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The Self-Erosion of Egypt's Long-Lost Modernisation Project

In his Cairo Scene debut, Amr Abyad looks back at Egypt's long and convoluted history and investigates all the wrong turns and judges all the missteps, and, in the process, paints a picture marred by cultural degeneration and political opportunism.

The Arab world is in a state of disarray, with long subverted social and ethnic tensions taking their toll on almost all Arab societies. Against such a backdrop, Egypt is no exception, given its incompetent government that stands idle, incapable of tackling the chronic economic and social woes of the 90 million-strong nation, which for most of its history has been a trend-setter for the Arab world. The path Egypt has taken in the last century to define its national identity has been toward greater Islamisation. However, the existentialist threats engulfing the Arab world today make it imperative for Egypt to choose a different path. The Genie must go back into the lamp — Islam must be relegated to the sphere of antiquity and heritage, remaining only as a moral impulse and an inspiration, rather than a source of legislation or a governing philosophy.    

To understand how Egypt came to this political juncture, one should look at the Arab world through a broad historical lens. The region experienced a prolonged period of Ottoman isolation – from the 15th to the 19th century – that shut out the region and detached it from scientific and intellectual revolutions taking place in the world. Geopolitical changes in the twentieth century created independent states in the region corresponding tentatively to ancient historical borders. In the first half of the twentieth century, the region was made up of quasi-independent states striving for full independence. The 50s and 60s witnessed the rise of socialist regimes which rested their legitimacy on the promise of prosperity and catching up to advanced industrial democracies. Despite the anti-colonial rhetoric of those regimes, there was a state-sponsored effort to westernize in terms of secularism, mass education, and societal freedoms. The change tried to form a continuation with the liberal traditions of the thin middle class and the feudal lords in the first half of the 20th century, with a socialist bent of course.

In the project to catch up to western industrialized democracies, Arab leaders could look to the remarkable progress achieved by East Asian modernizers. Despite bitter and bloody historical experiments, including the Japanese Meiji restoration and Maoist terror, East Asia achieved the construction of decisively modernist states that show industrial prowess, artistic creativity, and modern social values in tandem with the quantum leaps made by humanity over the last 150 years. Similarly, though to a much lesser extent, Latin American’s experiments with nationalist dictatorships, leftist regimes and democracy have set it on a track toward more equitable, middle-class societies.

In the Arab world, however, the credibility of the modernization project diminished after the 1967 six-day war. Nasser’s perceived might was emblematic of Egypt’s aspirations to greatness. The reality, however, was different. Despite Nasser’s immense popularity, absolute power, and social progress, he was actually forced to share government with decadent army marshal Amer. Amer’s young officers were intoxicated with the enormous power they wielded in a country that was on par with India and China on the world stage. They turned the army into a playground for their indulgence. Accordingly, in the six-day war, the army was meted a humiliating and shocking defeat. The Egyptian people’s dreams colluded with their dismal reality, and the legitimacy of the Nasser regime came under question.

The state was thus compelled to resort to religious discourse in order to recharge the nation’s moral batteries. The millions of Egyptians empowered by Nasser and who underwent a process of cultural transformation found their relief in the traditionalist Islamic values.

Egypt regained its national pride in the subsequent wars of attrition in 1969 and 1973, laying the foundation for a new trend. Nasser’s successor, Sadat, wanted to have a legacy of his own that equals his predecessor. He, therefore, reversed the developmental policies of the 60s, and switched to a banana republic model economy. The second tier political cadres of the 60s became village elders, the state withdrew from the provinces, and power was delegated to co-opted clan notables. Meanwhile, the crony capitalists and security apparatchiks formed the new elite. The entire edifice was a form of ‘Confucian’ Islam encouraged by Sadat and adopted by the middle classes. This version was centred on a conservative quasi-Victorian societal order, reverence of rigid hierarchy, and a command and control style of governance, with a whiff of tolerance, a thin veneer of liberalism that doesn’t go far into criticism or call for change. The main threat to Sadat’s regime and his successor, Mubarak, came from radical Islam, which challenged the official Confucian one and was given rise by the increasing Saudi influence and the inspiration provided by the Ayatollah’s Iran. 

