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About Tarek Osman

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of the international bestseller, Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010) and has published articles on Egypt and the Middle East in leading international newspapers.

Articles by Tarek Osman

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

The Islamic state in context

Almost by default, the swelling numbers of young Arabs, especially in the culturally vibrant centres of the Arab world (Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, Damascus, Casablanca, Kuwait, Manama), will create plurality - in social views, political positions, economic approaches, and in social identities and frames of reference.

Islamisation and the future of the Islamic world

When Islamic groups command the legislative and executive powers in a country, the Islamisation of society takes centre stage. Young, enthusiastic, and ideologically driven members want rapid moves: clear legislations, conspicuous political positions, and social policies to reflect what they consider to be their ‘victory’.

The middle east and war over Iran

The Arab world is remaking itself. But even as its states cope with multiple domestic challenges they also face a choice over how to respond to a prospective American and Israeli attack on Iran, says Tarek Osman.

Arab freedom vs geopolitics: a time of risk

The Arab spring of 2011 has entered a new phase. In this period, the emerging dangers to the fulfilment of its promise of transformation include the dynamics of inter-state power in the region, says Tarek Osman.

Egypt: nation, state, faith, and future

The political tumult in Egypt continues as the six-month anniversary of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak nears. The rising Islamist influence puts the possibility of a religious turn in the revolution on the agenda. But how real is this prospect? Tarek Osman assesses it by looking at the deeper forces that have shaped modern Egypt over the last two centuries.

The green shoots of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring is frequently portrayed as a series of uprisings against oppressive regimes. A more historically-oriented reading would see it as a rejection by young Arabs (the more than 185-million under the age of 30 years) of the socio-political heritage they inherited from the previous generation.

Egypt’s Islamists: asset and flaw

The forces of political Islam are everywhere in the kaleidoscope of post-revolution Egypt. But behind the confident exterior this is a movement divided and uncertain, says Tarek Osman.

The Arab prospect: forces and dynamics

The convulsions in the Arab world in 2011 are creating a new political and social reality. But what will be its character? Tarek Osman identifies three factors that are shaping the possible future.

Egypt, Algeria, Yemen: Further reading on the Arab uprising

Yale University Press have issued this sampler from recent books on the Egypt, Yemen and Algeria. All provide important background information on the histories, societies, politics and economies of nations now thrust into the media spotlight.

Egypt: after revolt, transition

The explosion of protest in Egypt has emerged from deep currents in the country's modern history. Tarek Osman maps the roots of tumult and the dynamics of the new political reality it has already created.

Egypt’s election: power, actors, and...“change”

The iron rule of Hosni Mubarak has dominated Egypt for three decades. The regime he heads is preparing for the succession and seeking to channel Egyptians’ hunger for change into a tool of retrenchment. The secular opposition is absorbed by the effort of staying in the political game; the Muslim Brotherhood has larger ambitions. What place does a parliamentary election have in this landscape? An assessment from Tarek Osman, in Cairo.

Egypt: the blinkers of expertise

Egypt is in vogue among many foreign observers and analysts. The Economist has covered developments in the country in more than ten issues in 2009 alone. The American Interest published a long study on the country in autumn 2008 (see Michelle Dunne, "A Post-Pharaonic Egypt", The American Interest, September-October 2008). The International Crisis Group has tackled "potential disruptions" in the country in a number of its reports. The United States House of Representatives committee on international relations has since 2006 devoted several hearings and testimonies to conditions there. The west's policy-journals and think-tanks frequently focus on Egypt (see, for example, Aladdin Elaasar, "Is Egypt Stable?", Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009). The unlikeliest sources call Egypt "the country to watch".

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Among Tarek Osman's articles in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)

"China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt" (7 August 2008)

"Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

"Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

"The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid" (15 May 2009)
All this is in its way natural and appropriate: Egypt is indeed a major Arab country that in many ways remains pivotal to the future of its region. It is one of the key states in the middle-east's political processes (from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the crisis over Iran). The country is also an increasingly important economic player in the region; the second largest market (after Saudi Arabia), and the base for some of the region's most innovative companies (the most successful telecoms operator, construction conglomerate, investment bank, and private-equity firm).

At heart, however, the impulse for such attention is fear as much as positive engagement on such grounds: even a sense of peril about the possibility of social disruption and / or political chaos in this land of 82 million people.

An explosion in Egypt would indeed shake the region and the world. The country is the birthplace of modern militant Islamism as well as the driving force of Arab nationalism; it still has the momentum to drive great political movements across the region - the inspiring (the modern Arabic cultural renaissance between the 1920s and the 1960s), the exhausted (Arab nationalism) and the regressive (militant Islamism) alike. Egypt is, after all, also a "spillover" country: its tremors pulsate far and wide.

This importance and potential notwithstanding, the international coverage of Egypt has become rather formulaic. A surprising number of reports repeat the same formula. They start by highlighting the dire socio-economic situation of everyday Egyptians; go on to lament the regime's aloof and passive stance; portray the entire society as moribund, weighed down by its burdens and trapped in anger and despair; refer to others' contribution to Egypt's failures (from the United States's misguided policies to Iran's meddling); and conclude by speculating whether Gamal Mubarak (son of the president, Hosni Mubarak) will succeed to the leadership or whether an army general will seize power and terminate the long Mubarak era.

This standard formula, with its myriad of outlets, contains elements of reality (it could hardly be otherwise). But overall there are enough missing or skewed elements as to suggest the need for a more complex picture.

The three gaps

The first misunderstanding is about stasis in Egyptian society. The picture of this society as stagnant misses the fact that throughout the 2000s, it has undergone major changes (see "Egypt: the surreal painting", 14 May 2008).

For example, the private sector in Egypt now employs more Egyptians than the public sector. That significant shift coincides with the regime's subtle but consistent lifting of the social safety-net that Egyptians have enjoyed since the 1960s. This means that staple-food prices are increasing (which provoked serious demonstrations and riots in early 2008); healthcare is effectively becoming privatised; the government's guarantee to create job opportunities for new graduates is all but null; and the dominant operating mode of the entire economy is unmistakably capitalist.

Many observers highlight the corruption and vast income differentials that are among the by-products of these changes. As important, however, is the emergence as a result of a new and broad-based class of engaged economic agents who are participating in and have stakes in the country's economic system. These businesspeople are economically independent of the government's and the public-sector's machinations, and this encourages a much more assertive and outspoken attitude towards the elements holding the country back.

It is common for observers to hail new media and the internet, satellite TV channels, and greater openness to the outside world as central to the wave of political activism that Egypt has witnessed since 2003-04 (involving the active professional syndicates, the effervescent universities, and a multitude of bloggers). All true, but arguably more fundamental is the factor of self-assurance that comes from being economically independent.

The spreading realisation among many young Egyptians that they will never work for the government or the public sector - because these are no longer the main provider in Egyptian society - has been the  trigger of the new activism. That trend is now irreversible - and is gaining momentum. One of the most important dynamics in Egypt today is how (no longer if) the private sector and its agents will transform their economic power into political power.

The second misunderstanding is that the Egyptian regime is passive, reflexive, and reliant on continually blaming others. In fact, the Egyptian regime's opposition to Iran, Hizbollah, and other "radical" players in the region is part of a coherent foreign-policy doctrine that sees Egypt as a pillar of a Pax Americana in the middle east. This view has guided Egyptian foreign policy since the later 1970s. Its shape and future, and its ability to meet Egypt's security interests, are beyond the scope of this article; but the point is that the regime is hardly passive.

The regime's activism is even clearer internally. Again, many analysts derive from the view that President Hosni Mubarak (now 81 years old) is increasingly elderly and detached the conclusion that the regime's pace as a whole has become slow and sluggish. This view too is wrong.

Since the early 2000s, and especially after the installation of the 2004 government, the president's son Gamal Mubarak and an elite of liberal capitalists have acquired great influence over decision-making in a number of areas. There has, in effect, been an element of rejuvenation - reflected both in some of the major economic changes referred to above, and in more friction with the regime's classic as well as new challengers (the Muslim Brotherhood, but also more assertive women's groups and young bloggers). This internal regeneration complements and to a degree attempts to offset the challenge from the new class of economic agents outside the regime.

