ON PAPER, POLITICAL philosophies today often seem like mere words, the stuff of history books, but tens of thousands of Egyptians have fought, died or otherwise suffered for supporting the principles they convey. As the movements of yesteryear fade into oblivion, they have given rise to other political ideologies certain to dominate public debate for years to come.
Nationalism was arguably the most significant of the ’isms in the past three decades. After years of being under foreign rule, post-Second World War Egypt was fighting for independence, based on the notion of the modern Egyptian nation-state. Its slogan: “Egypt is for Egyptians.”
Post-revolution, the catchphrases were Arabism and Pan-Arabism as Nasser raised the banner of Arab unity and solidarity. Those ideals, once so heady and intoxicating that they saw Egypt, Iraq and Syria form the United Arab Republic in 1958, came crashing down with the bitter defeat of 1967, cruelly awakening the nation to the fact that it had all but exhausted its human and financial resources on wars small and large: Border wars with the Jewish State. The 1962-70 Yemen War, from which Egypt pulled out in 1967 at the cost of thousands of lives. 1967 and the War of Attrition that followed.
Still, nationalism (or Arab nationalism, at least) continued drawing the occasional breath until President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1978-79; then, the edifice of Arab solidarity collapsed like a house of cards. Neighboring countries, angry at Egypt’s “betrayal,” severed all ties with Sadat’s regime.
After Sadat’s assassination, President Hosni Mubarak launched a sustained diplomatic campaign to restore ties between Egypt and the Arab world, and while few Arabs now believe in Arab nationalism, the slogan’s charms still persist: To this day, Arab leaders play the same tune, calling for a common Arab market, Arab summits and Arab unity despite their chronic inability to turn the signed agreements or recommendations into reality.
On the other hand, some have embraced the notion of “liberal democratic capitalism,” an amalgam of concepts embodied in the “democratic West.” The notion has currency among the nation’s elite, but not at the street level.
(Hasan Jamali /Associated Press )
|An elderly woman holds up a picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser as she overlooks a demonstration against the emergency law and rising prices held outside the People’s Assembly building.|
In an earlier era, Egyptians were willing to fight and die for the ’isms of their age. Elsewhere in the Arab world and, indeed, around the globe, some remain willing to make the supreme sacrifice for a greater cause, whether in Palestine, Iraq or on the shores of the West.
At home, political ideologies such as globalization or the local incarnation of capitalism seem to most as being directed by forces far beyond the average Egyptian citizen’s control.
Awareness and understanding of these ideologies and their long-term impact on Egyptians’ daily lives remains low among a people whose primary concern is not rallying to a patriotic cause, but rather the search for their daily bread. Whether one can capture the imagination of the nation the way Nasserism once did is anyone’s guess.
THE NATION’S LIBERAL voices were firmly quashed by the revolution, as Nabil Abdel Fattah, a leading political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, notes. But after the defeat of 1967, Nasser’s March 30 declaration hinted that society needed to move toward liberalization.
Once in office, Sadat quickly offered more freedom to political parties and their newspapers as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. The sweet freedoms were short-lived, though, as the new president, sensitive about his lack of popular support compared to that Nasser once enjoyed, soon turned on his opponents, particularly the socialists, whom he had arrested and tortured. Fearing for their lives, many fled the country.
Although Sadat remained steadfast in his commitment to a liberal economy, he let little of that liberalization carry over into politics. His regime discouraged political participation and dissenting opinions.
Mubarak took a different approach, taking baby steps toward welcoming the opposition back into the public sphere. By that time, however, the nation’s opposition had become too weak to be effective sustained and significant financial and organizational problems had rendered many parties virtually useless. More significantly, the regime continued to deny most opposition parties access to any public forums, whether university campuses or the street-corner soap box.
As such, the opposition was marginalized in society (the notable exceptions being El-Wafd and El-Tagammua) and blamed its weak presence on the government and its omnipresent National Democratic Party (NDP), which had and continues to have a monopoly on power and the channels of communication to the public.
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Civil society institutions in Egypt, be they political parties, NGOs, professional associations or trade unions, not to mention the media, have continued to face legal restrictions and government control. Activists have been hounded over the past 25 years for their reports on human rights violations. The 1999 NGO law, originally designed to give civil society a “safe space,” was condemned by people it was supposed to protect, who saw some of its more draconian provisions as yet another way to control their activities and strip them of their financial and administrative independence.
