Towards the end of 2016, most Egyptians were hopeful and wishful for a better year. They wished each other a “lighter,” “quieter,” “less turbulent” and “more merciful” year.
Gone were the days when the middle and upper classes wished for more income, larger houses, better jobs and bigger cars. Even those residing around the poverty line lowered their expectations and minimised their dreams. Those who had lost their jobs because of the worst crisis in Egypt’s tourism industry for years and its continuing aftershocks hoped for a minimum of improvement.
Hoping for the minimum continues to be on the wish list of most Egyptians, who are now looking back at a 2017 that was packed with hardships, tensions and acts of terror. But looking back at the year with an open mind, there also seemed to be at least one spot of light in 2017 in that the light of critical thinking has slowly but surely been beaming out throughout the past year.
If the 25 January Revolution exposed what had happened in Egypt over the past four decades, ranging from an Islamist hijacking of society to adopting an imported culture to an almost complete infringement of the social contract between the state and the people, it also led to a new era of critical thinking among increasing numbers of Egyptian people.
The rise of Islamism in Egypt thrived on closing the doors to thinking, let alone critical thinking. According to Utrecht University in the Netherlands researcher Sander Mens in a piece entitled “Egypt between the State and Islam” published in 2015, “three-quarters of the Egyptian population is below the age of 25. Unemployment is very common, thus creating a large group of people with no reliable income. It is in these kinds of vulnerable socio-economic groups that religiosity usually blooms, as people seek an anchor or an assurance in their existence.”
“More often than not, they also rely on patronage and charity. Due to the emphasis on charity and compassion in Islamic dogma, benefactors (both individuals as well as organisations) also are often driven by religious motivation… the incapacity (and unwillingness) of the state to provide welfare for this growing number of marginalised people creates a vacuum where large charitable organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood can easily settle and provide welfare from a religious standpoint,” Mens wrote.
From an Islamist, or rather from a Muslim Brotherhood, standpoint, controversy in life is best avoided. Questions beginning with “why” are abhorred. Unanimity among the ulama (religious scholars) suffices. It is the duty of the non-ulama to follow it. A third commandment left by Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Qotb says “do not build up argumentation, as it leads to suspicion.”
However, it is safe to say that 2017 has been the year of suspicion in the positive sense of the word. Critical thinkers are by nature sceptical, something which drives minds to work harder. This past year has witnessed signs of a move towards critical thinking among many Egyptians, particularly those who can see for themselves the thunderous failure of mindless thinking and are now more open to questioning and evidence.
The evidence that the majority of Egyptians recognise is that the quality of education is their main ailment, and this shows that the power of reason is prevailing. People from different social and economic backgrounds showed enormous interest in enrolling their children at the new Japanese schools that were due to start operating this academic year. Even though their opening was postponed, the more than 20,000 students who applied for the 1,800 places show that parents are indeed keen to offer their kids the best possible education. Ask any taxi-driver, or chat with any university professor, and both will tell you that quality education is the way forward.
The way out of an educational system that has adopted a culture of “no questions outside the (dead) curriculum” together with a brainwashing Islamist technique of keeping away from controversy and argumentation has been eagerly adopted in ways that may have been unthought of only a few years ago. Over the years, many Egyptians have found themselves including religious figures in the list of untouchable religious notions. Ordinary human beings have acquired saint-like status, and those who dared to question, challenge or even declare dislike for some of these notions were regarded as having “contempt” for religion itself.
However, this past year witnessed a mini-exodus from the divinisation of religious figures. Despite the fact that those who dared to exit may have been met with anger by those defending the saint-like status of their favourite contemporary religious idols, the road towards a religious revolution has been paved. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s courageous call for a religious revolution and the purification of religious discourse almost three years ago had been strongly but subtly resisted by those in charge. But those who are not in charge are in revolt, and they wish to see the purification of a religious culture that has suffered stagnation, rigidity and radicalisation for too long.
Not so long ago Egyptian women were on the track towards equality, for example. Lotfia Al-Nadi, Egypt’s first female aviator, became the country’s darling in 1933 for her ambition, success and desire to break with conventional gender roles. However, towards the end of the last century and the beginning of this one some Egyptians were questioning whether letting women work was halal (religiously allowed), and some were even considering outlandish fatwas on male work colleagues, drivers and servants in order to make them mehrem (unmarriageable kin) and thus be able to share work places with them.
However, 2017 has witnessed noticeable attempts at ending the dehumanisation of Egyptian women and restoring their dignity. Daring to discuss incidents of sexual harassment, domestic violence, hidden abortion and marital rape, in addition to more basic rights such as the right to education, the combat against FGM and the awareness of legal rights, is on rise. The end of the stigma that may attach to women who dare to stand up against rape, harassment, abuse and the well-known list of usual violations has been obvious, and there is more to come.
There has also been a rising trend towards greater national feeling. Almost seven decades of the rise and fall, adoption and rejection, harmony and incongruity of nationalism have culminated this past year. From Arab nationalism to the semi-Islamist, pro-Western, half-African and three-quarter Pharaonic nationalism that began under late president Anwar Al-Sadat to the loss of belonging and the vacuum of identity filled by Political Islam under former president Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians have been juggling with their identity.
2017 saw real questions and proper discussions being held, albeit sometimes behind closed doors, regarding Egyptian identity. There is a feeling, especially among the cultural elite, that it is acceptable to feel Egyptian while at the same time being Muslim or Christian and Arab without being carried away by draining conflicts. It is acceptable to feel African and not be a stranger to the continent by emphasising Pharaonic history.
Yet, while ordinary Egyptians have been adopting a critical way of thinking this year and relying more on reason than emotion, the media has proved in some cases to be far behind. Rather than providing facts and real explanations, a great deal of the media has been taking a ride down a slippery slope. Loud noises, fictitious analyses, out-of-proportion coverage or no coverage at all are only a few of the things we have seen in the media in 2017.
The rise of the media as a shaper of public opinion only a few years ago has been witnessing a noisy fall. But this time round the audience has proved to be one step ahead. People are watching, but they do not necessarily believe all they see or read. They take notice, but they do not give in to being browbeaten. They watch with a critical mind, and they cannot accept the daily attempts that are being made at finding excuses for confusion.
Such people with their questioning minds have made 2017 the year of critical thinking.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly