I do not know why I remembered Shady Abdel Salam’s epic film ‘The Mummy.’ Over two weeks between Washington and New York, I was talking about Egypt. I talked politics, economics and other things as well. All this made me look for the complicated formula that governs the historical evolution of Egypt.
The film helped me understand. It was about the residents of the Al-Harba village in the valleys of Luxor in the nineteenth century who were looting ancient Egyptian antiquities to sell to foreigners. That was the only way of living in the village. Generation after generation inherited this, believing that the antiquities they find are nothing but meaningless objects and wondering what those foreigners liked about them.
Yet Wanis, the son of the tribe’s elder, discovered that those were not meaningless objects, but rather assets of a civilization and a nation. The young rebellious man no longer believed the elders when they said that this was what they saw their fathers and grandfathers do.
This all had to change, but the residents did not want it to change. The dealer knew it. That is why when Selim did not deliver the antiquities, he said: “There will always be another Selim.”
The question now is: Will Egypt remain unchanged for another Selim to come, or will it change now that we know our place in this world, which is at the bottom of it? Will we continue to live on loans, grants and aid, with more than a quarter of the population (23 million people) being poor and illiterate?
Since I started writing again for Al-Masry Al-Youm in February, I have been rejecting our failure to realize the goal of the modern, civil democratic state over the past two centuries. I have been wondering if the January and June revolutions – and everything that happened in between – would pave a path that is different than what we had in the past so that we could reach the goal that was reached by more than eighty countries of the world.
I liked our leaders now in charge when they said – individually and collectively – that failure is not an option, only success is. Failure would be a high price that the nation and many generations who had hope would pay dearly for.
Optimism is required, and determination and persistence are virtues. But we have recently seen the biggest retreat into the past, perhaps to the time of the Ottomans. This was done by means of alliances that the Muslim Brotherhood made with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the revolutionary youths, who were supposed to take us to the civil state but went the other way.
But we are now in a new era, and we have another opportunity that we did not expect would knock on our door so soon. But success is only attainable by a courage to change failure and alter our whole way of life. I hoped that we had the courage to admit the many attempts that have failed too soon.
My criteria for failure and success is that either Egypt remains like Abdel Salam’s Al-Harba’ village or changes for no other Selim to come, and builds a civilization like the ancient Egyptians did thousands of years ago.
I will venture to mention three historical and strategic factors that I believe were causes of failure. I may be addressing the elite and the public, but I hope I will also reach our leadership and the committee that amends or rewrites the Constitution (makes no difference).
The first is the ownership of Egypt that has been denied to the majority of Egyptians for more than 6000 years. A million square kilometers have always been the property of the state represented by a governor, a pharaoh, a king, a president or a colonial power.
Khedive Said, the fourth ruler of Egypt after Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim and Abbas, was the first to give title deeds of agricultural land to the people. This was the second greatest thing he achieved after forming the national army, which began the first steps towards a modern Egypt.
Land ownership created an elite. Then came the industrialists, the bankers and the urban developers. All this had culminated in Egypt’s independence in 1922.
For nearly another century, Egyptians have not owned more than 7 percent of the land, while the state owned – at least in theory – the remaining 93 percent. Still, the state – and the investors – always complain that there is not enough land for projects.
The absence of property turned into a national security crisis in Sinai and the western border. And citizenship will always remain a vague concept unless it is translated into ownership of land, on which agriculture, industries and services are used by the people of Egypt.
The second is that the “river” state of Egypt, the victim of tyranny, will reach its economic demise when the population hits 100 million. But Egypt can be a first-rate “sea” state. And deserts can turn into crossings between modern areas on the shores of the Sinai, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. There is no genius in the “river” state of our fathers and grandfathers. The great genius is in a “sea” state that is adventurous and communicates with others.
The third is that a county with a population of 93 million cannot live in such a state of centralization and wonder why there is an absence of democracy, the spread of tyranny and another Selim coming to rule it. There is no alternative to a decentralized system with developmental initiative capacity and efficiency in the management of resources from all Egyptian provinces.
Let us not talk about identity and Islamic Sharia, for the question is how can Egyptians share wealth and power.
Those three things attempt to answer the question about failure and success, not through the redistribution of what we – or groups of us – own, but rather through prospects for the development of a very rich country where poor people live.
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm