Egyptomania; Or, Independence Day

July 3rd Fireworks in Cairo

As we gear up for the fireworks on July 4th that celebrate American Independence from England, it is hard not to watch the millions of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as they add another chapter to their own recent revolutionary history. This revolution began with the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, part of what the media insisted on calling “The Arab Spring” in 2011. Since that rather romantic fit of democracy, idealistic Americans may have thought that this was just another step toward a more democratic and just Middle East, and that maybe it would spread.

But then came Syria, and President Barack Obama’s ostensible ignoring of the mass killings in that country tell us something about our inability to cope with the reality that the freedom Americans take for granted is simply not even on the radar of many leaders in the rest of the world.  President Obama mumbles tepid statements of disapproval, but they are diluted with ramblings about global warming and expensive African trips in which no one listens to him. And after one hundred million dollars in travel costs, he leaves without a trace, unless you count the carbon footprints of all those in the Air Force One traveling entourage.  Even my most liberal European friends, all of whom were so supportive of candidate Obama when he first ran for office, dismiss him now as completely irrelevant in international affairs.  He may speak in the declarative sentences of a junior senator, but no one seems to be listening to him anyway.  This is significant as he is still, if only by default, the main speaker for democracy and freedom in the world. Yet his stage seems to be a diminished thing.

The reason we are shocked at the intensity and scope of the protests in Egypt is that not even Egyptians could have predicted where the momentum of their discontent and desire for more democracy could have taken them:  millions in the streets, day after day, culminating in fireworks tonight celebrating that Mohammed Morsy is out. Although he said that he would never leave, it appears that the people have won.  Just two weeks ago I was touring the new Egypt wing at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with guest curator and Egyptologist Tom Hardwick, who resides in Cairo.  As he was explaining how ancient Egypt was already multicultural, with competing visions over how one should deal with the body before departing for the afterlife, I couldn’t help it:  I had to ask him, since he is British, if he ever felt unsafe.  He told me that although there were parts of Houston where he felt unsafe, he never felt that way in Cairo.  So I left that tour that day, in the middle of June, thinking that all was right in the world in the streets of Cairo.  How quickly things change:  I am not sure if things are falling apart or falling together, but the Morsy center did not hold.

Democracy addicts must be as high as the fireworks exploding over Cairo tonight, as the jaw dropping demonstrations of unrest in Egypt have resulted in a coup (of sorts) before the chance for Egyptians to have another round of elections for what they really want. In other words, they had an election, and now they want a do-over.  I know many Americans on both sides of the aisle who have had similar feelings of election regret. Fortunately, we have a process for changing leaders, and usually it is bloodless, without mass uprisings, gang rapes, and the killing of individuals.  Even an American college student has died this week in these demonstrations, a somber reminder that this is not just an exciting international breaking news story, but a dangerous series of events with unpredictable consequences.

This uprising of the Egyptian people has led to the ultimate of ironies:  the democratically elected leader has been rejected by the people for military rule–at least until the next election.  Preferring the purgatory of at least a degree of martial law over the disappointing consequences of voting for a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the millions of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have been successful in displaying their intense dissatisfaction.  But what did these voters expect from Mohammed Morsy?  Did they really think that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose main political agenda is to align state, society, and individuals into strict accordance with the principles of Islam, would be that far removed from a dictatorial managerial style?  Did they think that the Muslim Brotherhood, with all of its anti-Mubarak and anti-opposition rhetoric, would also have a top secret reserve of economic genius?  If Morsy did not step down immediately, the protesters threatened what seems to be a very American concept against him:  crippling civil disobedience, furthering the social instability which has affected tourism and sent the Egyptian economy into a striking downward spiral.  The Egyptian protests are all about identifying problems, but the issue of solutions is nowhere to be found.  The demand for another round of early elections does not guarantee that any of the candidates will exercise democratic principles any more than Hosni Mubarak or Mohammed Morsy.

But our hopes for freedom in the Middle East seem tethered to American notions of what freedom means as a universal.  It may be true that in the heart of every man and woman there is a desire for freedom, but the cultural imperatives of Islam dictate otherwise.  The treatment of women alone in Islamic countries makes many highly skeptical of wide-ranging applications of democracy, and that is because their codes for morality are always already in opposition to the requirements of individual freedom.

Right now, I work in a world where there is a lingering cultural war over what should and should not be taught in educational institutions.  Some educators want only the Western tradition to be taught, but when I was in high school, I had a social studies teacher who taught an advanced social science class that required us to study Islam for nine solid weeks.  The first day of class, Mr. Bouyear, who would later drop dead of a heart attack at age 50, said that there was one word that we had to understand in order to really comprehend what Islam was all about.  He wrote in all capital letters on the board the word “SUBMISSION,” and that hit me like a ton of bricks because I was really busy engaging in my American socialization into things like, “initiative,” “individualism,” and dominating the SAT. In other words, in practicing the free will that Americans consider concomitant with freedom, I was learning about a religion that privileges the opposite. So, nothing made me more aware of the significance of Western culture and its manifestations in the American religious, social, and political spheres as studying a religion that is diametrically opposed to the assumptions of free will.  So all of those protesters on CNN are not just protesting a specific leader (Morsy), but are opposing an entire constellation of cultural and religious assumptions that have dominated Egypt for centuries. This truly is revolutionary, but seemingly born more out of frustration with the status quo than a coherent political or philosophical agenda.

As I toured the Egypt wing that day with Tom Hardwick, who I am sure knows more about Egyptian history and art than anyone I have ever met in my life, we talked about different instances of Egyptomania in American culture.  The first bout of it was in the nineteenth century, when the Napoleonic Wars (as in, the Battle of Egypt) lent themselves to more interest in the exoticism of the pyramids and the ancient world along the Nile.  American Transcendentalists were interested in hieroglyphics and the spirituality of Egyptian culture–even Edgar Allan Poe wrote short fiction about mummies. Joseph Smith of the Mormon church owned mummies and wrote about them. Even the Masons were interested in Egyptian pyramids, and the American dollar bill still has an image of a pyramid on it. The interest reached far and wide, and proved to be long lasting.

The second bout was in the 1920s after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.  Tom showed us a sculpted piece of wall that had a tight-fitting decorative head-dress–just like the ones that were a temporary rage for some flappers in the 20s, and Mia Farrow wore an exact replica of the Egyptian example I saw in the museum in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby.  People had Egyptian themed parties, and wore Egyptian inspired jewelry and bought art deco furniture, some of which took its cues from Egyptian art and architecture.  The mystique of Egypt was powerful in the popular twentieth century American imagination.

Now the situation in the Egypt is as cryptic as the pyramids and as baffling as the Sphinx. As we celebrate our liberty, we can hope that Egyptians can have better candidates more suited to a democratic society.  But Egyptian history has been one of centralized power–more pharaohs than presidents–and it is a real nail-biter seeing if it is truly able to practice democracy in a way that will not require mass demonstrations with each elected leader. American Egyptomania has historically focused on pyramids and pharaohs–in short, the dead.  But with this new political interest in Egypt, maybe we will change our gaze, and focus on the present and the living, and hope that these sweeping political changes are not simply the precursors to chaos, but part of the growing pains of an evolving democracy.

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