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Book Review: On Egypt's incomplete modernisation

Heba Sherif argues that modernisation, though a model developed in Europe that imposed its values on the world, failed in Egypt because its rulers never accepted the principle of popular political participation

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 6 Jul 2015
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Al-Carro wa Al-Mercedes (The Cart and the Mercedes) by Dr Heba Sherif, Salama Publishing, Cairo, 2015. pp.109

It is rare to come across thoughtful and serious endeavours that attempt to read our cultural reality and comprehend it in a way that's different from what's common, not to mention what this reality actually imposes.

Heba Sherif, this book's author, holds a PhD in comparative literature from Cairo University and worked as a university teacher in German literature and comparative literature until 2002.

Since 2003 she works as the regional office director of the Swiss Arts Council in Cairo (Pro Helvetia), which is based on supporting the cultural activities and cultural exchange between Egypt and Switzerland and drawing up strategies and mechanisms related to supporting mutual projects between the Arab region and Switzerland.

This allowed her to have direct contact with cultural realities in Egypt and other Arab countries, represented in those who have creative output in literature and the arts, or official cultural bodies and institutions, during 12 years of work.

From the very first lines in her book, Sherif sees that crossing to modernisation is the essence of the current conflict in Egypt. It is a fierce cultural conflict between the old and the new, or between heritage and modernisation, since the first encounter with European modernisation happened in the form of a clash between the Egyptians and Napoleon Bonaparte during the French Expedition in the last years of the eighteenth century.

Sherif acknowledges that modernisation is a civilisational model that developed in Europe and then imposed its values on the world, "whether we like it or not," to quote the author, in part because this model didn't find a competitor until now. In addition, there are certain conditions for modernisation, where each one leads to the other, which must exist in order that a society completes the transition.

As for the most important pillars, in European countries there is reverence for democracy, equality before the law, respecting basic human rights and applying principles of non-discrimination.

Historically, the modernisation enterprise in Egypt is attributed to Muhammad Ali, who accomplished the broadest modernisation operation in Egypt, sending educational missions to Europe, industrialisation, developing agriculture, as well as founding an Egyptian army for the first time in modern history. However, this modernisation was incomplete.

This is because the objective was only to establish the rule of Muhammad Ali and his dynasty, and provide the army with its different needs in order to execute a series of invasions in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that reached the extent of threatening Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire's capital which had nominal sovereignty over Egypt.

Such modernisation was also incomplete due to the absolutist oppressive rule that was practised at the time. The Egyptians didn't enjoy any rights and there were no institutions to represent them or let them participate in ruling their country.

When Khedive Ismail made a significant modernisation drive that included setting up the Assembly of Delegates in 1860, building the Cairo Opera, and founding New Cairo (Khedival Cairo), his aim was to transform Egypt into a part of Europe on the surface only.

He did this basically in celebration of Europe's monarchs, whom he invited to the opening of the Suez Canal. The rest of the tragedy is well known for he mortgaged Egypt to creditors and was deposed eventually. This was also an incomplete modernisation; the Egyptians didn't get their basic rights and the Assembly of Delegates was a part of the play of transforming Egypt into a part of Europe.

Incomplete modernisation is the pivotal idea around which Sherif's book revolves. If the liberal period following the 1919 Revolution and preceding the 23 July regime witnessed the practice of basic democratic rights, especially regarding freedom of expression, assembly, independent organisation, the right to issue newspapers, and others, the July rulers abolished all these rights.

It wasn't permitted that more than one viewpoint dominate the scene. Contrary to the usual narrative concerning a cultural prosperity established in the 1960s, the author refuses this totally. She sees that the setting up of tens of museums, cultural bodies, buildings, institutions, theatres and cultural palaces was one form of robbing Egyptians of their rights and an attempt to make one voice and one vision hegemonic.

Sherif cites the name chosen for the first culture ministry after the July Revolution — the Ministry of National Guidance — as relevant to this mission.

During the rule of Sadat and Mubarak things worsened, although the approaches and alliances changed and the market economy and privatisation started to pave the way to imposing the rationality of profitability.

The state preserved its right to continue to execute its objectives by making cultural institutions a mouthpiece of official policy, using the elite, and waving before them gifts and small gains. Cultural awards, travelling abroad to attend conferences and symposia became grants to those who serve official policy efficiently.

So the sought-after modernisation didn't materialise, but rather provided rulers and the ruling class with added privileges. Thus, Egypt knew a modern army, bureaucratic institutions, a free market and the control of capital. However, it didn't allow people freedom, justice and elected institutions. When modernisation began in the West and was based on industrialisation, a rationalised economy and free market, it necessitated the existence of rationalism and the defence of freedoms.

After being the controller in cultural production, the state since the 1990s permitted a margin of freedom that allowed the existence of private publishing houses, newspapers and satellite channels. However, legislation of the state in the field of cultural production upheld its control. On another level, the state couldn't perform its role in presenting cultural services because the budget allocated to cultural activities was swallowed by salaries for thousands of crammed in and untrained employees.

Despite the fact that the state allowed the founding of independent cultural institutions, it didn't finance them, unlike the case for most non-governmental institutions working in the field of culture in modern states. Thus, these institutions fell under strictures of the constant search for funding, or else their activities would stop.

Finally, Sherif argues that the intelligentsia was unable to be independent from the state. On the contrary, most of its members were transformed into opportunists searching for privileges and grants.

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