My friend Hisham Melham, Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau chief, dean of the Beltway-based Arab press corps, farmer, and intellectual with few peers, wrote a piece that appeared over the weekend called “Whatever is the matter with Egypt?” It is a terrific question and one that I have been rolling around in my head for some time, but especially since two Sundays ago when I celebrated my birthday. That morning my lovely wife did what has become de rigueur in the era of Facebook: She posted a photo of me with my daughters wishing me a wonderful day. Among my many well-wishers, an old friend from Cairo posted the following: “Happy birth day Steve hoping you all the best. It might be good idea to visit Egypt after the inauguration of the new Suez Canal. You might change your position or at least sympathize with huge challenges facing Egypt. Take care.” I was happy to hear from my friend and just dismissed the added commentary about my work, thinking “Par for the course in Egypt these days, but—wow!—it is like the dude could not help himself.” I guess I had not exactly shrugged it off because I then planned to write a “what’s the matter with Egypt?” post using this birthday greeting as a device to explore the subject.
As luck would have it, Hisham stole my thunder, but like good authors are supposed to do, his article got me thinking. The underlying logic of his question is that Egypt today is different from the way it was in the past. He marshals a good case, but with deference to Hisham—from whom I have learned so much over many years and with whom I agree on so much—I dissent. That is not to suggest the political situation is not bad or that there is not an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula or that the Egyptian nationalist discourse is not disturbing. It is just that with the exception of the apparent lethality and tenacity of the terrorists in Sinai, none of this is actually all that new.
Hisham’s eloquent piece is a lament for a country lost: For an Egypt that was the most powerful and influential country in the region; when Cairo was the Middle East’s center of knowledge and culture; a place to which other Arabs flocked; the Egypt of Umm Kalthoum. Hisham, who is fifteen years my senior (though he does not look it) and from Lebanon, no doubt experienced this Egypt in his youth. I know it existed—for better or worse—because of Egypt’s rich and varied intellectual tradition, because Arabs from Dar Bayda (Casablanca) to Dhahran understand the Egyptian dialect, because the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, because the framework for transnational jihad was refined in Egypt, and because there can be no regional war without Egypt, to name just a few examples. For as long as I have been interested in the Middle East, I have been told, “Egypt has history and weight.”
All this is true, but Egypt also has a history of bad governance, religious intolerance, extremism, and proud nationalism that often verges on, and sometimes crosses over into, xenophobia. As an aside, none of these qualities makes Egypt terribly different from a long list of other countries. Hisham references the case of Nasr Abu Zayd, an Egyptian intellectual who in the 1990s applied modern literary criticism to the Quran. In response, the state declared his marriage null and void (because he was considered an apostate) and then ran him out of the country. It was pretty shocking, but before Abu Zayd, there was Taha Hussein, an Egyptian literary giant who made religious conservatives apoplectic in the first half of the twentieth century. Hussein never experienced what Abu Zayd (who died in 2010) was forced to endure, and there is even a street named after Hussein in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood, but both men confronted hostile intellectual milieux in which the religious establishment framed the terms of debate.
In today’s Egypt, the media routinely peddles government agitprop and the intellectual class has demonstrated its ability to justify absolutely anything in the service of national honor. I know it seems somehow different and especially shocking when many of the same intellectuals who profess fealty to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi positioned themselves as reformers and democrats during the late Mubarak period. But really, what is different? The Egyptian media and intellectuals have a long, if hardly proud, history of self-abnegation. The human rights violations, large number of political prisoners, and the three thousand people killed may be unprecedented in Egypt, but it was Gamal Abdel Nasser, revered by many Egyptians, who built the original Middle Eastern national security state on which a variety of others were modeled. It is true that Egypt is a profoundly repressive place, but rather than the result of some slide into an unprecedented variant of authoritarianism, one can draw a direct line from Nasser to Sisi.
I could continue, but by now readers get the point. With the exception of Egypt’s regional role, which truly has deteriorated in ways that mark a significant change, at a basic level many of the things that people lament about Egypt are many of the problems that seem to have always plagued Egypt. That probably does not make people feel very good. After all, Hisham actually has a far sunnier view than me. He is implying that although Egypt has deteriorated dramatically, there was a moment of luster and influence and that there must be a way back. I certainly want Egypt to succeed, but I do not see a country that has fallen. Rather, I see an Egypt that is in a perpetual struggle with its demons and thus continues to stumble again and again.