Musings: Back to the roots

Daily News Egypt
3 Min Read

For the past 50 years, Egyptian and foreign intellectuals and researchers have been accustomed to classifying intellectual and political currents in Egypt into four main categories: Islamists, nationalists (aka Nasserites), socialists and liberals.

It seems, however that the picture in most Arab countries is gradually changing, with Islamist and liberal currents getting stronger while socialist and nationalist ones are waning.

This phenomenon can be better understood in light of the historical events which spawned it: Egypt’s modern renaissance over the past two centuries, and the evolution of the international political climate.

The Islamist current, the oldest of those factions, spread during the Ottoman and Mamluk period, initiated by Mohamed Ali in 1805, who triggered the country’s modernization. Clusters of Al-Azhar University graduates, who were offered scholarships to Europe, returned to Egypt fascinated by the liberalism to which they were exposed abroad.

Rifaa Al-Tahtawi was a key representative of that current which bred a generation of pioneers. Soon intellectual challenges arose between the traditionalists and more innovative Islamic trends influenced by the European enlightenment, with confrontations that continued throughout the first decades of the 20th century.

However, a third current was introduced to Egypt’s intellectual arena to resonate the socialist and Marxist currents that were taking root in Europe. The creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 catalyzed the emergence of socialist parties and intellectuals worldwide, and Egypt was no exception.

The years following the First World War witnessed the creation of the Communist Egyptian party with other socialist and communist movements cropping up. Egypt’s Jews played leading roles in these movements before they were taken over by segments of the Egyptian elite.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the British-backed revolt of Al-Shareef Hussien in 1916 gave birth to a fourth current, that of Arab nationalism, in the Levant region.

This was met with popular support on the Egyptian street, mobilized by the Arabs of Palestine who were, by then, facing waves of Jewish immigrants in the 20s and 30s. Then, President Nasser’s adoption of that trend in the 50s and 60s, which was mainly represented by the Baath party, gave it the momentum to override all others.

Now, as we tap the doors of the 21st century, we are witnessing an unmistakable retreat of socialist and nationalist activity.

The fall of the Soviet Union, the Socialist bloc, and the worldwide decline of socialism/communism explains the retreat of socialism; while the failure of nationalism, particularly Nasserist-type nationalism, took place because of the disappearance of these movements’ pioneers.

Wouldn t now be the time to consider revisiting the root confrontation between Islamism and liberalism in the context of a different global political climate in the 21st century?

Dr. Osama Al-Ghazaly Harb is first deputy of the Democratic Front Party.

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