Pharaoh Hosni is out; the Mubarak dynasty is done. This had to happen and, whatever comes next, the downfall of an undemocratic leader well past his sell-by date is a good thing in and of itself. The nation of Egypt is not a personal possession to be handed down like an heirloom from generation to generation. On this Egypt’s liberal middle classes, military leaders and Islamic activists agree — and they are right.
Hosni Mubarak overreached and his undignified exit is the penalty for that misjudgment. What is important now is not the fate of one man, or even of one family, but of a whole nation: 85 million rational beings, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights which they are newly prepared to assert. How effective will they be at securing their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? How successful with they be, after a “long train of abuses and usurpations” at reasserting control over their own destiny, constructing a new government and as our own revolutionaries put it “laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness”?
Egypt is an old country; I’ve been to Delta villages between Cairo and the sea where it was hard to see much sign of change since Cleopatra plied these waters on her barge. It’s also a wounded country; few places have been so deeply affected and so transformed by uncontrollable outside forces for so long in modern times. Both its age and its wounds will be working against it now; and as has been the case since the Babylonians first conquered Egypt more than 2500 years ago, the Egyptians must reckon with foreign interference and foreign interests even as they work to set their house in order.
Egypt entered modernity with a bang when Napoleon invaded in 1798. It was a horrible shock for the Egyptians. Centuries ago French crusaders arrived under Louis IX; the Egyptians had little trouble sending them away as the Seventh Crusade collapsed. Though conquered by the Ottomans in 1517, Egypt held an honored place in the Middle East. It was an unrivaled center of learning with the religious schools that grew into the University of Al-Azhar revered from Sumatra to Senegal. The Ottoman Empire was arguably the most advanced empire in the most complex culture in the world; Egypt had a unique and prestigious role in the domain of the Ottoman Caliph, the Shadow of God on Earth.
Then came Napoleon and the glory fled. Somehow, since 1254 the Europeans had developed weapons, tactics and forms of military organization that the Egyptians could not match. Napoleon landed on July 1, 1798 and by July 22 he had defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of the Pyramids and received the surrender of Cairo. A brief revolt was easily crushed; Napoleon had become the absolute master of Egypt.
The Pyramids of Egypt (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Shocked by their helplessness before this invader, Egyptians were among the first countries in what we now call the “third world” to adopt a goal of catching up with and perhaps one day overtaking the west. Their first modernizing ruler was Muhammad Ali, an Albanian general in the Ottoman Empire who received power in Cairo in an early exercise of people power. After defending his position by defeating a British force supporting his Mameluke enemies, Muhammad Ali invited the Mamelukes to a feast in the citadel of Cairo 200 years ago this March 1.
The Mamelukes were ‘slave-soldiers’; often bought from non-Muslim families as boys throughout the region, they were raised to be loyal Muslims, fierce warriors, and disciplined servants of the state. The idea was that these soldiers, not tied to any local families or tribes, would unite in service to the state itself; they would be wedded to the common good.
It was a popular ideal in the Middle East. In modern Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, slave-soldiers played a major and often glorious role in the great Islamic states. Yet over time, they grew corrupt and complacent. They married into wealthy families; they developed vested economic interests of their own. They were less interested in military victory than in stabilizing their political position at home. By the turn of the 19th century, they were seen as an obstacle to progress. In Constantinople and in Cairo, modernizing rulers thought it was time for them to go.
That is what Muhammad Ali was up to when he invited the Mamelukes to a feast celebrating the start of an expedition to Mecca to defeat the rebellious House of Saud. They came; he killed them and over several weeks of violence about 4,000 more were killed in Cairo and throughout the country. No more slave soldiers and no more military rule; Muhammad Ali founded a dynasty that would rule until the revolution of 1952 and began the first of Egypt’s many failed attempts to modernize and catch up with the west.
Muhammad Ali and his successors understood what the Japanese learned when Commodore Perry arrived in his black ships: the guns and ships of the west represented a new kind of power and they would have to master it or fall before the west. Japan got it done; Egypt failed, and the Europeans took over.
It was not for lack of trying. Muhammad Ali and his successors built railroads, encouraged the cultivation of cotton, welcomed foreign investment, supported the construction of the Suez Canal, and encouraged education. They reformed the law codes, tried to build modern state structures, subverted the authority of the Ottoman sultans, and did their best to project power into their near abroad: Syria, Palestine, Sudan and the districts of what is now Saudi Arabia around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. They welcomed foreign experts and engineers to the country; after the US Civil War both Confederate and Union officers found ready employment in Egypt. They did their best to play the European powers off against one another, tilting toward Britain or France as circumstances dictated, and trying to draw Russia into their concerns.
There were times when it looked as if it was working — for example on Christmas Eve in 1871 when Verdi’s Aida (commissioned by Muhammad Ali’s grandson Ismail Pasha) had its world premiere in the Cairo Opera House as the gathered European glitterati applauded. As the proud pasha said in 1879: “My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe. It is therefore natural for us to abandon our former ways and to adopt a new system adapted to our social conditions.”
