Sunday, May 15, 2016

Egypt: the Sick Man of the Arab World?

As he came in from Amman's North Bus Station to his hotel for the night, the author got into a quick conversation with the taxi driver getting him to his destination.

"Where are you coming in from," the driver, in his fifties, asked in perfectly proficient English.

"Oh, just came in from Egypt," the author replied, continuing the conversation with a rather light-hearted remark: "it is quite different from here."

"Of course, look at how clean Amman is, not like Egypt, so dirty."  The taxi driver was quick to take the conversation to a whole new level.  He follows up with stories from his visit to Egypt not too long ago for his vacation.  Some of his stories are just as unpleasant as the author's experiences.

The taxi driver, in his descriptions of Egypt, made zero attempt to hide his disgust with the country.  And as the author reached his hotel, the driver jotted down his phone number before leaving, giving a friendly reminder, "call if you need a taxi later to go somewhere, but don't worry if you don't want to.  No pressure, this is not Egypt."  Sneer with emphasis.

Surprisingly, such negative perception of Egypt by other Arabs is not limited to this particular person.  When the author met a friend in Beirut, there was also some brief stories.  The friend, growing up in Egypt and thus speaking with a distinct Egyptian accented Arabic, were often welcomed by older Beirutis with nostalgia.  They told her of the old Egyptian movies they used to watch growing up, and even imitated some of their favorite actors in their faux Egyptian Arabic.  But now, Egypt features less and less in the pop culture of the Arab world.

For Egypt to hold an important place in the Arab world should not be surprising.  It is, after all, the most populous of all Arab countries, hosting the headquarters of the Arab League, and spearheaded pan-Arab and anti-Israeli political efforts during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser.  In those days, the supranational Arab identity is in many ways shaped by Egypt, not just politically, but socially and culturally.  It is that older Egypt in their imagination that the older generation of Lebanese and Jordanians look to with fondness.

But modern Egypt has shown its economic limits not consistent with such positive imaginations of the past.  Compared to the clean, well-ordered streets of Amman and Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria look all the more disorganized, garbage-strawn, and poverty-filled.  Endless hassling of foreigners (including their Arab brethren) due to recent spates of economic problems only serve to compound and entrench any negative first impressions.  The harsh reality of Egypt on the ground has only given way to the belief that Egypt of today is no longer a worthy leader of the Arab world.

Unfortunately, such beliefs are bound to last.  With post-Revolution Egypt's political climate still murky and freedom of expression battered, the country no longer has sufficient capacity to look beyond its own borders for sometime.  The mantle of Arab unity, disrupted by events of Arab Spring, has no one to carry, and national identities, like that of Lebanese or Jordanian, is gradually superseding than of the Arab.  In the process, the Egyptian nation will become much more of a foreign entity, easily criticized for shortcomings without sympathies as Arabs.

Perhaps an interesting comparison is open criticism of North Korea by a new generation of South Koreans.  With shared histories of dynastic and colonial eras a distant memory, and familial ties gradually severed, supposed kinship no longer features in modern-day discussions.  Cold, hard facts of political conflicts and economic backwardness becomes the mainstream views, potentially exacerbated by the feeling that North Koreans are being a collective embarrassment to all people of Korean descent.  It would not be surprising to find Arabs thinking of the same way for Egyptians.

It is sad though, that the ideals of pan-Arabism, so hardfought by earlier generation of leaders from Egypt and other Arab countries, is being killed partially because of the various problems that Egypt as a nation, is facing today.  It is all the more sorrowful to think that richer Arab countries, whether it be Lebanon, Jordan, or oil producers of the Gulf, have not supported Egypt enough in its time of difficulty, whether it be through direct investment or more simply, hiring Egyptians in their own countries as migrant workers.  By turning a blind eye to a country in plight, these countries are only helping Egypt to really become the "sick man of the Arab World."  

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