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.