A Revolution Two Years or Two Centuries in the Making? Lessons from Egypt’s Past


‘No reality is given; it is, rather, constructed.’ So all the social practices and institutions with which we grow up have a history and change over time. I share this mantra with my students to challenge their assumptions about the world they live in and–in the context of my courses–how they see the tumultuous events of the greater Middle East. I will return to this point later.

Of course things are not that simple, least of all in today’s Egypt where the benefits of the revolution have not been reaped by the people. Last week, my undergraduate students and I read the work of the Egyptian (and European!) intellectuals who helped give birth to modern Egypt two centuries ago–ushering in the Arab Renaissance (al-nahdah). We stood in the shoes of progressive clerics like Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (d. 1825), Niqula Turk (d. 1828) Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi (d. 1873). The ‘founding fathers’ of Modern Egypt were personally enamored by the trappings of Parisian culture and European scientific and scholarly advancements. As our class discussion delved into the thought of these authors, we began to appreciate their concern for the masses and the future of Egypt.

"What happend was injustice" (metro-co-uk.jpg)
“What happend was injustice” (metro-co-uk.jpg)

At the dawn of the 19th century Jabarti claimed that Egypt had entered a “new Epoch” and his condemnation of Egypt’s age old rulers–the Mamlukes and the Ottomans–was on account of their financial corruption and tyranny. Like him, Turk’s generous–though ambivalent–characterization of Napoleon’s humility and his army’s equitability (how odd history can be!) stand out in contradistinction. Putting aside the irony of extolling one’s enemy in this way, Jabarti and Turk were demonstrating that no society could survive without an equitable economic and judicial system. It was immediately evident to them that the future lay in secular courts and a renewed spirit of discipline; summary executions and flogging laborers were the ways of the past. In other words the people’s needs were twofold: justice and economic opportunity.

Sound familiar? Two centuries later, it is the stagnation–nay decline–of economic opportunity in Egypt which has driven the people into the streets on yet another January 25th. Likewise, the Egyptian judiciary’s failure to convict collaborators of the Mubarak regime who killed protesters two years ago, along with the Interior Ministry’s heavy handedness against protesters and continued human rights abuses in the land, have all but condemned president Morsi on account of his “injustice” (zulm).


Back to the dawn of the 19th century, the founding fathers of Egypt posed questions about the role traditional Islamic Law (shari’ah) within a secular society, and the compatibility of Islamic faith with European scientific inquiry. But such questions were not debated (let alone ‘answered’) until decades later when Muhammad Ali Pasha (d. 1849) helped build a robust Egyptian economy and infrastructure (which later bankrupted the country and surrendered its economic sovereignty to the British!). That is to say only when some measure of political stability was achieved did intellectuals like Tahtawi especially take the pioneering steps towards establishing a modern Egyptian constitution, discussing the role of shariah and regulating the scope of religious institutions in Egyptian society. The fact that much of this constitutional and legal debate remains unresolved over a century later is another matter.

Again there are lessons to be learned from history. Today’s Egyptian youth are more disaffected than ever and so they continue to protest in Tahrir square. The country’s constitutional crisis–which has resulted in a power struggle between the president and the MB on the one hand, and splintered secular opposition figures on the other–has re-directed (or at least confused) the anger in the street toward the constitution, rather than the key issues of justice and economic opportunity. This crisis has created several distractions which have complicated Egypt’s struggle, including an anxiety about beards, face veils and increased lawlessness with respect to treating women in the public sphere. Meanwhile not many promising signs of economic opportunity have been presented, the country is falling deeper into debt and its prisons are not getting any emptier.

"freedom and justice for men AND women" (globalpost.com)
“freedom and justice for men AND women” (globalpost.com)

Egypt has always been a society where religious people and secular governance have wrestled with one another, and at times co-existed. Perhaps there is a reason why intellectuals have been debating to death issues like the ‘right constitution’ and the ‘role of shari’ah,’ both inconclusively and for almost two centuries. They cannot be resolved–not anytime soon! They are issues not central to the needs of Egypt and only serve to further derail the revolution. As public opinion slowly shifts away from the Muslim Brotherhood, the people and their leaders may have more opportunity to return to the original demands of their revolution.

This brings us full circle, back to the discussion I had with my students. When we think about Egypt’s struggle specifically–and the revolutions and civil wars that have gripped the Arab world in recent years–the importance of shari’ah or dictatorship is not a given, it is constructed. That is to say what really defines the these revolutions (at least in Egypt and Tunisia) is the explicit demand of the youth for “dignity, humanity and freedom.” To reduce their struggle to pre-conceived anxieties about Islamic religion or uncritically demonizing a particular regime is to fall into ‘orientalism’ and create a misguided reality.

The lessons we learn from Egypt’s past are half the picture. The other half is hope–despite the bleakness of it all! Dr. Brene Brown said it best, ‘hope is a result of struggle.’ So long as the youth fight for our collective future–so long as my students teach me what I could never teach them, tomorrow can be a better day.


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