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  The Required Change in Egypt 
by Tarek Heggy [author, academic] 3/31/07

Situated at the geographical centre of the Arab world, Egypt also stood at the centre of its cultural life throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its dynamic cultural climate a source of inspiration for the entire Arabic-speaking world. When Mohamed Ali became Egypt's ruler in 1805, he embarked on an ambitious project of internal reform patterned on the European model. To that end, he sought the help of European technical advisers and savants, particularly the socialist Saint Simonists, who believed in the theory of universal association propounded by their founder, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint Simon. Among the mechanisms used by Mohamed Ali to create a framework for the country's drive towards modernity was to send Egyptians on educational missions abroad. This systematic policy, which began in 1826, produced an Egyptian elite and laid the groundwork for an intellectual, cultural, social and political renaissance whose impact was felt in all the Arabic-speaking countries, particularly those belonging to ancient civilizations like Greater Syria and Iraq. The Egyptian model was emulated by these countries in all areas of life, even in the dress code. As I heard a French professor say during a lecture in Paris, Egypt's cultural influence was such that when European dress was adopted by Egyptians in the professions and government services, this way of dressing became the norm among their counterparts in the rest of the Arab world. Though the abandonment of the traditional costume in favour of western-style suits was not imposed by a Khedivial firman, the new dress code was enthusiastically adopted by the growing class of Egyptian elites as a symbolic expression of their commitment to modernization.

Tarek Heggy- Columnist

Tarek Heggy is both a leading liberal political thinker in the Arab world and International Petroleum Strategist. His work advances the causes of modernity, democracy, tolerance, and women’s rights in the Middle East – advocating them as universal values essential to the region’s progress. In addition to being amongst the members of the first echelon of the contemporary Arab liberal thinkers, Tarek Heggy is a well-known international speaker/lecturer. During the past ten years, Tarek Heggy was invited to lecture at a wide number of world class universities including the King’s College of London University, Oxford, Princeton, Columbia, Maryland, California Berkeley and University of Colorado – Boulder. Heggy's website is located at http://www.heggy.org [go to Heggy index]

Mohamed Ali was not alone in his ardent admiration for European civilization in general and for France in particular. The educated elite he had created shared his admiration, as did their counterparts in most Arabic-speaking countries. Thanks to its elite, Egypt became the hub of Arab cultural life, and most men of letters, intellectuals, poets, scientists and artists were either Egyptian or flocked to Egypt as the cultural centre of gravity of the Arab world. Thus when Egypt raised the banner of socialism and pan-Arab nationalism in the nineteen fifties and sixties, this resonated strongly throughout the Arab world. And when it declared, in the second half of the nineteen seventies, that war with Israel was not an end in itself and defined its strategic objective as the attainment of a just and equitable settlement, either through negotiations or international law, the effects on the Arab world were electrifying. At the time, Egypt's initiative was violently attacked by the other Arab countries; today, all these countries are trying to emulate the example set by Egypt in the seventies and eighties. In other words, whether its position on any issue excited the admiration or wrath of the Arab world, the fact is that Egypt was recognized as the principal player on the Arab stage, its role instrumental in determining the shape of events throughout the region. Its privileged status owed much to the existence of an influential Egyptian elite. The big question today is whether it can still claim to have an influential elite. To answer the question, we must first try to define the nature of the Egyptian elite today. Is it an intellectual elite, made up of the cream of educated and cultured people in the country, or is it made up of the new moneyed classes who have as yet presented no evidence of intellectual superiority? The question is of vital importance, because it is a country's elite, such as it is, which disseminates values in society. In fact, we need to define not only the nature of today's elite but also of the values it is disseminating.

Here we come up against a real dilemma: on the one hand, a substantial section of the Egyptian intelligentsia has been transformed over the years into public employees, most of its members not enjoying the independence without which the cultured elite cannot perform its societal role; on the other, the bulk of the younger generation have received a purely local educational/cultural formation and have no access to and, hence, no communication with global cultural trends. Most young people in Egypt today do not speak any foreign languages, while straitened economic circumstances render many of them vulnerable to ideological trends that are either cut off from mainstream thinking (such as those which flourished in the sixties) or backward-looking and retrograde, which derive their frames of reference from a distant past and reject modernity out of hand. Victims in every sense of the word, young people today are living in a state of cultural deprivation due in large measure to the virtual absence from our cultural landscape of intellectuals with an encyclopaedic cultural formation. How many of our intellectuals today can claim to be versed in the great Ancient Greek, Latin and Arabic classics (the monumental works of Arab philosophy and literature from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries), in the classics of the Renaissance, of modern European philosophy, of the post-Renaissance masterpieces of French, English, Russian and German literature, or of contemporary culture, which includes many new fields in the world of social sciences? I would say fewer than one hundred intellectuals in Egypt today can make such a claim.