Lately, however, the NDP has started a dialogue with the opposition in what some say is a genuine bid to reach some kind of common ground. While critics question the ruling party’s commitment to reform, there is no denying that NGOs and the media are getting stronger. As political analysts explain, both are playing a more active role in criticizing current affairs and calling for political and economic reform.
Still, most are so busy criticizing, attacking, and pointing out problem areas that they stop far short of offering viable solutions. The failure to be constructive, some claim, has harmed the opposition’s effectiveness almost as much as the state’s restrictions did 10 or even five years ago.
“Let’s put it this way,” says Abdel-Fattah, “liberalism has always been ignored by the powers that be in Egypt. They all treated it lightly, longing to replace it with other ‘isms.’ The Islamist groups perceived liberalism as a shallow ideology, one that would never have enough supporters; likewise groups calling for Arab socialism.
“But the liberal ideology is not as simple or weak as they all claim, and its accomplishments can’t be downplayed.”
|Demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq.|
It is, many believe, the wave of the future.
Islamism and Secularism
ANOTHER FORCE LIKELY to remain in play in the coming decade is the ongoing battle between Islamists and secularists.
Islamists continue to call for society to go back to shariah and implement its principles to solve today’s most complex problems. The capital-letter notion that “Islam Is The Solution” is more than the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan it’s unquestioningly believed by many average citizens.
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Public intellectuals, on the other hand, are adamant in their call for a more secular society in which religion is separated from politics and the state. But as Abdel Fattah explains, “Secularists have been a weak trend in society. They were dealt strong blows, and some of them weren’t strong enough to confront the Islamist wave, while others preferred to go with the flow, wearing many masks the secularist, the Islamist, the liberal, the conservative so that they wouldn’t be denounced as apostates or unbelievers.”
I still remember my interview with Kamal Abdullah, whose book A Psychoanalysis of Prophets was censored by Al-Azhar on the basis that prophets are above criticism and aren’t to be judged on human terms, let alone psychoanalyzed. Abdullah admitted he didn’t want to be labeled an apostate writer, saying that it would simply be the end of his career. Instead, he resolved to gradually and slowly introduce new issues and ideas, hoping that with time people would open up and become more tolerant and analytical.
Sayed Qimny, a secularist writer who one day hopes to live in a secular state that has no official religion, has been “consumed in this struggle,” as he puts it, complaining that the criminal offense of “despising religion” has been extensively used against secularists. While the government is working to guarantee citizens access to a free marketplace for consumer goods, it isn’t always as welcoming to a free marketplace for ideas, he claims.
Yet what stands as a matter of fact is that global changes and attacks against Islam, particularly after September 11, have nurtured the two trends in unique ways: Some in society are becoming more religious in a reactionary way; at the same time, others are opening up to the West in an attempt to correct misconceptions about Islam.
Only time will tell which current is stronger.
Amr Nabil/Associated Press
|First lady Suzanne Mubarak has been a leading force in the battle for women’s rights.|
WITH EACH ATTACK on civilians, the Western notion that Islam nurtures violence and terrorism grows, as does the clash with the West it’s a vicious circle. Closer to home, the story of militant Islam is an old one, and Egypt was one of the first countries to suffer from it.
Official pleas from the regime to foreign countries like England and the US to hand over fugitive Islamist militants fell on deaf ears for years. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that law enforcement and intelligence sharing on terrorist suspects and activities improved.
Sadat became one of the first victims of militant Islamism when his regime was declared heretical and hence a legitimate target for overthrow by good Muslims by the same Islamist leaders he released from prison in the early and mid-1970s. The Mubarak era inherited the Islamists’ wrath and a still-burning desire for rule by shariah.
The militants, bent on their mission, started a wave of violence in the country in the late 1980s.
Security officers and government officials became targets in what quickly grew into an all-out war, and Mubarak himself narrowly survived an assassination attempt during a visit to Addis Ababa in June 1995. Secularist intellectuals and writers weren’t spared, either. A year before the Mubarak attack, a failed attempt on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life for his novel Awlad Haretna (Children of the Alley) shocked society and led the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights to coin the term “intellectual terrorism.”
Mahfouz wasn’t the first to be targeted. In 1992, militants from Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya gunned down Farag Foda, the outspoken intellectual and writer, outside his office in Cairo. Beyond the capital, Upper Egypt was the site of sporadic violence between militants and security forces, with the death toll mounting on both sides.
