Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Reconciling history and geography

To exit Egypt’s cycle of chronic underdevelopment all political currents must take a long look at the country’s past failures and set a course for national re-imagination, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

As we mark two years since the January 2011 Revolution we should take this opportunity, as is customary on such occasions, for revision and evaluation.

Therefore, I borrowed an idea from professor (or, to some, Sheikh) Nageh Ibrahim who called upon Islamist currents to apply what he termed the “jurisprudence of revision” in order to reform their discourse and calling. Applying this idea to the subject at hand, one is naturally inclined to ask what precisely requires revision? And how do we go about that without immersing ourselves in profound philosophical questions and academic theories, which effort might serve to elaborate a doctoral thesis but would not serve the practical purposes of a political discussion?

My suggestion is to make the subject of “revision” all of Egypt’s great revolutions since the turn of the 19th century: the Omar Makram Revolution that brought Mohamed Ali Pasha into power as the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt; the 1919 Revolution that gave birth to the monarchy, the modern Egyptian state and national leaderships from Saad Zaghloul to Mustafa Al-Nahhas; the 23 July 1952 Revolution that was declared by Free Officers leader Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser who became the president of the Egyptian republic and the leader of the Arab people; and, finally, the 25 January 2011 Revolution that ushered in Mohamed Morsi as the Egyptian republic’s first democratically elected civilian president. I will not include, here, uprisings or other major events that occurred along the way, such as the Ahmed Orabi rebellion, one of the consequences of which was the British occupation of Egypt, and President Sadat’s succession to power and his leadership of the campaign to liberate Sinai through war and peace. Nor will I discuss the effects of the Mubarak regime on the Egyptian state. As will become evident, as important as these developments are, in the general context of the course of Egyptian history, they are mere details.

 

THE GREAT CURVE OF FAILURE: As one looks back over Egyptian history, one cannot help but to observe that the current state of our country is the product of episodes in a process of chronic failure that stretches back centuries. This is not to suggest that there have not been occasional successes and victories. No impartial scholar or observer can deny these. However, the cumulative result of Egypt’s evolution so far is a country that ranks in the lowest half on the development scales of respectable international human development reports. Egypt is outstripped by at least 100 nations in a range of economic, political and cognitive development indexes. The proponents of political Islam can hardly claim that the succession of Islamic eras (during which Sharia law was applied) from the seventh to the end of the 18th century were a march towards progress for Egypt. Apart from the unique exceptions of the Fatimid and first Mamluk eras, the Egyptian population declined drastically due to poverty and destitution, depletion of resources and epidemic diseases. By the time Napoleon entered Egypt, its population had dwindled to 2.5 million, half of whom were blind as the result of endemic conjunctivitis. At the height of the Pharaonic era, the population was around 10 million.

In like manner, liberals and advocates of “secular” government cannot argue that the period that followed Mohamed Ali’s assumption of power elevated Egypt to the ranks of democratically, industrially and cognitively advanced nations. True, the country emerged from the trap of depopulation, but this was only to fall into another trap: not the population explosion per se, but rather the gross imbalance between population growth and the growth of available resources, which always lagged dismally behind the former. It is equally true that modern governing institutions were introduced. However, apart from some rare exceptions, its parliament never operated like parliaments elsewhere in the world do. The same applies to the Egyptian bureaucracy. An even worse case is to be found in its educational institutions that have succeeded in keeping more than a quarter of the Egyptian people in the second decade of the 21st century illiterate. One need hardly mention computer literacy. The day I entered my office as head of the board of directors of Al-Ahram, one of the oldest living institutions in the country, barely 10 per cent of the staff knew how to use a computer! The industrial, agricultural and service sectors tell similar stories of appalling failure, especially when compared to the progress achieved by other countries that had similar experiences with colonialism, population growth and frequent wars, and some of which were even predominately Sunni Muslim, like ours.

 

MY EXPERIENCE WITH AL-AHRAM: I have worked in Al-Ahram Establishment for 37 years. Most of this time was spent in the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. However, the 21 months that I served as the head of the board of directors were an eye-opening experience because, in a way, Al-Ahram is Egypt in miniature or, as researchers might put it, a “microcosm” of the state.

At the beginning of this period (which lasted from July 2009 to the end of March 2011), it was clear that the establishment would be unable to make any type of progress at all until it overcame a number of ailments that kept its underdevelopment “structural”. Perhaps the foremost of these was the psychological, cognitive and — of course — political separation between three eras of leadership, the first being that of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. Although Heikal left Al-Ahram in 1974, his students, disciples, co-workers and admirers remained loyal to the “Ustaz” (professor), after whom no one, in their eyes, would be worthy of this title, while all developments that followed were layers of dust. These venerable old-timers eventually came to feel out of place in an establishment in which they were being overwhelmed by throngs of youngsters from whom no good could come. Ibrahim Nafie, Heikal’s successor, brought in the majority of Al-Ahram’s current personnel. In this era, the staff journalists and administrative personnel soared to around 10,000 due to the huge expansion in the establishment’s structure, publications and investments. The expansion, in turn, generated hikes in staff remunerations in the form of incentives, shares of profits, grants and other perquisites. There also emerged quite a populous group that now gripped the establishment’s sensitive nerve centres and regarded outsiders as forces bent on the destruction of Al-Ahram. The period that followed was jointly led by Mursi Atallah and Salah Al-Ghamri who initiated a kind of revolution against the previous order which was no longer described as an era of expansion and investment but rather as one of mounting debt, corruption and nepotism. In short, Al-Ahram, like all of Egypt today, was divided. Nor were the divisions solely along the lines of generation and length of service; they were also political and ideological. The result was that the day after my appointment to the helm of Al-Ahram, demonstrations erupted for the first time in the history of Al-Ahram. One demonstration was by reporters, the other by administration staff.

