6 Quotes on Egypt

From the book that I read on the plane rides over here: Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through Militant Islam, which Mary Anne Weaver wrote in 1998 and published in March 1999


The Arabs arrived with Koran and sword in the seventh century, and their conquest of Egypt made the Egyptians Muslim; whether it made them Arab, however, is far more debatable.


Some historians have written that the Egyptians, by instinct and by temperament, are not a revolutionary people, attested to by the fact that only two regimes have governed modern Egypt over the last two centuries: the dynasty of an Albanian freebooter named Mohammed Ali — a grand modernizer who emerged in the chaos that followed Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798 — whose last scion was King Farouk; and the Free Officers of 1952. The mathematical equation is accurate, of course, but it seems to me that the far greater significance of the events of July 1952 was that the Egyptians, for the first time in 2,284 years, had finally begun to rule themselves.

The Peasant & The Pharaoh

As I listened to them, I couldn’t help but recall The Complaints of the Peasant, written some four thousand years ago. … A few days later, I remarked on this to Dr. Sa’ad el-Din Ibrahim, professor of sociology at AUC [American University of Cairo]. “Egyptians were fascinated by that book,” he said, “for they realized that their own complaints were four to five thousand years old. … So, you see, from the letters of the peasant, which were almost like a prayer, to the letters in the post office, to the Bedouins you met, you get an idea of what has been here from time immemorial: the continuity of Egyptian society.”

I asked him how, in his view, its centers of power have changed since that time, some four thousand years ago, when the eloquent peasant wrote to his Pharaoh.

He smiled at me from across the desk. “They haven’t,” he said.

He then went on to explain that in a hydraulic society, which depends upon a great river to survive, there was always a disproportionate regulation of power in order to protect the river; for whoever controlled the river controlled society. “And in order to do this, a Pharaoh had to rely on coercion and persuasion, and he did so through three crucial arms: his security apparatus; his civil bureaucracy; and his religious establishment.”


(regarding the time Weaver returned to Egypt in 1993, her first visit since leaving American University of Cairo in 1979)

Since my student days in Cairo, Egypt had been receiving lavish amounts of Western aid, including some $2 billion a year from the United States [aid that has since increased to $3 billion annually]. The money began arriving after the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, when [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat embarked on policies that transformed Cairo into the hub of American policy in the Middle East. But the distribution of aid was uneven at best, and little of it filtered down. …

Everything seemed to be swirling out of control. Corruption flourished; the population swelled; and much of the bureaucracy, which even in the best of time approached a state of ossification, seemed totally paralyzed.

But my most vivid impression on this visit was of decay: of crumbling buildings seen through a patina of dust; of torn-up sidewalks and sewage in the streets; of a city [Cairo] that was angry and was living on the edge as its population continued to grow. A thousand new residents arrived each day, in a country whose population grew by a million every ten months. And the more the city crumbled and the more its population swelled, the more eager it appeared to be to embrace a revival of Islam.


An old man in a soiled white robe and a white crocheted prayer cap locked the doors of the Nasr al-Islam [mosque], and as I watched him walk away, it struck me that the struggle in Egypt was not only a religious one, as some Islamists claim, but also a conflict — not unlike Lebanon’s civil war — between the country’s haves and its have-nots. It was as much a battle between wealth and poverty, between power held and power claimed, as it was between political or religious creeds. Islamic activism in Egypt, I am convinced, is at root a socio-economic phenomenon, even secular in a sense. Otherwise, so many Marxists would not be embracing it.


Along with the collapse of every ideology embraced by Egyptian politicians and intellectuals since the turn of the [20th] century, government ineptitude, far more than terrorist guns and bombs, was fueling the Islamic flame.

Weaver unknowingly presented precursors to what would become Egypt’s (and others’) 2011 revolution(s), which led to the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, an Islamic idealist/wanna-be realist. Though not Morsi’s overthrow, Weaver also foreshadowed current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

About the author: At the time of her writing, Mary Anne Weaver was a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker and originally published there and in The Atlantic Monthly some of the research that went into Portrait of Egypt. Weaver first arrived in Egypt in 1977 as a stringer for The Washington Post and an Arab affairs graduate student at American University of Cairo.

Note: I quoted an unedited manuscript of this book. It is not my intention to publish the draft version or misrepresent the final version.


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