August 22, 2001 Special Dispatch No. 257

An Arab Intellectual Discusses Egypt's Political Culture

August 22, 2001
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 257

The Arab liberal intellectual, Hazem Saghiya, attempts to explain the reasons for a long list of scandals and otherphenomena that have made it to the headlines in Egypt during recent years. Following are excerpts from hisarticle[1]

"Whoever follows the news coming from Egypt – and the positions of most of Egypt's intellectuals, journalists, and politicians – begins to think that the world wakes up every morning, rubs its eyes, and exclaims: 'Oh my Goodness, it's seven, I'm late, I have to start immediately to conspire against Egypt.'"

"This, however, is not the case. The world loves Egypt, its people, its Nile, its pyramids, and the Al-Azhar [University]. Napoleon's story with Egypt; Champollion and the deciphering of the secrets of Egypt's ancient writings; the exhibitions of ancient Egyptian culture in European museums; Laurence Darrell and even Agatha Christie in her own way – they have all loved Egypt and were loved in Egypt. Awarding the Nobel Prize for literature to Nagib Mahfouz and the Noble Prize for science to Ahmad Zueil is an honor for Egypt as well. Five million tourists every year do not indicate any hatred. They were not discouraged by the Luxor massacre, although their numbers would have been higher without it."

"Why, then, is the news coming from Egypt so bizarre? Why is the world perceived by Egypt this way? For years now, alligators fly in Egypt's skies, elephants pass through a needle's eye, and treasures grow underneath pillows. For years now, 'mystical realism' develops in Egypt as a way of life, rather than as a literature genre."

"Yet worse: the 'Inquisition Courts' of the days of Nasserism and Sadatism have become popular [again] in Egypt. They break into research and universities, knock on the doors of houses, and interrogate the body and soul."

"How can one understand the repetitive events of last year, the most recent of which was [the arrest of ] 'The Satan Worshipers' and 'The New Clan of Lot' [the nickname for a group of homosexuals that were arrested and tried recently in Egyptian courts]? How can one understand the fuss about translating [Arab literature] to Hebrew? The separation of husbands [who were accused of 'apostasy'] from their wives and wives from their husbands? The fear of bubble gum that causes sterility [that was claimed to be spread in Egypt by Israel], or of Israeli girls 'carrying AIDS'; the assassination attempt of [Nobel Prize lauriette] Naguib Mahfouz; the indictment of [Dr.] Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim; the banning of films and books; emergency courts; emergency sentences. How can a column by Thomas Friedman about Egypt cause such conflagration? How can the Copts living abroad be described as if they plan to invade Egypt? How can a conference about minority rights be considered a threat and a conference about women's rights an even bigger threat?"

"How can a conspiracy be found underneath each stone?"

"Let's portray some of the characteristics of this surrealistic picture: Egypt's Islamists operate between two poles: executing people on the one hand, and controlling the cultural and even social [public] space, on the other hand. Egypt's intellectuals swing between Emanuel Kant on the one hand, and Saladin on the back of a horse in the battle of Hittin [against the Crusaders], on the other. The popular desire is war, but Egypt was the first Arab country to accept peace.

An overwhelming majority of Egyptians prefer the severing of relations with the US, but American aid to Egypt has reached $50 billion since Camp David in 1979."

"Let's talk of statistics:

The number of Copts, for example, is a secret. But what about the number of graduates from universities and technological schools who are unemployed? The opposition says four million, the government says only one."

"When the facts do not reach [the public], rumors, exaggerations, fantasies, and fears develop. We must remember that in Egypt, a ministry of information still exists, and there is a 'national press' that does not have competition, and lacks any innovations. Last year, for example, several independent journals were shut down."

"History is not debated. The existence of a Copt problem is denied, or in the lighter version, the Copt problem is newly born or artificial. Denial has become part of both the popular and official ideology. Most of the criticism of Abd Al-Nasser, as well as Sadat, is sensational. There were only few [serious] works."

