Hostility to the West may shape Egyptian politics

 
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By Osama Diab

Islamists and Arab Socialists share a history of clashing with foreign influences.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Egypt has been moving fast with its plan to ‘modernise’ its economy, ever since the 1992 economic reform programme aimed at deregulating the market. This plan, encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, privatised public sector entities and carried out legal, tax and administrative reform to make the country friendlier to both local and foreign investors. Since then, ruthless, corrupt capitalism has been imposed on a poor nation that only managed to put food on the table with the help of socialist policies, such as subsidised food and energy, and free education.

It wasn’t just neo-liberal economic policies that were imposed on the people by an unelected regime. Relative secularism and friendship with Israel and the US were also introduced, against the will of many of the people. Egypt was named in 2009 by Gallup as the most religious country on the planet, but its regime was relatively secular and was engaged in a fierce battle with Egypt ‘s Islamist groups.

With the 25 January revolution, Egyptians revolted against 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule which left behind a dire economic situation and a very poor human rights record. Now, in the aftermath, Egyptians seem to relate mainly to two political groups or ideologies that better meet their religious and socialist standards. The first is Islamism; the second is the Arab Socialism inspired by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideology, calling for Arab unity, socialist economics and promoting anti-imperialism.

Despite these ideologies sitting on opposite ends on Egypt’s political spectrum – with Islamists representing the religious right and Arab Socialists the secular left – they still have a lot in common.

The fact that both groups have traditionally and historically collided with the West could help both sides score a few political points amidst increasing xenophobia. This is caused by a repetitive state-run media narrative that foreign elements, attempting to destabilise Egypt, were behind the chaos caused during the revolution.

On top of this media rhetoric, many Egyptians realise that their strategic geographic location at the intersection of the world’s three major continents is a great asset, but could also be a great curse. This leaves them with a constant sense that danger is always around the corner. This is fed by the reality that Egypt, throughout its history, was occupied by successive colonial powers from the Romans through to the Arabs, the Ottomans and the Brits.

Even though Egyptian xenophobia has traditionally been directed towards Israel, the US and the West, it has now grown to include new names, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. What is more, it includes certain Egyptian political groups who are perceived as arms for these powers. This leaves many in Egypt fearing their own shadow.

This narrative was also abused internally by leaders who wanted to gain a heroic status as Egypt’s guardians against the ambitions of colonial powers. The only political groups that are able to thrive in this atmosphere of mistrust are ones who actually promote it; again, Islamists and Arab Socialists who constantly accuse the West of being at war with Islam and the Arab world respectively.

Political groups, or figures that lack this history of clashing with the West, are accused of collaboration. A senior position in an international organisation or even a PhD from a foreign university could now be enough to destroy a politician’s career in Egypt .

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is suffering from such accusations prior to his presedential campaign. This is due to the false idea that he gave the US the green light to invade Iraq when he led the IAEA. Amr Hamzawi, a young and vibrant Egyptian politician and human rights activist who received both his master’s degree and PhD in Europe and is currently the Middle East research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is seen at best by many cautious people as “too foreign” or “too Western”, if not actually serving a foreign agenda.

Blaming anything and everything on foreign powers did not appear to heal Egypt’s serious wounds after the 1952 military coup, which eventually replaced a monarchy with a totalitarian socialist republican regime. There is no reason to think why it might now.

By managing to overthrow a regime that was a friend of the US and Israel, Egyptians have proved that they can defeat all conspiracy theories and achieve impossible heights if they put their differences and divisions aside. However, Egyptians will find it very hard to achieve stability, democracy and economic prosperity if they don’t stop conveniently blaming all their problems on factors taking place beyond the country’s borders.

In order to build a healthy democracy in Egypt, we will have to work closely with international organisations, allow foreign as well as local media to report freely, stop accusing politicians of serving a covert agenda, integrate ourselves with the rest of the democratic world, and most importantly, ensure minorities have equal rights.

One would hope that this state of extreme cultural and political paranoia is only a short-term result of the severe shocks Egypt has been suffering lately. An age-old tourism industry and traces of what was once a melting pot for people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds can potentially put Egypt on the path to democracy and prosperity – if Egyptians abandon these obsolete ideas about foreign agendas and treason.

This article was first published in the New Statesman on 2 June 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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