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The Past in Egypt’s Present

LONDON – In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote that, “The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.”

Egypt’s recent past is indeed provocative. Mohamed Ali, the Ottoman adventurer who took control in 1805 after France’s withdrawal, began to modernize Egypt by introducing effective administration, industrialization, exposure to Europe, and a standing army. The Mohamed Ali dynasty’s first six decades in power created an Egyptian empire that stretched from the sources of the Nile in east Africa to the eastern parts of Turkey, including the entire eastern Mediterranean and two-thirds of what is today Saudi Arabia. But the empire fell when the dreams of the Pasha’s descendants exceeded their state’s resources and capacities.

The early-twentieth-century liberal experiment, when Egypt adopted the Arab world’s first comprehensive constitution (in 1923), took the state away from Ali’s family and (at least in theory) gave it to the people. Egypt enjoyed the beginnings of democracy, true representation, constitutionalism, and, crucially, the notion – central to modern citizenship – of equal rights and obligations.

But the experiment failed when Egypt’s leaders detached themselves from the realities of their constituency – poverty, illiteracy, and widespread anger at yawning inequality and top-down westernization. The illusion of “Paris on the Nile” crumbled.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first native-born Egyptian to rule Egypt since Alexander the Great invaded the country in 332 BC, built a project “by, for, and of the people,” the first truly Egyptian developmental enterprise since the fall of the pharaonic state. But, by centering his efforts on his own “heroic role,” Nasser failed his people. Lacking an institutional base of support, and corrupted by a descent into authoritarianism and utter disregard for Egyptians’ freedoms, the project disintegrated when the hero died.

In the 30 years of former President Hosni Mubarak’s reign, the regime tried to transform the country by embracing a distorted form of liberal capitalism and a relentlessly realist foreign policy that positioned Egypt as a sidekick to the region’s petro-dollar heavyweights. The former blew up from the internal pressures of poverty, inequity, and anger, and the latter was swept away in an avalanche of rejection and resentment, the tail end of which Egypt is still experiencing.

Egyptians who lived through the past six decades and now see the country’s political structure unraveling – with all the social convictions, power nexuses, and top-down narratives that had been integral to it – feel disoriented. Many feel that their lives have been wasted. Successive failures have led to endemic anxiety and rage – and, in turn, to a society-wide quest for redemption.

This is especially true of the younger generations. Discussions with the country’s activist groups reveal their rejection of this legacy of failure – an inhibiting, heavy present that they inherited but to which they did not contribute.

Given the current fluidity of Egyptian politics, different groups, representing opposing ideologies, deflect blame and responsibility for the various failures and assign guilt to others. The result has been not just a lack of a social narrative that a majority of Egyptians can embrace, but also an exacting obsession with the past. This is a key reason why political differences quickly turn into clashes of views on the country’s identity – religious versus secular, Islam versus Egyptianness, and military rule versus its emerging successor.

The question now is whether these clashes will necessarily usher in widespread violence. Three factors suggest that they may not.

First, the unrivaled dominance of Egypt’s military, and the unlikelihood of a split in its leadership, makes any extensive violence untenable, especially given that the Egyptian state’s fight against terrorism in the 1980’s and 1990’s significantly weakened jihadist groups’ operational assets in the country.

Second, the powerful forces of political Islam may now be carried away by passions, wrath, and a sense of victimization; but they will inevitably opt to participate in domestic politics through organized structures and processes. In a country with more than 45 million people under 35 years old, no political player with any strategic insight can afford a prolonged impasse.

Finally, despite the significant demographic and economic changes in Egypt during the last four decades, Egyptian society still retains its agrarian character, which favors conciliation and compromise.

But, even in an inclusive political transition, whether in the short or medium term, Egyptians will have to answer the vexing question that they have failed for six decades to confront: What is Egypt? One must hope that the experience of recent decades – including the tension of the last two and a half years – will induce a broad range of Egyptians to seek an answer based on respect for plurality of ideas, frames of reference, and traditions.

In her novel The Cairo House, Samia Serageldin remarks that, “for those whose past and present belong to different worlds, there are times that mark their passage from one to the other, a transitional limbo.” Egypt today is in such a transitional limbo. May its future be a different world from its recent past.