In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote, “The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.”
Egypt’s recent past is indeed provocative. Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman adventurer who took control in 1805 after France’s withdrawal, began to modernize Egypt by introducing effective administration, industrialization, exposure to Europe and a standing army. The Mohammed Ali dynasty’s first six decades in power created an Egyptian empire that stretched from the sources of the Nile in eastern Africa to the eastern parts of Turkey, including the entire eastern Mediterranean and two-thirds of what is today Saudi Arabia. The empire fell when the dreams of the Pasha’s descendants exceeded their state’s resources and capacities.
The early 20th century liberal experiment, when Egypt adopted the Arab world’s first comprehensive constitution (in 1923), took the state away from Ali’s family and (at least in theory) gave it to the people. Egypt enjoyed the beginnings of democracy, true representation, constitutionalism and, crucially, the notion — central to modern citizenship — of equal rights and obligations.
The experiment failed when Egypt’s leaders detached themselves from the realities of their constituency — poverty, illiteracy and widespread anger at yawning inequality and top-down Westernization. The illusion of “Paris on the Nile” crumbled.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first native-born Egyptian to rule Egypt since Alexander the Great invaded the country in 332 BC, built a project “by, for, and of the people,” the first truly Egyptian developmental enterprise since the fall of the pharaonic state. By centering his efforts on his own “heroic role,” Nasser failed his people. Lacking an institutional base of support, and corrupted by a descent into authoritarianism and utter disregard for Egyptian people’s freedom, the project disintegrated when the hero died.
In the 30 years of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s reign, the regime tried to transform the country by embracing a distorted form of liberal capitalism and a relentlessly realist foreign policy that positioned Egypt as a sidekick to the region’s petro-dollar heavyweights. The former blew up from the internal pressures of poverty, inequity and anger, and the latter was swept away in an avalanche of rejection and resentment, the tail end of which Egypt is still experiencing.
Egyptians who lived through the past six decades and now see the country’s political structure unraveling — with all the social convictions, power nexuses and top-down narratives that had been integral to it — feel disoriented. Many feel that their lives have been wasted. Successive failures have led to endemic anxiety and rage — and, in turn, to a society-wide quest for redemption.
This is especially true of the younger generations. Discussions with the country’s activist groups reveal their rejection of this legacy of failure — an inhibiting, heavy present that they inherited, but to which they did not contribute.
Given the current fluidity of Egyptian politics, different groups, representing opposing ideologies, deflect blame and responsibility for the various failures and assign guilt to others. The result has been not just a lack of a social narrative that a majority of Egyptians can embrace, but also an exacting obsession with the past. This is a key reason why political differences quickly turn into clashes of views on the country’s identity — religious versus secular, Islam versus Egyptianness, and military rule versus its emerging successor.