Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Out of the cave

While free and forward looking thought has been under attack in Egypt, the modern experience established by Mohamed Ali has momentum, writes Samir Sobhi

Al-Ahram Weekly

When Mohamed Ali was launching Egypt onto a path of modernity, his efforts were often obstructed by a host of foreign powers that took a gloomy view of his intentions. Ottoman Turkey, nominally Egypt’s master, was worried. And the English sent their fleet, under Fraser, to Egypt in 1807, just as Mohamed Ali was trying to consolidate his rule.

But it was the French who first tried to grab Egypt from Ottoman hands, and although they withdrew only three years into their occupation, their brief occupation of the country left its mark, perhaps to this day.

The scientists who came to Egypt with the Napoleonic expedition in 1798 dusted off the country’s glorious history, and the nascent political arrangements of the period offered the foundation on which secular rule was subsequently established.

Historian Younan Labib Rizk even argues that the French set the stage for tourism, the industry that brought Egypt to world attention, and that is still crucial to its economy and self-image. Throughout the 20th century, politicians and poets, writers and filmmakers, looked back to the country’s Pharaonic tradition with a mix of puzzled adoration and enduring pride.

And the world echoed this sentiment, seeing Egypt as the cradle of early civilisation and the birthplace of central government.

Yet, it was also in Egypt that a breed of men emerged that questioned the legacy of the country’s history. For them, the achievements of the ancients were nothing but a misguided path to idolatry. The monuments, the sculptures, the science and mystery, for them, were but a heathen creation that must be denied and repudiated. The Ottomans, one has to be reminded, didn’t think better of the monuments, nor did they treasure them as a worthy heirloom of the region’s progenitors.

There is a tradition, one has to admit, of reactionary views in this region — one that sees history as irrelevant, if not hazardous to true faith. And, not coincidentally, those who challenge the worth of our history are the same people who challenge the worth of the secular state.

To be part of history is to be part of modernity. To understand our presence, we must remember the past, for it sheds light on all that came afterwards. Only the past shows us how much we have moved ahead, or how far we have fallen behind.

Egypt’s greatest gift to civilisation is not confined to science and philosophy, or the pursuit of material endeavour and spiritual growth. Egypt was also one of the few countries that were governed for 6,000 years by a central government.

This fact was not lost on Mohamed Ali, who restored confidence to the nation when he did the unthinkable, which is to train Egyptians as professional soldiers rather than maintain the Ottoman tradition of sub-contracting warlords as local chieftains.

Militarily, Mohamed Ali turned the Egyptian army into an Egyptian institution, which set the scene for secular society that was soon to emerge.

Mohamed Ali espoused natural science and secular philosophy, which drew upon European achievements. And he allowed a fledgling bourgeoisie to emerge, a mixed class of intelligentsia and artists to coalesce, and backed all of this with the creation of educational and cultural institutions of which some exist to this day.

These achievements turned Egypt into a cultural hub for the Arab world, and the future leader of art and politics decades later. It is a tradition that is still alive, but some want to forget it.

We cannot allow this to happen. We cannot allow this country to become an aberration in the 21st century.

Nearly two centuries after Mohamed Ali’s time, the roots of enlightened theology and secular tradition are under threat, and Egypt has to fight back.

We have to fight for the traditions we have been given. We have to fight for the new generation to read and understand the writings of Hassan Al-Attar, Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, Ali Mubarak and Mohamed Abdu in the 19th century. And we must pay tribute to the great minds of the early decades of the 20th century: Lotfi Al-Sayed, Hussein Heikal, Taha Hussein, Abbas Al-Akkad, Salama Moussa and Georgi Zeidan.

The reversal of these traditions has been brutal as it is counterproductive. The reversal that began when Anwar Al-Sadat tried to counter his leftist opponents with the advocates of political Islam has been a scourge to this country.

Egypt is at a watershed, and we have to choose. Either we accept the freedom of the mind or we stick to tradition and make free thinking a taboo — which would please many I believe, but wreck any hope we have of moving forward.

During the Ottoman era, new ideas were considered an anathema in Egypt and the Arab world. This is what the playwright Tawfik Al-Hakim addressed in “People of the Cave.” Commenting on the resurgence of modernity in Egypt, Al-Hakim described the cultural shock that happens when a nation awakes from a slumber that had lasted for centuries.

Egypt made good use of the cultural shock that the French Expedition brought to its land. It is now a country that is proud of its past and forward looking in its thinking. And it is not going back.

Those who want it to go back are advised to return to their caves, where they belong.


The writer is a senior editor at Al-Ahram.

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