Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Assem El-Kersh

A shorter history of the future

As a new era dawns, Assem El-Kersh is intent on repeating the mistakes of a long line of forecasters

Not to commit to fortune telling is among the countless lessons taught by the profession of journalism, perhaps the most troublesome of all. As a journalist you learn not to make statements about what will happen, particularly where politics or romance is concerned. And yet at a time like this, the temptation is too strong to resist. It is therefore well to remember at the outset the wisdom of the British prime minister from 1957 to 1963, Harold Macmillan, the man who coined the term "winds of change". When asked by a journalist what he feared the most, what could force a radical change of direction or bring down a government, Macmillan's response was simply, "Events, dear boy, events!" Shortly afterwards one such event -- a scandal-- cost him his position.

A quarter of a decade later this cautionary tale was already all but forgotten, and it was left to Warren Wagar, the American historian who specialised in future studies, to demonstrate the perils involved. In A Short History of the Future, a sort of non-fiction historical novel published in 1989, less than a year before the sudden breakdown of the Eastern Bloc, Wagar imagined life in 2200 as a post-nuclear war disaster in which colonies are established on other planets and life expectancy has reached two centuries. Conditions will only stabilise, he said, once a single socialist government ruled the entire planet. Of course his greatest booboo, sheepishly rectified in a subsequent edition with whole chapters rewritten, was to assume that the Soviet Union would live on for another 200 years, challenging the West in the same bipolar context. Everyone knows it was to be only a matter of months before he was proven categorically wrong.

Twenty busy years ahead, who will remember such an error? Which is why it occurred to me to capitalise on the forgetfulness of most of us and, more cautiously, try my own luck, hazarding nothing as definite or far-reaching is Wagar's predictions but providing, nonetheless, an even shorter history of the future: the most condensed I can muster. As I wager my own 10 projections on the next 10 years, concentrating on those things that I feel will not change, whether here in Egypt or elsewhere, I am firmly crossing out the Mayan prophecy of a near and terrible end to the world -- that on 21 December 2012, at 11:11am, to be precise, the solar system will collapse -- partly because it makes it sound as if human life is a game of PlayStation. Here, then, are what I am willing to be judged on a decade from now, provided my judges and I will still be alive:

1- The term tawreeth (the bequeathing by the president of his position to his son), which we are hearing up to the last second of 2009, will probably continue to be the most frequently used word by Egyptians for several more years (I promise it will not appear more than twice on the pages of this newspaper from now on). Although I personally expect that President Hosni Mubarak will run for another term, I feel the tawreeth debate and all its variations will not stop until tawreeth has actually occurred or media people find an alternative controversy with which to engage: anything from the mystery behind the murder of Tutankhamun to normalising relations with Israel.

2- Unpredictable, and never on your side for very long: yet nothing will undermine the place of football in the hearts of the people. Likewise the Ahli team: it too will remain unchallenged as the premiere people's party (just like the National Democratic Party and the national press, so long as they understand that the world is in constant flux). Nothing in the foreseeable future should concern the red shirts of Ahli -- barring the sudden appearance of a black horse to enforce a new power game. Ahli's traditional rival, the white-hued Zamalek, will most certainly prove unable to do so.

3- Few things can stand up to football as the national pastime but smoking tops the list, whether addiction to tobacco finds expression in cigarettes or shisha. Each year Egypt, the biggest tobacco consumer in the Arab world, gains three million more smokers. More than a third of the population are regular smokers, of which 73,000 are under the age of 10 and half a million under 15. All in all 80 billion cigarettes are consumed every year, undeterred by world speculations that, from now to 2025, over 10 million people will die as a result of smoking. The terrifying pictures now printed on every packet of cigarettes, let alone the message that smoking kills, will change nothing.

4- The mobile phone and Facebook, with 54 million lines and 18 million members, respectively, will continue to be at the forefront of Egyptian interests regardless of generation. A piece of good news: within three years every Egyptian citizen will have a mobile phone on their person. All are ready to increase the number of hours spent on the phone, encouraged no doubt by the growing distances separating members of the same household. No one will stop at the actual benefit of all this talk. Will there appear on the scene new inventions that will keep us busy without phone bills?

