At the onset of Christianity, two thousand years ago, the Mediterranean was a Hellenic sea. Around its rim everyone spoke either Greek or Roman and had a common culture. This was true even in the case of regions with strong pre-Hellenic culture, such as Egypt. There was tension of course, with a distinct break between the common Egyptian folks in the countryside vs. the Greek speaking elite in the urban centers. This can be read clearly in the actions of Cleopatra, the last non-roman monarch of Egypt, who tried to claim Pharaoh status even if she was of Greek heritage. It was also true four centuries later when the Egyptian Coptic Church broke with Byzantium over arcane theological matters, which were ultimately an expression of nationalism. St Cyril was the quintessential Egyptian leader, or demagogue, if you prefer. When Islam burst out from its roots in poor arid Arabia, it split the Mediterranean basin in two: a Christian northern rim and a Muslim southern rim. The division would have been neater if it were not for the fact that Egypt remained largely Christian and had strong contacts with Europe. It remained an uneasy bridge between the two worlds. St Francis of Assisi preached in Egypt; the Venetians stole the body of St, Mark from Alexandria; the Muslim rules had complex alliances with various Mediterranean states and even Crusader states; and so on. The situation remained more or less static for seven centuries until Castile reclaimed Spain from the Muslims and the Ottomans occupied the Balkans from the Christians, after ending the long reign of Byzantium. Egypt’s role as a bridge diminished a great deal, with the Ottomans assuming that role in Istanbul. Not coincidently Egypt sank into cultural and economic malaise as it became isolated and backward. There was some relief in the 17th and 18th centuries as various European romantics took interest in Ancient Egyptian and Coptic culture. Nevertheless, the Coptic population dwindled to 10% and the cultural level of the Copts sank along with all Egyptians. Egypt was prosperous for as long it retain connections to both worlds.
The Napoleonic invasion in 1798 was a rude wake up call, whose echo reverberates to this day. Under the autocratic but enlightened leadership of a Balkan, Muhammad Ali, Egypt once again began to restore its role as a bridge, but always uneasily. It has been a tug of war ever since. During the twentieth century Egypt had a large populations of Mediterranean folks, Greeks, Italians, Armenians, and Ottoman and European Jews. At the same time, native movements of polarization, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, rose and gained social power and standing. Today this tug of war manifests itself in the “liberal-Islamist” divide, and in the various economic policies advocated by various political powers. Is Egypt going to be a province of the Wahabi-Saudi culture, as the Salafis are wont to do, or will it look toward its ancient heritage, and the west, as a cultural, political and economic model?
This is a dilemma that can not resolved by purely democratic means. No democracy would voluntarily allow its people to vote themselves into subjugation. The Saudi-Salafi future carries within it the seeds of destruction, as Arabia is likely to shed its Saudi robes and undergo major and violent changes within the next few decades. Egypt need not tether itself to this problem. At the same time, Egyptian liberals have not articulated a program that would resonate with the common folks, one based on authentic Egyptian heritage and attuned to the reality of Egypt. They remain aware of their Western audience and perhaps eager to play to it. Much of the liberal discourse can be easily dismissed as “foreign” precisely because of that. It is an odd situation, given that this discourse assigns a great deal of value to Ancient Egyptian heritage, one that predates both Christianity and Islam. Liberals would capture the hearts-and-minds if they can articulate a cultural program that transcends narrow religious differences, and re-focuses the energy of the people on their unique heritage as Egyptians, belonging to neither pole and always bridging the divide. It is a difficult argument to make, but if it can succeed anywhere, it would be in Egypt. And if it can succeed anytime, it would be now.