The New Intellectual in Egypt’s Revolutions

Shereen Abouelnaga

Perhaps we should examine the prerevolution position of the intellectual and determine whether there were factors that led to the open encounter witnessed on the Egyptian scene between the cultural community and the Islamist authorities. This encounter evolved in a manner that made it appear like a conflict between the religious and the cultural, which in turn deepened the sharp divisions in the community. What is it that sparked this encounter between the cultural and the religious? Of course, these frictions have always lurked behind the scenes, but they were subtle. Indeed, everything that took place before the roar “The people want” resounded has contributed to the enfeeblement of the intellectuals and the impairment of their tools, stripping them of the ability to defend the culture of the country. It was a completely paradoxical issue, as the state that afforded thorough protection, on its own terms, of intellectuals and spared them any violent confrontation with radical Islamism has vitiated them and eliminated the possibility of their communicating with the masses, which could have afforded them protection at the moment of confrontation. The official cultural institution had a major role in weakening the intellectual. For decades, the cultural field has been subordinate to the political field, and perhaps it has not been independent at all since its inception at the hands of Muhammad Ali.

In her accurate analysis of such a relationship between the state and the intellectual, Samia Mehrez elaborated in her book Egypt’s Culture Wars on the relationship between the cultural community and political authority, concluding that the “cultural” is the political.1 No wonder, then, that the marvelous writer Naguib Mahfouz attributed a significant position to the intellectual in his narratives, introducing the opportunist intellectual in Al-Lis wa al-Kilaab (The thief and the dogs), the confused intellectual in Qalb Al-Layl (Heart of the night), the idealist intellectual in As-Sukkariyyah (Sugar Street), the contemplative intellectual in Al-Tareeq (The road), and other models of intellectuals who either adapt to new developments or violently confront them. The intellectual’s relationship with authority, be it conciliatory or counteractive, seems inevitable. Yet, because they resorted to a depoliticized epistemology, based on strict specialization and noninterference, as termed by Edward Said, all their intellectual labor was rendered ineffective. The main feature of weakness is the lack of “a dialectical response from a critical consciousness worthy of its name,” and so, “instead of noninterference and specialization, there must be interference, crossing of borders and obstacles, a determined attempt to generalize exactly at those points where generalizations seems impossible to make.”2 That is why one cannot delve into any definition of the intellectual. In the Egyptian context, the intellectual is defined by his position and aspirations.

Prior to the eruption of the revolution, intellectuals always had the dream of “marching down the streets” to “lead” the masses and enlighten them. This is probably the most harmful illusion on which the intellectuals have wasted their time. In 1972, in a conversation between the two post-structuralist critics Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Foucault referred to what happened to intellectuals during the May 1968 events in France, saying, “The intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he, and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves.” Therefore, “the intellectual’s role is no longer to place himself ‘somewhat ahead and to the side’ in order to express the stifled truth of the collectivity; rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the spheres of ‘knowledge,’ ‘truth,’ ‘consciousness,’ and ‘discourse.’ ”3

It is possible to understand the reason behind the limited options for grappling with authority if we recall the reality that stiflingly besieged the intellectual/ citizen. The manifestations of corruption were everywhere, and the cultural domain fared no better than the political domain. Numerous agonies have escalated and accumulated over the last decade, to the extent that no person could have ignored them. Corruption was augmented by the aid of the philosophy of the exminister of culture Farouk Hosni, who had announced in 1982 that he was to “bring in all intellectuals into the barn.”4 Apparently, he succeeded to a large extent, and those who adamantly remained outside “the barn” were marginalized and deprived of all privileges. This situation explains the unprecedented increase in the number of literary seminars immediately prior to the outbreak of the revolution, as such seminars became the only safe area, providing a rhetorical margin where the cultural and the political, and sometimes the religious, conjoined.

None of the definitions of the intellectual advanced by philosophers, critics, or politicians are applicable to the intellectuals who “ruled” the cultural scene in Egypt prior to the revolution. The state had managed to control them by imposing a strict division of labor, and by almost forcing them to abide by the rule that the state “can run the country, and we [intellectuals] will explicate Wordsworth.”5

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