The third misunderstanding is the depiction of young Egyptians (and almost 70% of the population is under 30 years old) as angry, frustrated, disillusioned, and increasingly violent. Here, what observers ignore is their impressive and increasing cultural creativity, social interest and political engagement.

There are also areas where the new Egyptian capitalism is meeting young people's creativity and thirst for change. For example, three investment funds have been launched in 2009 that focus solely on Egypt's poorest and long-ignored region, Al-Saeed; all are managed by 30-something young Egyptians who have returned to the country from New York and London. There is a fusion here of personal incentive and social improvement that is a potential source of development and progress.

The military and Islamism

The fourth fallacy concerns Islamism. There is a recurring tendency among analysts who consider the prospects for post-(Hosni) Mubarak Egypt to focus on the likelihood of Egypt's next leader being Gamal Mubarak or an army general, or whether political Islam will be able to wrest control from the regime. The question is valid. But the line of thinking it reflects is somewhat tired, and often fails to grasp the subtleties of the forces it is referring to.

The dominant view of the military establishment in Egypt tends to invoke the potentiality of "a general becoming Egypt's next president" without engaging with the complicated relationship between the regime and the military establishment (as did, for example, Robert Satloff's study of The Army and Politics in Mubarak's Egypt [Washington Institute of Near East Policy, 1988]).

In similar vein, the analysis of Islamism in today's Egypt can simplify the role of the Muslim Brotherhood - which is not (as is often stated) the most important or pervasive Islamic force in the country. This description more accurately defines the Salafist movements.

Salafists, who regard early pious Muslims and their communities as exemplary models, command major followings on the Egyptian "street". They are not politically active, and that is why they are tolerated (and sometimes encouraged) by the regime; that is also why they do not feature in news-bulletins or reports on the country. Their influence, however, is many times more than that of organised political Islam.

Salafist thinking, which has been expanding and proliferating in Egypt for more than three decades, is based on a religious view of life; a strict and highly conservative social code; and inherently advances an Islamist foreign policy. The accumulating influence of this significant Salafist influence on Egyptian society could be to make many young Egyptians more anti-secular, anti-liberal, and anti-west. After three decades of domestic and foreign efforts to align the country with the United States and the west, including around $100 billion of American (and western) investment in and aid to Egypt, this outcome would be a colossal policy failure. The Salafi phenomenon receives far less attention than it deserves.

The plethora of new media has put Egypt under the spotlight. But the speed with which this media's clicks cover the country allow for too little close study and critical observation. Such hurried coverage risks failing to detect the real trends that are shaping tomorrow's Egypt.


Also in openDemocracy on the Arab world in 2009:

The Islamic world, the United States, democracy: response to Shadi Hamid

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech in Cairo in June 2009 in which he is expected to reach out to the Islamic world, part of the continuing work of repairing the ties between the United States and Muslims that were so damaged under the administration of his predecessor. The US's president's address will most likely extend and reinforce the themes outlined in his "remarks" to the parliament in Ankara during his visit to Turkey on 6-7 April: 

"America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Rodrigo de Almeida "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009) 

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)

Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009)

Achin Vanaik, "Capitalism and democracy" (29 April 2009)

Anna Lekvall, "Democracy and aid: the missing links" (13 May 2009)
We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world - including in my own country."

The overall message is somewhat in vogue these days. In March 2009, a group of international experts and scholars wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to put democratic reform at the heart of the US's engagement with the Arab World (see  "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009). The core advice of the letter - jointly hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) - was the need for Washington under its new leadership to engage with the political Islamic currents in (mainly) the Arab world, as well as to support Arab liberals.

In reply, I suggested that the letter erred in respect of its scope and content. My central argument was that the United States, as a result of its strategic interests in the middle east, is on a clashing path with the Arab world's political Islamic current (see Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" [17 March 2009]).

Shadi Hamid, co-convenor and one of the lead drafters of the open letter, responded in turn to my article by arguing that leading representatives of political Islam in the Arab and Islamic worlds (such as key members of the Muslim Brotherhood) are showing signs of increasing liberalism; for example, by inherently accepting peace with Israel and writing in Jewish newspapers in the United States. Accordingly, America, should seek to find common ground with such currents of political Islam:

"There is an important change underway. In much of the middle east, Islamist groups are aware that gaining power within their countries will remain unlikely, if not impossible, without US encouragement or, at the very least, neutrality....It would be wise for the United States to carefully consider such overtures. After all, autocracy cannot be made permanent. Eventually, the authoritarian regimes of the region will cease to be. An uncertain ‘something else' will replace them. Western nations would be wise to prepare themselves for the change to come. It is better to have leverage with Islamist parties before they come to power, not afterwards when it is too late" (see Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" [6 April 2009]). 

Shadi Hamid's response is in my view based on a flawed and limited framing of the US's relationship with the Islamic world. This article continues the discussion, itself also part of the debate on the future of democracy-support jointly hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy). I develop here the case outlined in my original contribution: that the United States - and where appropriate the European Union and other interlocutors too - needs to frame its view of, and dialogue with, the Islamic world in a different and more creative way. Three dimensions of this proposed change are considered.

Range and complexity

The first dimension is to recognise nuance and complexity, in ways that move beyond the reductive view of reducing political Islam as (at heart) little more than hapless opposition movements in a number of Arab countries.

The United States political outlook with regard to the Islamic world tends to centre around such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Harakat al-Tahrir, Hizbollah, and the multitude of other Islamist movements in the middle east. This reductive tendency to respond to the most ambitious and manipulative Islamist voices rather than the quieter and truer leads it to be drawn into petty, tactical and localised issues and problems (see Ali A Allawi, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization [Yale University Press, 2009].

A more mature outlook would see Islam also as a sort of grand socio-political umbrella of values and guiding principles that can comprise and accommodate many different political currents. It is not the exclusive doctrine of any political movement; it vastly transcends them.

This more nuanced view of political Islam would retrieve the ideas of Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek (1888-1966). In his Islam and the Principles of Government (1925) He argued that the institution of the caliphate (or for that matter any concentration of political power in the name of Islam) is obsolete; that Muslims have graduated from their need for religious chaperoning; and that the separation of the state from the mosque had become effective since the politicisation of Islamic rule at the end of the "rightly guided caliphs" era, only a few decades after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

A perspective of this sort, intelligently undertaken, would seize the initiative and reclaim the agenda from the different political Islamic movements. It would help position the US as the mature, long-term, weighty, and strategic player that it is. Its engagement with the Islamic world could then become part of a serious dialogue between civilisations - shorn of the unfortunate and loaded atmospherics that have surrounded this term. The results might be surprising. In its spirit, for example, Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek's message resembles many of the principles of the US's own "founding fathers".

The adoption of a grander definition of political Islam by the United States would enable many of the reactionary forces in the Islamic world to be seen in terms of their actual and natural (rather than inflated) size. It would also the best way of supporting Arab liberals, and an important departure from the approach of outright backing which all but discredits them in front of Arab populations as a whole. 

Confidence and flexibility

The second framing dimension is to address explicitly and centrally the Islamic - rather than the Arab world and "mind". I argued in my earlier article - "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009) - that the scope of the open letter to President Obama was misleading and over-general. Shadi Hamid retorted that the middle east, the Arab world, and the Muslim world "are all relevant to our call". True, they are all relevant, but choosing which one to address is hardly a matter of semantics.

There are two reasons why the US should formulate its democracy-support policy and its wider policy aspirations in relation to Islamic, rather than Arab, realities. First, Arab nationalism is far from the dominant identity in today's "Arab world"; it is a weak political force living only on the momentum of nostalgia. In no Arab country are Arab nationalists serious political contenders. Islamists have come to dominate the region's social life, and become the sole challengers to the region's ruling regimes.

