Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2011
Issue No. 1067
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

This wide world and us

Egypt needs progress so should take a few elemental lessons from societies that have been able to progress, the first one being, keep it simple, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

It's a wide, wide world, filled with many people. Don't believe anyone who tells you it's too crowded. Mankind is blessed with the ability and resourcefulness to make small patches of land accommodate many more people than one would imagine, whether on the surface, above or below it. I once came across a study that demonstrated that it was possible for the entire human population -- some seven billion people -- to live in the state of Texas. What counted was not the actual land area itself, but that the political, social and economic organisation was both simple and effective enough ensure that society optimised its use of available space.

Modern nanotechnology has helped make life simpler and much more compact. When the computer power that had once been housed in a building the size of an office block could fit into a single room by the time Apollo 13 was launched, that was seen as a miracle. Yet today we have laptops than can store a quantity of information that, in the not so distant past, would have required an archiving facility the size of a city. Or take a look at your mobile phone, which you can take with you anywhere in the world and use not only to keep in touch with your loved ones via video- calling, but also to keep track of the news of your business and to manage your financial affairs through the many services provided over the Internet.

So many complex things have grown much simpler and easier to use, and so many devices have shrunk, yet contain the same amount of power, or more, as their ancestral dinosaurs. In fact, the size of a device has increasingly become a question of personal choice; something one can control to suit one's needs and tastes. About a year ago, I visited an exhibition of future concepts by Panasonic. Gone was the television set as a bulky piece of furniture around which you planned your living room layout; now you had a screen that was not only easily portable but that you could expand or contract as you liked and always get the same sharpness and clarity. When I expressed my amazement, I was told that this was what science was about these days -- making life simpler, more practical and more efficient. And what could be more efficient than another concept: a home that powers itself from a minuscule amount of solar energy and also from recycling the energy emitted from light bulbs, refrigerators, stoves and computers? The idea, of course, is akin to wastewater recycling. It also has quite a bit in common with the invention of the bank. Instead of individuals investing their personal savings in a handful of separate projects and ventures, the bank offers a way for people pool their money, making it possible to build entire nations.

Simplicity and simplification have always been the secret behind major leaps in progress. When scientists make a new discovery they are invariably dumfounded by how long it took them, because the idea behind it was so amazingly simple.

Which leads me to a recent realisation I had regarding the difference between progress and underdevelopment. Whereas the former tends to simplification, the latter tends toward complication. During one of my visits to Iran, there was a formal function that had quite an international gathering. An Iranian friend of mine who was with me told me, quite proudly, that the Iranian mind was like a Persian carpet, an endless maze of complex interwoven lines and patterns that could not be easily understood by others. I was not particularly concerned, at the time, by the possibility that foreigners could not understand the Iranian mind, although I recall thinking that this was not necessarily advantageous. But I did wonder whether the Iranians understood their own mind. I also had the same doubts with respect to the Arabs.

Upon my return to Egypt in 1982 after completing my studies in the US, there was a big uproar over "foreign funding" of research about Egypt. People were speaking of the "American description d'égypte," an allusion to the monumental French study of the country undertaken at the time of the Napoleonic colonial expedition at the turn of the 19th century. The fear was that by means of the research centres and projects it funded, the Americans would know everything about us. I could not help but wonder, at the time, how interested we were to learn as much as possible about ourselves.

Today, we once again find complexity rising to new heights. With a Cairo Spring that promises a new million-man march every Friday, life these days hardly knows a minute of simplicity. One would have thought that life had grown complicated enough during the six decades that followed the "glorious" July 1952 Revolution. So prolific were our lawmakers that we now have some 68,000 laws in our books. And although democracy did not exist and, hence, no real representation of all the people, there was insistence that at least 50 per cent of the seats in elected assemblies should go to workers and farmers. But evidently the thirst for the complicated knows no bounds. Not only does the new elections law retain the familiar quota for workers and farmers, it states that some seats are to be contested by closed lists and others by single ticket candidacies. In addition, the number of People Assembly and Shura Council members is now so large that it is virtually impossible to reach a decision on a matter, let alone discuss it. The irony is that the more complicated the electoral process becomes, the more people are disinclined to participate, and the lower the participation rate of the general public, the greater the electoral prospects of more extremist forces because they, alone, have the determination to hack through the thicket of intricacies and to spend the hours it takes to sort out electoral list constituencies from single ticket constituencies and to sift through which candidates fall under workers, peasants or "other sectors". When you multiply this tangle by two, because there are two houses of parliament, you begin to get an idea of how the January Revolution will prove more successful than the July Revolution. The result, which will assume more concrete form when it comes time to draw up the constitution, will be complexity squared.

Not that Egypt holds a monopoly on the phenomenon of spiralling complexity. Iraq, perhaps due to its proximity to Iran and the source of Persian carpets, has produced the most convoluted political system in the Arab world, one that the Lebanese, who once held the record in this domain, would envy. On the other hand, taking time as the criterion, the Lebanese need not fear the competition. In both the systems it takes months, if not years, to form a government. As for the people who might possibly need a functioning government, the question does not even surface, apart from in the form of the insistence upon how important it is to keep the Americans from knowing anything about them, especially when we know even less.

In case my message failed to penetrate the morass of complexity and backwardness, I'd better put it more plainly. In this wide, wide world of ours many peoples are miles ahead of us and have left little for us to discover. The sooner we learn that it is pointless to reinvent the wheel, the sooner -- and more simply -- we will get where we want to be.

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