Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Egypt’s Perils and Paradoxes

A proud civilization confronts the twin challenges of Gulf-state extremism and American pop culture

CAIRO, Egypt — “The country that was the beacon of tranquility, the society that was an example of peacefulness and tolerance — one that had never witnessed a civil war in over seven thousand years — has turned into … a breeding ground of aggression.” These words from the foreword of Tarek Osman’s 2010 book, Egypt on the Brink, which anticipated the Arab revolution in Egypt by mere months, capture a trend toward extremism in recent decades. This extremism adds a dimension to Egypt’s already numerous complexities and contradictions.

Egypt’s move toward radicalism may be principally attributed to two encounters. In the first, Egypt, along with countries all over the world, suddenly experienced wholesale access to an American-dominated media and entertainment culture. The values and lifestyle portrayed by American media are, of course, entirely alien to Egypt’s traditional culture. Thus it may be said that Hollywood has done at least as much to exacerbate tensions with the Muslim world as any other factor. Perhaps ironically, from the point of view of the film industry, this has likely set back the status of Egyptian women by decades, if not centuries. The second encounter came with the Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia. This was made possible by the numerous Egyptians who temporarily emigrated to the Gulf region to work, especially during the 1970s and 80s, and also by the commitment of much of Saudi Arabia’s inestimable wealth to spreading Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, including Egypt.

Yet there is hope that Egypt may yet resist the temptations of extremism. Egypt has a tradition of moderation, including tolerance of its native Christian population, which began with the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. This tolerance has been consistently reinforced by the teachings of the sheikhs of Al Azhar University, which has been a center of Islamic thought for more than a thousand years.

There is an inescapable yet often overlooked tension between the oil-rich Gulf Arabs and their neighbors. The Arabs of Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia, who are linked historically and culturally to ancient civilizations, tend to resent the wealth and arrogance of the Gulf’s nouveau riche. This enmity is captured in a story I heard in Cairo about an Egyptian taxi driver. The driver picked up a fare at the airport who was fleeing the invaded Kuwait for the safety of Egypt. When the Egyptian told him that there was no charge for the ride, the Kuwaiti, somehow affronted, pointed out that the Egyptians had been the servants of the Kuwaitis. The driver then punched him in the nose. “Most Egyptians had no pity for the Kuwaitis,” the storyteller concluded.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of the expansion of Gulf state extremism into Egypt has been the marginalization of Al Azhar University, which at one time was not only a crucial center of learning for Egypt’s Muslims, but for the entire Muslim world. Al Azhar’s attitude toward non-Muslims was apparent earlier this year at the cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo, where Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II read from a list of Easter greetings he had received from around Egypt. When he said the name of Al Azhar’s head, Sheikh El Tayyeb, the faithful of the cathedral erupted in applause. The name of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi was met with silence. But Egypt’s politics are not entirely divided along religious lines.

“There is no problem between Muslim and Christian in Egypt,” says Jozef, a young Christian who was present at St. Mark’s when the cathedral was besieged earlier this year. Several Christians were killed, including one man who was pulled from his car, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. “The problem is between ordinary people and extremists.” Jozef notes that not all Salafists (members of a movement related to Wahhabism), are extremists. “Some are good, but the majority are extremists.”

“You should tell the people in the States that there are many differences between the conservative Muslims and the liberals,” says George. “I know a lot of moderates.” George says that the trend toward radicalism is predominant among Egypt’s youth, not the older generation. Older Egyptians “saw what it was like under secularism, and they don’t want extremists.” George, who works in tourism – an industry that has suffered catastrophically since the revolution – says that westerners, especially Americans, seem perplexed that there are Christians living in Egypt. “When I meet tourists, I tell them my name and they ask me, ‘And you’re a Muslim?’” he says with a laugh.

A professor at a local university said that it was the socialist policies of Gamel Abd El Nasser that paved the way for the problems of urban overpopulation and economic strife that plague Egypt. “Nasser took the land from the rich, gave it to the poor. In a few generations, they divided what little they had among many their children. Now, there’s nothing. Those who had worked on farms before had to move. Then shanty towns rose up on the soil that was once fertile.” Egypt, whose verdant Nile region once provided the grain that fed the Roman Empire, is now the largest importer of wheat in the world. She, like many, believes that the revolution and its managed version of democracy have been a setback.

Nevertheless, many, especially Egypt’s youth, continue to praise the revolution and democracy. “It’s a good thing to build a democratic country, something new,” says Jozef. “Thirty years of corruption. Just demanding freedom to live in security in our own state, that is the idea of the revolution.”

Yet there is a strong sense among many that Egypt is a pawn in the hands of the great powers, as well as powerful Gulf interests and ideologies. “In Egypt, there is a bad feeling about change from outside. We want change from inside. This is our culture. Inside, we have our own choices.” He speaks of America’s support for radicals in Afghanistan, the Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Syria, and obliquely of American support for Egypt’s ruling party, the Muslim Brothers. “I think the American government doesn’t care about human lives – its own or ours. I don’t know why they supported extremists before. I don’t know why they support them now.”

Shoukry Said, a Coptic Christian who now lives in America, was born in the reign of King Fuad I. As a young doctor in Cairo, he saw the transition from monarchy to the socialism and Arab nationalism of Nasser. “The Egyptians are an agrarian people, a mild people.” He does not believe that the violence that has plagued Syria and Iraq is in Egyptians’ nature. But the temperament of the Egyptian people will be only one of many influences in the pivotal years ahead.

Andrew Doran served on the Executive Secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State, where he has since worked as a consultant. His views are his own.