The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s syndicalist future?

What Egyptians have termed their "revolution" is now beginning to look like one. Seen from afar, it appears that the military rulers have struggled successfully to hold most state institutions intact and slow the pace of change, but the Egyptian political order is still being fundamentally rewritten. The core constitutional demands of a diverse opposition ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

What Egyptians have termed their "revolution" is now beginning to look like one. Seen from afar, it appears that the military rulers have struggled successfully to hold most state institutions intact and slow the pace of change, but the Egyptian political order is still being fundamentally rewritten. The core constitutional demands of a diverse opposition — for freer and more democratic politics — are not being silenced or diverted.

Yet if Egyptians will find their political system freer, it may not be in a fully liberal sense. There is already far greater pluralism and greater freedom of both expression and organization. Such trends are likely to entrench themselves more deeply. But from a purely institutional perspective, something else seems to be happening as well: a variety of strong actors are escaping from presidential control and finding their own voices. Egypt was always a state of strong institutions — when seen from the bottom up. From the top down, all those institutions have been dominated by a strong presidency. Labor unions, professional associations, parts of the judiciary, the parliament, large parts of the press, the military, the security apparatus, the ruling party, and even legal opposition parties have all been silenced, brought to heel, or remolded to serve presidential will. With the presidency vacant and Egypt now ruled by a military committee that governs by Facebook posts and short communiqués, all those institutions are now struggling to act on their own. And leaders within those bodies too associated with the old ways are coming under intense pressure and many may be tossed out. In many of Egypt’s institutions, mini-revolutions seem to be brewing against leaders who had been co-opted into cravenly serving the president.

The emerging outcome of Egypt’s revolution thus might be as much syndicalist as liberal. "Syndicalism" is a dimly remembered term at best, referring to a way of organizing society in strong and autonomous (generally class-based) constituencies; it was a leftist ideology that served as an alternative to communism and sometimes merged with anarchism. But Egypt’s syndicalism — as it is emerging — is neither fully leftist nor entirely class based. It is anything but anarchic. And its driving force is not a nineteenth century European ideology but a 21st-century sense that those who have exercised political and economic power have done so only in their own personal interests; this is seen as a time to make them responsive instead to the needs of various groups in society.

The shape of this emerging order becomes a bit clearer if we look away from the dramatic scenes in Tahrir Square or even State Security headquarters in Madinat Nasr and turn our gaze instead at less noticed aspects of Egypt’s revolution in the economic and religious spheres.


The economic burdens imposed by recent events — the loss to tourism revenue, the dislocation caused by curfews, work stoppages, and unrest — will be real, but a quick recovery is a strong possibility. But there are subtle indications of long-term changes as well — ones that might militate against further economic liberalization.

One indication is a legal aftereffect of the revolution — many of Egypt’s wealthiest individuals are politically exposed, and some are even in prison and face possible trial. A very knowledgeable Egyptian friend pointed out to me an unanticipated effect of the political investigations that are now being carried out — some of Egypt’s leading assets are now or may soon be placed under sequestration because their owners are subject to investigation and trial. There is no ideological impetus here, but Egyptians with long memories may note that the Nasserist period’s nationalizations began with similar actions long before the regime decided to declare such nationalizations Arab socialism. Movement in a socialist direction may be unlikely this time (and if it comes, the push will be from below rather than above), but post-revolutionary Egypt may be significantly more etatist than its recent past.

But the more far-reaching aspect of the revolution for Egyptian economics may be the constituencies that have been mobilized. While the demands of the demonstrators in Tahrir were primarily political and constitutional, those demonstrations were built on years of organizing work among specific groups — and labor was among those. Workers in public sector companies had particular grievances and were especially prominent; other state employees — such as those responsible for taxation — were also heavily involved in the wave of protests that preceded the January 25 revolutionary onset. Indeed, in the Egyptian version of the tea party, tax collectors were not to be tarred and feathered; they were in the rebellious vanguard.


Much of the attention about Islam in Egypt focuses on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood will be an important political actor, though it is approaching the new era with its customary caution. By focusing only on the Brotherhood — and by casting the concern in oddly narcissistic terms (whether the United States should "engage" the Brotherhood or whether the US should countenance the Brotherhood’s running candidates) — Egypt watchers in Washington may be missing critical developments elsewhere. I am not referring here to the anticipated entrance of other Islamist actors (from the Hizb al-Wasat to sufis to Islamist radicals) into the electoral realm, but to possible change in another institution — Egypt’s al-Azhar, a leading religious and educational institution.

Al-Azhar came under increasing state domination in the 20th century and the leadership of the institution, filled by the Sheikh al-Azhar, has been a critical government appointment in recent years. Al-Azhar has managed to insert itself deeply into Egyptian life in various educational and cultural spheres; it also has a very influential committee for issuing fatwas. Mindful of the institution’s centrality — al-Azhar now comprises much of what might be termed the official religious establishment in Egypt — the country’s presidents have worked to control the institution by designating the Sheikh al-Azhar more on political than purely religious qualifications. Recent occupants of the position of Sheikh al-Azhar have sometimes been caught between such loyalties and the strongly religious pull of the institution. The state mufti — head of a separate and much smaller institution — has generally has been less caught between his patron and his position. Because the mufti has thus been a more pliable figure, presidents have sometimes turned to occupants of the post when called upon to appoint a new Sheikh al-Azhar.

But now religious scholars within al-Azhar seek to end this dual pull and have their leader all to themselves. They have joined the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm by seeking to elect their own leader. Were the Sheikh al-Azhar to be a truly autonomous figure not susceptible to regime pressure but instead responsive to the institution’s own ranks, Egypt’s religious establishment might be a far more powerful and assertive force. It would certainly be a more independent one, with the fatwa committee already a rival to the state mufti and arguably a more prestigious source of religious rulings).

Indeed, the call for a more internally democratic al-Azhar has been a long-standing demand by some within the institution — and it is also supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. (When the Brotherhood drafted a political platform in 2007, it included a proposal for an elected body of religious scholars to review legislation. Much of the criticism of the idea came because the committee could strike down laws contravening the Islamic sharia, and the Brotherhood therefore backed away from the idea. But its supporters within the Brotherhood always saw the election as more important than the ability to review legislation — they wanted to ensure that religious authorities in Egypt are responsive to religious concerns and are not answerable to political authorities).


If Egyptian institutions — labor unions, religious scholars, professional associations, judges, newspapers, student associations, and political parties — become far more able to pursue the interests of their constituents, the country will become a more interesting, even exciting place for observers to watch but also a more contentious place to govern.


Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.