Egyptians do love to remind themselves and everyone else that Egypt is the “mother of the world” (umm al-dunyah). But that is a curse, as well as a blessing. A mother can be nurturing, but she can also leave scars. Not simply on Egyptians in Egypt, but indeed, far beyond. What will Egypt be after 25 January 2011? A nurturing force for all it’s children? Or not?
Of course, there is a different Egypt for everyone. There was the Egypt of the Italian community of Alexandria, for example. Italian Egyptians, during the time of King Farouk, numbered around 60,000. Jewish Egyptians exceeded that number, and there were other minority groupings as well, Greek Egyptians among others. At the turn of the 20th century, a Jewish observer wrote with “true satisfaction that a great spirit of tolerance sustains the majority of our fellow Jews in Egypt, and it would be difficult to find a more liberal population or one more respectful of all religious beliefs.”
This was the Egypt that many older Egyptians grew up with, particularly those in Alexandria and Cairo, the main metropolitan (and cosmopolitan) centres. There would have been those who were old enough to remember the revolution not of 2011, but of 1919. The revolution whose slogan had been: “Let religion be for God, and the homeland for all.” Those first revolutionaries had not been opposed to religion but they rejected the instrumentalisation of it for identity politics.
There are few Egyptians who are old enough to remember that revolution but many were raised by the generation that lived through that revolution. How ironic that many of the great-grandchildren of those original revolutionaries live, indeed, in a very different Egypt. It is an Egypt that is infused with identity politics and based precisely on religious lines: the fault-lines of which we are now beginning to see in the creation of Egypt’s post-Mubarak constitution.
But there is more than enough irony to go around. Many of those great-grandchildren hearken back to that age, longing that a part of that revolution
be replicated in this, their time: precisely with regards to pluralism. A new film, which deserves more exposure and discussion beyond the purview of this column, looks into that age, particularly with regards to Jewish Egyptians, a community that is almost absent in contemporary Egypt, titled ‘The Jews of Egypt’. Another documentary film, called ‘The Italians of Egypt’, looks at Italian Egyptians. The interest in both of these films is astounding, particularly from young Egyptians. Against the backdrop of a rising incidence of sectarianism and religious identity politics, these young people seem to almost genetically remember: it wasn’t always like this. There was another way, once upon a time. Once upon a time, Egypt – umm al-dunyah – was the mother of many more different sons and daughters.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 haven’t been the most inspiring picture of inter- ethnic and inter-religious harmony. As mentioned above, within Egypt, sectarianism is very much a part of the social reality. It is by no means an overwhelming phenomenon, but part of the problem remains that too many refuse to believe it even exists. It survives – even thrives – in the absence of decisive force against it.
If the revolution is keen for success to continue, then it cannot passively be non- sectarian; it must be aggressively anti-sectarian. Indeed, it appears that this is not even, really, sectarian, if by that it is meant there are truly religious differences in play. This is all about base, crude notions of identity and not even a perverse set of ethics or morals is deployed.
Recently, I had the opportunity to engage with a group of young Egyptians outside of Egypt; Egyptians and Egyptian-Americans who lived in the United States. They had not been to Egypt in some time and asked what the state of the revolution was. They were seeking optimism and pleading for hope. It was possible to give them an overall positive message about the revolution, but not on sectarianism. The main stain on more than one revolution in the region, thus far, which shows little sign of abating, is the increase in sectarianism. Many, it seems, want to forget that their “mother” still has many other sons and daughters.
But they had hope in the future. And they deserved to have hope in the future, because there was hope in the past and not just in the faraway past.
It seems almost cliché to remember this, but it remains relevant for this generation of Egyptians, Arabs and indeed, human beings the world over who saw Tahrir Square unfold over the 18 days in the initial part of the Egyptian revolution. The instinctive – yes, instinctive – attachment to a social harmony, and an inter-religious, national unity, was extremely strong. It was not created. It was not engineered. It came naturally to the people of the square. Anyone who went to the recent memorial at Maspero, for the likes of Mina Daniel and others, cannot claim that such an instinct no longer exists in the Egyptian psyche.
One of the most famous martyrs of the Egyptian revolution was the Azhari sheikh, Emad Effat. He told a friend of mine once, “the first time I’ve ever seen Egypt was in Tahrir. I had never seen Egypt before then.” He knew that Tahrir was Egypt. It was not unique and special, rather, what was bizarre and strange was that the rest of Egypt wasn’t like that. Because indeed, Tahrir exemplified what the best of Egypt was all about.
Egypt has a choice in the coming days, weeks, months and years. That choice never changes, because it continues to be a challenge to live up to the right choice. Will she be umm al-dunyah for all sons and daughters of Egypt? Will Egypt be a place where they are nurtured and cared for? Or not?
Regardless of the answer: I can only remember that prior to the revolution of 25 January, Egypt wasn’t always a nurturing place for many Egyptians. But they remembered what it could be; what it ought to be. That was what Sheikh Emad, and what all in the square during those days, insisted the square be during those 18 days. That instinct might be suppressed or withheld: but it seems that it is a stubborn instinct indeed.
“Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. A fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.”