RECONCILIATION: It was obvious to me that the Al-Ahram ship could not move forward until a historic reconciliation was reached between the different eras and between them and the future. I inaugurated such a process on my first day on the job beneath the banner, “Al-Ahram reconciles with itself”. However great each of the successive eras may have been, the overriding truth was that Al-Ahram was no longer one of the 10 most important newspapers in the world. Worse yet, it was being beleaguered by the competition, both in printed form (most notably by Al-Masry Al-Youm) and in televised and electronic form. In other words, Al-Ahram had to face up to the reality that it was sliding toward extinction and that, now, the challenges of the future had to be given precedence over the glories of the past.

I believed that it was possible to turn the ship around if we could achieve three goals: to turn Al-Ahram from a journalistic into a media establishment, from a public establishment that fell under the authority of the Shura Council to a public holding company, and from an establishment teeming with the poor to one filled with the wealthy. In my first meeting with many fellow colleagues, which was held in Al-Ahram’s Naguib Mahfouz Hall, I laid out how we could go about meeting these objectives.

 

EGYPT’S RECONCILIATION WITH HISTORY: What has happened in Al-Ahram since is not relevant to the subject at hand here, apart from the fact that part of what we tried to achieve panned out, which convinces me that it is possible to transfer this experience from the “micro” to the “macro” level. The Egyptian experience is a story of an overall downward slide. The bottom line read from the cumulative tale of wars and revolutions, foreign occupation and independence, theocratic rule and secular government — whether capitalist or socialist — is that “something is wrong” in Egypt as a whole. This “something wrong” is what causes Egypt to make sacrifices in revolutions that succeed in moving the country a step forward, but then stagnate and sometimes backslide. No revolution, major reform drive or historic leadership is exempt from this syndrome.

As we stand today, two years down the line from the January Revolution, it is impossible to hold that Egypt is better off than it was before the revolution. This is not because Egypt was fine before, or scoring progress in this area or that. Rather it is because Egypt, since the revolution, has not managed to produce an accurate diagnosis of the ills that had prevailed and, hence, it has not been able to offer the alternative.

There was a clear demand for a new system of government founded upon the principles of liberty and democracy. However, the end product was greeted with doubts and suspicion, and the reasons cited for it echoed the justifications of the old regime. In addition, violence spread, not only between the government and the people, but also between the people themselves. Perhaps some church burning existed before the revolution, but never before in our history had a group of Egyptians attacked another group in a football stadium, killing 74 people solely because they were supporters of the opposing team. Nor had it ever occurred before that groups came out declaring their secession from the state of Egypt.

The process of evaluating the January revolution these days will run its course like rivers do. Assessments will vary according to point of view, political affiliation and attitude towards the current regime. However, all will claim allegiance to the revolution and then differ on everything else. Still, none of these efforts will contribute to solving the greater Egyptian dilemma, which may lead Egypt to yet another instance of failure to add to its predecessors and, this time, at the cost of the many lives lost before, during and after the revolution.

Averting this failure can only begin by initiating a “historic reconciliation” with the self in which all political trends summon the necessary humility to acknowledge that they have all ruled before without achieving much or achieving enough or progressing as much as other nations have. I know that each side could produce a list of successes of its era or epoch in the past. But in which of these eras did Egypt eliminate illiteracy, for example, or become an industrialised nation or even an organised one? It is very telling that in Egypt of the 21st century, traffic and garbage removal figured prominently in the project of the first 100 days of the Morsi administration.

 

A RECONCILIATION WITH GEOGRAPHY, TOO: If our reconciliation with history entails some humbleness on the part of all Egyptian factions with respect to acknowledging the reality of the chronic failure syndrome, it also entails the need to bring an equal amount of open mindedness and earnestness to a collective search for the causes of this plight.

Nor will our reconciliation process reach fruition until we realise that the path away from failure is also the path towards a permanent reconciliation that, in turn, can only rest on reconciliation with Egyptian geography.

Briefly put, Egypt was and remains a quintessentially riparian country. Now is the time for it to spread out and become a consummately maritime nation.

One of the chief causes of the Egyptian failure syndrome, I believe, is that the bulk of its inhabitants have always resided on the banks of the “Eternal Nile”. This Nilotic concentration of our demographic mass has constantly “vetoed” all attempts at national wealth accumulation which is the key to progress for any country. The Tahrir Directorate Project ended before it began. The Salihiya Project ended before it could expand. The development projects for Sinai, the north coast, the Red Sea coast, and Shark Al-Tafria were frozen because of the Nile Valley’s constant economic and political demands and pressures on every government. Meanwhile, the Cairene megalopolis remains an insatiable ghoul that haunts every ruler with its endless demands for new investment. With every bridge and overpass, there come new tunnels and underpasses, all of which require new routings and re-routings, and new means of transportation. And this is just for starters.

Dozens of electoral platforms for parliamentary and presidential candidates have featured a call to move out of the valley and to the coasts. But none of them outlined a way to bring this about, because the bulk of the Egyptian populace along the Nile continued to press their demands for higher wages and, if these could not be met, for social justice which, to most, means the redistribution of wealth rather than an equal opportunity to generate wealth. But this is another matter that requires a longer discussion at some other point. What I do know is that we must keep the revolution alive so it does not end up another failure.

The writer is the CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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