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Dripping with blood and dirt

Originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly, December 20, 2012.

In 1805 Mohamed Ali, a young upstart who hailed from Kavala in what is now Greece, who spoke no Arabic and who had no prior links with the land, ended up as governor of Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman sultan. In the few years to follow, he struggled to establish his authority and to restore the productivity of a country ravaged by years of internecine warfare, devastating plagues and foreign invasion. Most seriously, he found himself embroiled in the quagmire of complex Mamluk politics with literally hundreds of Mamluk war lords, each with his own household, harem and private army.

Six years later, he finally resolved to hit hard at all these rival leaders who were considerably more adept than he was at milking the country’s wealth. On 1 March 1811, he invited all Mamluk beys to his divan in the Citadel for an official ceremony. After spending an hour drinking coffee with him, the beys left in a procession — only to find themselves ambushed by the pasha’s soldiers. In a little over an hour, over 450 were slaughtered; the heads were then severed from the corpses and presented to Mohamed Ali who had been anxiously waiting in his harem. The bloodbath continued in the city below as the pasha’s soldiers were unleashed into the Mamluks’ households, where they pillaged their property, raped their women and killed any remaining bey who dared to hide. What made this massacre the decisive end to Mamluk presence in Egypt was that those Mamluks who were fortunate enough not to be in Cairo on that day were mercilessly hunted down by Mohamed Ali’s eldest son, Ibrahim. In the months that followed, he chased them from village to village in Upper Egypt killing no less than 1,000 in the process.

With the Mamluks out of the way, Mohamed Ali proceeded to invite his relatives and friends from his native Kavala to settle in his new, adopted country. Dozens of men descended on Egypt, and were immediately given land, palaces and lucrative assignments. Tied by blood and gratitude, these men were keen to prove their worth and to help their walii al-niam, or benefactor tap, the endless resources of the country. They were given retainers, assistants, secretaries, translators and guards and were ordered to implement the pasha’s orders to the letter. In the absence of rival centres of power, the pasha’s extended household evolved into a complex, structured bureaucracy with salaried officials, written laws and regulations, increasingly elaborate buildings, and all the regalia that go with a strong, centralised state.

In the decades that followed, al-miri, as this new household-government-turned-modern-bureaucracy was called, managed to tighten its grip over Egypt’s population, and to tap into the country’s endless resources. Tens of thousands were conscripted into the pasha’s army; others were dragged to work in his factories, while countless peasants were pressed into corvée labour, and still countless others were forced to forward the agricultural products that they had planted to miri, i.e. government, warehouses, and, to top it all, to pay higher and higher taxes.


These are the origins of the modern Egyptian state. To paraphrase Marx, the modern Egyptian state “came dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. The Egyptian state was not born as a result of Egypt’s incorporation into the world market, as some leftist historians have argued. Nor was it the result of the importation from the West of ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity, as some liberals would like us to believe. Rather, the modern Egyptian state was born out of the vagaries of a despot with an iron will and a ruthless character.

This modern Egyptian state was not founded on the flimsiest notion of constitutionalism or the rule of law. There was no social contract that tied the people to their new ruler, who descended on them with his ilk like vultures ravaging town and country. And the landed aristocracy, or the closest that Egypt ever came to having one, the Mamluks, who could have put a limit on this brutal encroachment on the state and society, were massacred, literally and not metaphorically, to the man.


For their part, the Egyptian people did not spare any effort in rebelling against this new tyranny. Unlike what we have been taught in schools, the Egyptian people did not revolt only against foreign invaders, be they French or British. The Egyptian people resisted this domestic leviathan by all means at their disposal. In the wake of higher taxation, more frequent corvée levies, a draconian monopolies policy and, above all, an unprecedented conscription policy, the Egyptian peasants revolted in 1821 in a huge uprising in the south, an uprising that spread from Qena to Aswan, and one in which 20,000 men and women participated; it resulted in the death of 4,000 peasants. The following year, an equally large uprising spread in the Delta, and was quelled by six machine guns commanded by Mohamed Ali in person. In 1844 another large uprising erupted in Menoufiya in the Delta, where miri warehouses were set on fire, the pasha’s agents taken hostages, and cotton fields uprooted. In 1863, and immediately upon Ismail Pasha’s ascension, a large uprising erupted in the south, in the same area of the uprising 40 years earlier.


But it wasn’t only peasants who were rebelling against a state that set no limits on its own avarice and despotism. By the late 1850s, i.e. a mere generation after the founding of the state, employees of that state itself started to see its household origins as fundamentally despotic, undermining their own role and challenging their sense of self-respect. A dramatic case preserved in the police records and housed in the Egyptian National Archives illustrates this important shift in the weltanschauung of miri officials. The case had to do with a black slave called Sultan, who was beaten to death by a senior employee called Omar Bey Wasfi, working in the household of the grand-nephew of Said Pasha, Egypt’s governor at that time. When the Cairo police commissioner went to the estate to investigate the incident, the Nubian porter at the gate prevented him from entering, effectively telling him that he had no jurisdiction on the estate of the members of the ruling family, even if a murder had been committed there. Outraged, the commissioner established road blocks and eventually arraigned Omar Bey in a dramatic carriage chase in the middle of the Abbasiya desert and escorted him to the police station for interrogation. Most significantly, the police commissioner penned an eloquent letter to Said Pasha, telling him that Omar Bey had “violated the sanctity of the state” by committing such a heinous act believing that he was immune behind the estate gates. Said Pasha accepted the recommendation of his police commissioner and issued an order to exile Omar Bey from Egypt altogether. This little known case illustrates how only one generation after the founding of the household government of Mohamed Ali, the agents on whom the pasha had based his authority were starting to keep their distance from his descendants, practically telling them that they could no longer work in a household government and that they would serve the state only if it was subjected to the rule of law.


