A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Nael Shama in Le Monde Diplo: "Understanding Cairo" and How its Presidents Haven't

A hat tip to Ursula Lindsey at The Arabist  for my belated discovery of this gem from Nael Shama at Le Monde Dipomatique in English: "Understanding Cairo." Egypt's Presidents (with one exception) are assessed as not understanding the capital. Read it all, but it offers such a refreshing insight and a new spin on recent events that I think it deserves rather extensive excerpts:
Modern Egyptian rulers failed to unravel the secrets of the city, abandoning it at times, unleashing their wrath against it at other times — always failing to understand it. They mistook Cairo’s patience for apathy, overlooking the fact that, like all old cities, it is both wise and resilient. It smiles in the face of hardships, bears the ebbs of time with a strong heart, but in response to tyrants, it doesn’t murmur: it shouts.
President Anwar Sadat sought solace in his village house in Mit Abu El-Kom, in Menoufia Governorate, away from Cairo’s political traffic jams. Sadat was not returning to his roots in a quest to consolidate family ties or evoke sweet childhood memories. Sadat hated Cairo and its unruly people . . .
Likewise, from the late 1990s until 2011, President Hosni Mubarak — and his “royal” entourage — spent long periods of time in the resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, far away from Cairo’s oven-like heat and suffocating air pollution . . .
. . . In the tranquility of his comfortable exile, Mubarak could block out what had become of Egypt during his three-decade rule: a despairing nation, a corrupt and dysfunctional state, a failing economy addicted to foreign largesse, crumbling services, an ailing infrastructure, a population boom (more than a million new souls every year), a fading grandeur replaced by a pitiable image in the region and beyond. Yet Mubarak’s flight to the periphery did not bring the core to rest: Cairo bent under Mubarak, but it did not break. Eventually, Cairenes flocked to Tahrir Square, Cairo’s (and Egypt’s) center, to seal Mubarak’s fate.
. . . Morsi’s downfall was also partly because he didn’t understand Cairo. Despite the MB’s successive ballot box victories in post-Mubarak Egypt, it was Cairo that slowed down the group’s foray into the territory abandoned by Mubarak and his defeated, dissolved party. In Cairo, Morsi lost both rounds of the presidential elections (May-June 2012) as well as the referendum on the constitution (December 2012).
Morsi visited Tahrir Square only once after his election victory. This visit came on his first day as president, in order to celebrate his victory among his supporters and, in hindsight, to pay farewell to the central square of a city he so quickly and foolishly lost. Morsi remained oblivious to the threat posed by Cairo’s recalcitrance until the very end.
The exception? Who's left?:
Only Nasser — who clipped the wings of the aristocracy and uplifted the poor, creating a viable middle class — bonded with Cairo. The expansion in education and health services and the establishment of an industry-oriented public sector gave rise to, and consolidated, Egypt’s middle class in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1956, he vowed steadfastness against the tripartite aggression (Suez) from the rostrum of the widely revered Al-Azhar mosque, in the heart of Cairo’s old Islamic city. “I am here in Cairo with you and my children are also here in Cairo. I did not send them away [for protection from air raids],” he said, to affirm his loyalty to the city.
Nasser did not travel much during his reign. He was not a big fan of the tourist retreats of Egypt’s pre-revolution aristocracy. He stayed in Cairo, and there he died. In the autumn of 1970, Nasser resided for a few days in Cairo’s posh Nile Hilton during the emergency Arab summit convened to put an end to the bloody Palestinian-Jordanian conflict — Black September. On the night of September 27th, on the balcony of his hotel room that overlooked River Nile, Kasr El-Nil Bridge and the lights of the city that never sleeps, he told his friend Mohamed Heikal: “This is the best view in the world.” On the following day, he died.
There's a genuine truth in this piece, and one that goes far to explain the deep differences among Egyptians today. Read the whole thing, though. At least twice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A post that shows just how absurd Al Sisi's pretensions are to the mantle of Nasser.

In every Arab capital there is a Nasser Square. Al Sisi will be lucky to get a stop named for him on the Cairo Metro.