5- In a cruel and selfish world the title Biggest Loser will probably remain attached exclusively to the Arabs, especially if they waste yet another 10 years of their lives waiting and yawning, mourning their luck and hoping for things to improve their own accord while looking underneath their own feet. Things will not improve for the Arabs if they continue to march in place, if not backwards, while making no serious attempt to disengage from the battles of the past or break out of the vicious circle of recurrent aberrations. As it is, Arabs have been speaking incessantly to themselves, substituting action for words, as if genetically programmed to do so (so far brain transplants are still impossible). Likewise the Palestinian issue: a chronic headline that we will continue to see on front pages unless a genuine and just resolution is reached that gives Palestinians somewhat more than the leftovers periodically thrown to them now. Israel will remain the number one enemy and the greatest permanent threat well after 2020 (need I say more?)

6- The political summit is wide enough for everyone, and so while America will not weaken to the extent hoped for or feared by many, other powers -- China and India, for example -- will rise and make bold to contend with it, tipping the balance of wealth to the east. Obama's bad luck during his first year as president does not mean that he has less of a chance for a new term allowing him to live in the White House until 2017. We can take comfort in the fact that the world of today is not the world of yesterday, and nothing is likely to drive nations to a world war like the one that broke out almost a century before.

7- The Nile will not dry up, nor will the Delta drown (not before 2050, God forbid) -- doomsday scenarios the environmentalists have not tired of bringing up, without anyone paying attention to them. Yet wisdom dictates that we should move fast to protect ourselves against the encroachment of the sea and stop wasting water as if the Nile is our family inheritance; after all, life is possible without golf courses and washing cars on the streets.

8- Due to long-standing traditions it is impossible for Egyptians to give up their habits, which is why they will continue to be preoccupied with the latest joke and the quickest shortcut, resuming their age-old sagas of negligence and the desperate search for greener pastures, and discussing what used to be, not what should be now. They will also continue to doubt the intentions of the government and continue to entertain themselves with the nightly cock fights of the talk shows on satellite channels that multiply like rabbits. The only positive development in the midst of the incumbent absurdity is greater freedom of expression and of thought and wider margins for everyone.

9- Under the influence of the media and transnational ideas, as well as the invasion of globalisation with all its cold brutality, technological and social developments and modes of consumption, Egyptians will continue to add new terms to their ever growing everyday dictionary. The Arabic language will perhaps be the greatest casualty in a flood of words like eshtah (the greeting meaning literally "cream") and beace (as in "peace"), with which your children express their approval of what you have just said. And that is not to mention hat mel akher (bring it from the end), and mozzah which, without any knowledge of its philological roots, has become a disrespectful term for any pretty or attractive girl -- an indication that someone is worthy of sexual harassment. The new dictionary also includes words like tuk-tuk, the local version of the autorickshaw -- a new development -- and booss al-wawa (kiss it better), the latter origination in an all but pornographic song by Haifa Wahbi, that sex symbol who has become, with few other credentials, at the centre of the Arabs' national consciousness.

10- Of course our population will continue to increase ceaselessly, at the rate of 1.5 million per year, so that we might retain our position of prominence within the Arab world and break the 100 million barrier. The result is no secret: more vehicles on already suffocated streets (4.7 million today, nine million in 2020, by which time it is unlikely that flying cars will have been invented); a greater number of traffic accidents; the ever more tortuous search for accommodation in which couples-to-be might live with a modicum of dignity; and more pressure on the infrastructure and fast withering resources. All of which is not to point to the horrors of inflation which will make us nostalgic for the present, waxing lyrical about the time when a kilo of meat was only LE50.

But I do not want to end the list before hazarding one more predication. Call it a wish for change if you will: I honestly do not know if it will come true, but the best way to express it is to say that our software should be summarily replaced, enabling us to deal with a practical world. My hope is that the question of progress will be appropriately prioritised on our agenda: will we become a great country? And how? The idea is to understand why others make progress while we trip and fall, invest in people rather than stone, and respect their rights. Most importantly, we should remind ourselves every second of the new challenge that we are facing: how to remain relevant whether as a state or a people. Only this becomes us, and I do not think we will fail at it. Thus the 11th, tentative prediction: that by 2020, Egypt will be the place we all want, before and after.

The future is here, now.

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