In the 70s and 80s, Arab socialist regimes morphed into both plutocracies and kleptocracies amid increasingly radicalising regional developments. This trend marked a departure from the aspirations of modernization and led, instead, to an overwhelming longing for distant – and imagined – past glories.

For much of the last century, the Arab world has been stuck in a vicious struggle between radical Islam and modernity that prevented it from embracing the ideals of science, egalitarianism, and the rule of law. During the first four or five centuries of Islam’s history, however, its adherents evolved quickly and assimilated ancient Middle-Eastern and Greek traditions, showed a penchant for trade and exploration, made intellectual forays combining philosophy with theology, logic, law, and spirituality, and they may have laid the first foundations of experimental science.

Modern day Islam, however, is reified, embodying resistance to change, idolization of the status quo, and is inextricably linked to traditionalist values of hierarchy, gender and sectarian supremacy, reverence of antiquated norms and values, and collective despotism. The exogenous shock of the Iraq war raised the boundaries between haughty elders and the downtrodden masses, exposed the vulnerability of the seemingly unwavering governments, and reversed social orders. And the technological advances in information technology laid bare the unresolved conflict between modernity and Islam, and brought to the surface an explosion of class and ethnic tensions.

With the current regional upheavals, the socio-political developments over the past 40 years pose a potential for cataclysmic events in Egypt. Egypt’s fakirs — the extremely poor, uneducated majority who even lack a tribal support base — lean towards the Salafi branch of Islam, which has so far remained mostly pacifist. However, if the jihadi faction of the Salafist movement gains the upper hand, taking inspiration from ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Egypt could slide into full scale chaos and civil war. The Bedouin tribes in the Levant, Libya, Sinai, and potentially the Egyptian western desert are being radicalized, feeding into that regional trend and inspiring hard-core Salafists in Egypt. The equation is, in fact, multifaceted.  The middle class, which should have been the enlightened locomotive, is conservative at heart, and, therefore, the ones who seek change look at radical Islamic solutions for Egypt’s complex problems. No wonder many Jihadi leaders in the 70s and 80s were doctors, officers, and engineers, such as Khalid El-Islambouly,  Ayman El-Zawahery , Nageh Ibrahim, and Assem Abdel Magued. The ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood following the Jan 25thuprising was thereby natural. However, the alliance of convenience that existed between the MBs and Salafis scared the middle class and was used by the regime to turn them against the MBs. The state’s political discourse hasn’t changed and is still centred on ‘Confucian’ Islam; it is true Islam’s mouthpiece.     

Aghast by the atrocities committed by ISIS and becoming increasingly exposed to new ideas, a good few portion of the millennial generation is turning against the state-sponsored version of Islam, but they are too thin a layer to form a critical mass to drive cultural change.   

The process of reform in Egypt may sound like a virtually impossible slog given the depth and scale of the problems rooted in the crisis of Arab civilization. Nonetheless, Egypt is seething with political energy pressing for change – however disoriented it may be, at times, and is teeming with intellectual discourse. Political recalibration could stimulate economic prosperity, equal distribution of wealth, and modernity.

It is unwise to try to reinvent the wheel. Trying to reform Islam in the hope that it would reshape and modernise the Muslim world is a futile endeavour. It is also too late for it, since the values of human rights, societal freedoms, sovereignty of law, and reverence of unhindered scientific thought have outpaced religious doctrine. The point of departure for us is to engage with modernity wholeheartedly. The cultural discourse and the education system in Egypt must be geared towards reform and placing Islam in its rightful context: a religion that inspired Arab civilization.

Photo courtesy of Downtown Cairo.


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