Egypt - the Old, the New, and the Promise Unkept


It was my reaction to Egyptian society that I did not anticipate, for I found myself quite impressed with the people and way of life.

My guide, Shaima, a friendly twenty five year old woman in dungarees and sunglasses, could have been an American, a European, or an Israeli. She did not wear a head covering or other traditional garb, spoke fluent English, and was very capable in her explanations as we journeyed the crowded, noisy streets of Cairo, the capital of Egypt, en route to the Pyramids at Giza.

The tour director, Essam, a short, well dressed middle aged man, in suit and tie, graying hair neatly combed, was also quite warm as he politely assisted me and my son. His face was most notable for a thickened callous on the mid forehead, formed over years of prayer - a medallion of honor, it seemed, for many other men had the same such emblem.

As the night fell, I heard the call to evening prayer arising from the minarets of the many mosques that abound in this ancient Islamic capital, the melodic intonations of the muezzin, falling upon the faithful. It was as such five times each day, from early morning to late evening; life here was measured not in deadlines and busy schedules but in sacred time, in expansive, supernal religious time, carefully pegged at intervals, to prevent the seeker from losing oneself in the prattle of daily life. Here, there was the deliberate intermingling of the sacred and the mundane, the holy and the temporal, the Divine and the profane. There seemed much to commend in a society that conformed itself in accordance with the requirements of sanctity.

And, perhaps, it was here that America could speak to Moslems in an idiom they would understand, for the United States, notwithstanding the heavy breathing of the secularists, was a praying nation, a country that endeavored to supplicate, give thanks to, and ask guidance from its heavenly father.

There was a natural convergence, it seemed, between praying Muslims and devout Christians and Jews that had been mistakenly overlooked as an instrument of diplomacy - combined with a much needed rejection of the coarser elements of our popular culture - that could advance mutual interests. And, perhaps, from this shared dominion of faith (without abandoning our democratic principles of freedom, pluralism, and tolerance), we could find common ground with common sense Moslems and push back against the blood decrees of the fanatics.

But the task will not be easy. For poverty bristles here as witnessed by the ramshackle homes, storefronts, and streets of hectic Giza where there is little gainful employment. There is tourism, of course, which is reemerging, but here too the Islamists have had their way, for they have claimed tourists as legitimate targets. And with the strife and violence, there is reluctance by many to enter Moslem lands, no matter how resplendent in history and culture, as surely Egypt is. Despite this, tourism ranks as Egypt's third largest earner, behind the Suez Canal - and oil. For the allure of Egypt's illustrious past, of the grand remnants and edifices of its Pharaonic age, still proves too exquisite for travelers to resist.

But Egypt chafes under the same malady as its Arab and Moslem brethren around the world, save, perhaps, for Turkey, whose proximity and strategic location between Europe and Asia, have induced it to at least dabble in the fine arts of secular democracy. That is, they function under only one of two models of governance, neither of them auspicious: either secular or religious tyranny.

There is also, I sense, a certain fatalistic quality to Islam that has not, on balance, advanced the interests of its citizenry, an over emphasis on submission that has perhaps attenuated the reflex to upgrade one's station in life that seems less of a factor in Christian societies, particularly our own.

And absent the dynamism of the free market and an open political system, as manifested most persuasively by our own utopia, the United States, there is little room for innovation or new ideas to take root and hence little chance for a prosperous and informed citizenry to emerge.

But here too the calamity of Iraq resurfaces, for this was the intention of our noble but flawed effort: not just to rid the world of a vicious dictator, or to unearth WMD, but to provide another political model for the Arab world - some semblance of liberal democracy, governed by the rule of law and occasioned by the free market. This would have provided an enviable alternative to the hellfire extremists who value violence and death over a college education.

That Bush failed to execute this high minded enterprise is a tragedy - for us, certainly, but even more so, for the Arabs, of which Egypt is one, in fact, their greatest, nation.


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