The Vocabulary of Revolution

February 1, 2014

By Roger Owen

One of the little discussed aspects of the Arab Uprisings of 2011 is the explosion of new political terms as dictatorships based on rule by fear were replaced by popular forces struggling to find an alternative based on a new constitutional order. Key words to begin with were clearly those very imprecise terms, “revolution” and “democracy.” Then came an effort by commentators inside and out to try to define the emerging types of systems with greater accuracy, often employing words from a Western vocabulary such as “populist,” “syndicalist,” or even ‘Bonapartist’ to indicate the basics of the emerging relationships between governments and those they ruled. Lastly, as of now, came a litany of new terms to define some of the problems facing the countries experiencing difficult transitions. “Interim,” for example, for the temporary institutions devised to shepherd the process of democratization along in Tunisia. And “security” as a shorthand for many of the major concerns both about internal policing and about unchecked cross-border movement.

In what follows I propose to interrogate the meaning and use of three other vitally important but slippery terms in current usage, “deep state,” “corruption,” and “civil society.”

“Deep state” is a notion developed in Turkey to describe the continuities within the military, security, and intelligence communities that survived more or less unchanged from elected government to government, a kind of “old boy” network that was imagined to have the power to engineer coups or to exercise more subtle forms of pressure on elected politicians. That such forces also exist in most of the Arab states is clearly true, although given the secrecy that inevitably surrounds their activities it is difficult to learn very much about them. What is also clear, given the little we do know about the underlying power structures in Egypt, is that their coherence is very easy to exaggerate, with the army deeply suspicious of the police for any number of reasons running from its rigid and inefficient methods of crowd control to its fierce  resistance to reform.

Large questions also arise concerning why, with such a powerful institutionalized structure at its core, Egypt seems to be more or less ungovernable in the sense of being unable to deal with its huge problems, most notably its failure to deliver efficient systems of education, social services, popular housing, and environmental protection. Perhaps the answer is that the component parts of the country’s deep state are too involved in the protection of their own particular institutional interests? But perhaps too they are not nearly as powerful as the notion itself would suggest?

“Corruption” is an equally imprecise term, used, it seems to describe anything from small-scale nepotism and bribe-taking to the larger notion of a state run by a small group of cronies in their own economic interest. Nor does it help that the word itself, in any of the languages used, exists in a number of different vocabularies, from the religious to the legal to the everyday. As a result, reasoned discussion is more or less impossible without a huge amount of prior definition.

Note too that for much the same reasons, it is impossible to have a reasoned discussion as to whether “it,” whatever “it” is, is getting better or worse. What you get instead is a set of highly personal anecdotes based, in my long experience of these conversations, on ad hoc indices ranging from the price of a daughter’s big hotel wedding to the going rate for middle-man commissions on public contracts. Nor does the World Bank’s much quoted international corruption index help a great deal, based as it is simply on questions asked of foreign companies about the hidden cost of doing business in this country or that.

Better it seems to me to go back to the old notion of the difference between the formal and the informal economy, the one taxed and semi-regulated by the government, the other consisting of a whole host of often import-export cross-border practices more akin to smuggling. The traffic in subsidized Egyptian and Libyan petrol across the Tunisian frontier would be one example, equal in revenue some say to the size of that country’s entire official gross national product.

Lastly to the much used and much abused but hugely important notion of “civil society.” As I understand it, its Western use comes from two origins, one derived from the German philosopher Hegel for whom it was to be seen as created out of legalized forms of association only made possible by government support, the other from East European experience of popular opposition to the former communist regimes supported by the Soviet Union. It is this second meaning that it is now so important, providing an incentive to all kinds of public interest groups, many of them manned by youthful activists, to use the social media to monitor formal methods of public accountability beyond and, in some cases, in spite of, the members of the new political parties. Here a good example would be the way in which young Tunisian activists have been able to observe to what extent members of parliament who claim their paid attendance allowance are actually sitting in their seats on the chamber rather than simply socializing in one of the public rooms.

There are other ways too in which active members of civil society can fill in the gaps left by both by the formal institutions created by each new constitution and by the old Human Rights groups established by their elders. One is the challenge of incorporating certain minorities who either fit uncomfortably into the new norms of citizenship or who live in rural or mountainous areas beyond its reach. Women come to mind in North Africa as well as the Tuareg and other Berber groups. And all this besides the major task which many young civil society activists have set themselves of monitoring what goes on in those twin black holes of corruption and of the deep state.

This article was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in February 2014. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.