Rather than wading into a sophisticated theoretical debate and harking back to analyses by Karl Marx, Max Weber and Vilfredo Pareto about what the term “elite” means, my simple argument is that any army in the world comprises field-and rank soldiers who get standard training. Personnel with exceptional abilities are selected from those soldiers to attend special training courses preparing them for certain missions. They are called “elite troops.”
In simpler terms, those selected personnel are more prepared than others to carry out extraordinary missions. Therefore, a lot of time, effort and money is spent on them to keep them distinguished enough to undertake special tasks. Armies pick their elite; societies don’t.
In public life, elitists come forward with their unique abilities which set them apart from ordinary people. As time goes on, those distinguished individuals grow as opinion leaders, who influence the general public. The elite are supposed to express creative, inspiring thoughts.
Usually, in less developed countries, society’s scouting exceptional individuals is a random process. Thus, anyone deeming himself distinguished comes forward. But, with the process often alien to well-controlled rules that result in proper and unbiased selection, individual attempts to rise through the ranks of the elite may lead to unfair competition where personal interests and cliquishness interfere.
Consequently, the resultant elite would not be true representatives of society.
In Europe and other advanced countries, there are established and time-tested mechanisms ensuring that only distinguished individuals join the elite. In those countries, intellectuals do not take capability tests. Still, there are varied ways to discover the brilliant people in different walks of life and at all levels, from school up to university and from the smallest political bloc to the governing party. Some of those countries boast centers tasked with honing talents and grooming the selected individuals to be qualified elitists.
Those advanced societies are not Utopian, though. There is room for under-the-counter and dishonest dealings, which circumvent the rules. Still, the wrongdoers, if exposed, are disgraced and brought to account.
This argument conjures up in one’s mind the status of the elite in Egypt. Questions arise on many self-styled Egyptian elitists who portray themselves as opinion leaders. One also wonders if all elitists should be famed and frequent guests on night-time TV shows.
In public life, elitists come forward with their unique capabilities, which set them apart from ordinary peopleAbdullah Kamal
In fact, the situation in Egypt defies all standard criteria for society’s elite, starting with sorting out what their real role is. In Egypt, the term “elite” has been debased to refer to TV show guests who soar to fame. Every now and then, Egyptians are surprised by the sudden emergence of a group of persons who dominate the limelight. Their rise means the disappearance of another group. There is no explanation for either the appearance or disappearance.
Egyptian society has been taken hostage to conflicts raging among those self-appointed elitists and their followers. Rather than becoming inspiring leaders for society to move forward, their fierce war has sapped society of morals and intellectualism. Increasingly distrustful of those elite, ordinary Egyptians have come to see them as irksome.
The root of the problem is that society lacks proper evaluation mechanisms. This is a shortcoming in Egypt’s successive ruling systems, one that has been exacerbated over the years. In a society that traditionally resists distinction and favors – for accumulated cultural and bureaucratic reasons – individuality, lacking in such mechanisms, makes for a brilliant self-made effort, which may well include unfair war. In order for individuals to surmount obstacles on the road to distinction, favoritism and mutual interests can become the order of the day- even in an era dubbed revolutionary.
The negative effects of this problem could have been curtailed had appropriate political, scientific and intellectual conditions prevailed in Egypt. The problem is getting worse as all parallel structures become weak. It is not a mere danger that the print and electronic media in Egypt practice politics instead of political parties and civil society groups. The big trouble is that the media occasionally act as scientific and intellectual forums and determine who should be anointed as an elitist.
Such being the case, the elite’s top prize is not to have their ideas translated into action. Rather, the reward is for the elite to dominate as much time as possible on TV screens and newspaper pages. Under such circumstances, the elite’s role becomes to enhance links to the media rather than to promote intellectual creativity. The ultimate aim becomes to hold senior posts under the influence of bogus prestige created by the media.
A historical factor is also at play here. For reasons jointly created by the elite and the state, the definition of “elite” in Egypt has been based on how close the elitists are to authorities and how the latter recognizes them. This was the case, in varied forms, in the years before and after the army’s 1952 ouster of the monarchy in Egypt. The elite’s reward often became a senior state post.
This trend took root when the state authorities began to add academics to the bureaucracy, making them replace, or sit next to, the army elite.
That state of affairs was one of the main reasons for public anger at the Mubarak regime in its final years. With his long years in power, Mubarak wa not used to reinstating any excluded elitist. At the same time, pressure mounted on the regime for rewarding aspirants with influential posts. With their demands virtually ignored, a large number of self-styled elitists became Mubarak’s opponents.
With this in mind, the scramble for senior posts have surged after Mubarak’s 2011 toppling. The latter-day elitists, yearning to wield influential presence and fame, turned their ire toward the older rivals whom they saw as having taken their chances in the Mubarak era. Thus, war broke out between both sides. The conflict has been touted as a sort of political disagreement. In fact, it is all about personal ambitions and coveting key posts.
Still, there is no point in giving names. It may be apt to note that post-Mubarak, Egypt’s elite have not made enough innovative and intellectual contributions to help the country move forward. Nor have they suggested to the state authorities alternatives for the future.
In effect, we have in Egypt a picky kind of the elite, who come forward only to air views on a certain decision or a situation, not to put forward a formula or open up fresh vistas. Unlike the advanced world, the state in Egypt continues to furnish formulas and visions, however incoherent they may be. The elite, meanwhile, appear as a group of wannabes, waiting for the state authorities to employ them to carry out what they - the state - put forward.
The way out of this predicament may be clear. This may come by eliminating the concept of corrupt cliquishness, which colludes with, and rewards those, who do not deserve it. Equally important is to revamp institutions, including the media, so as to play their expected roles. This process of non-stop reform will take years. And suppose this happens, Egypt’s elite still face a serious problem: the public has come to set the rules for the elite. In practical terms, this means that the elite, who condoned for years favoritism and cliquishness as yardsticks for prominence, are now under the threat of being subjected to vague criteria of evaluation or at least to emotional assessment.
This tragedy, which daily victimizes brilliant Egyptian minds, can be curtailed if the elite regain their role, become aware of their current situation, reach a truce in their war over key posts and suppress their lust for media fame. Egypt’s elite also need to initiate and lead reform starting with themselves. This is possible, but seems somewhat unattainable.
Abdullah Kamal – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011)