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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 9, February 19, 2011

Civilisational Cairo versus Fools

Monday 21 February 2011, by T J S George

Cairo has a distinction other ancient, continuous-civilisation cities like Damascus, Baghdad and Varanasi have never had: It is the heart-beat of pan-Arab culture, its influence stretching for beyond its national boundries. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mehfouz was the Arab world’s novelist, not just Egypt’s. Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram was the Arab world’s newspaper. Egypt’s Al-Azhar university was the Arab world’s university.

Typical of Egypt, the Al-Ahram newspaper was always government-owned, yet often was independent in its conduct. Which contributed significantly to its intellectual and policy impact. It was the arbiter even in the writing style of Arabic for all Arab countries. Al-Ahram (which means the Pyramids; you have to be careful when you hop into a Cairo taxi and say “Al-Ahram” because the driver might take you to the pyramids when you mean the newspaper, or vice versa) was a mighty voice when Mohammed Heykal was its editor-in-chief, from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s. A thought leader himself, Heykal attracted celebrated literary figures as regular contributors, among them Edward Said, Taha Hussein, Azmi Bishara and Mahfouz himself. Any writer, well-known or otherwise, who was visiting Cairo was free to use a private office and secretarial facilities at Al-Ahram for as long as he stayed in the city. Such was the paper’s sense of responsibility to the Arab world’s intellectual resources.

Egypt was also the springboard of ideological revolutions as distinct from ambition-driven personal revolutions. Syria and Iraq, for example, saw some of modern history’s cruellest palace coups that put blood-stained military men in dictator’s chairs. But in Egypt when Gamal Abdel Nasser helped end monarchy once and for all, he was hailed as a hero in all of Africa and Asia. Nasser, Tito and Nehru were the inspirational Trimurtis of a generation of Afro-Asians.

It is this historical background that gives the upheaval in Egypt a significance popular protests in neighbouring countries do not have. Sponta-neous popular uprisings drove Tunisia’s dictator out of the country, shook Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Lebanon and made Syria, Libya and Morocco nervous. These other outpourings of public anger show, as much as the blowup in Egypt does, how long and how brutally suppressed the Arab people have been despite the enormous wealth oil gave many of their countries.

EGYPT’S wealth was never oil. But its civilisational leadership had endowed its people with a vigour and vitality seldom seen elsewhere. Unacceptable levels of poverty exist in Egypt, both in urban jungles and in the countryside. It is unnerving to see young and middleaged men in Cairo and Alexandria reduced to robotic existence and extending their arms for baksheesh at every turn. That level of impoverishment and joblessness is enough to condemn Hosni Mubarak who ruled with an iron fist for thirty unforgivable years and was planning to install his son as dictator for perhaps another three decades. The duration of his reign is a pointer to the harshness of his methods of torture and elimination.

He must have been surprised that the worm turned. In a bid to crush the worm, he appointed intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Vice- President. Suleiman is known for two things: his no-nonsense brutality against critics and his closeness to Israel. Notice how “pro-Mubarak” crowds suddenly appeared in the streets to battle the protesters. Notice also the alacrity with which Israel rushed anti-riot equipment to Cairo.

It is Israel and the Jewish lobby in America that sustain West Asia’s worst dictatorships. This is ironic because the radicalisation of Islamism threatens both Israel and the US. Much of this radicalisation is the direct result of Saudi Arabian religious propaganda through Wahabism and of course Saudi financing. Yet America describes Egypt and Saudi Arabia as its “staunchest allies”.

How long can this false posturing continue? What we see in Egypt is a battle—dictatorship will eventually lose to democracy. No force can stop the human mind’s natural yearning for freedom and some dignity. That is why a barefoot army in Vietnam defeated history’s mightiest military machine. But fools never learn.

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