Modern Egypt — (X) An uncomfortable message

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 6 Dec 2022

Tarek Osman writes on the uncomfortable message delivered by the early 20th-century thinker Ahmed Lotfi Al-Sayed in his series of articles on modern Egyptian culture


Frustrations often lead to introspection, which can lead to a painful but valuable realisation. Ahmed Lotfi Al-Sayed offered such introspection on Egyptian culture.

Lotfi Al-Sayed embodied modern Egyptian culture in the early 20th century. He came from a Nile Delta family with southern Egyptian (Saeidi) heritage. He was educated at Al-Azhar in Cairo, at the time the pre-eminent seat of learning in Sunni Islam, but he went to Europe for post-graduate studies. 

French ways of being and living filled his soul; Continental European Renaissance ideas opened vast vistas in his mind; yet English and Scottish philosophy grounded him in pragmatism. Deep within, however, he retained an unshakeable cultural belonging to the land of the Nile. 

His house, despite being filled with English and French books and a fine collection of 19th-century European art, resembled in its design and furnishing that of a Nile Delta village chief. He was a wealthy landowner, yet he worked for the government, was highly active in civil society, and ultimately was a force behind the establishment of Cairo University.

However, he was also a distant, often reclusive man, and he continued until his death to be a prolific essayist. For many, he was early 20th-century Egypt’s premier educator. More aptly, he drew out from Egypt her true pain.

The main such pain was oppression. Although in this he agreed with Qassem Amin, discussed in the previous article in this series, Lotfi Al-Sayed’s analysis went farther than Amin’s. Whereas the latter thought that liberation at the level of the household, particularly the liberation of women, would effect a transformation in Egyptian society, shaking off the societal ills that had plagued the country’s modernisation since the early 19th century, Lotfi Al-Sayed believed that liberation necessitated the comprehension that the problem lurked deep in the Egyptian psyche.

For Lotfi Al-Sayed, the history of Egyptian society was fraught for two reasons. First, Egypt had been ruled by non-Egyptians for almost 20 successive centuries, and he did not believe that most of its foreign rulers, from the Romans onwards, had been Egyptianised in any meaningful way. They had been, and they had deliberately remained, at a vast distance from the country’s peasants. 

Often these foreign rulers had also instituted an extractive system that had entailed entrenching a political and security structure in Egypt that had kept its people under control and submissive to power. Centuries of such a system had bred sustained fear.

This fear was more palpable in the Nile Delta than in southern Egypt. It was a natural consequence because throughout the 20 centuries Lotfi Al-Sayed surveyed the Nile Delta had born, much more than the south, the brunt of this system. The Delta was closer to Cairo and Alexandria, the two largest political and economic centres of power, and the Delta’s highly fertile land made its subjugation essential for extracting value from Egypt. 

Given the Delta’s flat, open plains, it was much easier to control than the mountainous south of Egypt. 

This system of fear had continued under the country’s later native Egyptian rulers. Since the mid-19th century, a select group of Egyptian families had begun to enjoy increasingly vast land ownership. However, the owners of this land often owed their wealth to the political structure that had emerged around the Mohamed Ali Dynasty in the first half of the 19th century, or to the politics of the last part of the 19th century during which Egypt’s economy was controlled by foreign interests. 

In both cases, these landowners, though Egyptian, were enmeshed in a system that centralised political and economic power in an extremely thin sliver at the top of society.

Over time, and as most of these major landowning families became early adopters of Western culture and champions of the modernisation that the country witnessed in the 19th century, their separation from the life and culture of the peasants on their land grew. Lotfi Al-Sayed never believed Egypt had experienced a system of serfdom in the manner of 18th and 19th-century Russia, but he identified many similarities between the two countries’ socio-political systems. Interestingly, he also carried out long correspondences with Russian thinkers, and he had a lifelong fascination with the thought of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

The second problem in Egyptian society’s political history was that there had never been an urge for change.  Unlike almost all the leading thinkers that had appeared in Egypt since the country’s modernisation in the early 19th century, with the exception of the religious reformer Mohamed Abdou, Lotfi Al-Sayed saw clearly that the majority of Egyptians were content to continue living in the same ways and manners of their predecessors. He thought that this meant that they were willing to continue enduring the same oppression that their predecessors had. 

He believed that the tranquil and relatively easy life that Egypt’s geography had allowed people in the Nile Valley to enjoy had made effecting major changes very difficult. Such changes usually emerge from difficulties that compel people to reject their living conditions and to revolt not only against the oppression they suffer and the oppressors who perpetrate it, but also against the mental and emotional states that had led them to accept oppression in the first place. 

Egypt’s prosperity and ease of living hardly ever generated such an acute rejection and strong compulsion to change the prevailing order, however. As a result of the centuries-long political system that had sustained fear in society, any momentum for change was weakened even further. 

It was a difficult message to get across, and it became blunter as time went on. Lotfi Al-Sayed did not believe that the education of small sections of society, such as that provided by Egypt’s first non-religious university that he himself had played a leading role in establishing, would result in uprooting the residue of the country’s fraught history. 

Instead, what was needed was to ignite a desire for change within major sections of society as a whole. A strong desire for change does not emerge from the gradual accumulation of knowledge. Change in the collective consciousness is a must. For that to take place, Lotfi Al-Sayed thought, old mental structures needed to be seriously scrutinised if not demolished. 

Ahmed Lotfi Al-Sayed’s painful but courageous message found receptive ground in the mind of a scholar who would become one of the most prominent thinkers in modern Egyptian culture. That scholar and thinker, Taha Hussein, will be the subject of the next article in this series.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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