Unfortunately Ismail (often called “the Magnificent”) was better at going into debt than in making productive investments; mounting and unpayable international debts left Egypt open to increased British interference; the first era of Egyptian modernization and development ended with a British takeover in all but name.
During the British period, Egyptians continued to work to bring their country into the modern world. In the 1940s the Egyptian Stock Exchange was the fifth largest in the world; a modern banking and corporate sector brought great wealth to a very small number of Egyptians and European expats. When combined with public resentment at British control and disgust at the antics of the dissolute puppet King Farouk, this led to the revolution of 1952 that brought Gamal Nasser and his nationalist and Socialist allies to power.
Under Nasser, Egypt shifted from the liberal strategies of modernization that seemed to have failed under Farouk and his predecessors to the socialist models of development touted by the Soviet Union and India. Egypt launched into an era of state guided development geared towards heavy industry and large projects like the Aswan Dam.
In one sense, Nasser and his allies represented the revenge of the Mamelukes. The ideal of the professional army with no ties beyond loyalty to the state is powerful throughout the region. Many military officers in this part of the world see themselves as the spiritual heirs of these dedicated state servants of earlier times. And they see civilian politicians (accurately much of the time) as greedy and grasping just like the ancient feudal and tribal leaders who in past centuries tried to weaken the state to protect their selfish interests.
Nasser’s revolution ushered in a return to something like Mameluke rule; since Nasser’s victory, the army — very much an institution with its own life and values somewhat separated from the civilian world — has been the core of the Egyptian state. Under Sadat the ne0-Mamelukes changed their policies; socialist planning and the relationship with the USSR failed to modernize Egypt so they switched to a more capitalist and pro-US orientation.
The resulting growth made some of the modern day Mamelukes rich and complicit in the system (a traditional source of Mameluke corruption and weakness) but failed to satisfy the Egyptian hunger for affluence and development. At the same time, President Mubarak sought to convert the Egyptian state into a family jewel. This latest round of discontent reflects the confluence of two streams: the military’s neo-Mameluke hatred of dynastic rule and corrupt political tribes, and public discontent at Egypt’s poor economic condition and general failure to catch up with the west.
In all this chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood represents the road not (yet) taken in Egypt. Their message is a seductive one and it is not entirely wrong: Egypt, they say, can only modernize on the basis of its own religion and culture. To import models from the west like Ismail the Magnificent is a mistake. Commissioning operas and inviting Europeans to fancy parties in glittering ballrooms is not the way to make Egypt rich and respected; Egypt must find its own authentic path to greatness and modernity based on the deep values and faith of the Egyptian people.
In a certain sense that is profoundly true. A people must build on its past; the culture of liberty that we have developed in the United States is our greatest national treasure, the citadel of our freedom and the source of the wealth and power we possess. But it is far from clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of Egypt’s religious and cultural values is wise or deep enough to lead Egypt forward.
In any case, Egypt today offers the spectacle of a young revolution inheriting some old problems. Two hundred years of frustrated hopes and successive failure create a sense of cynicism and despair among some Egyptians. They have tried a liberal, pro-British approach; it failed. The statist, pro-Soviet approach didn’t work either. The neo-liberal, pro-American policy hasn’t made Egypt rich the way it made, for example, Taiwan and Singapore rich. Traditional Muslim values and education meant that Egypt slept while Europe raced ahead; since then, neither Mamelukes nor Mubaraks have helped Egypt catch up.
Painting of a Mameluke (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The hopeful young people in Tahrir Square are fighting the inertia of Egyptian history. They passionately believe that something better and different can come. In a country and a culture rooted in the past they assert the possibilities of, well, hope and change. And there are more of them, and they are better educated and more widely traveled, than any comparable group in the long history of Egypt. They may yet succeed where their parents and grandparents failed.
We shall see. A workable economic strategy for a country of 85 million people, most of whom are not well educated and speak no languages except their own, is not easy to develop in this hyper-competitive world of ours. The low wage manufacturing business is a competitive one today: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and many others are fighting for the scraps that fall from China’s table. Can Egyptian workers outproduce the Vietnamese?
From Lebanon to the Gulf, the Arab world is filled with aspiring financial and service centers. Can Egypt’s crowded cities and turbulent politics lure investors and executives from Abu Dhabi and Doha? Will the fleshpots of Egypt outdraw the restaurants and the nightclubs of Beirut?
W.H. Auden’s poem “The Sphinx” says it best. This is a hurt land, and the pain is likely not yet over. But I would not be too pessimistic. When I was back in pundit school our teachers used the pyramids as an example of wasteful spending: the pharaohs bankrupted Egypt by spending all its money on monumental tombs.
It must have seemed that way to many Egyptians at the time, but from a distance of 5,000 years the pharaohs seem a little smarter. With millions of tourists flocking to Egypt to see its monuments and its mummies, it’s hard to think of any other investments the ancient pharaohs could have made that would offer a better payoff for their remote descendants today.
The dynasts are gone; the soldiers remain; the liberals aspire; the Brotherhood waits; Egypt is trying to catch up with the west. None of this is new; stay tuned.