In addition to peasants who were in a continuous state of open revolt against the despotism of al-miri, and internal pressure from the officials of this miri itself, the Egyptian leviathan faced the strongest opposition from a large swathe of social, economic and political forces that eventually rose in a nationwide revolution under Ahmed Orabi in 1879-1882. The aim was nothing less than subjecting this household government to a constitution, one that would define the rights and responsibilities of the khedive, separate his purse from the public purse, and put limits on his power. The revolution was on the cusp of succeeding, had it not been aborted by a blatant European intervention. On 11 July, the British navy, answering the khedive’s call for help in confronting this constitutional movement, bombarded Alexandria and succeeded in defeating Orabi’s troops, thereby inaugurating a military occupation that would last 70 odd years.


The British military occupation dissipated Egyptian revolutionary energies, and Egyptians now found themselves having to fight for constitutional rights and for independence at the same time. Two and a half decades following the defeat of Orabi’s army and the landing on Egyptian soil of British troops, Egyptians rose in one massive revolution in 1919 asking for both independence and a constitution. However, the resulting 1922 independence and the 1923 constitution fell far short of the 1919 Revolution’s aspirations, and the country entered a political stalemate that would last for another 30 years.

The golden age of Egypt’s liberalism, 1923-1952, was neither golden nor liberal. With the British maintaining their grip over Egypt, with a king using constitutional licence to dissolve parliament at will and with political parties failing to develop strategies to defeat either the colonial occupier or local tyranny, the moment was ripe for politics to spill over onto the streets and for populist and/or fascist movements to thrive. Significantly, this is the moment in which the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest of these populist movements, was born. Unlike other populist movements, however, the Brotherhood did not only reject the practices of parliamentary democracy, but the very basis of the modern Egyptian state. Theirs was not so much a struggle against colonialism or tyranny, as it was against the state of cultural alienation that they believed had befallen the entire society. By raising the slogan “The Quran is our constitution”, they were not only tapping into the widespread belief that constitutionalism was the way to defeat tyranny but also challenging that widespread belief in constitutionalism as insufficient and missing the point. Theirs was, and remains, a cultural struggle that aims at shepherding the nation back to its true, authentic roots, and not being content with bringing about some cosmetic changes in the political system.


The political stalemate was not broken by the Muslim Brotherhood, though, but by the military. In 1952, Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his junta staged a coup that abolished the monarchy, suspended parliamentary politics and persecuted all major political players of the ancien régime, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Significantly, though, the Nasser regime managed to force the British to leave, and in 1954 the last British soldier left Egyptian soil after a 72-year occupation. Having abolished the old tyrannical order represented by the palace, and having got rid of the foreign occupier, the Nasser regime rode on a wave of widespread popularity which, tragically, it used to lay the foundations for a military dictatorship. With political parties banned, dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members subjected to horrific torture in police dungeons and with a personality cult built around Nasser, the country was heading to a catastrophic defeat. The 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel was not a mere military defeat. It was a devastating defeat that had its roots, ultimately, in the lack of any institutional framework that would make possible civilian oversight over the military. In one of the most bizarre twists in modern history, the people took to the streets on 9 and 10 June 1967 asking Nasser, who had admitted his responsibility for the defeat, to rescind his resignation and stay the course.


This, then, is the historical context in which we can read our current revolution. When we took to the streets on 25 January 2011, we were continuing a struggle against local tyranny in which we have been engaged ever since the foundation of the modern Egyptian state by Mohamed Ali at the beginning of the 19th century. On 28 January, when we overwhelmed the police with our sheer numbers and determination, we not only effectively brought down Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but we were also shunning the self-infantilising attitude that impelled us to stand by our leaders despite their readiness to slay us like Abraham did his son. On 28 January we finally killed our father.

Despite the significant accomplishments we managed to achieve over the past two years, the road ahead is still long and bumpy. We might have overwhelmed the police by sheer numbers, but we have not yet managed to fundamentally reform the security sector. We might have brought down the July 1952 regime, but we have not yet put in place a mechanism that would guarantee civilian oversight over the military. We might have toppled the president and put him on trial, but we have not yet managed to find an institutional way to curb the power of the presidency.

Above all, in this most delicate stage in our struggle for constitutionalism, we find ourselves divided about what we mean by “constitution”. While those who coined and raised the slogan, “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”, as the prime slogan of the January Revolution, hoped that our new constitution would reflect these lofty ideals, others are now paraphrasing the slogan to read, “Bread, Freedom, Islamic Sharia”, and find inspiration in the Muslim Brotherhood’s old principle, “The Quran is our constitution”. Over our long struggle against local tyranny and foreign control, this latest schism about the meaning of the constitution threatens to derail our revolution and hamper our path to freedom.

Still, I have faith that we, as a society, can withstand this serious challenge. My faith derives partly from the institutions of the modern state itself. While this state had been founded on despotic principles, I have a deep belief that, like the police commissioner in 1858 whose self-respect and sense of professionalism impelled him to stand firmly in front of serious abuse of power, there are thousands of judges, army and police officers, lawyers and bureaucrats who believe in their institutions and who would be ready to defend them against the maverick politics that the present government seems intent on pursuing.

Above all, my belief derives from the millions of people who are taking to the streets, sacrificing life and limb to defend their basic rights, and demanding a constitution that upholds these rights. In their collective wisdom, these millions know that they are part of a long struggle against tyranny, foreign control and fascism. Their slogans are simple but profound; their tactics witty and imaginative; their ideals lofty and sublime. With their self-confidence, wit and imagination they brought down a mighty tyrant. I am confident that they can also heal the rift that is now threatening the very cohesion of our society.

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