Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egyptian dilemmas

A new book by the well-known Egyptian economist Galal Amin tries to unknot some of Egypt’s unanswered social and intellectual questions, writes Dina Ezzat

Egyptian dilemmas
Egyptian dilemmas
Al-Ahram Weekly

“Egyptians have been grappling with two dilemmas for some time now: the first relates to their efforts to meet the requirements of daily life and the second relates to their stance on religion,” writes the well-known Egyptian economist Galal Amin in the concluding chapter of his new book Mehinet al-Doniay wa-al-Din fi Misr or “Dilemmas of Life and Religion in Egypt.”

According to Amin’s conclusion to this relatively short book (170 pages) designed for a general audience, at the heart of Egypt’s dilemma about life is economic development, while its dilemma about religion is about the polarisation between the secularist trend and the Salafi one in the country’s religious life, in which Amin includes all shades of Political Islam and not just the ostensibly Salafi groups and parties.

Throughout his five chapters, consisting of articles that have already appeared in the press in one form or another, Amin looks at the many facets of these issues. He analyses particularly incidents that took place between the 25 January Revolution and the months before the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in June 2013.

However, in depicting the roots of such issues he also dwells on incidents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as he finds that the beginnings of Egypt’s development problems date to the second half of the 19th century with the elimination of the Mohamed Ali programme for development. He suggests that the early decades of the 20th century are a possible starting point for hard questions about religion, as this was when both Ali Abdel-Razek and Taha Hussein published their respective books “Islam and the Rules of Governance” and “On Pre-Islamic Poetry” that triggered a debate “that is still unfolding today” between Salafi and secularist thinking.

This is perhaps the core point in the argument that Amin makes throughout the book: that religion is for the majority of Egyptians an integral element to their lives but that it has never been the only element, especially as Islam, the faith of the majority of the population, acknowledges worldly interests and needs.

It was the dominance of Salafi thinking, Amin argues, which reduces life to religion alone, that led to the beginning of the crisis that is now manifesting itself in the rejection that the followers of this way of thinking demonstrate towards those who do not subscribe to their views. Inevitably, Amin argues, religion ceased to be the inspiration for compassion and advancement and was reduced instead to being a set of rituals and choices that are supposed to spare its followers from ending up in hell, taking them to heaven instead.

Worst of all, Amin suggests, has been the fact that a large segment of the expanded middle class has chosen to subscribe to this way of thinking, meaning that more and more people have been declining to embrace modernity, in the full sense of the word, leading to a failure to pursue development and democracy.

Further complicating the situation has been the fact that segments of Egyptian society have been leaning towards the Salafi way of thinking, even as the world has been fast-changing with the advent of multi-nationals, globalisation and the IT revolution. Amin often compares the late 20th-century Salafis to the earlier Marxists, especially in their attempted intimidation of the opposition.

This has made it all the more difficult to catch up with fast-advancing modern societies, Amin says, and it has led some to turn more resolutely towards religion and to perceive religion as their one and only centre of interest.

A moment of hope came with the 25 January Revolution, when believers and secularists united in one national call for freedom and justice across the country, hoping that the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak and his regime would allow for new economic development.

However, Amin argues that the rise of Political Islam, appealing in view of the already established Salafi tendencies, dealt a serious blow to such expectations with the rise to power of a group that wanted to see religion dominate every sphere of life. “This was the very antithesis of the civil state, no matter the arguments suggesting otherwise,” he adds. The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was as incapable of resolving the country’s economic woes as it was of handling confusions over the proper role of religion.

Typical of the articles that Amin often produces for the Egyptian press, this selection is firmly anecdotal and often witty. “Dilemmas of Life and Religion in Egypt” could become a natural sequel to Amin’s best-selling earlier book “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?,” which also presented the story of a society that once aspired to moderation, independence and development before it took a U-turn and settled instead for less economic development and much less democracy.

Mehinet al-Doniay wa-al-Din fi Misr, Cairo: Dar al-Sharouq, pp170.

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