Tarek Heggy's trenchant critique of Egyptian society applies to many countries in the Middle East.
If we contemplate what is written, spoken and broadcast in the political, media and cultural fields we find that many members of our intelligentsia, as well as those concerned with public affairs share the following features:
- Although Egyptian, they are far more concerned with international and regional matters than they are with the reality that nearly thirty million of their compatriots live below the poverty line, in conditions that defy the imagination. Their skewered focus is particularly strange given that the challenge of poverty and threat it poses to Egypt’s national security should have been of such concern to Egyptian intellectuals as to leave very little room for any other issue, international, regional or even local.
- Although Egyptian, they are far more concerned with international and regional matters than they are with the declining standard of their country’s educational institutions, which will determine the shape, quality, standard and future of less than the twenty million Egyptians who are today included in the country’s educational system. Here too their order of priorities is strange.
- Although Egyptian, their concern with international and regional matters far outweighs their virtually non existent concern with the extreme danger posed by the declining standard of all but a few components of the religious establishment, the vast majority of which are actively working against modern trends, progress and civil society. There is no doubt that this too is very strange, given that some members of the religious establishment are so divorced from the realities of the age, from enlightened thinking, reasoning and plain common sense as to constitute a real danger to the minds of Egypt’s young, who, instead of forging a healthy connection with the age in which we live, develop a pathological alienation from it.
The conclusion to be drawn from all of the above is that the Egyptian people have been reindoctrinated over the last decades to focus on priorities that are no longer local, that is, no longer Egyptian. In this connection, I recall what I heard on more than one occasion from prominent political personalities in the United States, who remarked on the strange obsession displayed by many of the Egyptians they meet with issues of an international and regional, rather than national, that is, Egyptian, nature. As someone who claims to be familiar with the way the Anglo-Saxon mind works, I know how bewildering my American interlocutors must have found this phenomenon. For pragmatism is the hallmark of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, which is shared by the British, Americans, Australians and Canadians.
The reason the phenomenon of giving precedence to external over internal affairs has become so widespread is the ascendancy of two ideological-cum-political movements which identify with it wholeheartedly. There is, first of all, the movement of political Islam which resembles Marxism when it comes to its “internationalist” dimension. Like the communists believed they were part of a “socialist international” that transcended national borders, the Islamists believe in a “Muslim international” that transcends national borders, a theory inimical to such concepts as “the modern state,” “the nation” [as homeland] and “nationalism”. Instead, they subscribe to the idea of the umma, or nation as community, not in the sense of people occupying a defined territory and united under one political system, not even in the sense of a group of people sharing a common origin, language and history, but in the sense of believers in one religion, wherever they happen to be located. Naturally, we are talking here of the Islamic Nation. This is not what the great enlightened thinker and writer Ahmed Lotfy el Sayed, or his disciples, meant by the word umma, which referred exclusively to the Egyptian Nation. It is no coincidence that he called the party he founded in 1907 the Umma Party, from which the founders of other political parties later emerged. Some became leaders of the Wafd Party, others of the Ahrar Dustoureyeen, others still became prominent independents.
The other movement that contributed to the shift in the focus of priorities is Arab Nationalism. Suffice it to recall that the decision to abolish the name “Egypt” and replace it with “Southern Province” [of the United Arab Republic] in 1958 was welcomed by the Arab nationalists, for whom the word nation means the Arab Nation. And so, thanks to the powerful influence wielded by political Islam and Arab nationalism on the minds of the Egyptian people, the focus of their attention shifted from what should have been their first priority, which is internal affairs, to external issues having no direct bearing on their interests or welfare.
I know some would argue that there is a dialectical relationship between Egypt’s external role and its ability to strengthen the internal front. In reply, I would like to make two points. The first is that this argument is valid only in respect of political leaders. But when matters reach a point where the Egyptian intellectual is more outraged at the condition of Palestinian children than he is at the condition of Egyptian children, when he is more concerned with external affairs than with internal calamities, then we are before a bizarre phenomenon that needs to be addressed. The second is that logic and history tell us that internal weakness inevitably translates into external weakness. Both Mohamed Ali and Egypt in the 1960s fostered dreams of aggrandizement. But their dreams were shattered because they tried to play external roles at a time their respective internal fronts were exceedingly weak.
Having said that, however, I would like to make it clear that I am not calling on people to stop caring about what happens in the outside world, including the Middle East, but only to rearrange their priorities so as to become like the citizens of advanced states where domestic affairs absorb far more than half the interest of citizens and intellectuals alike.
There is no doubt that responsibility for this aberration lies squarely on the shoulders of three establishments that have shaped the Egyptian mindset since the 1950s: politics, the mass media and education. Given that the returns from education can only be felt in the long term, it is up to the political and media leaderships to play the main role in the short and medium term. What we need is not ideologies but tools with which to build our future. I believe the most effective tools in this connection are science and modern management techniques. Nowhere was the inability of ideology to build a better society more graphically illustrated than in the countries that adopted the ideology of Marxism, notably the former Soviet Union, which failed spectacularly to create decent living conditions for their citizens. It is to be hoped that no one will try out the ideology of political Islam on us until they discover, as Eastern Europe discovered to its cost, that no ideology, whether Marxism, Arab nationalism or Islamism, can create a strong society or decent living conditions for its citizens.
Today I stand on a halfway point between optimism and its opposite when it comes to the question of whether we can, over the short and medium term, rid our society of some of the main cultural ills impeding its progress, such as:
1) The “big talk” syndrome.
2) The tendency to sing our own praises.
3) The exaltation of a glorious past that exists only in the
4) A culture of people, not institutions.
5) A lack of objectivity and the growth of individualism.
6) A feeling of superiority over others because of religion.
7) No belief in the universality of science and knowledge.
8) A narrow margin of tolerance.
9) No acceptance of the other.
10) A tendency to live in the past and show little interest in the future.
11) The spread of a male chauvinist mentality that does not accord equal rights to women with the result that society runs on half steam, with fully one half of its potential lying idle. As to the other half, the male supremacists, they are maladjusted personalities suffering from feelings of inadequacy for which they compensate by asserting their innate superiority on the basis of gender. A society that relegates half its citizens to a lower status than the other half cannot hope to build a good present or achieve a better future.
Although as I say I am of two minds when it comes to assessing our society’s ability to rid itself of these serious defects that are stunting its growth and paralyzing its effectiveness, one recent development makes me more inclined to optimism than pessimism. I am talking about the generation of under-thirties who are taking a great interest in Egypt’s reality and future and far less interest in the affairs of others. This is a major achievement, albeit one that is not due to any internal factor but to the information revolution, computers and the Internet which have put this generation in touch with the world and allowed it to rearrange its priorities in their rightful order.
Arabic Version of "On Priorities"
Tarek Heggy is a prolific Egyptian liberal intellectual who has written on social, political and philosophic issues. His works appear in the Egyptian press and at his Web sites: www.heggy.org