Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt: Diametrically-opposed visions

The confrontation playing out in Egypt is truly historic, between a forward-looking, progressive vision and one that wants to erase the present and live in the past, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

From 1974 onwards, Egypt has fought a religiously inspired terrorism with a lull in terrorist attacks in two periods. The first came immediately after the assassination of President Anwar Al-Sadat on 6 October 1981 and lasted until 1992; the second began after the massacre in Luxor on 17 November 1997 and came to an end with the downfall of the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nowadays, Al-Qaeda is operating in Egypt, something that was unthinkable before January 2011.
Terrorism had struck in Egypt in the second half of the 1940s, and the secret wing of the Muslim Brotherhood was the initiator, planner and trigger. It still holds true today. As a matter of fact, all the armed groups that have been operating in Egypt in the last 70 years grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood and share its ideology. Their common objective has remained unchanged; namely, to restore the moribund Caliphate that had come to an end with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. Two years before the end of that decade the Muslim Brotherhood was established with the aim of recreating the Caliphate once again. Egypt has been the victim of this vision ever since. The terrorist attacks that take place throughout Egypt are directly related and inspired by this retrograde idea.
In the same 1920s, Egypt embarked on a transition from autocracy to democracy. In 1923, after one year of gaining a nominal independence from the British and four years after the 1919 Revolution, the country adopted a constitution that was meant to usher in a democratic system. Thus had begun what is referred to as the Liberal Era in the modern history of Egypt. Whether it deserves this qualification is another matter. The new Constitution embodied a vision for a country functioning and respecting the rule of law with its corollary that all citizens, regardless of creed, race or gender are equal before the law. This liberal era lasted from 1923 to 1952, the year the Free Officers Movement overthrew the monarchy and established the first republican regime in Egyptian history. It represented a complete break with the past and came out of a progressive vision for Egypt, sovereign and independent, progressive and modern. It provided the Egyptian people with an alternative, and what an alternative, to the idea of a religiously-inspired regime that would push Egypt back to the Middle Ages when rulers had exercised power in the name of God.
The alternative vision to the Caliphate has been essentially progressive. In this context, I do not separate the “Liberal Era” from the revolution of 23 July 1952 led by president Gamal Abdel- Nasser. I consider the two periods as a historic continuum, fully aware of the differences between the two eras. What they had had in common was the will and the determination to put Egypt on the road of progress in politics, governance and the socio-economic sphere. The main objective, or I would rather say the major driving force, that guided the Egyptian modernisers was to establish a modern state that would function as a constitutional democracy, assuring the people basic services to guarantee every Egyptian citizen a decent and acceptable standard of living. In this progressive vision, Egypt as a nation was at the forefront. State institutions would cater to the national aspirations of the people — no Muslims and no Copts, but only Egyptians, most and foremost.
The idea of the Caliphate is a complete negation of Egypt as a nation state. It is also in contradiction with the historical identity of Egyptians. Islam has been a building block in this identity but is not its only element. Egyptian identity has been shaped by more than 7000 years of an intense historical experience at the crossroads of civilisations and cultures. To impose a Caliphate in Egypt means the destruction of this historical identity, which seems next to impossible. Hence, the fierce onslaught on state institutions after 30 June and 3 July 2013.
Back in the 1930s, a young Egyptian thinker, Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, wrote an article on the idea of progress and change in Egypt. It was the inter-war period and the world teemed with new ideas and values that had not spared Egypt, fortunately. He took the Muslim Brotherhood as a counter example to the idea of positive change in societies. It is all the more so today, almost eight decades after the article was published.
It is striking when analysing the communiqués of the terrorist group known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis to find that it addresses only Muslims when warning people not to get near army and police camps. The “Egyptian” does not exist in their discourse. And this goes true for all forces of political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of their leaders, once they were in power, talked of pushing the Christians out of the country after 10 years. They wanted to repeat what has been going on in both Iraq and Syria: chasing the Christians out of their homelands. Early on in the Syrian uprising, demonstrators, who were mostly Sunnis, chanted “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the caskets.” The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, back then, orchestrated the demonstrations. Today, Al-Qaeda has replaced them and is destroying the very fabric of Syrian society, operating under the name of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”. Also present is another affiliate of Al-Qaeda, called Al-Nusra Front. The two groups are trying to have a foothold in Lebanon carrying the same labels, but substituting Lebanon for Iraq and Syria. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis in Egypt is the code-name for Al-Qaeda.
The terror wave that has struck Egypt lately comes within the context of replacing the modern state in Egypt with an Islamist system that would link with Syria and Iraq at a later stage. Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine would come under attack when the international and regional configuration of power would allow. Saudi Arabia would be attacked from its northern borders as well as from the south through Yemen. Egypt was the beach-head in this redrawing of the map in the Arab world. Probably this is the reason why the reaction to the downfall of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo has been so vehement and bloody.
The fight between the nationalist and secular vision and the Islamist vision within Egypt will not subside in the near future unless a new set of leaders and thinkers appear to incarnate the true aspirations of the Egyptian people for a true democracy, the rule of law, equality of opportunity for all, narrowing the wealth gap between the haves and the haves-not, good governance, and fighting poverty and illiteracy. In other words: to reconnect once again with the progressive vision of our fathers and grandfathers.
May be those who had taken to the streets three years ago were not fully aware of the historical forces pulling Egypt in opposite directions. But one thing is sure. They have fallen victim to the ongoing clash between the two competing visions for the heart and soul of Egypt. They have been momentarily saved by the June Revolution. Judging by what is said and written nowadays, I am not sure they have a grasp of the historic significance of the confrontation that is being played out, not only within the country, but also throughout the Arab world in the Middle East.
Egypt is at a crossroads. The challenge is whether we are united behind a progressive Egypt, democratic, sovereign and independent, or Egypt going back 1400 years. Let us hope that the so-called “revolutionaries” will choose the former. Undoubtedly, the majority of Egyptians stand firmly behind an Egypt of the 21st century.
But make no doubt about it. Egypt will ride out the present storm.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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