Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Future: When?

So overwhelming and enduring have been the hardships of life in Egypt that many Egyptians endorsed the notion that their country is destined to live in misery and agony forever.

That’s not true, however. History is entertaining because of its volatility and dynamism. Some empires wither away, others rise and the theatre of history is constantly in a state of flux. "All is flux, nothing is stationary," vows the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, implying that change is invincible and binding.

This basic law of nature could provide momentary relief to the sufferers of today, but waiting is nevertheless tiring. Because the rate of change is too slow, Egyptians increasingly feel that they live in a bottleneck; they do not really drown but they do not set afloat either. They are waiting, and wondering about the additional time they would have to wait before the bright future appears at the end of the dark, dreary tunnel.

The inevitability of change notwithstanding, only meaningful change is recorded in the book of history. In The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, renowned British historian Eric Hobsbawm argues that the 20th century was a short one, extending from the start of WWI in 1914 to the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. The period between these two dates witnessed momentous, life-changing events such as the two world wars, the Russian Revolution and the rise of socialism, the Great Depression, decolonization and the rise of dictatorships, and the start and end of the Cold War. The twentieth century was short because time, in Hobsbawm's conception, is shaped by events that make history and is not an abstract entity delineated by soulless calendars.

Following on the rationale of Hobsbawm, one can argue that the twenty-first century is defined by the spread of democracy in developing countries, increased awareness of -- and commitment to -- human rights and freedoms, and the introduction of great technological leaps in science, medicine, and communication. Since these developments are mostly alien to life in Egypt, it is not an exaggeration to say that Egypt is still deeply entangled in the malaises of the past century.

Desperately longing for change, Egyptians have become masters of waiting. President Sadat had promised that the year 1980 would be the "year of prosperity"; the dividends of peace would be reaped by state and society, he confidently said. But Sadat was assassinated the following year on his day of glory and prosperity has been running late ever since.

Hollow promises of higher wages, lower prices and a better economic outlook have insolently filled the front pages of official Egyptian papers over the past three decades. These same years witnessed the rise of grinding poverty, the advent of double-digit inflation rates, the mushrooming of slum areas, the metamorphosis of corruption into a gigantic, merciless octopus and the excessive decay of public services. Additionally, whereas financial crises in the advanced world interrupt the regular flow of economies; chronic economic crises in Egypt in these years have been interrupted by short periods of prosperity and tranquility.

In tandem with these setbacks, countries that lagged behind Egypt according to various indicators of development (such as Japan in the nineteenth century, South Korea in the 1960s, and Malaysia in 1980) have surpassed Egypt and turned into enormous economic and technological tigers.

Over the past few decades, change – in fact, progress -- has been massive and unanticipated worldwide. The hanging of Saddam Hussein in the capital of his ruthless state and the holding of free democratic elections in various Third World dictatorships are two cases in point.

Likewise, Germans in the 1960's thought that the formidable Berlin Wall was there to stay, but the whole Cold War came to an end: The Soviet Union disintegrated, Germany reunited and European countries created a common European currency. Today, the capitalist fortress of the Cold War's major beneficiary is collapsing, paving the way for a multipolar international system. In other words, the structure of world politics has gone through the phases of bipolarity, unipolarity and multipolarity while the dominance of the notorious National Democratic Party in Egypt has amazingly defied the logic of change.

This semi-universal progress has evaded Egypt. So motionless are days and nights on the banks of the Nile and so uninterrupted is its strict life cycle makes it possibly the worst example to test Heraclitus's hypothesis. What is, after all, the value of time in a country whose pace -- to borrow the expression of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal -- resembles a cartoon movie clip that has been frozen for a quarter of a century?

Great nations do not die; they are bound to rebound, albeit sometimes after a great deal of waiting.

Nael M. Shama

* Photo: Heraclitus
* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on November 7, 2008.