Anti-Colonial Afterlife in Egypt: The Politics of Hegemony
By Sara Salem
Cambridge University Press, 2020
Sara Salem’s book offers a significant reinterpretation of the 2011 Egyptian revolution by historicizing it against the backdrop of the evolution of the modern Egyptian state and its relationship to anti-colonial struggles, decolonization, and the rise of neoliberalism. Salem argues that the outbreak of the 2011 revolution is to be understood as a result of the failure of the regime of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) and, before that, Anwar al-Sadat (1970-1981) to create the hegemony that the Gamal regime Abdel-Nasser (1952-1970), Egypt’s first ruler after independence. The first part of the book deals with the reasons for the success of the Nasser regime and its political project of Nasserism. The second part examines the failure of the Sadat and Mubarak regimes to reproduce hegemony against the backdrop of intensifying neoliberal economic restructuring, which led to growing repression.
Antonio Gramsci meets Frantz Fanon
The book takes up Antonio Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and the historical bloc in order to analyze post-colonial state formation and regime consolidation. As Salem notes, the book is not the first to apply Gramsci’s insights to politics in the Middle East and North Africa; However, it is unique to bring Gramsci into conversation with the post-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon in order to skillfully analyze the political dynamics of post-colonial states and societies. While Fanon sympathized with Marxism, his writings formed a corrective to the Eurocentrism of Marxist thought. He recognized the peculiarity of capitalism in the colony (and thus in the post-colony) and viewed the political elite that came to power after independence as a “dependent bourgeoisie”. Due to the colonial character of capitalism, this “dependent bourgeoisie” was more responsible to the metropolis than to its fellow citizens. In contrast, Salem argues that the Nasser regime and its political project of Nasserism are an example of hegemony because it does not subordinate itself to the “colonial international” – a term borrowed from Vivienne Jabri (2012) to refer to the western predominance of international relations is rooted in the history of the empire – the Nasser regime tried to oppose this through its participation in the non-aligned movement and its industrialization policies, which sought to break the dependence on colonial capital.
Nasserism and Hegemony
Chapter 2 of the book effectively applies the concepts of hegemony and the historical bloc to understand how the Nasser regime gained widespread support for its rule. Part of the success of the Nasser regime was its ability to reflect and embrace the concerns and demands of radical movements that already existed in Egyptian society, namely demands for freedom from colonial rule and social justice, despite suppressing these movements. As a result, the Nasser regime was able to build a historic bloc of people’s forces, consisting of workers, peasants, soldiers, and nationalist capitalists, cemented by the expansion of material benefits to millions of working people. However, Nasserism contained several contradictions and limitations. A central part of the fascination of Nasserism was its promise of progress and freedom from colonial rule. In its means of pursuing these ends, however, it reproduced colonial forms of development that depended on the exploitation of the workers and the expropriation of the Nubian people. Meanwhile, ‘[t]he decision of the new bloc to restrict instead of eliminating capitalist forms of economic development meant the integration of Egypt into the capitalist world market […] was reinforced rather than broken ”(p.151). Thus, Nasserism was unable to completely liberate Egypt from the colonial international and really fulfill the promises of decolonization. The final nail in the coffin of the Nassist project was the military defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in 1967. This led to a crisis in the regime that led to efforts to dismantle Nasserism.
Neoliberalism and the afterlife of hegemony
The second part of the book examines in detail the failure of successive regimes to restore hegemony, mainly due to the inability of the policies of economic liberalization aimed at attracting foreign and private investment in order to bring material benefits to the majority of Egyptians. As a result, along with increasing coercion, the regime increasingly relied on the support of Western capital and governments to stay in power, making it a fine example of the dependent bourgeoisie described by Fanon. Essentially, the reintegration of Egypt into the colonial international and the impossibility of national development in favor of the majority of Egyptians made it impossible to establish hegemony after 1967. In this regard, Salem calls the period between 1967 and 2011 “the afterlife”. of hegemony ‘, which is to be understood in the sense of Gramsci’s concept of the’ interregnum ‘- a time of uncertainty in which the old dies but the new cannot be born (p.204). The population’s frustration at this situation led to the outbreak of the 2011 revolution.
The last chapter of the book looks at the afterlife of hegemony in Egypt through the concept of haunted, particularly adopted by Avery Gordon (2008) to refer to the dwelling of the past in the present. For me, this is an outstanding chapter because it focuses the historical experience of the anti-colonial struggle on understanding contemporary political dynamics and political subjectivities in post-colonial states. I have also tried to underline this in my earlier work on the emergence of authoritarianism in the Arab world (2008) and in relation to understanding the challenges of political transformation after the revolution of 2011 (2015). Salem uses the concept of hauntedness to understand the enduring force of the Nasserist Project:
On the one hand, I vividly view Nasserism in the sense that it normalized certain ideas of what politics should look like in post-colonial Egypt and what an economic model based on ideas of independent development could deliver. On the other hand, Nasserism should be understood as a form of urgency, since it considerably impaired the ability of left social forces to prevent the very neoliberal project against which Nasser had repeatedly warned the Egyptians (p.260).
In this context it is discussed how the specter of Nasserism from the 1970s onwards influenced the resistance of the workers against neoliberal restructuring and their demands for a restoration of the working conditions and working relationships established under Nasser. The fact that neoliberalism was able to make such progress in Egypt also reflected the weakness of the left and its ideas. While this criticism is not unfounded, it is also important to remember that the left has been defeated to a greater or lesser extent internationally – either as a result of direct repression by right-wing allies of the United States in the name of combating communism, or, as a result, with ruin the Soviet Union to be ideologically discredited.
For a decolonial future and the spirits of Nasserism Nass
Salem ends the book with Fanon’s call to reject Europe as a model. This would mean rejecting notions of “sovereignty” and “rule”, freeing oneself from “capitalist modernity” and transcending “the nation” in order to fully realize decolonization (pp. 278-79). This call couldn’t be more timely and urgent. Today capitalism is more firmly anchored than ever, right-wing forces are on the rise around the world and we are facing health pandemics and environmental disasters. However, the question remains how a decolonial future can be achieved. This is beyond the scope of this particular book. On this question of practice, however, the writings of Antonio Gramsci offer an important source for thinking through the politics of the challenging Hegemony – namely through the concepts of “trench warfare” (an attack on the prevailing ideology and worldview) and “war of maneuvers” (an attack on the coercive apparatus of the state) (Gramsci 1971). In the 2011 revolution, the Egyptians waged a successful war of maneuvers against the Interior Ministry. However, the return of the military to power in 2013, on a wave of hypernationalism and nostalgia for the Nasser era, suggests that the revolutionaries have failed to wage a coherent war of positions. In this respect, Sara Salem’s book underlines the political need to finally put the spirit of Nasserism aside if the promises of freedom, dignity and social justice are to be kept.
Fanon, Franz (1963) The wretched of the earth, New York: Grove Press.
Gordon, Avery (2008) Ghostly Matters: Spooky and the Sociological Imagination, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selection from the prison notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Jabri, Vivienne (2012) The postcolonial theme: Claiming politics / Others rule in the late modern era, London: Routledge.
Pratt, Nicola (2015) “After the January 25 Revolution: Democracy or Authoritarianism in Egypt?” Im Revolutionary Egypt: Linking National and International Struggles, Eds. Reem Abou-El-Fadl, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 43-82.
Pratt, Nicola (2007) Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
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