anwar el-Sadat and his closest associates. A mob surged up to his villa in Giza, a residential quarter of Cairo, and threw rocks. The home of Vice President Husni Moubarak in Alexandria was sacked, according to reports from that city.
Lying on a pile of broken glass was a picture of President Sadat, its frame and cover smashed and with crossed lines slashed across it.
Student demonstrators carried Mr. Nasser’s picture and chanted his name and shouted derisive slogans against Mr. Sadat.
With Sadat’s signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a moment untold numbers of Egyptians remember with bitterness and dismay, opposition to Sadat fanned from the streets to campuses to the professional unions. Sadat decreed the notorious 1979 campus statute interfering in student union elections and freezing other campus activities, still in effect to this day. The bar association in particular became the unofficial headquarters of all-purpose dissent, with frequent gatherings denouncing the president. Months before his assassination in 1981, an enraged Sadat unilaterally dissolved the board of the bar association, “the first time a president actually issued a law to dissolve the board!” marveled the late Dr. Muhammad Asfour in his cavernous office one evening a few years ago, his body tensing up as if he was describing events that had happened moments ago, his trademark dark glasses sliding ever so slightly down his nose.
I never had a chance to see Dr. Asfour again to hear him retell his poignant days of activism in the bar. He died in 2002, leaving behind a remarkable legacy of legal activism. He was an uninterruptedly, unequivocally liberal lawyer at a time when it was truly dangerous to be so. And like Mumtaz Nassar, he took his opposition straight to the top, not waiting for a president’s death to criticize him in unadorned, straightforward terms.
Mubarak felt under siege, his regime physically threatened by radical Islamists and morally upstaged by moderate Islamists, especially the latter’s superior relief efforts during the earthquake and effective campaigning in the professional unions. His response was simple: churning out laws codifying state intervention in every social organisation while also aggressively policing all potential sites of mobilisation. Legal and physical repression went hand in hand. The government’s legal tailors set to work: in 1992, Military Decree 4/1992 banned any group from receiving donations without prior government permission. In the same year, a new “anti-terrorism” law was passed toughening sentences for criminal offences and extending the jurisdiction of the State Security Courts.
In 1993, the Orwellian-named “Law for the Guarantees of Democracy in Professional Associations” stipulated disabling quorums for elections and paved the way for the freezing of all influential professional unions and placing them under government receivership (with the exception of the journalists’ union).
In 1994, overturning decades of customary practice, legislation was passed requiring village chiefs and university deans to be appointed by the administration rather than elected by voters and professors. Faculty say universities have been turned into adjuncts of the Interior Ministry, with hiring, promotions, and research all subject to the writ of security forces. Scores of academics have also been enlisted in Gamal Mubarak’s Secretariat for Policies (see their names here).
In 1995, a new law was issued toughening penalties for libel to up to five years’ imprisonment in addition to a hefty fine. Mobilisation by journalists succeeded in reducing the fine and the sentence to a maximum of two years, but Mubarak’s 2004 promise to do away with imprisonment altogether remains unfulfilled.
In 1997, the new rural tenancy law rolling back Nasser-era gains for peasants took effect, spurring violent disturbances in the countryside and the eviction of peasants off the land by landlords in collusion with police forces. The March events in Sarando are a direct echo of this process.
In 1999, the government rammed through parliament law 153/1999 severely restricting and monitoring the activities of NGOs. Though a Supreme Court ruling declared the law unconstitutional in 2000, the government was undeterred; it rebounded with law 84/2002, which by all accounts is even worse than law 32/1964 which it replaced.
In case this intricate web of laws is not enough, there’s always the trusty “Emergency Law” (162/1958), applied uninterruptedly since 4 pm, 6 October, 1981. In its bare bones essentials, it enables the state to do anything, literally anything, in the event of a national emergency, defined by the regime as the threat of terrorism and narcotics trafficking. The street demo slogan captures it best: “Ya huriyya feinik feinik, al-taware’ beini w’beinik!” (Freedom freedom where are you? Emergency stands between me and you!)
With a tailor-made restrictive law for every social group, at least a decade of intense security forces’ interference, the ubiquity of the police state woven into the fabric of daily life, and the near-complete withdrawal of the government from any service provision, the state has become all stick, no carrot. Remarkably, during Mubarak’s presidency, the state has managed to systematically alienate every organised social group and every unincorporated sector (the urban poor and landless peasants) save its own very narrow social basis of crony businessmen and the army.
Egyptian society is an interlocking patchwork of sturdy associations, but during the past 15 years these organisations have been subject to aggressive state control in the form of repressive laws and direct government interference. Such are the conditions spurring the currently snowballing democracy drive. Combined with tough economic conditions, a threadbare social safety net, and American pressure on the regime (albeit inconsistent and ambiguous), it’s difficult to see how the status quo is sustainable.
When regime hacks claim that Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy, or when foreign know-nothings pontificate about the baby steps of democracy, or when Egyptians entrenched in the status quo wrap their fear of change in claims of the unsuitability of democracy, I can only marvel at the brazen spinning of such rank lies.
And then I reach for my nearest history text. There I don’t find comforting proof of Egyptians’ readiness for democracy, for that is not and never has been the issue. Nor do I find triumphal stories of democratic happy endings, for that is not how democracy comes about. I do find a dizzying diversity of socio-political mobilisation, a fevered clash of interests, heated contests of ideas, high-stakes political brinksmanship, stupendous miscalculations, felicitous and unexpected advances, regrettable losses, shameful failures, and everything in between. In sum, a chequered political history of one democratic step forward, three steps back. The puzzle is not that we have not yet achieved democracy, but that there are those who would rob us of this history, distort and falsify it, and package it into a claim that Egyptians lack the maturity “necessary” for democracy.
I’ve made clear where I think such claims belong. Let me make one more thing clear. The behavior of the Egyptian political establishment, the regime with all its agencies and factions, the first family with all its individuals, the NDP with all its hangers-on and apologists: all evince an alarming lack of coherence, forget ingenuity. Utterly bereft of any legitimacy, competence, popularity, or mandate, is it any wonder that they’re resorting to legal subterfuge, paid mobs, physical assault, and rotten theories?