“The state of emergency was declared to crush the wave of terrorism, and security authorities have had the upper hand in the country ever since,” says Abdel-Fattah. “Hundreds of members of Islamist groups were rounded up and arrested some of whom may not have been affiliated with militant groups. There were common jokes that authorities in one of their raids arrested a group of bearded men only to find out one of them was Christian. The whole issue was hyped up.”
Hype or no, terrorists did succeed in crippling Egypt’s lucrative tourism industry with strategically planned attacks. Islamist militants started shooting at trains and tour buses. The worst incidents were the killing of 18 Greek tourists and wounding of 17 others in Cairo in April 1996 when militants opened fire on their tour bus and the devastating Luxor massacre of November 1997, in which more than 60 people died.
Mubarak responded by waging his own, very effective, war against terrorism, conducting a campaign of mass arrests and financial crackdowns against Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, as well as other Islamist groups, throughout the 1990s.
March 1999 saw a landmark victory for anti-terrorism when the state brokered a ceasefire with the exhausted Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, the terrorist group responsible for many of the attacks on tourists. In the prison dialogue that followed, hundreds of Islamists were released from jail in 2003, among them Al-Gam’aa leader Karam Zuhdi, who expressed regret for his role in Sadat’s assassination in 1981.
THE INTERNATIONAL WAR against terrorism is but one face of a bigger ’ism of our era: globalization. Forget about McDonald’s, Cinnabon, and Coke: Egyptian society has been under pressure to integrate into an increasingly globalized economic and intellectual community.
Egypt’s integration into the global economy, though, has been blocked by slow privatization, limited support for small and medium enterprises, and poor funding for research and development programs. Moreover, the economy hasn’t capitalized on the advantages offered by foreign direct investment, technology, and the transfer of skills.
As technology has become the driving force behind industrialization, developing a local technology base and IT infrastructure has become a prerequisite for private-sector growth. To jump onto the IT bandwagon, Egypt has launched satellite channels in an attempt to counteract messages beamed by other Arab and foreign media. As the nation’s first minister of communication and information technology beginning in 1998, Ahmed Nazif eliminated land-line waiting lists, brought the internet into every home with a telephone line and expanded high-speed internet access nationwide, among other achievements. His reward: Being named prime minister in July 2004.
Egyptians were divided into those who saw globalization as the source of all evils an attempt to destroy the essence of our culture and national identity and those who welcomed the process as an inescapable, natural and favorable condition for progress and integration into the world community.
Eighteen months ago, we saw the formation of the Egyptian Anti-globalization Group, which condemns American economic and military hegemony and calls for a boycott of US products. Others are not losing too much sleep over the issue. For them, the whole anti-globalization trend is a big joke there’s no way, they say, of moving out of the global village.
IF YOU WERE around for the Sadat era, you’re probably familiar with the term “getting out of the bottleneck.” The former president promised his people that life would get better and they would reap the fruits of his policies, but only if they remained patient.
After burying the socialist policies of his predecessor, Sadat breathed life in 1975 into the Infitah, (Open-Door) economic policy designed to encourage private and foreign investment and reduce the state’s role in economy. Soon after, Gulf Arab investment started flowing into the country and foreign aid increased.
Although the economy boomed, the benefits of economic liberalization didn’t trickle down to those most in need of help, and wealth remained unevenly distributed. While the number of millionaires rose from 500 in 1975 to 17,000 in 1981, the condition of the urban and rural poor worsened. The new policy gave rise to what analysts termed the nouveau riche, and the Infitah came with a price: In 1977, the International Monetary Fund (IMF, the global financial institution set up along with the World Bank at Bretton Woods in 1944) dictated the removal of subsidies on basic foodstuffs, paving the way for national food riots. The IMF was forced to back down and reschedule Egypt’s loans, and the US increased its foreign aid levels.
By 2000, Egypt had become a top aid recipient, having received a total of $24.3 billion, including some $2 billion a year from the United States under the terms of the Camp David peace accords. Mubarak continued Sadat’s Open Door policy, and negotiations with the IMF and Paris Club of creditors led to the rescheduling of billions in debt. The US later forgave $7 billion in military debt in return for Egypt’s participation in the First Gulf War.
“People felt that the regime was under the thumb of US foreign aid, that they get their instructions from the Big Mama that gives them their allowance,” says lawyer and human rights activist Mohammed Zahran, a prominent liberal. “So, at these times, calls for boycotting foreign aid and adopting the sort of isolationist policy of Syria and Libya enjoyed a certain degree of popularity among intellectuals and thinkers who perceived foreign aid as both the carrot and the stick.
