Reclaiming the Egypt of yesteryear

Hisham Melhem

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“Egypt plays a crucial role in the political, cultural and the economic leadership in the Middle East and North Africa.” John Kerry

What U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Cairo on Nov. 3 is true – but about half a century late. That was the Egypt of yesteryear, before it succumbed to the grip of the military’s strongmen whose visions of triumphant Arab Nationalism that would achieve economic development while checking Israel and challenging western hegemony came crashing down disasterously in 1967.

In the past decades, the military and the oppositionist Islamists succeeded in destroying the cosmopolitanism that made Cairo and Alexandria (like the Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad of yore) great vibrant cities boasting a rich human mosaic of tremendous cultural, religious and ethnic diversity allowing the flowering of arts, literature and higher education in an environment that was not fully democratic, but definitely more open, and tolerant than the repressive regimes that followed.

Of course, one should not romanticize this “liberal” era in way that does not recognize that we are talking about urban elites living far away from a rural world or a remote interior that was deprived of much of what the cities had to offer. Later on, the marginalized sons of the village exacted their revenge against the city as young military officers and fiery Islamist preachers. The cities that created knowledge, science and philosophy in medieval times and were the seats of Arab awakening in the 19th and the first half of the 20 th centuries were hollowed out of their diversity and forced to conform to the one party orthodoxy. The conflict between the military and the Islamists rendered Egypt’s cities political and cultural slums.

A harshly denied reality

Until Egyptians confront their reality critically, engage in serious introspection and self-criticism and shed the illusions of a bygone era, they will continue to barely muddle through and never reclaim the gift of the Nile.

Hisham Melhem

Today, Egypt is bereft of those many attributes that make cities great. If we ask does Egypt boast the best university, science lab, newspaper, radio station, satellite channel, hospital, publishing house or research center in the Arab world? The painful, honest answer, to Egyptians (and those of my generation of Arabs who did partake in Egypt’s gifts in the past) is a resounding no. Egypt’s influence today is somewhere between nil and limited in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Instead of representing a strategic counterweight to Israel, Turkey and Iran as it did or tried to do decades ago, today’s Egypt lives in the shadow of these states. Even tiny Gaza can resist Egypt’s pressure.

Egypt looks impotent and flailing in its attempts to stop Ethiopia’s plans to build a dam on the Nile that could radically change the quality of life in the country that is the gift of the Nile. Forty years ago the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and stormed the supposedly invincible Bar Lev line to liberate the Sinai. Today the Egyptian army is fighting in the peninsula, but not to liberate it from the Israelis, but to quell a local Islamist insurgency that is becoming a magnet for Jihadists from the region and beyond. Since the repression of the Muslim brotherhood last summer, rarely a day goes by without lethal attacks mounted by the Islamists on soldiers and policemen, not only in Sinai, but increasingly in Cairo and other cities of the mainland.


These bitter truths look especially jarring when they are seen in the context of the unbridled hyper-nationalism that swept the country following the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and the harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. This hyper-nationalism which at times crosses into the territory of chauvinism manifests itself in a variety of morbid ways such as the hero-worship of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi , a virulent strain of anti-Americanism that is in denial of the fact that American aid, be it military, financial or technical, American tourists and investments are so crucial for Egypt’s well-being. This exaggerated patriotism is being directed against some fellow Arabs such as the growing discrimination against Palestinians, and worse, the mistreatment of Syrian refugees fleeing the hell of Bashar Assad and turning some of them into boat people, risking and losing their lives trying to seek refuge in Europe and in the process turning the Mediterranean with other refugees from Africa into the sea of death.

All the protestations and chest beating of those hyper-nationalists in Egypt and their claims that they don’t need the United States or the International Monetary Fund to enact the badly needed structural economic reforms, will not change the simple fact that the Egyptian economy, devastated by almost three years of upheaval, cannot survive without foreign aid and grants. Even the largess of the Arab Gulf states has limits, and some of these new donors will condition their aid on serious economic reform. Egypt, which under the autocratic rule of its military-cum-civilian presidents used to pride itself on being a stable state and a source of regional stability could very well spiral into a source of regional instability emanating from Sinai.

From cosmopolitanism to decay

The rule of the three military officers who dominated Egypt since 1952; Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak was marked by a suffocating repression of human rights, venal autocracy, parochialism and corruption that ended Cairo’s long reign as the Arab’s “Shining City on a Hill.” From the 19th century to the early 1960’s that incredible human mosaic in Cairo and Alexandria created refined music, vibrant theatre, fine cinematic tradition, rich literature, and where intellectuals and scientists debated all the great issues of the age; from human evolution to modernization and its discontents. But in recent decades, particularly under Mubarak, bad times have revisited Egypt and decided to stay, and the long journey into the night began.

The Mediterranean allure of Alexandria was destroyed and replaced by the unforgiving dogmas of the Islamists. Cairo’s sophisticated cosmopolitanism gave way to an austere and parochial political culture. Egypt became less welcoming, more hard-edged and intolerant of dissent and unorthodox views, and more receptive to dark visions and conspiracies. Decay was the hallmark of Mubarak’s reign and in these bad times Egypt dropped the mantel of Arab leadership. It was during Mubarak’s regime that a young crazed Islamist attempted to kill Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s greatest literary figure because one of his novels was deemed blasphemous. Farag Fouda a prominent secularist columnist and an outspoken critic of fundamentalism was not as lucky when he was felled in a hail of bullets fired by an Islamist assassin. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, whose innovative interpretations of Quranic studies angered the self-appointed custodians of Islamist dogma, was hounded by the Muslim Brotherhood and forced to flee Egypt and seek refuge in Europe for 15 years.

The so-called Jan. 25 revolution did not alter this reality in any fundamental way. The men who followed Mubarak, those wearing khaki and those boasting beards walked in the footsteps of the autocrats and were as uncompromising and as cruel. The Egypt of yesteryears that openly debated the controversial political/religious views of Taha Hussein, Ali Abdel Raziq, and Salama Musa, embraced the taboo breaking cinema of Yousef Shaheen and celebrated Mahfouz (with few exceptions) is unable today to withstand the satire of the gifted Bassem Youssef. The Middle East has changed in recent decades, sometimes in radical and not necessarily positive ways; but the Egyptians resisted changing their views about themselves. Astonishingly, many Egyptians, including a sizable number of decision and opinion makers still live in denial of the depth of Egypt’s predicament and continue to cling to the Egypt of their dreams, as if the last 40 or 50 years did not occur, and as if Egypt is still truly “Um El Dunia” (Mother of the World). Until Egyptians confront their reality critically, engage in serious introspection and self-criticism and shed the illusions of a bygone era, they will continue to barely muddle through and never reclaim the gift of the Nile.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on Nov. 7, 2013.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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