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I am no more an expert on Egypt than on Tunisia, but I have been to both places in recent years – and on my visit to Cairo and its environs, two or three years ago, I did precisely what I did when I sojourned in Tunisia earlier in the millennium. I took the opportunity to speak with the Egyptians and the expatriates to whom I was introduced and to read a bit about the place.
Egypt is not like Tunisia. To begin with, it is not now and never has been a backwater. It is, as Herodotus observed long ago, “the gift of the Nile,” and thanks to that great river, it has the largest population of any Arab country. Although it has little in the way of oil, it has water, fertile soil, a hardworking peasant population, and hydro-electric power. It also has a large, well-educated middle class and a sizable indigenous Christian population, said by one of my interlocutors to make up not 10% of the population as a whole (as the Egyptian government claims) but something in the neighborhood of 20%.
Egypt is moreover, the place in the Arab world where books are published and films, made; and Al-Azhar University in Cairo is the world’s chief center for Sunni Muslim learning and for the study of Arabic literature. Egypt exercises cultural hegemony within the Arab-speaking world. The uprising now underway is of the greatest importance. As Egypt goes, so go the Arabs more generally.
Egypt differs from Tunisia in other ways as well. Its ethos is not secular. Its Coptic Christians are fiercely religious, and so are its Muslims – and with every passing year Islam’s hold on the people is greater. Had I visited Cairo in 1955 and moved in circles like those within which I moved on my recent trip, I would not have met a single woman who was veiled. Fashionable Western dress was in vogue, but that is no longer the case. At that time, I would have encountered a great many women who were professionals. There were more women professors in Egypt in 1955 than in the United States.
Yesteryear’s Egypt was a product of Arab nationalism. Its model was Europe, and those within its middle class were not particular fervent in their adherence to the tenets of Islam. Their hero was Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, who led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Nasser was not like Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba a cosmopolitan lawyer educated abroad, intent on turning his country into an Arab France. He was a military man from a modest background, a lieutenant-colonel who had never studied abroad, and a fierce Pan-Arab nationalist, who helped form the Association of Free Officers after witnessing the ineptitude of the Egyptian army in 1948 when King Farouk dispatched it to Palestine against the Israelis.
After the revolution, he installed a general at the head of the government, then after a time sidelined him. His signature piece of legislation was a land-reform law. He abolished the monarchy, banned political parties, isolated and cracked down on the communists and the Muslim Brotherhood, and functioned as a modernizing dictator backed by the army. Among those whom in due course he had executed was Sayyed Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In effect, Nasser’s Egypt was a modern Mameluk state. When he died in 1970, his close friend, fellow army officer, longtime associate, and vice-president Anwar El-Sadat succeeded him, and when Sadat, who had negotiated a peace treaty with Israel, was assassinated by Muslim extremists in 1981, Hosni Mubarak, a former Air Force officer then serving as his vice-president, succeeded him in turn. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Mubarak, who was born in 1928, is 82 and in bad health, and, of course, now he is beleaguered. Events are moving at a rapid pace.
What I can say with confidence is this. The world that existed in Egypt in 1955 is now gone. Middle-class Egyptian women are far less likely to dress in Western garb now than then, and with every passing year the Muslim Brotherhood grows in influence.
Nasser, who was wildly popular by the end of his life, brought his country defeat in war and economic stagnation. After the peace with Israel, his successors did better in the economic sphere – in recent years the Egyptian economy has grown by leaps and bounds – but they did not satisfy the longings of the people. And what can be said in their regard can be said concerning Arab nationalism as a force. As I wrote in a post on Powerline not long after I paid a visit to Jerusalem in December, 2009,
Arab nationalism has run its course. The hopes inspired by Gamaliel Abdel Nasser in and after the 1950s, those inspired by the Baathists in Iraq and Syria and by the Palestinian Liberation Organization have come to naught. Opportunistic young men on the make may attempt to sidle up to those in power in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and the West Bank, but these regimes attract no young idealists. Even in Turkey, secular nationalism seems to be on its last legs, and the only politicians who inspire enthusiasm are those who say, “Islam is the answer.”
What this will mean down the road is a subject that inspires a great deal of rumination in Israel these days. It can easily be foreseen that Islam will not provide a suitable answer to the political, social, and economic crises that grip the Arab world, but it will take another cycle of history for that to become adequately evident to a people now disillusioned with secular nationalism.
If there is an alternative to Islamic revivalism on the horizon, it is to be found in Iraq. The simple fact that there are free elections in that country, that there is open debate, and that it is drifting in the direction of genuine prosperity — this stirs dissatisfaction of an entirely different sort in the Arab world — and, as is abundantly evident in Iran, it does so in the larger Muslim world as well.
As time passes and the dust settles, George W. Bush may come to look more and more like a hero — both in the Arab world and here in the United States. For, if the Iraqis remain steadfast and succeed, it is to their example that those fed up with Islamic revivalism will look, and it will be remembered just how adamant the second Bush was in his support for the democratic aspirations of the Iraqi people.
I would like to end this post on a positive note, but I cannot. My guess is that the current uprising will eventuate in a military takeover — and not in the emergence of a liberal democratic state. When I was in Cairo, in the downtown area there were busloads of soldiers everywhere.
My further guess is that, over the next few years, the country will drift in an Islamic revivalist direction. We should certainly not vest our hopes in Mohammed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner though he may be. As Caroline Glick explains on her blog, when he ran the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, he did everything that he could to cover for the Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons, and he is a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt and in the Middle East more generally, we are witnessing the end of an era.