Second, Islamism is - unlike Arabism - a flexible notion. Arabism is by definition a national and exclusive identity, whereas Islamism is a multinational and inclusive one. The Islamic identity encompasses rich, refined traditions that express the mixing and merging of different cultures that have come together under the banner of Islam. In its healthy and progressive manifestations, the Muslim "mind" draws upon a host of influences and traditions - Persian, Egyptian, Indian, Andalucian, even Hellenic. Such diversity and richness breads progressive, liberal and tolerant thinking.

An important and relevant example is Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Andalucian philosopher (also known as Averroes ). He was confident enough in the great flexibility and moral strength of Islam to shun the notion of al-Jahiliyyah (the era of ignorance eradicated by the advent of Islam - and the term frequently used by militant Islamists in describing the west), and to advocate borrowing from the thinking of al ummam al salifa al saliha (the pious ancient peoples) in a direct and reverent reference to the Greeks. Ibn Rushd also sought dialogue between the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus and their Christian neighbours in northern Spain and western France - as well as to their Jewish subjects in Andalucia itself.

There are more contemporary examples. The United States's and Europe's thinkers should - instead of seeking common ground with the ideas of the Hassan al-Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) or Sayyid Qutb (the leading theorist of rejectionist political Islam) - study the work of the al-Azhar scholar Taha Hussein. In his book Mustaqbal al-Thaqafa fi Misr (The Future of Culture in Egypt) (1936), Hussein scolded the religious establishment (then the main bearer of political Islam) for its reductive view of the religion and its role in society; and reminded his readers of the immense influence of the Greeks, Jews and Christians on the land of al-Azhar and the Islamic empire itself.

The confidence and flexibility of such thinkers are vastly superior to the insecurity and rigidity of many players in today's political Islam. They are also (again) resonant of the best American and European traditions.

Realism and discrimination

The third dimension is to embrace realism and intelligent discrimination: to abandon the silly and condescending declaration (frequently voiced by George W Bush) that Islam is "a religion of peace", and to engage with those currents of political Islam that have integrity.

A careful study here could, for example, involve a recovery of elements 

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Among Tarek Osman's articles in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film (29 July 2008)

"China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt"  (7 August 2008)

"Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

of the Salafi tradition as embodied in a number of late-19th and early-20th-century Muslim intellectuals. Sheikh Mohammed Abdou (1849-1905) and Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad (1889-1964) for example - the latter arguably the most compelling Islamic thinker in the 20th century - invoked a return to the purity of early Islamic thought to commend modernisation and rejuvenation of the religion's spirit.

In his theology, Al-Akkad explored Jewish and Christian writings with open, confident faith; in his socio-political writings, he argued for free elections, a serious constitutional parliamentary system, free speech, and a system of checks and balances applicable to all powers. Abdou bluntly called for "learning from the civilised societies of Europe", "embracing modernity", and "rediscovering in the core of our religion the elements of rationality that made its societies great and permitted modernity and innovation". Their tradition continues in the writings of Gamal al-Banna, Mohamed Sayyed Ashmawi, and others (many of them inside al-Azhar itself).

The Salafists are interesting because - unlike the organised political movements in the region - they have no specific political agendas; their lack of local political ambitions, their genuine piousness and sense of religious continuity, means that they more closely embody and represent the increasing religiosity of the "Islamic street". In this context, the United States - as the most religious western society - would find greater common ground in forging a relationship with the Salafists than most European states.

A new frame

This is not to promote Salafist thinking or propose that the US embrace liberal schools within Islam. Rather it is to suggest that a sophisticated approach to the Muslim world and democracy-support there needs to discard formulaic frameworks and policies, and rise to the challenge of developing new ways of thinking about and engaging in dialogue with Islam.

This would be a service both to the Islamic world and to the United States and the Europeans - for all "sides" need a more serious and rigorous discourse than is represented by (for example) the mediocre missionary-ism of Amr Khaled, the zealous and somewhat vengeful militancy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, those western leftists and others who indulge and even embrace ultra-reactionary Islamist currents, or those who seek to extend "clash of civilisations" rhetoric into the next decade. 

The drafters of the open letter to Barack Obama are right to suggest that the coming to power of an intellectually curious president could open a new strategy. But that strategy should not involve engaging with mediocre political groups and ignorant, semi-literate reactionaries; nor a public-relations campaign in the face of nihilistic groups consumed with desperate resentment.

Rather, the United States - and the west in general - should frame its dialogue with Islam by seeing both itself and the latter as a civilisation that was (and is) rich and confident enough to adapt, to borrow, to change, to dare and to confront its demons. That is the way to encourage, promote and support democracy, and much else besides.

Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall

A group of distinguished experts has sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to put democratic reform at the heart of the United States's engagement with Arab regimes and publics. The letter - convened by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed), and published on 10 March 2009 - is founded on the acknowledgment that the US's relationship with the Muslim world has been troubled, and elaborates the case that out of the misjudgments of the George W Bush years a new and principled American approach to support for democracy and human rights can arise. 

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (Pomed)                  
Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

The document is sincere and timely. It echoes concerns shared by those who see the need for a rethinking of the whole project of "democracy promotion" as it has evolved since the 1990s, such as several contributors to the openDemocracy/International IDEA debate on the topic. But it also suffers from two flaws, respectively of framing and substance, which damage its credibility.

The door to difference

The first is confusion about whether the "target" of the letter is the Arab world, the Muslim world, or the middle east - which of course are far from the same thing (many Arabs are not Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs and do not live in the middle east, many of the middle east's people are neither Arabs nor Muslims). At various points the letter's imaginative projection seems to cross from one category to another.

This matters, because any democracy project worth the name must be attentive to key distinctions and diversities - in this case, both between the "Arab world" and the "Muslim world" and within each of these realities. This is true to the extent that it is at least doubtful that anything called the "relationship between the United States and the Muslim world" can even be said to exist. After all, this "world" shares no single political condition, and defies any homogenising tendency.

Each Muslim country has a unique history and attributes that have shaped its connection with the outside world (including America) and cannot be assimilated to a single template. Turkey, for example, is formally an ally of Washington while acquiring a gradually more assertive distance (symbolised by its refusal to join the invasion of Iraq); Iran remains a bitter adversary of and a major foreign-policy challenge to the US; Iraq is recovering from the enormous destruction of US-led invasion and war, which followed earlier intense periods of entanglement with the US; Pakistan is another nominal ally, but its multiple crises put it increasingly at odds with a country many of its people view with deep suspicion; Indonesia is another ally, but also a state whose political path and public opinion seem ever less amenable to the kind of influence the US wielded in the past. Moreover, there are millions of transnational or diaspora Muslims who - through satellite channels, the internet, and remittances - are agents in developing Muslim and national identities.

The same degree of internal variety characterises the "Arab world", notwithstanding its greater geographical coherence (though, again, there are huge numbers of transnational and diaspora Arabs, making this a global reality too).  The Gulf is vastly different from the Maghreb; the Levant has its own promises and perils; Sudan occupies a unique position in its membership of yet marginality to the rest of the Arab world; and Egypt is a world to itself.

The differences and distinctions matter: for their own sake, for proper understanding by outsiders, for policy that is intended to help not harm to be got right, and for the tragedies and enmities of past years to be overcome rather than repeated. The danger of overlooking them - even if unintentional and in the interest of focusing the message - is that what is framed as a new beginning could begin to resemble a finessing of the old, where America appears interested primarily in itself rather than the ostensible subjects of its concern.

The impossible partner

The second flaw in the letter is the content of the recommendations to President Obama.

The letter advises the new president that the US should consistently promote democracy in the Arab world; and (while acknowledging that "many Islamists advocate illiberal policies") highlights the case-studies of successful mild-Islamic rule in Turkey and increasing political participation of Islamic parties in Morocco and Indonesia to assuage the US's presumed trepidations about engaging with Islamists.Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)

China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt (7 August 2008)

The conclusion here may be politically sound, but it is intellectually flawed. It is true, as the letter states, that currents of political Islam form "the largest opposition groups" in the middle east. It is not true, however, that the US's main issues with political Islam concern the latter's presumed illiberalism. Saudi Arabia, the US's key Arab ally for the past six decades, is hardly a beacon of liberalism. The real predicament is that political Islam is on a clashing path with US foreign policy in the Arab world - for two reasons.

The first is, in a word (though one that gets only a single mention in the letter), Israel. A key pillar of the Pax Americana in the Arab world (and the wider middle east) is guaranteeing Israel's security. Political Islam sees Israel as the enemy; opposing the "Zionist project in our lands" is - and will continue to be - a foundation of the legitimacy of any political movement basing its mandate on Islam (whether it's the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Harakat al-Tahreer in Algeria, the National Front in Sudan, the mullahs in Iran, Hamas in Palestine, or Hizbollah in Lebanon).

There are two "solutions" to this dilemma: either Israel decides to end its occupation of all Palestinian land (which according to most political Islam's currents is the land occupied in the 1948, not the 1967, war); or the US abandons its guarantee of Israel's security. Since both "solutions" are inconceivable, political Islam will continue to see the US on a scale ranging from "the enemy's backer" to the "great satan".

The letter describes cases of political Islam's participation in Turkey, Indonesia and Morocco as having "moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their commitment to democratic norms". The qualification that needs to be made here is in part (again) that the US's problem with political Islam is not about enhancing its commitment to democracy; but it is also that the three examples cited are not representative of political Islam in the Arab world.

Turkey is not part of the Arab world; it has good relations with Israel (notwithstanding its strong condemnation of the assault on Gaza); its Islamists do not believe they are ideologically compelled to wage jihad against Israel; and (crucially) Turkey's military is vehemently secular - acting as a subtle but potent watchdog over the Islamists. Indonesia's Islamists too have other things than Israel on their mind. And Morocco's Islamists who joined the government were also accepting a role in a grand political game that is controlled by the palace (an American ally). Throughout the Arab world, however, all political Islamic movements without exception oppose (sometimes violently) the regimes deemed friends of America; they cannot be conscripted into this argument for engagement in the interests of a renewed policy of democracy support.

The infinite enemy

This point leads to the second reason why political Islam is on a clashing path with the US's foreign policy in the middle east. The region's Pax Americana aims - either in its softer Wilsonian guise or its brutal-realist Kissingeresque one - to "stabilise the region". Such stabilisation, pursued through armed aggression (as in the Iraq adventure) or negotiations (as in the Oslo/Camp David/roadmap/Quartet engagements) is designed to yield a "settlement" in the middle east. But political Islam has another cause: to wage the "struggle" against Israel, and in so doing to reverse the Islamic world's (and for many adherents the Arab world's) historical descent.

Many political trends in the Arab world take a long-term view with regard to the Arab-Israeli dilemma; they are against settling it at a time of what a leading Egyptian commentator calls "national thrashing". Arab nationalists too espouse this view. But political Islam's opposition is not time-bound but theological: it sees "settling" as a sin, and long-term jihad until "all our rights are regained" (as the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal says) is divinely ordained. Political Islam has higher ambitions than securing its rule or the accession of political heirs; they intend to (to cite President Bush's words in a different context) "stay the course", and will not buy into any Pax Americana for the middle east.

The liberal dilemma

What of the political Islamists' opponents in the Arab world, who are so often the principal reference-point of American democracy support: political liberals?  The letter claims that promoting democracy in the Arab world will "give liberal and secular forces in the region a chance to establish themselves..". The contrary will happen.

The Arab street is in the midst of a wave of religiosity, dominated by political Islamism. Even the liberal Arab forces led by highly respected public figures, such as the Egyptian Liberal Movement formerly headed by Aziz Siddiqi, have negligible popular support. In the parliamentary election of 2005, Egyptian liberals - led by the "father of Egyptian industry" and arguably one of the most respected politicians in Egypt in the last fifty years - failed to secure a single seat; in the same election, the Muslim Brotherhood (despite "interventions" by the government designed to avoid this outcome) secured eighty-eight seats.

The last thing Arab liberals need is to be labelled America's poodles; that would trounce them. It is interesting that despite his record of advocating human rights in Egypt, and some excellent socio-economic work, Saad Eddin Ibrahim found little support from the Egyptian street during his ordeal with the Egyptian regime throughout the 2000s. In the eyes of millions he was regarded as betaa El American (a man of the Americans). In another example of this trend, limited donations from western foundations to an Egyptian human-rights centre discredited in the eyes of many Egyptians - despite very courageous work it had done over the past few years.

The modest future

The above considerations compel the question: should the United States refrain from promoting democracy in the middle east at all? The answer has to be yes, in the sense that it would be a mistake for America to position itself as a direct player in a grand project of political transformation; America's support for Israel will continue to cast its shadow on America's relationship to any other political force in the region; the failure to understand the dynamics of political Islam will guarantee further problems and reversals.

But this is not the end of the story. For the US can in principle adopt another approach, one that utilises the benefits of what Joseph Nye calls "soft power" to achieve long-term goals of benefit to both sides which do not have to be clothed in the language of democracy promotion. The election of President Obama himself is emblematic here, for it has done more to boost Arab liberals than eight years of George W Bush. Ibrahim Eissa, perhaps Egypt's most popular journalist (especially among the Cairene and Alexandrian middle class, and young people) wrote of why such a "giant step" can happen in America and not in Egypt; it was his first article in years that acclaimed American values.

If this historic event were followed by genuine efforts to change the emphasis of American intervention in the region, there would at least be the possibility of repairing some of the damage of the 2000s. The measures that could make a difference include ending all torture and rendition programmes that saw America act as a thuggish power; increasing foreign direct investment in the Arab world, and creating jobs where talent gets rewarded, promoted, and enriched; investing greatly in education via academic scholarships to young and bright Arab students, but also supporting projects in the struggling concentrations of poverty and deprivation. All this and more would remind the Arabs that America stands for much more than its backing for Israel.

There are reasons both of principle and practicality why the United States cannot avoid entanglement in the Arab world (see Patrick Tyler, A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East [Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008]). The letter to President Obama is admirable in calling for a policy grounded on the principle of consistent support for democracy and human rights; but the signatories of the letter might reflect on the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of the United States ever operating to such a high standard. 

If the logic of this case is that the project of democracy support as such has reached its limit, it is also that other possibilities for progressive external agency remain. There are, after all, other players in the region apart from the United States; most evidently the European Union, which is less compromised by the polarisation of the 2000s and has its own "soft power" way of doing things that could win results. At the same time, America's very definition in Arab eyes can act for good as well as ill: even if the real popular forces on the Arabic street are no friends of the US, an intellectually curious and internationally oriented new president in the White House - and one with familial links to the Muslim (if not Arab) world - might yet help shift this load.

The experience of United States involvement in the Arab world, and its often ill-fated, one-sided and half-hearted efforts at democracy support, should provoke more caution than confidence about the future. The reward of bad ideas is failed policies. Any project that now puts democracy in the Arab or Muslim world at its heart will need to be mindful of what has gone before; based on sound ideas; knowledgeable about the ideologies, motives, and incentives of the people it is designed to aid; and humble in realising the limitations of what its power can do. In a word, don't give us democracy; just respect and seduce us, please.

Egypt’s dilemma: Gaza and beyond

The deep heart of Egypt's centralised political system is intensely engaged in seeking an end to the war in Gaza begun with Israel's air-assault on 27 December 2008 and intensified by the ground-level invasion from 4 January 2009. But the Egyptian administration's concern is not just diplomatic or humanitarian, for Cairo has reason to worry about the unsettling domestic political implications of Israel's ferocious campaign.

Among openDemocracy's articles on conflict over Gaza:

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (9 October 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

John Strawson, Rosemary Bechler, "Palestine: the pursuit of justice" (28 January 2008)

Eyad Sarraj, "'Gaza is quite a dynamic place now': an interview" (29 January 2008)

Geoffrey Bindman, "Gaza: unlock this prison" (7 March 2008)

Jeroen Gunning, "Hamas: talk to them" (18 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)
Egypt cannot avoid being affected by the Gaza crisis, for at least three reasons: its geographical proximity, including its control of the Rafah border-crossing; the way that the conflict and its effects is being witnessed live on satellite channels by millions in Egypt as well as throughout the Arab world; and its prominent role in the dynamics of the internal Palestinian dispute between Fatah and Hamas.

But the war in Gaza is only the most immediate of a wider set of issues that is bearing down on the regime of Egypt's long-term president - Hosni Mubarak - and which will continue to dominate the national-security agenda of its successor. These include how to balance its classical role as the mainstay of Arab nationalism and more recent pragmatism over the dispute with Israel at a time when the Egyptian and Arab "streets" are becoming increasingly angry and Islamised (see Roula Khalaf, "Egypt's balancing act", Financial Times, 5 January 2009).

The larger context

The immediate item on the agenda is the handling of the events in Gaza. The Hosni Mubarak regime, in power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981, has in its foreign policy never followed a populist course that focuses on playing an (as it were) "heroic" role. Rather, it has sought to become the Arab world's ultimate pragmatist, irrespective of the views of its citizens (see "Hosni Mubarak: what the pharaoh is like", 16 January 2006).

For the moment the administration is attempting to address the fervent domestic response to the Gaza war through its routine methods: internally, strict policing of the streets, dividing of the opposition and crushing of potential challengers; externally, clever diplomacy and public rhetoric. Its diplomatic interventions have included working with France on an initiative to secure an overall ceasefire, and with Turkey and Germany to allow a settlement that would include monitoring of arms-smuggling from Egypt to Gaza (see Heba Saleh, "Egypt presses Hamas on border monitors", Financial Times, 11 January 2009).

Egyptian leaders hope that their flurry of activity would be enough to contain the situation and contribute to the passing of its most severe phase. If they fail to secure the regime's credibility in the eyes of its people or other Arabs, it may care little: this was never its primary objective. What is far more worrying for Cairo is that the Gaza conflict highlights longer-term trends in the region - including the outlook of Israel's new generation of leaders and the shifts in political sentiment among Egyptians and other Arabs - which will pose acute problems for a post-Mubarak Egypt.

The end of something

The destruction and suffering in Gaza reinforce a feeling common to millions of Egyptians and other Arabs as well as Palestinians themselves: that the strategic decision made by Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement to renounce violence and adopt peaceful negotiation with the elected leaders of Israel as the only means of achieving a Palestinian state has proved futile.

The general feeling on the Palestinian and Arab street is that the panoply of diplomatic initiatives and titles - "peace process", "declaration of principles", "roadmap", "quartet", and the rest - are basically different ways of selling the Palestinians a "solution" that sanctions injustice and embeds humiliation in the face of Israeli power. In the minds of millions, there is no credibility left in any negotiation with the Israelis.

This rejection, anger and inclination towards violence - reflected in increasing sympathy for Fatah's radical rival, Hamas - can be seen in the increasing Islamisation of the Palestinian and Arab (including Egyptian) streets, and the associated embrace of ideas of jihad and martyrdom in a "holy war" against the Jews. The extraordinary violence inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza, which intensifies existing conditions of poverty and hopelessness, fuel these emotions. In addition, the sense of victimhood and of a historic assault on all Arabs enlivens nostalgia for ayam al-karama (days of dignity and pride).

In such desperate days, the people look for a hero to believe in - one as different as possible from the pragmatic leaders who (as a grieving mother on a pan-Arab TV station put it) "negotiate with the enemy over the corpses of our children". The forces gaining ground in the Arab world from Israel's war are ones (such as Hamas) that:

Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker

Among Tarek Osman's articles in openDemocracy:

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed"  (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt: the surreal painting" (14 May 2008)

"Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)
* reject the policies of ruling Arab administrations

* have no links to the Arab world's successive defeats and humiliations

* portray themselves (plausibly or not) as clean and honest

* detach themselves from the Arab society's rich and social elites

* boast conspicuous religious foundations. 

The changing region

This overall trend may have momentous consequences for Egypt, one of the handful of Arab countries which has diplomatic relations with Israel. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the combative rhetoric of Arab "rejectionism" found receptive ears in Cairo - the heart and reservoir of Arab nationalism. The establishment of peace with Israel in the period following then-president Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 ushered the country into a new phase (see David Govrin, "Israelis and Arabs: the Sadat precedent", 27 November 2006). The exhaustion from three decades of wars and the aspiration of millions of Egyptians for a better life dulled if not extinguished the receptiveness.

The result - a combination of sympathy but inaction - perfectly suited the interests of an Egyptian administration able to contain the Egyptian street's fluctuating emotions while pursuing its own icy pragmatism. The fallout of the Gaza war, however, may be the prelude to a new dynamic that will take hold in the period after a change of government in Egypt (see "Egypt: the surreal painting", 14 May 2008).

Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt without any serious challenge since 1981. The president's power is based on a variety of sources: among them iron power, solid military credentials, and the claim of historical continuity with the 1952 revolution. All these have given Mubarak the uncontested authority to impose a pragmatic foreign policy in the face of a sullen and sometimes fiery Egyptian street. The post-Mubarak administration - especially if it turns out to be a dynasty, headed by the president's son and head of the ruling National Democratic Party's policy committee, Gamal Mubarak - will be politically more lightweight and have limited military capital.

Its relationship with an unsettled people would as a result be put in question from the outset. This would affect both its foreign and domestic policy. A new government in Egypt can have no illusions about the real dynamics of power - military, economic, political - in the middle east. The situation in Israel will compound the problem, for the character of decision-making there is changing. The founding generation that witnessed the creation of Israel as a tiny, vulnerable state has left or is leaving the scene - the 85-year-old Shimon Peres (who won election to the ceremonial presidency in mid-2007) is its last prominent figure. That Israeli generation, which lived through the wars of the 1940s to the 1970s - when Egypt was Israel's greatest threat - realised the invaluable strategic gain to be made in sidelining its giant neighbour. 

Israel's more recent ruling generation has not experienced the difficult years of 1948-67; has not fought a real war against a serious, sizable enemy; has never seen Israel in serious danger; does not share the wisdom of its predecessor; and is haughtily aware of Israel's unrivalled power (economic, scientific and, of course, military) in the region. It is more than capable of using every opportunity to exercise this power, especially at a time when the Arab world is exposed and helpless (see "The hundred years' war", Economist, 8 January 2009).

This is as evident in the Gaza war of 2008-09 as it was in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006. In both cases, the unapologetic use of extreme violence in the face of international shock and protest reflect Israel's awareness of its own power and its enemy's feebleness. How would a new and untested administration in Cairo with a very tenuous legitimacy respond, if and when Israel acts in similar fashion against the Palestinians (again), or Lebanese, or Syrians - or indeed Iranians? (see Paul Rogers, "Will Israel attack Iran?", 30 November 2008). The dilemma will be agonising.

The Cairo question

The way the next Egyptian administration answers that dilemma will in part depend on the nature and interplay of three forces: its mandate from the people, its relationship to the military establishment, and its ties with the United States. A number of options are conceivable; for example, one where the new government manages to acquire a strong popular mandate (unlike today), is only weakly dependent on the US (unlike today), and is deeply interwoven with the military (like today). This combination would also enable the next political leadership to fulfil a primary objective: containing and managing the pressures from the Egyptian street.

A key issue in the transition will be the source of the new administration's legitimacy. The post-Hosni Mubarak administration will be able to maintain its strategic course only if it can build a new social and institutional power-base - most likely by winning over the country's middle class through effective economic development, and by forging and maintaining strong links with the army.

The legitimacy of the new regime will also be formative in shaping Egypt's regional role - including its relationship with the four regional heavyweights: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel itself. The way the three key forces (popular mandate, military bonds, and dependence on Washington) evolve and interact could lead Cairo to revise its recent assuaging pragmatism and return it to a more combative engagement in the search for regional leadership (see Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations, Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Whatever the outcome, Egypt's difficulties over the Gaza crisis show how its national-security approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli (and Arab-Israeli) struggle will become an even tougher challenge. The aftermath of the Gaza war of 2008-09 will be bitter, and the need for active and coherent diplomacy urgent. As new players and new dangers arrive on the regional scene, what happens in Egypt is critical to the chances of progress across the middle east when the rockets fall silent.

Egypt: the surreal painting

Egypt's current state resembles a surrealist painting. It is difficult to decipher its components, challenging to comprehend its meaning. At the centre of the painting there are dark, abrasive lines; most onlookers would see them depicting anger, frustration and occasionally menace. At the peripherals, there are softer lines, perhaps symbols of potential and promise.

The sharp lines are the result of three major social phenomena that shape Egypt's current experience: inequality, demographics, and culture.

The social chasm

The first phenomenon is suffocating inequality.Tarek Osman is a writer and a merchant banker.  Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top?" (7 June 2005)

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Can the Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Risk in the Arab world: enterprise vs politics" (9 November 2007)

"Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

"Egypt's football triumph" (13 February 2008)

Egypt has always been characterised by severe inequality between its "upper crust" and those millions of people who struggle to survive. This was especially clear in the period before the 1952 coup; then, the privileged classes - the pashas and beks, the cotton and wheat millionaires, the colonial bourgeoisie; and most foreigners in the country enjoyed lives vastly different from the toil of the men and women in the villages of the Nile delta and the Saiid (upper Egypt), or in the rougher neighbourhoods of Cairo and Alexandria.

The sweeping promise of the early years of Gamal Abdel Nasser's era meant that the realities of material inequality were less evident. But in the late 1950s and the 1960s another dimension of inequality appeared: in the influence and access of ahl al-theqa (the trusted elite, drawn from the military and intelligence corps), factors which allowed this elite to float untouchably over the rest of society (see "Nasser's complex legacy", 15 January 2008).

In the 1970s (the decade of Anwar Sadat) and the 1980s (under Hosni Mubarak, who became president after Sadat's assassination in October 1981), the ostentatious symbols of a new class of wealthy business people created a revived awareness of endemic social inequality on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. But the market-friendly policies of Sadat's mid-1970s infitah (open door) period also funnelled a degree of prosperity even to distant towns and villages. Even some of those on modest incomes became beneficiaries of the infitah and were able to buy French-made shirts and perhaps cars, and to realise that watches had other uses than telling the time.

The landscape of inequality in this period was thus more subtle, offering a certain amelioration of the absolutes. The broad dispersal of Egypt's then 25 million-35 million people across the numerous cities, towns and villages of the country allowed the "haves" and "have-nots" for a time to share the same world, to "see" each other - before they retreated, each to their own environs.

This interlude was brief. The late 1990s and the 2000s saw a complete change. An era of intense demographic concentration has resulted by 2008 in a population of around 81.7 million. The change is highlighted by Cairo's metamorphosis into a city of 18 million people, where neighbourhoods of vast wealth are a few minutes' walk from alleyways of crushing poverty. The rich and poor were forced to do more than peek at each other, interact briefly, then withdraw to their enclaves; now, they were living in such proximity that awareness of the other was constant and unavoidable. In Cairo, and to a lesser extent Alexandria, Egypt's urban citizens were crammed together - Zamalek's swanky night-spots next to decayed public housing; Mohandeseen's shiny boutiques next to the deprived Meit Okba area; a Porsche Cayenne cruising next to a minibus with twenty people packed together in Cairo's burning heat.

In principle, inequality could have been seen as a "natural" by-product of a growing economy where some social strata (typically because of privileged background or education) manage to exploit emerging opportunities, while other (far larger) lose out. This, as it were "academic", view had elements of the truth. But it could not disguise a stronger undercurrent of feeling among millions of Egyptians (indeed, probably a majority): that the elite, the upper crust, the wealthy, the "haves", do not deserve to be so.

The point is illustrated by a scene in Tito, a smash-hit Egyptian film of 2005. In one scene, the leading young actor Ahmed El-Sakka waves his hands in protest about being labelled a thief and shouts - referring to the people around him at a plush golf resort, including elegantly dressed women, with luxury cars in the background - "but they are all thieves"! The cinema audiences erupted in clapping at the line.

The Egyptian poor have a major trust problem regarding the country's rich. A key ingredient in this is simple, decades-old, and cataclysmic: corruption. In Egypt, corruption is both about large-scale transactions (the use of privatisation deals to make illicit wealth, say) and small-scale (paying low-level government employees a few dollars to expedite bureaucratic procedures). But its main feature (as most Egyptians see it) is that it is an institutionalised phenomenon that pervades almost every aspect of Egypt's socio-economic life: from the "caller" who helps park cars to the teacher who pushes students to sign for private lessons, from the policeman whose very uniform exudes intimidation to the judicial employee with sensitive case information, from members of parliament buying votes to ministers selling favours - all the way down to the beggars and scam-artists on the Cairo and Alexandria streets.

The Kifaya protest movement played on corruption's protean influence in the title of its 2005 report on the subject: "The black cloud is still here". The "black cloud" usually refers to a horrendous smog that hovers over greater Cairo every year when the residuals of the rice crop in neighbouring governorates are burned. Corruption is as suffocating, and - as with the other black cloud - the authorities do not seem to capable of clearing it.

The social chasm, the trust problem and the corruption dimension all focus attention on the Egyptian government's failings. The people who joked in the 1970s and 1980s about the government's five-year economic plans were by the late 1990s and 2000s tired, economically exhausted, and emotionally drained by a continued deterioration in their living standards. The reasons included the increasing pressures of Cairo's teeming population, the evaporation of job opportunities, and the social distance of the privileged elite from the rest of the population. All this contributed to the gradual transformation of Egyptians' characteristically sarcastic patience into boiling anger, reflected in the wave of strikes and protests that has swept the country in 2007-08.

Even these high-profile and widely reported events, however, may be less significant than the deeper shift in the attitude of the everyday Egyptian, who no longer reacts to the news of Egypt's economic progress - the building of a smart urban area, the issuance of a new GSM mobile licence at a breakthrough valuation, the purchase of a venerable Egyptian state bank - with an amused, sceptical "let's see". He or she is now more likely to be furious, questioning where the billions of dollars are going, why even a kilo of meat or a new pair of shoes has become unaffordable, while "they" enjoy their villas, cars, fancy clothes, and affluent lifestyles.

There are other sources of anger: incidents such as the drowning of a ferry en route from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the use of contaminated blood in a couple of public hospitals, the collapse of a tower in Cairo's Nasser City.

The very closeness that Cairo life has imposed on Egyptians of starkly different incomes and life-chances has exacerbated the perception of the social gap, and dangerously aggravated the trust problem. The suffocating experience of inequality reflects the broken social contract. Here is a sharp line at the centre of the Egyptian painting, surrounded by menacing orange dots that suggest to the onlooker anger and frustration.

The generational choice

The second phenomenon at the centre of the Egyptian painting is the country's demographic reality, more particularly the condition of Egypt's young people.

More than 40 million Egyptians are under 35 years old. In 2006, around 8 million Egyptians applied for the American green-card lottery. In 2007, more than twenty young Egyptians drowned on perilous journeys toward the southern shores of Italy and Greece. In 2007-08, hundreds of thousands have demonstrated and rioted in 2007 for various causes. The picture is clear: young people are angry, disillusioned, and increasingly aggressive and belligerent.

Yet, young Egyptians are also full of promise. Most of them - especially in the country's big cities - have access to a TV and radio; are literate; have some basic knowledge of English; are relatively comfortable with new technologies, including the internet; and are (from a distance) aware of what happening in the advanced world. The more sophisticated and educated among them - the product of the substantial Cairene and Alexandrian middle class - also have a decent command of some of the essential skills required in today's modern economies. That is why a huge number of Egyptian engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers and other professionals are employed in companies and institutions in the Gulf, as well as in the factories and offices of multinational companies in Egypt. The country has, by middle-eastern standards, an unrivalled base of talent and expertise.

