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Old Time Religion
Old Time Religion
The New York Times featured an article yesterday on the frustrated youth in Egypt. Well written and insightful as it was, I feel that it neglects important historical precedents that are crucial to understanding Egypt’s situation.
Monday, February 18,2008 09:17

The New York Times featured an article yesterday on the frustrated youth in Egypt.  Well written and insightful as it was, I feel that it neglects important historical precedents that are crucial to understanding Egypt’s situation.

The Arab Middle East cycles through ideology like tissue paper. When you’ve used one up, it’s time to pull a new one out of the box. A flawed Ottoman concession-turned-natural right called Capitulations gave European nations ever increasing control over the economic system of the Sultan’s realm from the 16th century until the Golden Cage toppled in 1918.

Revolutionary leaders like Muhammad Ali Pasha and Selim III let in the beast that would eventually claim the independence of the Middle East in the name of progress. The European Industrial Revolution produced a standard that could not easily be matched in the agricultural Ottoman economy. Production relied on guilds of craftsmen, and trade predominantly occurred on the local and regional level.

Thus, the Ottomans invited the most powerful, and dangerous, force of the Industrial Revolution into the Sublime Porte: rather than building factories, they would build armies. Progress, to Muhammad Ali and Selim, meant military improvement. And Europe had guns. Lots of guns. However, the inclination to progress without building an internal production systems made the Empire increasingly dependent on Europe’s production.

Importing the best military minds and opening Western-style academies, the complex process of refining the art of war pulled all other sections of society up in a whirl of modernization. Medicine and engineering to support military campaigns flourished, land reform made farming more efficient. However, this all came at a price, and the debt incurred by the Ottomans and the autonomous Egyptian protectorate left them vulnerable to their benefactors. In moved Britain and France, and in the short, short version, a broken modern Middle East resulted.

The Arab intelligentsia spilled vats of ink in the hope of finding a solution. Qasim Amin wrote how only Western social innovation could save them, re-hashing the Victorian garbage of 20 years prior. A women-belong-in-the-home kind of deal, to build strong men. Many thought that Westernization was the answer. Disenchantment followed, and a sad string of Communist, Nationalist, Arabist and Pan-Arabist movements followed. Islamism is the latest trend, a religious solution to a social problem where secularism has failed each test.

Education in Egypt is free. Every student is guaranteed a college education and a government job. But the quality of learning and the salary of those jobs is inversely proportional to the number of students that try and capitalize on these ‘opportunities’. According to one of my taxi drivers (who was an engineer, by the way), police officers make 50 LE a month. That’s $9.12 USD.

The ideological void in the Middle East has been a problem for a long time. I think it’s interesting that the New York Times features Egypt’s delicate situation now, when the problem has turned from a decades-long game of secular roulette to a conservative religious gamble. The Muslim Brotherhood, one of many Islamist parties, is successful because it caters to the basic needs of the people. In Imbaba, a section of Cairo where many young graduates live, the Muslim Brotherhood offers much needed social services like childcare and soup kitchens, while the government, as mentioned in the article, “caters only to those who are close to the government.” The system begets and perpetuates its dissenters; quite the vicious circle.

I would ask that the New York Times and my own readers be cognizant of the fact that this is not as sudden occurrence, but the sad result of a process coupling Western arrogance and internal disorganization. Egypt is frustrated and tired of stagnation. And unfortunately, that doesn’t look like it will change any time soon.

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