A collective witch hunt, the tying of a young man, half-naked, to a lamp post and his public flogging, or the forced entering of an apartment, from the balcony of which furniture is soon sent flying without anyone trying to intervene – these scenes are not horrific fantasies, but real incidents witnessed in Egypt. Incidents that just a few decades ago would have been impossible, indeed unthinkable – and yet nowadays appear completely normal.

Bodies of protesters following the forced clearance of their camp on Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Social disinhibition and brutalisation: people in Beirut rejoiced and handed out sweets in their delight at the carnage in the Syrian town of Al-Qusayr. Elsewhere, the bloodbath on Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in Cairo was met with joy and satisfaction. "Factions" of a people celebrate death coming to other "factions" of one and the same people

These days we witness people in Beirut rejoicing and handing out sweets in their delight at the carnage in the Syrian town of Al-Qusayr, inhabitants of the western part of Aleppo welcoming the destruction and the deaths in the eastern part of their own city. Elsewhere, the bloodbath on Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in Cairo is met with joy and satisfaction. "Factions" of a people celebrate death coming to other "factions" of one and the same people, thus making common cause with the barbarism of the state, with all its rationalisations and staging.

How did we ever sink so low?

I am convinced that one explanation lies in the relations between three specific elements – the state, society and law/morality. Before the advent of the modern state, the traditional system of rule saw to it that the "natural order" of things was preserved, embodied in morality and in the traditions common to all of the state's inhabitants, which regulated their conduct. Morality and traditions were overlaid by religious laws, which were also a part of society. The role of the ruling system was therefore limited to maintaining the "natural order", as well as ensuring its survival and preservation.

Demonstration against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in Hanover (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
The monstrosity which is the post-colonial authoritarian state: the post-colonial Arab states had no moral or legal foundation that might have kept their own actions and their internal conflicts in check. Instead the ruling elites preferred to base the consolidation of their hegemony and power on brute force and the fanaticism of their particular communities

With the onset of the Ottoman reforms, however, the state was increasingly empowered with legal authority in all possible matters, charged with wresting this authority from society and making the law its own exclusive domain.

This process reached its height after the end of colonial rule, which had itself previously snatched full legal authority from society, until the state even ordered the seizure of the waqf – the religious foundations – and their nationalisation. These very same waqf had once guaranteed the independence of the religious institutions, which stood guard over all matters of religious and moral law and defended them from the incursion of the state.

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