The question posed to Egypt is whether the anger and frustration of its young will outweigh the potential of these qualities. An important variable in answering it will be how Egypt's socio-economic environment will develop. Will this environment embrace the rising generation's capabilities, facilitate and nurture them, or will it crush them? So far, the trends favour the latter. The tiny level of entrepreneurship, the ubiquitous corruption, the alienation of the best and brightest, the overarching sense of lost promise, the psychological "black cloud" - all these have been driving the talented to Europe, the United States, and the Gulf (see "Risk in the Arab world: enterprise vs politics", 9 November 2007).

Moreover, those in this category who choose or are obliged to stay in Egypt increasingly withdraw from the heart of the cities to a secluded life - they "belong" less and less to the life of their society. The well-paid telecoms engineer in his early 30s (and his friends - the IT consultant, the accountant at a leading local company, the sales executive in a multinational, the doctor) are increasingly drawn to the internet, to satellite dishes, and even the express-delivery service of Amazon UK. If his financial condition improves significantly, the immediate objective becomes a home in one of the new, rich and isolated suburbs of Cairo, from where he and his wife will send their small children to a new private school.

But most young people do not have these choices. Their domain - the crowded streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Al-Mahala, Tanta, and Asyuut or Egypt's smaller towns and villages - there is no private access to the internet or satellite dishes, no cultural exposure to the United States or Britain, and no chance of finding decent work in the Gulf or Europe. Only a few can free themselves from the circumstances of limited promise and ascend even to the margins of comfortableness. The majority are in the quagmire.

Most of these young Egyptians are still in their teens or 20s. They are still finding their way in life; they are tomorrow's news; the wager is still on regarding how they will shape their future. They are both angry and ambitious; pugnacious and dreamy; rioters against oppression and singers of Mohamed Mounir's romantic songs; the lines of resentment swirling up in their sheisha smoke yet their fast walking pace revealing their hunger for life. Theirs too is a sharp line in Egypt's trajectory, leaving the onlooker to guess whether it can delineate peaceful progress or violence and chaos.

The cultural contest

The third phenomenon shaping Egypt's current experience is the country's cultural pulse. Much of Cairo and Alexandria, and even more most of the delta's cities, are conservative places of strict behaviour codes. Since the early 1980s, the Islamic movement has won major battles in the war over Egypt's cultural identity. Egyptian liberalism is a stranded, weak movement; Arab nationalism is no stronger. Western, Mediterranean, Europe-influenced trends are tiny social currents that penetrate negligible groups at the society's fringes (even if many of these groups' members wield considerable spending power).

Today, books on the pleasures a devout Muslim will find in heaven or on athab al-kabr (the punishment of the grave) far outsell those on other themes - apart from books with a strong sexual content. Yet religion, the veil, the conservatism, the strictness, the moral puritanism - these are not (yet) the cultural identity of Egypt. Amr Khaled, Egypt's leading modern Islamic preacher, has a massive following; and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi's show on al-Jazeera is a must-see for millions. Yet the secular, liberal novelist Alaa al-Aswani is Egypt's bestselling author among the country's middle class; and the weekly TV show of the ultra-liberal Mohamed Hassanein Heikal still commands a great following.

The rising Islamic trend in Egypt's last quarter-century is a complicated process. At its heart have been three factors: the emigration of millions of Egyptians to the Gulf, at a time when the Gulf was super-conservative; Anwar Sadat's strategic decision to hand momentum to political Islam and allow it to gain ground in Egyptian society (especially in the trade unions, syndicates and universities); and the decline of Arab nationalism, from the 1970s to its near-humiliation in the 1980s and 1990s.

Much has changed. Today, the Gulf, especially its more shining parts, is more liberal than Egypt; and its petro-dollars no longer actively promote conservative doctrines to anything like the same degree as before. The Egyptian government has been fighting the current of political Islam for at least two decades. As for Arab nationalism, it has been weakened to such a level that it is irrelevant to today's dynamics.

The growth of political (and "social") Islam makes it by far the most powerful trend in today's Egypt. But it is not yet the winner. An observer of the painting will see clear green circles as well as sharp line in the painting's centre, but the Islamic crescent does not yet adorn them.

The pinnacle and the pit

Egypt, a rich civilisation with an ancient heritage and numerous links to cultures and traditions, is too complicated to be dominated by one line or colour. Thus, at the periphery of the painting are various structures, lines, and colours. Two are especially eye-catching, at the top and bottom respectively.

At the top, the decision-making process is shrouded in mystery. President Mubarak, in charge since October 1981, remains an absolute ruler. There is no doubt about his authority, ability to pull all strings, crush all challengers, and rule supreme. Yet a new power-elite headed by the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, has emerged since 2003; composed of a select group of business, economic, finance and media professionals, it has introduced a certain complexity into the high-level processes of state (see "Egypt's phantom messiah", 12 July 2006).

For example, the old guard that has long surrounded Mubarak (who turned 80 on 4 May 2008) has seemed increasingly detached from economic policy over the past five years; the new power elite looks more influential here. This is important, for economics is no longer "just" that; when global trends are increasingly economic rather than political or military, when countries' progress is measured in GDP per capita, when a worldwide food crisis has hit Egypt hard - then economic policy becomes central to both national security and political stability.

True, the state's security apparatus appears to continue to play a leading role in securing Egypt against any potential chaos internally, as well as operating in the country's traditional spheres of influence: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sudan, Lebanon, and the horn of Africa. Yet there is doubt over how far it is now integrated into the new power-elite.

Such a trend may be part of a wider dysfunction in the administrative and institutional order. Decision-making in Egypt has always been top-down, but traditionally, the pinnacle was clear - one man with absolute authority and clear lines of power beneath him. Today, the supreme power looks more diffuse, its movement less orchestrated.

The structure at the bottom of the painting is clearer. Some parts of Egyptian society are falling away, crushed underfoot or secreted now dark and miserable corners. The atfal al-shawari (children of the streets) is a prime example: thousands of young children without any kind of education, role-model, or future. They are not alone in their sadness. Many villagers, especially in upper Egypt, live in atrocious conditions; as do thousands of families in Cairo's and Alexandria's haphazard new neighbourhoods on the cities' al- ashwa'yat (margin).

The conditions of poorer urban-dwellers - overcrowded, with broken infrastructure, a lack of personal or emotional space, full of unwelcome intimacy and aggression - crush the souls of millions of Egyptians (see "Egypt: a diagnosis", 28 June 2007).

Egypt's lowest, forgotten social strata have missed the beat of the era. This is not unusual if they are compared to the same groups of people in sub-Saharan Africa or India or China. Yet this compounds the sadness, for Egypt has already had - and missed - many chances to pull up the millions left behind; and unlike India or China, Egypt's overall progress is not impressive enough in any way to make the picture of the lowest levels fade in the brilliance of the brightest.

All the lines and spots and colours of the Egyptian painting are linked, though it is still hard to discern a precise shape. The severe inequality; the promise and peril of the millions of young Egyptian men and women; the religious and cultural struggle for the country's soul; the opaqueness of power, authority and decision - all this means that the Egyptian surrealist painting is open to interpretation. From certain angles, it looks hopeful; from others, bleak. The canvas is open.

China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt

Over the past few months, work has repeatedlytaken me to east Africa. In almost all of myflights, the man next to me was Chinese. Sometimes a business developmentmanager for a commodities trading company, sometimes a telecoms executive,sometimes an agribusiness professional, sometimes just a not-so-talkative"businessman".

Among openDemocracy'sarticles on China in 2008:

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: frommonochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising'legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)

Li Datong, "China's leaders, the media, andthe internet"(4 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: aglobalisation of sentiment" (10 July 2008)

Li Datong, "The Weng'an model: China'sfix-it governance"(30 July 2008)

Kerry Brown, "The Olympics countdown: Beijingto Shanghai"(7 August 2008)

In Egypt, the most significant foreigndirect investment in 2007 was the Chineselight-manufacturing city: an ambitious mega-assembly centre focusing on a number oflight industries.