“Its direct result? Foreign intervention in our policies and a willingness to reshape our identity.”
So what happened to Egyptians 25 years after Sadat’s promise? It appears they’re still stuck. The money seems to go everywhere but into the pockets of the poor. Privatization encouraged by the IMF in December 1993 became the slogan of the day, yet it moved with glacial slowness due to the state-owned enterprises’ debts, overstaffing and, on occasion, conflict between ministries.
“The dilemma is in the schizophrenic state of the regime,” Zahran says. “They privatize the economy, yet Islamize politics, squash general freedoms, then wonder what went wrong.”
“For years, Al-Azhar and religious scholars warned us that bank interest is haram, driving even well-educated people to boycott financial institutions, which are the backbone of any economy,” he continues. “When the regime realized the crisis in which it found itself, it gave the green light for Sheikh Al-Azhar to give his blessing and finally declare that banks are halal. Yet people are still suspicious. This is not the right mix.
“Remember the boycott campaign? The majority of society seriously believed that McDonald’s and Coke and whatever foreign investment in Egypt should be boycotted, despite the fact that these places employed Egyptian nationals at a time when there weren’t enough job opportunities in the first place. You would discuss the issue with intellectuals and tell them, ‘But you’re destroying our economy.’ They would just shrug their shoulders, asking, ‘What economy?’” Zahran notes.
After Mubarak urged banks to back private investors with proper loans, a new crisis emerged.
“There were serious private businessmen who could have made a difference, but they were spoiled rotten,” Zahran claims. “And because of all the corruption and bureaucracy, they started projects that they never finished. Some of the big names raised their voices that the state owes them money, and doesn’t want to pay, so they really couldn’t settle their debts with the banks, but those voices were quickly quieted. Unfortunately, others have jumped at the opportunity, cashing in and then out, dealing a huge blow to Egypt’s banking system as billions of dollars were embezzled.”
In sum, the sale of public-sector holdings and the continuation of privatization didn’t seem to be the magic wand economists believed they would be. The government still woos foreign and local investors in the hope they will be convinced that Egypt is the right place, but to no avail: FDI dipped from more than $2 billion a year in the late 1990s to $0.5 billion last year. Mega projects like Toshka attracted a handful of big investors, including Saudi tycoon Al-Waleed bin Talal, but while some believe Toshka is Egypt’s future, others claim those investing there will spend the rest of their lives waiting for results.
While Dubai and other Gulf states succeeded in attracting investors almost overnight (in economic terms) by pacing their policies, enforcing laws, cutting bureaucracy and increasing investment opportunities, Egypt lags far behind.
Still, there may be light at the end of the tunnel: Today, the nation is holding its breath as the Nazif government starts a Ministry for Investment with a mandate to slash the red tape hindering new business ventures.
Will Egyptians get out of the bottleneck in the coming 25 years? Again, only time will tell.
HODA SHAARAWI WOULD have been proud of her successors had she been around today. Women’s rights organizations and activists have gained a fair degree of prominence in recent years. The backlash has been such that some even jokingly claim that an NGO defending men’s rights should be a priority in today’s world.
We can see many a feminist writer or activist frowning, protesting that women have just taken the first steps toward political and intellectual recognition, and that there’s still a long way to go.
The modern women’s rights movement got a shot in the arm when then-First Lady Jehan Sadat led a campaign to amend the nation’s personal status laws in what some called “Jehan’s law.” She met fierce opposition denouncing presidential decree 44 for the year 1979 as a conspiracy against shariah.
Since then, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak has picked up the torch for women’s rights and the victories have begun to trickle in. After years running to the courts to get a divorce, women now have the right to khulaa, despite the controversy over the edict. The new marriage contract that gives women rights to dictate certain clauses to which their partners must agree saw the light of day in the mid-1990s.
Mubarak herself has led a campaign to eradicate illiteracy among women, especially in villages. She also started up the National Council for Women, helping women to take part in political life through elections. Tahani El-Gebali, the nation’s first female judge, was appointed almost two years ago, and strong rumors claim that the near future will see female governors as well.
But while more women now have more opportunities in the labor force, many jobs, particularly in leadership positions, remain effectively reserved for men. And with more men going to the Gulf in search of better job opportunities, many more households in Egypt have become female-dominated.
Still, for feminists, there’s still a long way to go before women can claim all their legal, financial and political rights. et