By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 08/03/07):
In front of the towering golden sandstone entrance to the temple of Edfu stands an imposing granite statue of a falcon, some 12ft tall, representing Horus, a premier league Egyptian god. Sculpted into his chest is a small figure of one of the Greek rulers of Egypt at the time when the temple was built. To buttress his political legitimacy, the alien neo-pharaoh had not merely wrapped himself in the flag but carved himself into the stone of a powerful god. The rulers of Egypt have been playing this game for thousands of years – and they are at it again today.
More than three millennia before the birth of Christ, when ancient Britons were still wandering the primal forests in skins, behaving like proleptic football thugs, the first dynasty of the pharaohs had already built a unified kingdom down the valley of the Nile, and they were treated as demi-gods. Later they presented themselves as children and intimates of the sun-god Ra, of Isis and Osiris, and of their divine offspring, the falcon-headed god Horus.
Gods were great for keeping you in power, but they were also fungible. Over the centuries, as the politics changed, there were god-mergers and corporate god-takeovers. Luxor luminary Amun and sun-god Ra merged to become Amun-Ra, a strong new brand. The Ptolemaic successors of Alexander the Great promoted Serapis, a deliberate blending of Greek and Egyptian gods. At the Graeco-Roman temple of Philae, you see a mother and child image sculpted on the walls of the sanctuary, but the face of the mother has been chiselled away. In a Christian time, Isis was thus crudely rebranded Mary, turning the falcon-god Horus into Jesus.
Later, there was Allah, of course, and his messenger Muhammad. For the 19th-century Albanian-born Muhammad Ali Pasha, the new divinity was European-style modernity. For Napoleon and Lord Cromer there were the western gods of progress and civilisation, carried by the bayonet and the Gatling gun. For Nasser, the architect of post-colonial Egypt, there was pan-Arabism but also socialism, with added Islam.
Now they’re changing gods again at the pharaoh’s palace. Twenty-six years into the reign of President Mubarak, amendments are proposed to the constitution. Article 1, instead of reading “the Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic, socialist state based on an alliance of the working forces of the people”, is to say simply “the Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic state, based on citizenship…”. Socialism is being excised like the face of Isis at Philae. References to it are to be removed from nine other articles of the constitution.
Despite the opposition of secular and Coptic Christian politicians, article 2 will continue to describe Sharia as “the principal source” for Egyptian legislation. At the same time, by banning both political parties based on religion and independent candidates in presidential elections, the president’s ruling National Democratic party aims to keep its principal enemy, the outlawed but popular Muslim Brotherhood, out of any future competition for legal political power. So it tries to embrace Islam while fighting Islamism.
Politics, seen from this perspective of 5,000 years of Egyptian history, is something very different from what you find in US civics textbooks. It’s not about the installation of this or that logically and legally constructed political system, based on this or that ideology. It’s about rulers borrowing, bending and merging gods, ideologies and legal systems, adapting to internal and external forces, mixing coercion and patronage, sharing some of the spoils where necessary, but always with the goal of maximising your own power and wealth, and hanging on to it for as long as possible – for yourself, and your children, and your children’s children. Those who take the legitimating religion or ideology too seriously – be it Osirisism or socialism – are missing the point. The gods come and go; what endures over the millenia is men’s lust for power and wealth, and their vain quest for immortality.
Which brings us back to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who is 78 years old. Although he has been re-elected until 2011, a succession crisis – that bane of all authoritarian regimes – is looming. One thing that brought people onto the streets in the Kifaya (Enough!) protest movement, during the run-up to the presidential election in 2005, was the prospect that he might be grooming his son, Gamal Mubarak, to succeed him. “Despite the police, no to extension, no to succession!” chanted the veteran leftwing activist Kamal Khalil. “Oh, Egypt,” he continued, “you still have a palace, you still have slums, tell those who live on Orouba [a boulevard in a neighbourhood with many grand houses, including the president’s residence] that we live 10 to one room.”
For now, President Mubarak has seen off the Kifaya movement and, as I reported last week, he has also seen off the short-lived US pressure for rapid democratisation. The military, police and security service foundations of his rule seem as solid as the mighty pylons of the temple at Karnak. (They also render valuable services to the Pentagon, including extensive overflight facilities and the nasty business of extraordinary rendition.) He has a rather impressive prime minister, Dr Ahmed Nazif, a computer scientist by education, who described to me his government’s push to integrate Egypt into the global economy. They are lowering barriers to trade and investment, and achieved growth of more than 5% last year. Gamal Mubarak, who holds an MBA and used to work for the Bank of America, is one of the driving forces behind the government’s new free market agenda. But the economic benefits will only trickle down to the poor, if at all, in the longer term, while the costs will be felt sooner – for example, in the reduction of state subsidies for petrol and household fuel.
For many of those who live 10 to one room in the poorer quarters of Cairo, the great myth remains that of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its brilliantly simple slogan “Islam is the solution”. So long as it is banned, the Brotherhood does not need to demonstrate how exactly Islam is the solution. It can hardly be expected to produce detailed, specific policies, let alone to deliver on them. In fact, the Mubarak regime is performing the Brotherhood a great service by continuing to persecute it. Trying to strangle Islamism, it feeds its growth. And the secular left-wing and Coptic Christian oppositionists, to whom I have talked, feel themselves caught between the devil and the deep green sea. (Green as in the colour of Islam.) On many cultural issues, including women’s rights, they actually regard the Mubarak regime as the lesser evil.
Whatever happens in the transition from Hosni Mubarak over the next decade – whether we get President Mubarak II, or a candidate supported by the military, or someone else – I would bet on one thing: the Islamic component in the legitimating god-mix of Egyptian politics is likely to grow stronger, not weaker. If you find that worrying, I can suggest only one faint consolation: in time, it will pass. The process may take decades, but one day Islamism, too, will join the 5,000-year line of the gods that failed.