When Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century polymath and forefather of modern-day social sciences, arrived in Cairo after spending 50 years in Andalusia and Maghreb, he described the city as “metropolis of the world, garden of the universe, meeting place of nations, ant-hill of peoples, high place of Islam, seat of power” (Albert Hourani: A History of the Arab Peoples). He also remarked that he who has not seen Egypt could never understand the power of Islam.
Such was the centrality accorded to Egypt by the Arabo-Islamic world. Even today, many historians argue that the true glory of Cairo is to be found in its medieval Islamic architecture which came to being on the back of the prosperity produced by the Ummayad, Ayyubid and Mameluk dynasties. Some of the wealthiest families in Muslim countries that are as far removed from Egypt as Malaysia and Indonesia continue to send their scions to study at Cairo’s ancient Al-Azhar university and other schools. Al-Azhar’s Moorish-inspired campus has held classes since 970 CE and its religious education caters to all four madh’hab or mainstream schools of Sunni jurisprudence. During the current unrest, the large presence of international students in Egypt made headlines as the Malaysian government has gone ahead with a mass evacuation of its nationals from Egypt.
Given that social thought in the Islamic tradition exposes the inherent limitations of man-made as opposed to revealed knowledge, it is not without irony that since the middle of the 20th century, Egypt has embarked on nearly every–ism described in political science textbooks. Once the old monarchical order was toppled, the country lurched to secularism and militarism followed by pan-Arabism and nationalism. In the past few decades, these have given way to a somewhat Asian-style developmental dictatorship that combines old political instincts with Western economics. To its credit, Egypt has in recent years gained more than a foothold in emerging business sectors such as infocommunications, data services, call centres and outsourcing. Drawn to its respectable tradition of engineering expertise and a young and often multilingual urban population, the likes of Intel have chosen Egypt as one of a handful of their global product definition centres. The government – until recently headed by a former infocomm minister – put its best foot forward, to the extent of making call centre skills an integral part of university curricula. And with its sizable domestic consumer market, the country has billed itself as a logical extension of the up-and-coming BRIC wave of world economic leaders.
These new trends never quite discouraged Western news reports from playing up the physical constraints of providing for a population of eighty-plus million predominantly concentrated in the Nile river delta. In the minds of many social commentators in developing countries, this was yet another example of the West’s “dogma of development”. At present, from either perspective there is no denying that no matter how successful, the outcomes of the recent economic expansion have created opportunities for dozens of thousands rather than millions. Case in point: Flagship companies like Telecom Egypt are headed by exceptionally astute management teams who earned their MBAs and PhDs at the best US and British universities, and know all there is to know about technology migrations and climbing the value chain. Many of their offices are teeming with Western management consultants and development experts. But below this top echelon, there is a reality of hundreds of thousands of employees, most of them breadwinners, who have been on the payroll for decades.
Prior to the outburst of popular discontent in early 2011, Egypt had for years strived to reconcile its business-friendly, outward-looking face with a repressive government whose brutality has been well documented in global media: for instance, whereas in many other developing countries, blogosphere writings that are critical of the government might earn the author a surprise tax audit, some of Egypt’s bloggers have been dragged out of internet cafes in broad daylight by members of the security services and beaten to death in front of passersby. During my own visit, taking a photo from a downtown bridge has earned me a brisk trip to a nearby interrogation room. Afterwards, when I shared this encounter with other Europeans, they laughed it off as an attempt to collect a bribe; but standing alone in a windowless chamber and surrounded by half a dozen military men felt far from trivial.
Perhaps my friends were right: social hardship and rising prices have created a pervasive if stereotypical bakshish mentality among the crushing majority of local people. On a visit to the stunning Al-Azhar Mosque, a local imam will invite foreign visitors for a guided walkthrough, all the while reciting prayers and bestowing praises on spiritual leaders and martyrs whose fate was linked to these hallowed grounds. Afterwards, he will eagerly and insistently collect cash from each member of the visitors’ group, making it clear that in addition to the amount that goes to the mosque’s upkeep, there is money that is due to him. For a first-time visitor and for many Muslims from other countries, this is a startling sight that will nonetheless follow them everywhere, including Cairo’s holiest Islamic sites that are home to relics of the Prophet’s descendants.
Similarly, whereas in other Arab societies, haggling is practised as a jovial art form and a facet of local culture, in Egypt it has an air of desperation. It doesn’t hurt to remind oneself that many of the young men loudly peddling their wares and pulling at your sleeve have eight, ten or more unmarried sisters and other dependants back in their village. Granted, true Egyptian hospitality still exists in abundance, but much too often it is to be found among business partners and even government officials as opposed to the creaking and heavy-handed tourism industry.
Faced with intransigent obstacles, for many Egyptians the uncomplicated and glamorous life as captured in local films from the 1950s becomes a past that is nostalgically re-imagined. The fin-de-siècle mansions of Heliopolis still stand as a witness to that era. By contrast, today’s cities are largely a chaotic jumble of shabby apartment blocks and roads where millions of cars wrestle for every inch of space on the carriageway. Over the years, this has given rise to a lifestyle where residents of Cairo eat breakfast they picked up in an “On the Run” cafe at a petrol station, sleep, study, call friends and conduct business inside their vehicles.
Today’s Egyptian identity is built on such contradictions. During a long car journey through the city one day, I chatted with my local associate, a pious yet outgoing young woman who (unlike many of her more senior colleagues) wore a headscarf, dressed modestly yet very smartly, and spoke flawless English despite never having had the opportunity to travel abroad. Casually, she confessed to spending every last penny of her salary on weekend trips to Citystars, Cairo’s landmark shopping mall. As the car was passing rows upon rows of new housing blocks that spelled the same type of aspiration as her branded clothes and gadgets, I asked if she and her workmates were perhaps sharing one of these apartments while exploring life in the big city. “You see – I am not married,” she explained cheerfully. “And in Egypt, you live with your Mum and Dad till the day you get married.”
Could this clinging to tradition amidst change provide clues to a way out of the current crisis? Predictably, foreign pundits have been talking with disquiet about the rise of so-called Islamist politics as a result of the government’s loss of legitimacy. But contemplating Egypt’s social and economic issues, drawing on the local Islamic tradition may be the only viable way forward, particularly if the emphasis is on social justice and creative local solutions to local problems. There is indeed a rich tradition to draw on: according to historians, a hundred years ago up to an estimated 70% of all commercial land in Egypt was managed through awqaf (plural form of waqf) – charitable and philanthropic endowments. It might not be too far-fetched to trace the roots of the present-day malaise to the secular, military-sponsored shift away from this traditional economic order, coupled with blind faith in physical development – the treadmill of building ever more (housing, roads, schools) yet inevitably falling short. Meanwhile, sheer numbers dictate that a huge role for central government be retained, regardless of its ideological shade: a typical Egyptian civil servant supports a stay-at-home spouse and five or six children. In aggregate, this means that any new government will find itself directly and indirectly feeding half of the country’s total population.
Those that witnessed the ongoing wave of unrest in Cairo have also drawn parallels with the 1989 fall of “real socialism” across central and eastern Europe, a chain of events I had the privilege to participate in back then as a first-year student with a Prague university. With the benefit of hindsight, I can only hope that Egypt will escape the many traps that befall societies in transition and chart its own, meaningful path to post-authoritarian rule. A re-reading of Ibn Khaldun might just be the first step on this arduous journey.