"The main issues are not subject to [serious] discussion. Peace and openness had been described, first, as salvation. When it turned out that, apparently, they were not, they were ridiculed. The beginning of relative political life in the days of Sadat, was done in the same way political life was terminated by Abd Al-Nasser: the father always decides, and the children always obey."

"A man who thinks and elects independently, while preserving the authorities' institutions and continuity, is not allowed to appear. The state continues to be the boss, as it always has been."

"In view of this half-a-century old heritage - from where would a free man appear? From the Civil Society? The Civil Society makes the news [only when it deals] with 'Pan-Arab issues,' by burning flags..."

"Political life has no meaning. Elections? Yes, but the results are known in advance. In a way, these are Iranian elections. They do not touch the president of the republic and the governing party. Political parties? Yes, but let us examine the age of their leaders: Nu'man Gum'a, the leader of the Al-Wafd party, is the youngest. He was born in 1934. Had Allah given longer life to the 'Basha' Fuad [the leader of the party who died last year], he would still be sitting on his chair. Mustafa Mashour, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was born in 1921. Ibrahim Shukri of the Labor party, in 1916. Khaled Muhyi Al-Din of the Tagamu' party, in 1922, Dhiyaa Al-Din Dawoud of the Nasserist party, in 1926. And President Mubarak, as the head of the ruling national party, was born in 1928."

"The youth, who are three quarters of the population, do not participate in the decision making process in the political parties. More than half of them do not know anything about it. Politics are alien to the people..."

"The younger forces who could have infused new blood to the elite do not get licenses [to form new parties]. In twenty years they may get the license, if they mature, by Egyptian standards!"

"Some of the problems were, of course, bequeathed. They are accumulated. Others, are newly-born. Egypt's transformation from the revolutionary era to the constitutional era is very slow. The dead are sitting on the chests of the living..."

"Egypt is no longer what it used to be in the first half of the twentieth century. Then, an Arab who was looking for stars in the press, literature, cinema, dance, or poetry, went to Cairo. A visit by Muhammad Abdu or Taha Hussein in any Arab country was an event by itself. Today, the number one export product [of Egypt] is Sheik Yussef Al-Qaradawi [a prominent spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement]."

"Unfortunately, Egypt has lost its appeal. [Author Lawrence] Darrel described Alexandria as a place where 'five races, five languages, and dozen beliefs coexist.' The city is not like that anymore."

"Egypt was once the Qibla [i.e. direction of prayer] of progress and enlightenment in the Arab world; [Now] it has [itself] become one of the reasons for Egypt's cultural deterioration. Today, in our confusion and stress, we look like the Weimar Republic, only without the joy, the freedom, and the creativity."

"Someone may claim that economic progress did occur. This is true, but it is not enough. The GNP in Egypt in the year 2000 was $1,499. A little more than Jordan with $1,229, and much less than Israel with $16,100..."

"There was progress in Hi-Tec: The internet and cellular phones.

The government encourages this trend, but the internet has not reached the schools and the libraries. More important, the internet is the aim and not the goal. The goal is to establish a strong and modern middle strata whose control of knowledge would make her free vis-a-vis the government. This requires changes in the social system, participation in political rule, the liberation of economic initiatives, and the establishment of institutions."

"The regression in the role [of people in society] increases paranoia, rather than stimulating minds to think independently and freely. The cohesion between the homeland and the regime is a disaster. The sensitivity to any little criticism directed at Egypt is not helpful. Criticism should be listened to and encouraged. Expressions such as 'conspirators,' and 'dogs who bark while the convoy moves on' do not help anyone."

"The political culture has become an idle-duality: greatness versus treason; nationalism versus normalization; fundamentalism versus globalization... these express the intelligence of a simple mind. Egypt is too great to be limited to such a simplistic duality... [The Egyptian culture and history] should give [Egyptians] confidence in a realistic initiative... The challenge proposed by Sharon emphasizes the need that Egypt renew its role in the rationalization of the region in a more effective way. 'Wake up Egypt.' Indeed, wake up."

[1] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), July 29, 2001.

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