Shirin Abu Naja’s new book, Transitional Intellectual: Dictatorship to Rebellion examines the role of the intellectual as a revolutionary during the period spanning from the outbreak of the January 25 revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in June 2012.  

Shirin Abu Naja’s new book, Transitional Intellectual: Dictatorship to Rebellion examines the role of the intellectual as a revolutionary during the period spanning from the outbreak of the January 25 revolution in 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in June 2012.  

Abu Naja has documented the several occasions in which privileged groups were offered to seize the opportunity for making a change, incidents in which she fell victim to relentless media campaigns, and the times when intellectuals stumbled before the desire for change against the stability of the state.

Abu Naja has also elaborated in her analysis on the severe conflict between the father-son authorities, or, in other words, the old type of the intellectual against the modern one, in a word that is slowly taking shape through the long transformational journey from dictatorship to rebellion. Abu Naja seems close to this young revolutionary generation, being an English Literature Professor at Cairo University and a vigorous follower of the works of young writers whom she criticizes or analyzes in al-Hayat newspaper issued in London.

She is the author of several books including Female or Feminist (2002), The Concept of Homeland to the Arab Writer (2003) and the novel Betrayal of Cairo in 2009.

Shirin Abu Naja, among numerous works issued with regards to intellectuals and their entangled relations with authorities, what inspired you to write Transitional Intellectual?

There has always been a problem in defining the intellectual, his role in and relationship with the authority or his desired or expected role. Such discourse has always been marred with blame and self-flagellation, right up to the point of domesticating the intellectual or, as described by Farouk Hosni – the Minister of Culture under Mubarak, putting the intellectual in the barn. With the outbreak of the revolution in 2011 and even earlier, that is when I started writing my book. In August 2010, the intellectuals were restless and their anger reached its peak when they issued a statement of protest following the famous robbery of the poppy flower painting after several earlier attempts to achieve the dream of an independent entity which unites intellectuals in the face of the institution until the incident of Saints Church in Alexandria. The movement started in Tunisia and exploded in Egypt.

The revolution allowed all political, intellectual and religious movements to emerge and enhance their status. The revolution was the real opportunity for intellectuals to occupy their desired positions after their long complaint about not being able to reach and communicate with the masses, throwing the blame on the authority.

In this book I tried to monitor the events that took place during the transitional period, which officially starts at the beginning of the revolution until Morsi came to power on June 30, 2012 where I discovered that nothing has changed since the emergence of the transitional intellectual until June 2013.

Has the intellectual been able to seize the opportunity of change after long decades of marginalization?

While tracking the events between August 2010 and July 2012, to understand what happened, I found out that the intellectual has fallen into the same trap in which other several movements fell. Since no one was demanding the demolition of the regime or the system, the intellectual, like others, was asking for substitution and change.

Everyone prefers stability of the state except for a small group that believes in demolishing the old to build something new. Thus, the issue was not about developing something new and we ended up with a hallow discourse where all talk about the youth of the revolution until the phrase became meaningless and devoid of any content. Hence, the word ‘old’ is replaced with ‘young’ and instead of ‘national party’ the expression ‘new rational’ is used.

Have there been any aspects indicating the emergence of a new rational that is in line with the spirit of change, or has the arena been left to be overwhelmed by this hollow discourse (or dramatic so to speak)?

Upon monitoring the transitional period, I have found a conflict between a traditional patriarchal vision and a completely new one which uses a new means of expression, including street art (graffiti), rap and social media which has become an arena for protests and political expression. They are all new means underlying new insights that are unacknowledged and violently resisted under the pretext of youth recklessness and enthusiasm within the domination of a bourgeoisie society that believes in ethics as a matter of form.

The problem does not lie in the return of the old regime, but rather the silent conflict between the aforementioned two visions (the traditional vision which dominates the government and the new one which requires some organization despite the fact that its charm lies in its lack of organization). There is no room for negotiation.

