from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Guest Post: Egypt Revisited

January 17, 2012

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Today’s post features a guest blog by Nervana Mahmoud, a British-Egyptian anesthesiologist and blogger known to many through her commentary on Twitter as @Nervana_1. She recently returned to Egypt and reports on what she found.

The Egypt I knew and grew up in was a laid-back country, almost resigned to its fate. Earlier this month, I came back to visit after some years abroad only to see a nation on the edge, anxious and confused. Egypt today is trying to come to terms with its past and present, and struggling to define its vision for the future. Rather than drawing a single unified conclusion about what Egypt is today, I left with a mélange of disparate impressions. Here are four:

First, when it comes to Egypt, neither the terms “liberal” nor “Islamist” accurately apply. These confused definitions reflect a deeper identity crisis that has slowly emerged since the late twentieth century and continues to haunt Egypt to date. The group people lump together as liberals has really abandoned the pioneer project of their predecessors, which aimed at the reformation of Islamic thought together with adopting certain Western values. Instead, today’s so-called liberals are really an eclectic mix of leftists, socialists, and even anarchists with no coherent, solid goal or strategy.

The same applies for the so-called Islamists. First, it is inaccurate to confine Egyptian Islamism to the Brotherhood and the Salafists. There are wider varieties of viewpoints and greater shades of grey within the “Islamist” camp. Many observers wrongly conflate religiosity with Islamism. While the majority of Egyptians are religious, many reject coercion, and the imposition of a strict Islamic code. Not every Muslim voted for the Islamists out of ideology; some decided to vote for them because their local Islamist candidate had a long, respectable record of serving the community. Others viewed them as the best of a bad bunch.

Second, I was struck by the lack of change in Egypt’s approach toward education, one that has far-reaching implications for the society today.  Problem-based learning is virtually nonexistent in public schools today in Egypt. Instead, didactic teaching and rote memorization are the main educational styles. I met many mothers who were preoccupied with stuffing their children’s brains (or hiring someone else to do the job) with mostly useless information for the sake of exam papers. The children are not being trained to think critically. The same method is used in religious study. Egypt’s open intellectual culture in the early part of the twentieth century has been slowly replaced by a dogmatic, unidirectional way of thinking which was imported steadily from the Gulf. The concept of scholars debating publicly is totally alien to many today (even within the same religion). Inevitably, it has had a tremendous impact on society’s collective ability to produce a coherent vision for the future. They simply have no syllabus for tomorrow.

Third, the means of dress adopted by Egyptians reflects a deliberate choice by Islamic parties to place style over substance as the quickest way to spread their influence. As a result, beards, the hijab, and even the niqab have become a fast track approach to achieve a false sense of superiority, rather than reflect a genuine desire to adopt a higher ethical or moral code. In addition, Islamists have become more focused on winning hearts and minds, rather than formulating solid nation-building projects. This could explain the confused signals and contradictory statements from many of their leaders following their election victory.

Fourth, Egypt today is blighted with several types of ghettos. It is one of Mubarak’s obscene legacies. One type is for the rich in the form of gated communities that shelter their inhabitants from the “jealous public.” Others, slated for the poor, are rundown shanty towns. Indeed, there are even ghettos for tourists. Rather than developing impoverished neighborhoods, the regime opts for an easier approach by erecting barrier walls around tourist destinations. The Pyramids in Giza are a good example, where a security wall separates them from the surrounding impoverished neighborhood. Inevitably, this has created stereotypes, misconceptions, and inherent insecurities. Even in the open city of Cairo, many, particularly religious minorities (Christians and Baha’is), have developed a kind of mental map beyond which they will not pass and which prevents them from interacting fully with the wider Egyptian society.

In short, I found an Egyptian society confused about basic issues of identity, no longer engaged in rational thinking, obsessed by its outward appearances and dress codes, and imprisoned within sub-communities. No wonder it has lost its previous political diversity and has become increasingly skewed toward the conservative side.

Nonetheless, I still met many ordinary Egyptians from every walk of life who are smart, shrewd, and acutely aware of their country’s current political confusion. It is precisely because of them, the people, that I am optimistic about the revolution. Egyptians have broken the barrier of fear, and are willing to address the challenges ahead. Their greatest task is to confront their collective demons, re-embrace rational thinking, and address issues of social justice. Only by replacing a veneer of liberalism and Islamism with a genuine liberal Islamism will it be possible for Egypt to emerge successfully from its current political crisis.


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