Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Whatever happened to the Egyptians?

In the turbulent times we live in many people are asking who are the real Egyptians, writes Amina Khairy

Wherever you go people tend to ask the question “whatever happened to the Egyptians.” Many older Egyptian people also ask themselves this question, as do Arabs, Westerners and easterners. Latin Americans, who sometimes do not know a lot about Egypt, have been starting to wonder.

Some ask the question in a reflective way. Others are unable to comprehend. But the majority remains in a state of wonderment: why have the Egyptians changed so much? And why has Egypt become a different Egypt?

Call it a malaise. Consider it a distortion. Deal with it as a country in painful transition. Or even detach yourself from it as much as you can, seeing it as a case study of how states deteriorate. No matter how you touch on the issue of Egypt and Egyptians, you may end up asking yourself almost in despair “whatever happened to the Egyptians?”

When professor of economics at the American University in Cairo Galal Amin wrote his book of the same title, “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians: Changes in Egyptian Society From 1950 to the Present,” some years ago the present he had in mind was the 1990s. Decades later in 2017, what Amin touched upon then seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. His professional analysis and personal experiences of what happened to Egypt in the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s, the subject of his book, in fact shed light on a road that had yet to be travelled.

Travelling through the Cairo of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and alas now the new millennium, may seem like a case of “back to the future,” though the future here might seem like the Middle Ages. For an Egyptian who has lived most of her life in Egypt, with the exception of seven years spent in England, Egypt in the 1970s looks like a completely different country with completely different people, norms and culture.

Life in Egypt, carefully observed in Amin’s book, has (and still is) going through a process of social, psychological, political and cultural turbulence rather than simply change. For every change, no matter how harsh or sudden it may be, has a positive side. This is not the case for turbulence.

In a turbulent time like ours, right becomes wrong, moderate becomes extreme, open-minded becomes indecent and double standards become a way of life. The many political and economic dilemmas, the results of systems, or rather the lack of systems, that Egypt has been subjected to over the past six decades have harshly affected Egyptian culture. Whether it has been corruption, the lack or distortion of vision, ignorance, or internal or external conspiracies, the end result remains the same – destructive chaos.

This chaos has distorted people’s perceptions of beauty. It is not only reflected in horrible architectural styles, ugliness in day-to-day life, the diminishing adherence to cleanliness, the buried violence that threatens to break out in ordinary activities such as driving, walking, or even queuing up (if there still is such a thing), but it is also taking its toll on our heritage.

This heritage, meaning anything from a downtown Cairo building to the songs of Um Kolthoum, public parks and facilities such as the Giza Zoo and Heliopolis Merry Land, or even monumental treasures such as the Giza Pyramids and pharaonic tombs and monuments, has been subjected to calamities.

These can be explained in the light of the new Egyptian identity that has been forming over the past few decades. The latter is a mixture of a search for a better life through temporary migration to a neighbouring country, or a smart attempt to generate more income through trivial jobs based on deception and swindling, called falawa in Egyptian slang, or bartering away conscience and ethics for a quick profit among other “creative” entrepreneurial methods.

This search for a better life has coincided with the withdrawal of the state. Education, healthcare and the media have crumbled, becoming facades with little substance. Political Islam groups have then jumped in and sabotaged Egyptian identity.

The latter has become trapped in a state of terrifying friction among the neo-bourgeoisie, the neo-Islamists, the neo-slum dwellers, the neo-fahlawis, and, last but least, the neo-Egyptians. These have found themselves trapped, either living in a closed residential compound, or declaring themselves to be “real Muslims” by adopting Political Islam, or adopting the lifestyle of the fahlawis, or remaining the same and risk being labelled a zombie.

Zombies such as myself are in a minority. They still regard themselves first and foremost as citizens, and not primarily as Muslims or Christians. They regard work as the best way to earn a living. They consider education and discipline to be vital to any living organism. When they add two and two together, they get four, not five and not three.

They listen to Um Kolthoum without feeling guilty because music is haram (forbidden) and love songs can make you burn in hell. They say please and thank you and sometimes they even say sorry. But they are also leading a life of persecution, being disdained for calling for a return to ethical standards and morality.

Morality, identity, culture, politics and money all make us ask “whatever happened to the Egyptians.” It is a question that will not go away over the months and years to come.

 The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

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