As to the other side of the coin, namely, the economic elite, most members of this class lack any significant cultural formation. Unlike the elites who shone in the Egyptian cultural firmament in the first quarter of the twentieth century, they simply do not have it in them to disseminate constructive values in society. On the contrary, the values they have disseminated are so negative and destructive that they have driven many members of the intelligentsia into believing the only way out of this abysmal situation is to return to the radical ideologies which flourished in the sixties (conveniently forgetting that these ideologies failed to score any success at any time or in any place), while allowing retrograde movements to claim that they alone hold the key to a solution of all Egypt's ills. A point that needs to be made here is that Egypt could have had an influential elite made up of prominent figures in the economic community if that community had come into being in a natural way through a process of social mobility that allowed the best elements to assert themselves. Unfortunately, things did not work out that way, because certain members of the executive authority in Egypt decided to create an economic community according to how they believed things should be. The result has been the emergence of an economic community lacking in efficiency, vision and creative thinking and functioning essentially according to the rules of public relations, especially governmental relations. Totally lacking in transparency and riddled with corruption, it is incapable of achieving the two main goals expected of it: productive abundance (as evidenced by the huge gap between imports and exports) and the creation of new job opportunities (as evidenced by the five million young Egyptians who are unemployed).

The problem has acquired dimensions that require more than an intellectual debate or a philosophical discussion. What we are faced with today is nothing less than an existential dilemma, due in large part to the failure of the contemporary Egyptian 'elites' to promote a cultural climate and system of values in keeping with the requirements of the age. What they have done instead is create an intellectually barren and culturally stagnant landscape which has moved Egypt further away from its dream of catching up with the developed world than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. A hundred years ago, the Egyptian intelligentsia was represented by such towering figures as Qassem Amin, Taha Hussein, Mohamed Awad Mohamed and Salama Moussa. They and many of their contemporaries believed that their dream to turn Egypt into a modern state could be achieved by adopting the mechanisms of progress which had worked so well in the case of European civilization, while at the same time preserving Egypt's cultural specificity. Actually, the mechanisms of progress to which they aspired owed more to classical humanism than they did to contemporary European thought.

We are faced with a situation today in which three distinct groups see themselves as the leading elite that sets societal values:

- The group of 'official' intellectuals, who are unable to play the influential role expected of them because, on the one hand, they have been transformed from a group enjoying relative independence to one that is almost completely subservient, and, on the other, they dispose of an extremely meager fund of culture and knowledge that renders them incapable of transcending outdated slogans that have been discredited in every part of the world.

- The group attributing itself to the Islamic trend, which is in fact a political trend that advocates a return to the ideas, values and practices of a distant past. This self-professed elite is neither desirous nor capable of disseminating the values of progress in society; rather, it seeks to draw society away from the march of progress and to isolate it from the rest of humanity.

- The group calling itself the economic elite, whose credibility has been severely compromised by a string of spectacular failures and scandals. Lacking any cultural content, the members of this group have succeeded only in disseminating the values to which they themselves subscribe, namely, opportunism and corruption, turning entire generations of young people into cynics who have lost faith in the merits of hard work, diligence and efficiency, not to mention the huge losses the country has incurred as a result of the shoddy performance and fraudulent practices of this group.

If this dramatic downward spiral is to be reversed, radical changes need to be introduced in Egypt. Theoretically speaking, we have two options by which to effect change:

- The first is to wait for it to come about through the medium of the three elites, outside the legitimate political system, in which case the change is bound to be for the worse, a development tht will leave the gates wide open for the forces of chaos to take over.

- The second is for the legitimate political system to implement an engineered reform plan to cure the Egyptian malaise and reduce the chances of the chaos scenario. This second option was successfully implemented by many countries, including South Korea, where it succeeded in attaining the two principal goals it set itself: economic prosperity and democratic development.

The longer we put off embarking on a process of engineered change, the more difficult it will be to have a say in the kind of change we want to see introduced and the greater the chances that change will be imposed on us by other means. The consequences of leaving matters to random chance are unpredictable, although they are certain to lead to a chaotic situation that will make the prospect of a new Egyptian renaissance more remote than ever.


copyright 2007 Tarek Heggy





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