Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Not people of the cave

We used to take it for granted that tomorrow would be better than today, but this may no longer be the case, writes Samir Sobhi

mohamed Ali
mohamed Ali
Al-Ahram Weekly

The reason Egypt is a modern state is that there were people in the country who wanted it to be so. The world around us wanted us to learn new things, we wanted to learn new things, and we didn’t pay attention to those who wanted to hold us back.

But all this is not exactly true today. The desire to learn new things is faltering, the urge to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world is being promoted by fundamentalist gangs, and those who seek progress are in some cases succumbing under the weight of economic and social problems.

Political turmoil, the result of our dream to make things better, is now threatening to push us backwards.

Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century, had to snatch modernity from the jaws of a lethargic Ottoman Empire, the country’s ruler at the time. By cajoling and threatening, buying loyalties and bullying adversaries, Mohamed Ali managed to bring Egypt back into the league of powerful nations. This was sometimes with the help of the French, sometimes with the connivance of the British, and always in a tense relationship with Ali’s nominal masters in Istanbul.

The French Expedition to Egypt in 1798, followed by the British Fraser Expedition of 1807, left us with no choice: either we turn into a colonial playground or we get our act together and move forward ourselves. In the end we did the latter: occupied and sometimes under foreign control, but determined to win our independence, we managed to grasp the rudiments of modern life.

 Equality and freedom, the essence of modern times, and dignity and lawfulness, the foundations of modern government, were enshrined in our laws. Violations were denounced as aberrations, and corrections were made along the way.

The French occupation lasted for three years and left us with a new sense of purpose and self-knowledge. Before the French came we used to call our monuments masakhit, a word denoting evil and punishment, as if these monuments had been built by a civilisation that had incurred heavenly wrath.

After the French had deciphered the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, we were able to value our history properly. Egypt spearheaded the movement towards mass tourism that took place around the turn of the 20th century, for decades offering us not only income but also a sense of national dignity and self-worth.

The British occupation, beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, lasted 72 years. We revolted against it repeatedly: 1919 saw a national uprising; in the 1930s and 1940s there was urban unrest and political demonstrations. But we also learned from the British, and despite the loss of our national independence managed to reform our health, education and transportation systems during the decades they controlled the country.

Under president Gamal Abdel-Nasser we revolutionised our social system, made education free for all and improved living conditions in the countryside. We also experienced military defeat, but we never lost the sense of who we were and what we were trying to do.

Now it seems that we have lost these things. Now we seem to be once again facing a choice between modernity and self-isolation, between laws that apply to all citizens and laws that are good for only one section or sect of society, and between living in a country that we ourselves control and living as part of some extra-national caliphate.

 Egypt, we discovered two centuries ago, was indeed the cradle of history. But today there are those who are once again describing our ancient monuments as masakhit or even trying to rejuvenate the defunct Ottoman Empire.

Our sense of nationhood is under assault. Earlier, we switched from capitalism to socialism and then back again but still managed to keep our sense of nationhood intact. Today, some people want us to forget our past, to erase who we are and turn the country into some kind of tabula rasa.

There are people in our midst who appear to hate modernity and, armed with the latest weapons and communication tools, are working to take us back to the Middle Ages.

Of course, our defences are not weak. But we need the likes of the writers and intellectuals Hassan Al-Attar, Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, Mohamed Abdou and Ali Mubarak to re-educate the nation. We need the likes of Lotfi Al-Sayyed, Hussein Heikal, Taha Hussein, Abbas Al-Aqqad, Salama Musa and Georgi Zeidan to keep us on the right path.

We have to stand by free speech, the ideals of civil society, the rule of law and social justice and equality for all. Yet it seems that since the 1970s we have been sliding backwards, giving in to radical forms of religiosity, retreating in the face of bigots. We have been confused and question the very premises of decency, as seen in our dress codes, working practices and more.

In his 1933 play The People of the Cave, the Egyptian writer Tawfiq Al-Hakim criticised the advocates of past ways of life, likening them to prisoners in a cave who did not know what was happening in the world outside. Using a story from the Quran, the playwright urged the nation to shake off Ottoman traditions and embrace the modern world.

Today we need another Al-Hakim, someone who can help us stay in the sunlight of modernity and out of the darkness of the cave.

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