On the sidelines of the “The Story of a Nation” conference, I engaged in a serious discussion with several of my colleagues about the personality of the Egyptian citizen who was the subject of a documentary shown in the opening session, and how s/he bore the burden before the 25 January Revolution. Suffering was made worse during the mayhem and instability following the revolution, followed by harsh economic and security conditions that almost destroyed the country and its people, as we see in other regional countries where the blustery winds of the Arab Spring blew.
This unusual character was formed from a reservoir of a heritage stretching thousands of years, forged by experiences endured by no other people. It is a history of prosperity, building a civilisation, exalted human heritage mixed with difficult years of invasions, conflicts, occupation, pilfering and famine. Also, religions, prophets, worship, philosophers, rituals, armies passing and doing battle in its land and on its borders. At the heart of all this, the Egyptian citizen reacts and internalises every experience that is then turned into fuel and sustenance for future phases and experiences.
My generation, which was born in the early 1970s, watched Egyptians celebrate the 1973 victory after six years of defeat in June 1967, which included a war of attrition, and rebirth from the ashes of a defeat that did not break the will of citizens or their determination to take back their land and dignity. The joy of victory was stolen by the harshness of open-door economic policies, robbing the smile of the victorious simple folk, soldiers and officers, and creating a new class of beneficiaries who ravished the security and stability of the people, until the people revolted against them in 1977 during the “Bread Riots”. The scene then quickly leaped into peace initiatives that ended decades of traditional war, made promises of prosperity and US assistance after the political and economic compass shifted towards Washington away from Moscow and attempts at non-alignment in a bipolar global system. This impacted the Egyptian citizen inside the country, as well as those who fled seeking better lives in Gulf countries.
In the 1970s, the beast of political Islam and radical violent groups was released against all other ideologies, allowing it to penetrate, operate and take over podiums inside and outside universities, leading to violence such as Anwar Al-Sadat’s assassination. The beast continued its rampage, especially after the collapse of all other currents that became confined to their headquarters and the minds of those who believed in them. Egyptian citizens were conflicted between their heritage and a current trying to brainwash them, while the state remained neutral, sometimes almost conspiring, and feared confrontation.
During gruelling years of economic reform led by the government of Atef Sedki in the late 1980s until the mid-1990s, Egyptian citizens suffered more and some of them escaped to promises of the afterlife promoted by Salafis and expatriates returning from Gulf countries after being saturated with more radical and conservative ideologies. They raised the banner of “Islam is the solution” as the only hope and lifeline to escape reality since all worldly solutions and ideas failed. Political Islam promoted this current, most notable the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist and jihadist incubators, eventually isolating a segment of society behind the walls of despair from the world, and promises of reward in the afterlife. It pushed them to reject and view as infidels those who disagree with them, even if other Muslims.
Internal conflict continued inside the conscience of the citizen between a diverse heritage of civilisations and cultures and a current using legal and illegal means to erase this heritage and label it as infidel. This was aided by a locked political system that purposely shut down the public political domain and intellectual openness, which were the only recourse to protect the moderate Egyptian personality and integrate it with its surrounding era, humanity, and definition of progress. Instead, the state sufficed with an economic experiment led by a group surrounding Gamal Mubarak, the son of president Hosni Mubarak, who achieved numeric economic successes, but this was not enough to offset the ideological necrosis at the grassroots level in the absence of social justice, rule of law and equality.
These fractures in society made their way to the citizen’s conscience, which grasped at the notions of change and revolution, and their condition and circumstances fuelled a massive revolution on 25 January 2011, after years of internal conflict and derailing of social and ideological values. Despite sophisticated scenes inside Tahrir Square that were admired around the world, on the fringes of the square anarchist groups led some of their militias and followers in confrontations to bring the state to its knees. Their aim was to topple the national state for the sake of a caliphate, supreme guide and emir, through battles with the remnants of state institutions, most notably the military.
But the conscience of the citizen awoke and resolved the conflict quickly in favour of a system of principles, values, heritage, moderation, after realising this reservoir is being depleted and stolen to be replaced by an alien plan. Citizens came out in November 2012, enraged about the puppet of the supreme guide who was sitting in the presidential palace; they chanted “Down with the rule of the Guide” and “Down with the Muslim Brotherhood”. This battle continued for months until it was finally crowned with a popular revolution on 30 June 2013, the largest in human history.
Looking back in 2018, we see how Egyptians are rebuilding their country, gathering their strength and memories to overcome all obstacles. It is a tale of a nation and its people who are rebuilding their personality and heritage, which remain under threat, before they can build mega material projects. The people need someone to sponsor a real ideological and cultural project of renovation to stamp out this constant threat. The state must also break its silence about repeated failures of some institutions that are passive and not sounding the alarm about this threat, which can become the alternative if we drop the ball.
Wake up. Be alert.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly