Having inherited the legacy of the Pharaohs, I marvel at Egypt’s grandeur. With its rich history, natural resources, and dynamic culture, few can resist Egypt’s allure. Although the visceral image of Egypt as a desert, littered with pyramids and inhabited by camels, no way represents Egypt today, the stereotype is likely a lot more palatable to Westerners than the truth. Egypt is actually about as Arab as it gets—and nevertheless, a beacon of culture, art, and science for Arab countries around it. From Umm Kulthum, one of the greatest voices of our time, to Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, considered by many to be the greatest contemporary Arab writer of the 20th century, Egyptians have been the pride and glory of the Arab world since their heyday under Saladin.
Alas, a stroll down modern Cairo evokes none that sense of pride. Still touted as the “Arab Superpower,” Egypt remains underdeveloped and in desperate need of economic, political, and most importantly, social reform. The omnipresence of religion, along with a tradition of intransigence, result in endless social and political incongruities. The Egyptian constitution is replete with Caliphate-reminiscent laws that derive from religious texts, undermining the rights of minorities and women alike.
The whole social problem started with poverty. Along with an ever-stratified and inefficient government bureaucracy, people have been obliged to exploit fault lines in the moral fabric of society, leading to corruption. The average middle-to-upper class Egyptian doles out enough bribes to government officials to land him a 10-year sentence in a Western country, yet such actions are overtly overlooked as social idiosyncrasies. I have also come across no less than three ranking officers who bragged that they could drop a murder charge, or have it reduced to a misdemeanour in a matter of hours—for a nominal fee of course. Needless to say, few can afford to pay for their services.
To cope with everyday struggles (and there are many), Egyptians have developed a habit of blaming the government for any and all of the country’s shortcomings. Specifically, they make the case that during Hosni Mubarak’s 28-year, iron-fist reign as president, rampant corruption, unemployment, illiteracy, and a bedraggled education system have severely impaired the country’s economic progress.
They fail to note that, were it not for Mubarak’s deals with the United States, Egypt would have drowned in foreign debt back in the early ‘90s. Moreover, he managed to preserve a precarious peace agreement with Israel for almost three decades. It was also Mubarak who quashed a very real threat from radical fundamentalists that plagued Egypt in the ‘80s and much of the ‘90s.
There is no doubt that Mubarak’s efforts to contain terrorism have come at the expense of civil liberties, as his government worked to silence dissidence. Nevertheless, he has given radicals and fundamentalists a reason to think twice before enacting subversive activities that disturb the country’s delicate balance of secularism and piety.
Some religious fanatics actually have the audacity to call Mubarak out on his undemocratic leadership, particularly the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. If anything, the MB itself, which supposedly espouses the virtues of tolerance and democratic values, hopes to reinstate theocracy in Egypt by redrafting the constitution along sharia (Islamic law) lines. Alarmingly, they’ve gained a lot of ground.
With hypocrites threatening to take over the country, no wonder Mubarak decided to come down on them. Contrary to their propaganda, which you hear in mosques all around the country, Mubarak bears no more responsibility for the country’s moral failings than Egyptians themselves. As an example, consider a 2008 study conducted in Egyptian homes, which found that two-thirds of Egyptian men harass women, despite the fact that 80 per cent of them wear a veil. This is not a product of Mubarak’s secular policies, but rather of the MB’s own chauvinistic protocols.
Yet with all this, Egypt remains alive and well. The resolve of its people, as witnessed by centuries of history, has allowed it to persist, and who knows? Maybe one day Egypt can reconcile its internal strife, and rise to its former glory. Why not? One can dream.