Dimmed by the glory of the past




Trading on history has not solved the problem of Egypt’s present

By Mark Huband in Luxor

Financial Times, 17 January 1998

Our grandfathers built a civilisation. And the grandsons have left it covered in blood.” The lament for the decline of civilisation, by an Egyptologist, is probably as ancient as the time just following the moment when Adam delve and Eve span.

The image of a past golden age is a potent weapon in the armoury of the nostalgic. The seamy side of life is presumed never to have existed, because its legacy is not symbolised by monuments. The past is what is in stone. Golden ages are, of course, as mythical as they are ubiquitous.

Every generation of Egyptians throughout the 20th century has sought one, only to be disappointed. Now, as the century of experimentation closes, Egypt has been forced to consider the implications of trading on the stones and glories of its past.

Aside from those who have taken to lamenting, others have engaged in a defiant assertion of “national” identity. Far from being the result of the rallying cry of a new breed of inspired politicians, of which the country boasts few, the “nation” has all but officially united against the enemy within after the shattering of its image abroad by the killing of 58 foreign tourists by Islamist militants at a temple near Luxor last November.

Since the slaughter, the worst since the Islamists launched their violent campaign in 1992, it has been impossible to obscure the modern reality by reference to the glory of the past, not least in the eyes of the 3.2m tourists who were expected to visit in the coming months, but many of whom are now likely to stay away. Six young gunmen transformed the image.

The question for Egyptians has been whether the killers really besmirched an ancient civilisation, or doused with blood a monument from a past of which they and their like have never felt a part.

Meanwhile, the carnage has forced the modern state to come to terms with its failure to both protect its heritage and prove its credibility.

“If you look at the way Egypt’s history has been treated, there’s a systematic tendency for one period of rule to routinely destroy the reputation of the rule that preceded it,” said Hania Sholkamy, an Egyptian anthropologist with extensive experience of the communities of Upper Egypt, from where many Islamist militants come.

“What has this done to our national character? It has just created confusion. When we look at how fake the identity is, we can see it has been constructed as a caricature, one such being that as Egyptians we are kind, happy and funny,” she said.

Tourism appears to thrive on the fakeness of this caricature. “Smile:  you’re in Luxor” says a sign on the way to the Hatshepsut temple, where the killings took place. Why smile? The temple is fabulous. The rocky terrain is dramatic. Beyond, the Valley of the Kings is astounding. But why smile? Why not think of history and culture and human achievement?

“The response to the incident is part of an inability to handle conflict and accept that there are many facets to Egypt,” said Sholkamy. “The caricature element is part of how the country is run.”

For the government, as well as the mainstream of Establishment opinion, it is vital to avoid recognising that the perpetrators of the attack are a product of Egyptian society. Concerted attempts have been made to strengthen the bankrupt caricature.

“Egyptians are so peaceful and friendly,” said Abu el-Magd Omar, general director of the ministry of tourism office in Luxor. It did not appear to occur to him that the killers – all of whom died after the attack – were as Egyptian as he.

The caricature is intended for foreign consumption. As its promotion intensifies in an effort to woo tourists back to the country, Egypt faces heightened tension – between the promoters of this image; the muddled and ill-informed dogma of Islamists who draw their own caricature from Islam’s perceived golden age during the 7th century; and a government whose ineptitude on security has been seriously exposed.

The way of life for Luxor’s 64,000 people, 20,000 of whom are directly employed in tourist ventures while the rest rely on the industry indirectly, is as fragile as the stones to which they guide their “guests” are solid.

But has proximity to Egypt’s past grandeur seeped into the consciousness of Luxor’s residents? Has familiarity with monuments representing 5,000 years of civilisation, and the obvious value placed on them by the 2m tourists who visit Luxor every year, created a more secure, caricature-free sense of identity upon which to build a future civilisation?

“The tourist circuit is cleansed of social elements. Pharaonic-ness is an important source of income. We welcome foreigners to look at it, not because our ancestors built it, but because it’s something that we own,” said Sholkamy. The implication is that the foreign tourist is not expected to associate modern Egyptians with the achievements of their ancestors.

The question now is how long Egypt can maintain a semblance of political stability while denying aspects of its ancient culture a voice in the formation of its future. How long can “civilisation” be confined to business before it becomes a popular aspiration?

The killings at the temple have forced the country to wonder if it is indeed a civilisation, or whether the historical practice of discrediting the past has set it dangerously adrift.

Islamists reject the pharaonic past as heathen. Secularists reject political Islam as medieval. Nasserites rejected monarchy and promoted Arabism. Sadatism rejected Nasserism and promoted Egypt’s pharaonic past as distinct from Arabism.

The Mubarak years have seen neither democracy nor dictatorship, neither  dogma nor liberty. The government may yet be forced to open the door to dialogue with the Islamists, perhaps precipitating the emergence of a political pluralism that exists nowhere in the Arab world.

Meanwhile, the tourists may start to come for their own reasons. “I didn’t cancel my holiday because I have wanted to come here all my life,” said an American woman as she dined in the near-empty restaurant of Luxor’s famed Winter Palace hotel. “I am losing my eyesight, and I wanted to see the wonder of the world before I go blind.”


© Financial Times