But what you believe to be attractive is deemed by others as lack of orientation since many believe that the absence of leadership is one of the reasons for failure.

We live in the twenty-first century, the century of diversity par excellence. The 25 January revolution demonstrated this diversity and pluralism. The Third World still believes that organization is an equivalent to a president. The new block that has emerged in the revolution is unaware of the various forms of leadership which may be just a logistical organization (such as the Ultras group) which expresses its protest against the violations committed against its members (detained, Martyrs or victims of Port Said massacre). Hence, it is an organization that agrees on a specific goal.

The intellectuals should have been grouped within a logistic organization, which does not mean that they have to be lined up under one stream of thought, but rather an alliance over specific goals, which mostly fits intellectuals who cannot become identical but rather allied. It is true that they have issued several statements, but they are still fragmented and influenced by political as well as historical conflicts.

The new generation, the political consciousness of whom has been formed in the street, lacks a revolutionary discourse. Their speech is overwhelmed with sentimental slogans and sometimes insults but lacks a political vision. A new generation has emerged fearlessly facing weapons and bullets but its political discourse is still in the making. The problem here is that it is a new generation that lacks the means of political expression or negotiation, and this is the problem of the political organizations that have failed to produce new cadres.

Such questions are still open to be answered. Was the existence of a leadership inevitable? I do not know. There were several political leaderships and parties that have failed to communicate with this new generation, and those who have presented themselves as leaders perceived the new generation as mere subordinate and a tool to execute their visions. That was the problem with the Kifaya movement and that was the reason why the youth rebelled against the influence of the older generation and become the youth for change.

The title of the book seems ambiguous as it describes the development of the intellectual from being subject to dictatorship to finally rebelling, but it also indicates the intellectual’s tyranny in regards to his responsibility towards the awareness of the masses. How would you clear out such confusion?

The title underlies several meanings since the intellectual has been transitioned outwardly and superficially from the dictatorship of the old regime to the point of rebellion (in reference to the first sign of rebellion and the first sit-in organized by the intellectuals in the Ministry of Culture, which withstood until ousting Morsi). The question here is whether the rebellion has achieved its goals or has been in vain. There is another meaning that revolves around the dictatorship of the intellectual himself and the tyranny practiced over him as well. All of this has been revolted against by a completely new generation as I said earlier. Michel Foucault once said the intellectual cannot lead the masses since they are always one step ahead.

How do you perceive the fact that numerous intellectuals who once rebelled have once again been ‘domesticated’?

There is no doubt that the old intellectual believes himself to be experienced as he has a good life and human experience in understanding regimes and history. It is a shame that the new generation would not benefit from such inheritance. As for the extreme shifts in attitudes and convictions, we should not ignore the important factor of aging and its accompanying fears and clinginess to stability. Fear of the unknown eliminates any will of adventure or change. All this make the intellectuals express their political rationale in a way that alienates them from the new generation and the opportunity to benefit from their experiences is hence lost, since they have grown within the confines of the state and thus the typical traditional intellectual is part of the regime and is well aware of how things work and knows exactly how to employ his efforts to the benefit of any entity.

Has the intellectual been victimized all along and is merely stumbling between a military regime and the Brotherhood?

The intellectual does not believe, in theory, that he is before a military rule as the current scene is dominated by the trivial bourgeoisie approach, which is apparent in numerous reactions such as those directed against the assassination of activist Shaimaa El-Sabbagh and the way to address any protest by saying, “These are not the rebels of 25 January revolution” or the superficial judgment against any poor rebel by labeling him as a ‘thug’.

 As for the media discourse, it seems much smarter. If the elite understands its discourse, the masses consider it the source of awareness formulation. Today, everyone is suddenly concerned with the ethics of presidential protocol and its comparison against its predecessors. Interests have become much more formal, while in fact if there have not been some economic reforms, there would have been no solution to our dilemma. The masses, in order to obtain economic stability, do not mind turning a blind eye to putting thousands in prisons.