In a taxi in central Cairo this week, a friend commented on the passing of Egypt’s new constitution by saying: “It’s now settled; Egypt will become an Islamic state,” which prompted the taxi driver to retort: “Egypt has always been an Islamic state.”
By the mid 11th century, roughly 400 years after Islam had entered Egypt, a majority of Egyptians had converted to Islam; the religion had become the basis of the legitimacy of the myriad of dynasties and rulers that had controlled the country, and Islam — in its various social manifestations — became the country’s most potent and conspicuous force.
However, a change occurred in the first half of the 19th century when the reforms of Mohamed Ali — and later his grandson Khedive Ismail — opened up the country to Western-styled education, administration, economic structures, and gradually stirred up a major wave of social Westernisation.
Egypt’s liberal age, in the period from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, and which spurred a dramatic wave of cultural creativity unprecedented in Egyptian history, was anchored on opening up Egypt to varied international currents. Over a million foreigners, largely economic migrants (of different levels) of Armenian, Jewish, Italian, Levantine and Greek origins settled in the country.
Cairo and Alexandria became the commercial, financial and later educational, cultural and entertainment centres of the Middle East. In the 1960 film “Doctor Dolittle,” the American actress Samantha Eggar sang “Fabulous Places,” a song about a young American’s desire to visit the glamorous cities of the world. She wanted to see London, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Cairo.
Egypt’s success in that age was in blending various cultural fabrics — Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Levantine, Mediterranean, African, Turkish, European — into the basic cloth of the Nile Delta and valley. Islam was the unrivalled and most conspicuous component of the national blend, but not necessarily a dominant, or domineering, one. The result of the blend was a progressive, tolerant, open and increasingly democratic society.
If that song was remade today, 50 years later, Cairo would not feature in it. The worldly capital of the 1940s and 50s has lost its glamour. Cairo’s descent mirrors the regression that different aspects of modern Egypt have experienced. But a crucial part of that regression was the wearing out of that rich cloth. In the last 50 years, gradually and slowly, different fabrics — the components of the rich Egyptianism of the past century and a half — have been torn away, or left to wither and fade. Egypt, the state and society, became culturally and intellectually poorer.
The current, protracted crisis in Egypt is hardly about specific articles in the new constitution; rather it’s about very different views of the shape of society and the future of the country. At heart, the crisis is a heated — and at times violent — debate about Egypt’s identity.
Many in Egypt’s new political elite, and especially within the Islamic movement, emphasise the mandate given by the electoral polls and referendums: the unrivalled legitimacy of the views of the majority. But the views of the majority today are limited in time and scope; they will change, especially in a country where over 45 million are under 35 years old; this huge social segment will grow older and the views of many among them will change.
And crucially national identity is never about the will of a slight majority at a moment of immense social transformation. Identity is about very widely shared national feelings and frames of reference. And in modern Egypt, throughout over a 150 years, these have always been plural. Never in the past century and a half did a majority of Egyptians, let alone slight, marginalise other niches of society. Egypt persevered through acute challenges — military defeats, economic calamities, and a serious wave of internal terror — by maintaining a significant part of its traditional rich fabric.
One political movement backed by a majority today might succeed in imposing its views on current politics. This is the nature of representative government. But a limited number of electoral victories, coming after decades of lethargy, lack of a national project, at a moment of turbulent economic conditions, and in a dramatically young society, will not change the overriding frames of reference and heritage of an old society like Egypt’s.
As the society’s long-restrained potential energy is unleashed, it turns into immense kinetic waves that create a period of polarisation, confrontations and chaos. On occasions, the rapid eruption of such energy and its channelling into multiple routes could seem perilous. But that energy will gradually fade out and society will return to its established norms. The diversity, tolerance and co-existence of vastly different ways of life that have always characterised modern Egypt will overshadow the views of any one political movement. As Egypt’s leading geographer, Gamal Hemdan, once put it: “Intrinsically, Egypt has many shades.”
The writer is an Egyptian political economist, author of Egypt on the Brink