Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1167, (3 - 9 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Towards new horizons

As the country embarks on a new attempt to institute a modern and democratic state, every effort must be made to ensure that this does not peter out into a refusal to institute real change, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

For some reason I keep thinking about Egyptian director Shadi Abdel-Salam’s celebrated film The Mummy, in English The Night of Counting the Years, these days. For the past two weeks I’ve been shuttling back and forth between Washington and New York where I’ve been taking part in various seminars and discussions on Egypt. Amidst the shifts between the various political and economic dimensions of the latest developments back home, I have been trying to unravel the riddle behind Egypt’s historical evolution. Abdel-Salam’s film has helped me to do so.

The film is set in the 19th century in the village of Al-Hirba nestled between the rocky cliffs of Luxor, where the chief source of livelihood is plundering antiquities and selling them to foreigners. To the villagers, these ancient artefacts are meaningless effigies and talismans and it is a mystery to them why foreigners and city dwellers should be so interested in them. The life of Wanis, the son of the village sheikh, then takes a major turn when he discovers that these artefacts are the vestiges of a major civilisation in which the origins of his country lie.

Wanis grows restless and rebellious as a result. His eyes have been opened, and he can no longer resign himself to the attitude of his elders that “this is how things have always been since our fathers and their fathers before them.” The villagers will have to change their way of life, he thinks. However, the village is set in its ways and, almost to a man, is unwilling to change. More significantly, the middleman for the foreign purchasers knows this as well. In fact, he is so confident in this knowledge that when the villager Salim fails to show up at the appointed time to deliver his merchandise, the trader remarks that “we can always find another Salim.”

This, then, was Abdel-Salam’s question. Will Egypt always remain the same? Will there always be another Salim? Or can this country change after all we have learned about the world and how far we are lagging behind it? Can we, as a nation, hold on to our dignity while we continue to live on loans, grants and aid and while more than a quarter of the population — around 23 million people — are illiterate and live below the poverty line?

I have refused to resign myself to Egypt’s constant failure over recent decades to grasp the concept and purpose of the modern, civil and democratic state. From the 25 January Revolution through to the 30 June Revolution I was not alone in asking whether we would finally succeed where other attempts had failed and attain the goal that has been reached by more than 80 other nations. I was impressed by the resolve expressed by our leaders who, individually and collectively, have said that we cannot afford to fail this time. Success is the only option because the costs of the alternative are too great for the state, the society and the future generations whose hopes rest on what happens today.

Optimism, determination and persistence are undoubtedly the order of the day. However, we are still recovering from the experience of the very recent past, which brought a project to take the country not to a brighter future but to a distant Ottoman past. Towards this end, the Muslim Brotherhood struck up alliances with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and with a contingent of revolutionary youth who had believed that the country would be steered toward a civil state but then woke up to the realisation that it was in fact being led in the opposite direction.

From the historical standpoint, that was a momentous setback. However, we are once again on the threshold of a new age, and another attempt, the opportunity of which I for one had not believed would come so quickly, is in progress to take the country forward once again.

But efforts do not succeed solely on the basis of vows that failure is not an option. They succeed when we summon the courage to change our ways of life and move away from the rut of failure. My hope, as we set off on this latest endeavour together, is that we will be courageous enough to take a good look at our miserable track record of ambitious attempts that have quickly petered out and ended in defeat or setback — it makes no difference which. The fact is that the practical meaning of the options of failure and success is that either we remain the same (as was the case with the Al-Hirba villagers in Abdel-Salam’s film) or that we change substantially enough to ensure that there will never be another Salim.

It is only if we do the latter that we will once again be within reach of the great civilisation that the ancient Egyptians realised thousands of years ago.

I will venture to suggest here three ideas of overarching historical and strategic significance that I believe have been instrumental to the failures I have in mind. I am addressing the public at large when I make these points, but I would also like to address the leaders of the country and those who are currently responsible for taking the crucial decisions. I specifically have in mind the members of the Committee of Fifty who are currently working on drafting the country’s new constitution.

The first point concerns the ownership of land in Egypt, a right from which the vast majority of Egyptians had been deprived for more than 6,000 years. Throughout history, the millions of square kilometres of Egyptian land were always the property of the state, as embodied in the ruler, whether pharaoh, wali, king or president. The Khedive Said, the fourth ruler of modern Egypt after Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim and Abbas, was the first ruler to grant titles to agricultural land to Egyptian nationals, and this was the second major step, after the creation of a national army, in the development of modern Egypt.

The private ownership of agricultural land generated what was called the class of notables, from which emerged the “effendi” class that would staff the government bureaucracy and then the communities of Egyptian industrialists, bankers and others who provided the funds and services that fed the cities and enabled the rise of new ones in the Suez Canal zone. These emergent classes paved the way to the independence of the state in 1922.

However, nearly a century after Said’s reforms, Egyptians today own no more than seven per cent of the land, while the state — theoretically at least — possesses the remaining 93 per cent. Yet, the government, as well as investors, is constantly complaining of the lack of land suitable for economic activity, while the absence of privately owned land has evolved into a national security crisis in Sinai and along the country’s western borders. Citizenship will remain a vague and abstract concept until it is translated into tangible terms in the form of land owned by Egyptians and put to use for agriculture, industry and services that serve the people of Egypt.

The second point is that the Egyptian riparian state has not only always been associated with despotism, but also that it will reach the end of its economic viability when the population reaches the 100 million mark. I have long held that Egypt can become a maritime country of the first order and that, in order to do so, it can develop the deserts and transform them from barren no-man’s lands into passageways between urbanised areas on the coasts of Sinai, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. There is no great rule to the riparian state that has been fixed and immutable since our fathers and their fathers before them. On the contrary, Egypt’s genius leads towards a maritime state complete with a thirst for adventure, the spirit of initiative, mutability and interchange with others.

The third point is that a country of 93 million people can no longer sustain the current over-centralisation, a condition that should not leave us wondering why democracy never seems to gain a foothold here, why dictatorship prevails, and why there are always other Salims to serve every new ruler. If Egypt is truly to become a new country, and if we are to avert yet another failure, there is no alternative but to institute a decentralised system of government to enable development initiatives, efficiency in resource management, and a healthy mutual dependency between the country’s various provinces.

What is happening at present in Upper Egypt and other regions cannot be ignored or circumvented by talk about the country’s identity and the question of Sharia Law. The crux of the Egyptian question is neither of these, but rather lies in how Egyptians are to share in wealth and power. The three points that I discussed above seek to furnish an answer to this question, not from the standpoint of how to redistribute what we own or what is owned by certain groups among us, but rather of how to generate new horizons for the development of a country that is very rich but whose inhabitants often remain very poor.

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