Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Building the Egyptian character

How should the Egyptian character best be built in a period of fast-moving social change, asks Samir Sobhi

Egypt is now living through a very important stage in the building of the New Egypt. In order to keep pace with the 21st century, it has expanded the Suez Canal and is building a new administrative capital. However, even more than this Egypt has decided to build a new Egyptian character. 

The development of this will be subject to the political circumstances of the coming period. In the 1960s, diversity was the slogan repeated by writers and journalists, one intended to re-educate the population in modern values. However, this slogan was not efficiently spread throughout society as a whole and was too confined to the then socialist system.

The Nasserist political system of the time was keen to declare that the people themselves were the inspiration of their leaders, a statement appropriate to the circumstances of the period. But in the 1970s, things took an opposite direction, and many started to denounce Nasserist doctrines about the sovereignty of the people, declaring that this ideology had corrupted the Egyptian character by spreading the concepts of the rule of workers over businessmen.

This had confused the economic system, they said, and led to class hatred. 

The political circumstances of the 1970s and the wars of the 1960s and 1970s took their toll on the Egyptian character, and the associated economic collapse, unjustified hostility to so-called imperialism, and alliances with the Communist bloc at the time, all added to the burden on the Egyptian character. There was also the Peace Treaty with Israel and the difficult relations with the Palestinians. 

The history of modern Egypt began with the French Expedition in 1798, when the French general Napoleon Bonaparte carried out a military expedition to seize Egypt for French interests, attack British commerce, and undermine Britain’s access to India and the East. Egypt had been a province of the Ottoman Empire since 1517 at the time, but it had left direct Ottoman control and was in a state of disorder. People were excluded from political life, and there was dissension in the country’s ruling Mamluke elite. 

In France, by contrast, Egyptian fashions were in full swing. Many intellectuals believed that Egypt was the cradle of Western civilisation and wished to conquer it, and French business interests were already busy in Egypt, complaining of harassment by the Mamlukes. Napoleon wished to walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. But what actually happened was that the Egyptians remained largely outside history from the period of the invasion of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE until its first modern revolution. One foreign ruler succeeded another without allowing the Egyptian people any possibility of self-rule. 

The French withdrawal from Egypt in 1800 left a power vacuum. Mamluke power had been weakened, but not destroyed, and Ottoman forces clashed with the Mamlukes for power. During this period of turmoil, the Ottoman soldier Mohamed Ali used his loyal Albanian troops on both sides, in this way gaining power and prestige. As the conflict continued, the populace grew weary, and in 1801 Mohamed Ali allied himself with the Egyptian leader Omar Makram and the then grand imam of Al-Azhar. 

During the fighting between the Ottomans and Mamlukes between 1801 and 1805, Mohamed Ali carefully acted to gain the support of the Egyptian public. His approach was to eliminate the Mamluke leadership and then to move against the rank and file.

He took control of the government and blew the Mamlukes away forever, in so doing carving out a place for himself as the founder of modern Egypt and the instigator of dramatic reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres that led to the development of the modern state. 

The history of Egypt under British rule lasted from 1882, the year of the British invasion, until 1956 when the last British forces withdrew under the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement. During the period of British rule, a new Egyptian upper class emerged to replace the Ottomans and Circassians. However, while Egyptians were present in the administration during this period and made important contributions to the country’s political life, supreme authority still lay with the British. The establishment of a semi-feudal parliamentary system served the interests of the great landowners who controlled the government until the Free Officers Revolution in July 1952.  

Egypt then began a new political and social period that could have led it to the forefront among the world’s nations had it not been for the setback of the Israeli aggression in the June 1967 War. However, the true building of the Egyptian character should also have meant adopting policies that emphasised individual freedoms and the establishment of a parliamentary system that represented the people. 

Today, Egypt has some 76 million young people. This means that a vast young generation has not yet had its chance. This new generation has formed new groups and political parties, and it has also practised new patterns of expression, including strikes. The new generations are also acquiring their information through new forms of social media, while the previous ones used to learn what they needed to know through reading the biographies of famous figures such as Lutfi Al-Sayed, Mustafa Kamel and Sheikh Ali Youssef. 

We are now faced with new technologies, and new generations that want to catch up with new lifestyles. We return to the question of how the Egyptian and human character should best be built. 

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