Two of the largest non-real estate investmentsmade in 2007 by Gulf sovereign wealth funds were in China: a stake in a major commercialbank, and a joint venture to create a major investment holding company.

Now, on 8 August 2008, around 40 millionEgyptians will watch the beginning of the Beijing Olympics.

China's rise, to an Egyptian, has the taste ofCantonese sauce - sweet and sour. The ascendancy of a poor nation, an oldcivilisation is heartwarming. The comparison of where "Egypt vs China" is today is sour. True, Egypt is no China. It lacks the demographicweight, the political clout, the enormous economic potential, and the militarymight. But at the core of the comparison lie many similarities - the ancientheritage, the glamorous history, the deep traditions, the populous agriculturalland, and the sense of an entitled civilisation. China'sascendancy (or India's growthfor that matter) compels Egyptians to inwardly reflect on where they are andwhere they are going.

China's rise - apart from all political analysis, economictheorisation, investment opportunities, assessment of the ruling regime'smorality, and strategic opining - is the story of a successful nation. The move of hundreds of millions from severe indigenceto the brink of middle-class lifestyles, the graduation of a nation frompeasantry to modernity and urbanism, and the climb of a country fromirrelevance to prominence - these are inspiring to millions in developingnations, including those living in rural poverty on the banks of the Nile.

Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the International OlympicCoordination Commission for Beijing 2008, said in July 2008:"Here in the Chinesecapital you can now really sense the excitement and anticipation. The cityfeels ready; it looks ready, with the stunning venues all completed. Thequality of preparation, the readiness of the venues and the attention tooperational detail for these games have set a gold standard for the future.What our hosts have achieved is exceptional."

I cannot but compare that all-approving,thumbs-up assessment with Egypt'sfailure to win the right to host football's World Cup in 2010, in which thecountry's bidreceived zero votes from the organising commission. Such bleak comparison isnot masochism, but a reminder that success stories - especially those of wholenations - are fundamentally stories of people who aimed to succeed and had thewill and discipline to follow through. The Chinese telecoms executive next tome on the plane was visiting Nairobifor the sixth time in pursuit of a relatively small order. "Ah, but in fiveyears, this market will be big, and we're working on it", he said.

Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film

Youssef Chahine is dead. The response to the news of his passing on 27 July 2008 at the age of 82 is evidence that the central place of the work of this great film director in the corpus of Arab and world cinema is assured. Yet like all great artists, he was a life-force and not a monument - and his dynamic artistic engagement with his own city (Alexandria) and country (Egypt) had its detractors.

Egypt’s football triumph

Mohamed Aboutrika is an Egyptian man in his 20s. He resembles millions of others who can be seen in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria or any of the country’s cities: a slim, dark figure whose average appearance carries perhaps a hint of grief. But he is, suddenly, not so average: he happens to be the man who scored the only goal –and thus the winning goal – of the final of the African Nations Cup on 10 February 2008 in Accra, Ghana. In a decisive right-foot shot following a mix-up in the Cameroon defence thirteen minutes from the end of the match, Mohamed Aboutrika made Egypt champions of Africa for a record sixth time.

Nasser's complex legacy

Many aficionados of Arab cinema recall a famous scene in Nasser 56, the film made to commemorate the Suez war of 1956. An old Egyptian woman from Upper Egypt, the region from which Gamal Abdel Nasser hails, gets a chance to talk to Nasser in private. She hands him a wretched, flimsy pair of trousers which used to belong to her grandfather. She tells Nasser that the man was, like millions of Egyptian youths, taken from his village to al-sokhra (slavery) to join the brigades digging the Suez canal. And like many of those millions, he never returned; he died young, far away from his family and his home.

Risk in the Arab world: enterprise vs politics

The Arab world's economic record in recent decades is a story of failure. Despite an exponential leap in its population, which has become increasingly youthful as a result, it has been unable to pioneer on its own account any of the ingredients of a modern, dynamic economy: new technologies, value-added concepts, international trends, recognisable brands, creative intellectual property, theoretical breakthroughs in any serious discipline, or - with a handful of exceptions - wealth-creation vehicles that extend outside its borders.
Tarek Osman is an Egyptian investment banker covering the Gulf and UK markets.

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top?" (7 June 2005)

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Can the Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"Egypt: a diagnosis" (28 June 2007)

Arab Christians: a lost modernity

"With steps such as this, your majesty's wisdom and vision would take Egypt to lead modernity in the east", said Nubar Pasha, a prominent civil servant (later Egypt's first prime minister) whose family had settled in Egypt in the early 19th century. The addressee of the remark was the Khedive of Egypt, and the occasion was the inauguration of the Cairo opera house in 1869 - only the fourth in the world, and the first anywhere in the middle east, Africa and Asia.

Nubar Pasha, the obsequiousness to a ruler aside, was not exaggerating. The era was one of great social progress in Egypt, marked by the establishment of new educational institutions, factories, publishers that translated foreign books, and cultural bodies. Nubar was among those who pioneered this wave of modernity; part of the small, region-wide army of visionaries, business and community leaders and officials who had helped the ruling Mohammed Ali family in Egypt, the feudal masters of Mount Lebanon and the Beys of Tunisia (among other leaders of Arab states) to take their countries forward. Nubar Pasha, like many of those luminaries, was Christian (in his case of Armenian origin).

Egypt: a diagnosis

Talk to people intimately familiar with Egypt, and you'll find two views dominating how they perceive the country today. The first is a romantic, nostalgic view of a glorious history, ancient and recent; a country whose potential is dramatic in terms of its intellectual capital, reservoir of talent, geographic location, and aptitude for leadership. In that perspective, Egypt remains an unfulfilled promise, hampered only by poor management and regional circumstances.

The second viewpoint is less sanguine. It sees Egypt as structurally failing, with disenchanted, poorly educated, bitter youths; fundamental problems in the socio-economic dynamics; crushing, humiliating living standards for a majority of its citizens; and pervasive corruption, passiveness and sullenness.

Losing your only friend: a liberal Muslim's letter to the west

Amidst the talk about militant Islam's holy war against the west, Europe's phobia of homegrown Islamism, and academic theorisation of the eminent clash between the liberal west and the fundamentalist Islamic world, the west is slowly but steadily losing its main ally in the Arab and Islamic worlds - liberal Arabs and Muslims.

Most liberal Arabs, like most Arabs of all intellectual standpoints, don't savour the fact that foreign forces - predominantly western powers - occupy parts of their lands, have significant influence over their economic interests, and preach them about progress and socio-economic development. But the view of the liberal Arab or Muslim differs from that of his/her local cousin in a key respect: the deep belief that the post-renaissance value system of the west - based upon social liberalism and the sanctity of individualism, freedom, and free choice - is inherently superior to the value system propagated by the three socio-political systems currently dominating the Arab and Islamic worlds: dogmatic theocracy, patriarchal absolutism, and tribal traditionalism.

Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed

The Arab world's passage from progressive secularism to conservative religiosity in the last fifty years is illuminated by the work of Egypt’s greatest writer, says Tarek Osman.

Egypt's phantom messiah

There is seething political frustration in Egypt, but where is the vehicle that might enable it to mount a challenge to Hosni Mubarak's rule? Tarek Osman reports.

Can the Arabs love their land?

The deep social problems of the Arab world drain the optimism and crush the lives of its young people, says Tarek Osman.

Hosni Mubarak: what the pharaoh is like

After twenty-five years in power Egypt’s president remains a sphinx to his people, says Tarek Osman.

Egypt's crawl from autocracy

There is a dynamic of change in Egypt, but democracy will take longer than reformists hope or authorities fear, says Tarek Osman.

Egypt: who's on top?

The Arab world is filled with talk of “reform” and “democracy”, but how real can it be when the leading voices are the sons of long-standing political leaders, asks Tarek Osman.
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