The nation state in Egypt, Saudi Arabia

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 5 Aug 2021

In an article of mine that appeared in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 5 May 2013, “The four faces of the revolution,” I attempted to depict the general course of events in Egypt for two and a half years since January 2011, and to forecast what lay ahead. At the time, the drums heralding the 30 June Revolution had begun to thunder, and there was as much hope in the air as anxiety.

The first element was the enthusiasm of young people whose romanticism, idealism and chants for “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity” infected many who had not taken part in the revolution and may initially have been alarmed by it. It led them to embrace the hope for a new beginning in which these ideals would be translated into practical agendas. 

The second element were the Islamists in their various stripes, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Salafis and jihadists, with their bouquet of ultra-conservative outlooks. As of 28 January 2011, they represented the physical bulk of the revolution. They are the ones who spearheaded the drive to paralyse the police, after which they steered the transition from the old regime to their vision of a new system inspired by the doctrinal foundations of the Iranian regime. 

Thirdly, there were opponents to the former Mubarak regime. Their demands were more modest: the old system but with the addition of a fair and just democratic mechanism, or so they said. 

The fourth element took the form of a curious mixture of revolution and anarchy. It expressed itself in various forms of violence, the only apparent political end of which was to make the perpetrators’ presence felt. Sometimes one sensed a desire to exact revenge on the state or undermine its prestige. Reports abounded of sexual harassment against women, and sometimes even men, and there were occasions when television viewers watched aghast while outright acts of carnage were carried out, as was the case at the Port Said Stadium. The perpetrators appeared to have no purpose other than spreading anarchy. They blocked roads, opposed law enforcement, insulted the police and judiciary and threatened anyone in an official capacity, from opposition figures to the president. 

Wherever the Arab “spring” inflicted its wounds, it produced iterations of the same elements, which never offered answers to that most crucial question: what about the future? The result was versions of the same never-ending story, since independence, of failure, inability to catch up with the developed world, and frequent inability to agree on the very idea of progress. There was much vacillating between arming ourselves for the competitive global market and recoiling into self-sufficiency, and much wavering over whether or not to engage in the Islamist race. In all cases, conspiracy theories were ready to hand to explain positions, justify behaviour and pave the way to evading constructive action. 

But despite all these problems, the effect of events was to make the major questions concerning progress more pressing than ever and to generate a surging social movement that gave rise to a fifth element of the revolution: a drive to rebuild the modern nation state. This trend emerged in many Arab countries, each according to its particular pace, as we saw in the second wave of the Arab Spring from Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon to Algeria and most recently Tunisia. What they all had in common was the newfound conviction that the key to saving ourselves resided in the nation state, and freedom from sectarian divisions, religious pretence and foreign interventions that tear societies apart.

In fact, the ideas borne by the second wave of the Arab Spring were deeply rooted in the Arab reformist movement that gained momentum in the first decade of this century. The primary tenets of this movement were that the state and society required radical change, that this change should be pursued in the framework of a national development project, and it would organise and systemise a process of modernisation grounded in national identity and carried out by institutions rooted in an ancient legacy and armed with the power to penetrate the barriers of the modern era, mobilise national resources and tap the great potentials sometimes latent in the very geography in which the process was designed to unfold. 

Nothing embodies that spirit more than events in Egypt since the June 2013 Revolution and in Saudi Arabia since 2015. Naturally, there were signs and indicators that foreshadowed these events, but it was the actual programmes and their implementation that turned history and geography into the propellants for building national identity, construction and progress, and the great foray into heretofore unfamiliar territory. 

As an Egyptian, I was surprised and overawed by the fantastic archaeological discoveries recently made in Saudi Arabia, proving that the beginning of that country’s history was much older than scientists both there and abroad had thought. Not only did these discoveries became part of the process of building Saudi national identity, they also added an important dimension to that country’s economic development programme, which is based on diversification.

According to a recently released official statement, Saudi Arabia intends to attract 100 million tourists a year by 2030, and not just for the Hajj. The vision includes plans for a large diversity of tourist packages that includes tours to various historical and cultural heritage sites and centres, or leisure activities ranging from lolling on Red Sea beaches to safari excursions deep into the desert. 

Egypt has long had and benefited from such attractions. However, investment in them had always oscillated between ambition and the exigencies of war or political fluctuations in the region. Now, Egypt is undergoing another boom in historical discoveries, both on land and at sea, stimulating a new burst of interest in our country’s historical epochs, from the pharaonic, through the Hellenic and Roman eras, to the succession of Tulunid, Fatamid, Ayyubid and modern Islamic eras. All this history enriches the Egyptian identity, pushing it not to return to the past but to look forward to the future. 

Here, precisely, is where the modernising and reform drives on both sides of the Red Sea converge, even physically, in the African-Asian land bridge from the Nile Valley through Sinai to the Hijazi wadis, all brimming with histories of the holy treks of prophets and companions to the Prophet. Such geographic and historical realities have injected fresh blood into the Egyptian and Saudi national reconstruction drives.

These drives are not about some mega projects here or others there. They are about the development of vast markets for the sciences, tourism, mining, manufacturing, export trade and other activities in a region protected not by the blessings of prophets but by the energy of young men and women who not only possess the virtue of the desire for change but also the potential to take their countries long strides forward into the future. 

History, in this context, is not just evolution over time. It is a geographical thrust, born of the womb of time, towards the development of a modern nation state equipped to hold its own in a competitive global environment without fear, hesitancy or false pride, and with the humility of nations confident in their abilities. 

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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