The situation in Egypt summarizes, and will redeem, the situation of Arab countries that are trapped between a future that gleams from afar and a past that controls the present.
Egypt, most of the time, acts as a mirror that reflects the problems of the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Over the recent period, we witnessed various scenes in Egypt:
The Egyptian national football team, or the “Pharaohs” as some sport pundits and Egyptians like to describe the team, won the African Cup of Nations.
We also witnessed the ruling by the supreme civil court that allowed 12 Egyptians to return to Christianity after having become Muslims. The court ordered the Ministry of Interior to issue new identification documents for them that state that they formerly adopted Islam as their religion and are currently Coptic Christians.
A few weeks ago, the Egyptian judiciary granted Egyptian Bahais the right to leave the religious category on official documents blank. The decision came after lengthy dispute and the refusal to culturally and religiously recognize this category [of society]. The court evaded this dispute however and decided that the religion of these people would not have to be stated on these documents.
Another factor that was more noticeable recently was the change in the tone of some Egyptian newspapers towards the violation of the Egyptian border by Hamas militants and the imposing of a de facto situation upon Egypt and the clashes between border guards and Hamas’ soldiers as a result. The tone changed from “unconditional” support under the banner of “sympathizing with Gaza” to sympathizing with Egypt itself!
And finally, one of the most prominent symbols of culture and enlightenment, the critic Rajaa al Naqash, who dedicated his eventful journalistic life to serve criticism and enlightenment in the entire Arab world, not only Egypt, sadly passed away recently.
With all these situations in mind, we see an image of Egypt that indicates the solidity of the civil state and the dominance of the civil concept of citizenship over the religious concept of citizenship and this was apparent in the rulings of the Coptic Christians and Bahais cases. They created reactions that indicate deep-rooted concepts of citizenship as the Christians welcomed this ruling and praised the judicial system and pledged allegiance to it once again. This indicates that openness [towards other systems] rejuvenates and strengthens [the state] in contrast to the beliefs of those who fear such openness.
This overall picture, which is made up of differing scenes, indicates a dominance of nationalism amongst Egyptians above anything else. All differences disappeared in the blink of an eye in support of the national football team. However we must be cautious because even though we acknowledge the joy that surrounds this celebration and the way in which it has united Egyptians, we must not over-interpret the joy of sport/national victories and attribute it to other fields. We must not forget that this happiness is a mixture between spontaneity and a thirst for a moment of collective victory or just momentary euphoria that is subject to the psychology of pure competition, any kind of competition.
So does this mean that in-depth discussion about the decay of civilian culture in Egypt, and other Arab countries, the rise of the fundamentalist discourse and fundamentalism, the dominance of a culture of cautiousness and seclusion, the hatred of openness and the retreat of criticism and enlightenment, is all senseless and exaggerated debate?
One should not answer this question until the other side of the story, the “dominant” aspect, has been looked at. The aforementioned scenes are but mere glimpses of light. What is currently prevailing in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world is a culture of intimidation and antagonism towards the other and the endorsement of intolerant concepts that reflect the discourses of seclusion and regression and promote an “outer” type of religious culture that is based upon an illusionary representation of Islamic history. This representation is clearly free from any traces of criticism or enlightenment; rather it is a reproduction of history, historical figures, and events in order to relate it to the audience whose mind has been numbed and that listens without criticism to the short stories related by Amr Khaled for example.
In this regard we are not talking about abstract piety for that was, and still is and will always be natural to humankind in all human societies. What we are discussing is the comprehensive “recipe” in politics, society, economics, education and sports that is cloaked by religion that states: I am the truth and everything else is false. The logic of politics and social mobility does not recognise these determinants and criteria.
Fundamentalist politicians happily say: “We have won. This is the [real] ‘awakening’ and anything else belongs in the historical bin. The nation has come to its senses and can distinguish between the soldiers of God, the pure, the agents of the crusaders and those who betray history and other such celebratory rhetoric that stems from the context of misleading opponents.
The truth is that fundamentalists are correct when they state that they are the most dominant on the Arab scene and that the public confides in them. However, the other aspect of the issue that the fundamentalist presence in this region is politically presented by Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Sorourists is overlooked. Economically, there is the Islamic banking trend and socially there is a state of “confusion” as in the case of the ever-changing attire of Egyptian women that varies between the [liberal] Levantine hijab and the abayas of the Gulf and the Iranian chador so that in the end it is a fusion; I witnessed this personally when I was in Cairo recently.
It is true that we are surrounded by a sea of fundamentalism, however what is being overlooked is that beforehand, there were moments of totalitarianism and the taking over of several aspects of life for example in the case of the liberal constitutional national stage in Egypt between 1919 and 1948 when the decline of the liberal stage in Egypt began and then later in other countries. According to the critic Mohammed Rasas in his article published in the Lebanese ‘Akhbar’ newspaper, this stage did not decline as a result of the 1948 military defeat; rather it is attributed to the government’s failure in solving the agricultural problem in particular. This interpretation requires assessment.
This liberal stage is what introduced the world to a cultural, ideological and artistic Egypt. Egypt was home to [Abbas Mahmud] al Aqqad, Taha Hussein, [Ahmed] Shawqi, [Saad] Zaghloul, Ahmed Amin, [Naguib] al Rihani and his theatre, Omm Kalthoum and Talaat Harb. Even the generation that followed was just as fruitful with figures such as Naguib Mahfouz and with the 1960s came a wave nationalist and leftist movements. Even though it was a period of adolescence and political revolutionaries, whereby the culture of liberalism and democracy had subsided, it was ripe with regards to social and artistic advancement. Figures such as Rajaa al Naqash had emerged and he personally took part in this “new” atmosphere as recalled by his friend the Egyptian writer Hussein Ibn Ahmed Amin in his book entitled ‘Shakhsiyaat Araftuha,’ [People I Knew].
Hussein Amin related a story that summarizes the shrivelled state of Arab criticism and the rise of the culture of guardianship. During al Naqash’s term as editor-in-chief of the ‘Doha’ cultural magazine based in Qatar during the wave of Egyptian intellectual migrants heading to the Gulf region, al Naqash asked Hussein Amin to contribute some articles to the publication. He began to write about Islamic history in a different way to the stereotypical articles on that subject. As a result, the religious scholars in Egypt were enraged and tried him in court, despite the close friendship between al Naqash and the Emir of Qatar. In the end, Naqash retracted his words and resigned and was then deported from Qatar. A recommendation within Arab and Islamic journalism then emerged stating that he should not be assigned to any senior journalistic post (Hussein Ibn Ahmed Amin, Shakhsiyaat Araftuha, p145).
In conclusion, Egypt, the state, the culture, and the judiciary that sided with citizenship and the Egypt of openness and citizenship, does not reflect the prevalent Egyptian culture, the predominant sentiment or cultural mobility. What is prevalent nowadays in Egypt is not the same as what was prevalent in the good old days when Egypt was a source of enlightenment for the entire Arab world.
Once again, let us repeat that fundamentalism is without doubt dominant, however, its leaders and manufacturers should understand that it is fleeting moment like any other; it has a beginning and an end and they should not be intoxicated by it away from the lessons of history since history, in words of Naguib Mahfouz in his book ‘Saman wa Kharif’ [Autumn Quail] is “wide open and will defend itself after the extinction of all opponents.”