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Socializing the State from Tahrir Square

July 17, 2011

Socializing the state: Crowds in Tahrir on the night of July 13th. Photo by Malak Rouchdy.

Historically, the Egyptian state has always followed its colonial predecessors in treating the public as a deficient entity that must be improved, contained and ordered (into “stability,”) for example, rather than an entity to be meaningfully engaged with.

The current efforts in Egypt might be fruitfully seen as efforts to re-socialize the state, to create a new civility in which the state perceives the public as an entity to which it must listen, with which it must engage, and to which it must respond.

The New York Times and the Washington Post have both done interesting stories recently on the return of protesters to Tahrir Square, but the media accounts still don’t really know what to make of it all. They keep looking to organized political institutions–the Muslim Brotherhood, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the interim government–for signs that they are responding, for signs the “the” revolution is happening.

And they take the polyphony of voices in Tahrir about what should happen next as a weakness, a fragmentation of purpose and message (and therefore effectiveness).

But perhaps “revolution” in the classic sense is not the best way to understand the political changes being pushed by these multiple and polyphonic movements.

To a great extent, these social movements can be seen as falling into the category Asef Bayat, in his book Making Islam Democratic, calls “post-Islamic”, movements that seek to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and personal liberty. These movements can encompass everyone from moderate Islamists to ardent secularists.

Such movements are “post-Islamic” not because it leaves Islam behind but because it is an alternative to the kind of “Islamist” politics that has dominated Western discussions of the Middle East since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Post-Islamist” might be a more accurate term.

Post-Islamism, writes Bayat

wants to turn to underlying principles of Islamism on its head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of singular, authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scripture, and the future rather than the past.

Bayat examines the post-Islamic turn both in Iran and Egypt. In Egypt, he says, post-Islamic ideas and movements arose in reaction to the rise of Islamist discourses as the only serious voices of political opposition to the repressive state. And the post-Islamic social movements are not revolutionary in a classic Che Guevara or  Maoist sense; they are not organized to seize control of the institutions of the state.

Writing in 2007, Bayat, then director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, wrote:

To what extent, then, can social movements, without resorting to violent revolution, alter the political status quo in the Middle East–a region entrapped by authoritarian regimes (both secular and religious), exclusivist Islamist opposition, and blatant foreign domination?,

To answer this, he points out that the strength of social movements is that they are not organized bodies with coherent leaders and militant agency; they are prolonged, open-ended, multifaceted processes of change, whose agency ebbs and flows with circumstance.

They change society through cultural production: “establishing new lifestyles and new modes of thinking, being, and doing things.” In this way, an active citizenry can socialize the state into new sensibilities, new ways of performing its functions.

When people post photographs and recording, and give public testimonies of their “secret” detentions, interrogations and torture, they encourage the state to change. When activists post photographs and names of secret police and describe their actions so they can be read by their families and neighbors, they encourage change. When police extortion is recorded and posted to YouTube, it encourages change. When politicians who offer the same old excuses and promises find themselves mocked int he media, it encourages change.

And when people keep returning to the public square in the tens of thousands to insist that change must be speedy, ongoing, and public, it encourages the state to change.

Socialization is a learning process but a contingent one. It is polyphonic, not directed; it happens through action, not didactic instruction. It involves a great deal of trial-and-error. States are essentially conservative. Even non-repressive states (relatively speaking) change slowly, and usually only in response to direct pressures.

And so the people keep returning to the square, trying to act out for the powers that be the kind of state they want it to become.

References
Bayat, Asef. 2007a. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamic Turn. Stanford University Press.
Bayat, Asef. 2007b. “A Tale of Two Trajectories” ISIM Review 20: 43.
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