Modern Egyptian Culture
– Part 10: An uncomfortable message
Frustrations often lead to introspections, which can lead to painful but valuable realisations. Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed offered such introspections on Egyptian culture.
Lotfi al-Sayyed embodied modern Egyptian culture in the early twentieth century. He came from a Nile Delta family with southern Egyptian (Saeidi) heritage. He was educated at al-Azhar, at the time the preeminent seat of learning in Sunni Islam, but he went to Europe for post graduate studies. French ways of being and living filled his soul; Continental European Renaissance ideas opened vast vistas for his mind; yet English and Scottish philosophy grounded him in pragmatism. Deep within, however, he retained an unshakeable cultural belonging to the land of the Nile. His house, despite being filled with English and French volumes and a fine collection of nineteenth century European art, resembled in its design and furnishing, that of a Nile Delta village chieftain. He was a wealthy landowner, yet worked for the government; was highly active in civil society, and ultimately a force behind the establishment of Cairo University, but was a distant, often reclusive man; and before and after, he continued until his death to be a prolific essayist. For many, Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed was early twentieth century Egypt’s premier educator. More aptly, al-Sayyed educed from Egypt her true pains.
The main pain was oppression. Although in this he agreed with Qassem Amin, whom the previous article in the series presented, el-Sayyed’s analysis went much farther than Amin’s. Whereas Amin thought liberation at the level of the household, particularly of women, would effect a transformation in Egyptian society, shaking off societal ills that had plagued the country’s modernisation since the early nineteenth century, el-Sayyed believed liberation necessitated comprehending that the problem lurked deep in the Egyptian psyche.
For Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed, Egyptian society’s history was acutely fraught, for two reasons. First, Egypt was ruled by non-Egyptians for almost twenty successive centuries. El- Sayyed did not believe that most of the foreign rulers, from the Romans onwards, had been Egyptianised in any meaningful way. They had been and remained deliberately at a vast distance from the peasants of the land. And often the foreign rulers instituted an extractive system, which entailed entrenching in Egypt a political and security structure that kept its people under control and submissive to power. Centuries of the prevailing of such a system and structure bred and sustained fear in the society.
Fear was more palpable in the Nile Delta than in southern Egypt. It was a natural consequence because throughout these twenty centuries, the Nile Delta bore, much more than the south, the brunt of this system of fear. The Delta was closer to Cairo and Alexandria, the two largest political and economic centres of power. Plus, the Delta’s highly fertile lands made its subjugation essential for extracting value out of Egypt. And given the Delta’s flat, open plains, it was much easier to control than the mountainous south (el-Saeid).
Fear continued under Egyptian power. Since the mid nineteenth century, a select of Egyptian families had begun to have increasingly vast land ownerships. But the owners of these lands often owed their wealth to the political structure that had emerged round the Mohammad Ali dynasty in the first half of the nineteenth century, or to the politics of the last part of the nineteenth century in which Egypt’s economy was highly controlled by foreign interests. In both cases, the landowners, though Egyptian, were enmeshed in a system that centralised political and economic power in an extremely thin sliver at the very top of society.
With time, as most of these major landowning families became early adopters of western culture and champions of the modernisations the country had witnessed in the nineteenth century, their separation from the life and culture of the peasants on their lands grew. Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed never believed Egypt had serfdom in the way eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia had (and interestingly, he had long correspondences with Russian thinkers, and a lifelong fascination with Tolstoy’s thought). But he identified many similarities between the two socio-political systems.
The second problem in the Egyptian society’s political history was that there was not an urge for change. Unlike almost all the leading thinkers who had appeared in Egypt since the country’s modernisation in the early nineteenth century - with the exception of Mohammad Abdou - Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed saw clearly that the majority of Egyptians were content to continue living in the same ways and manners of their predecessors. To him, this meant they were willing to continue enduring the same oppression their predecessors had tolerated. El-Sayyed believed that the tranquil and relatively easy life that Egypt’s geography had allowed in the Nile valley made effecting major changes in this part of the world very difficult. Drastic change usually emerges from difficulties that compel their bearers to reject their conditions and to revolt, not only against the oppression they suffer and the oppressors who perpetrated it, but first against the mental and emotional states that had led them to accept oppression. Egypt’s plenitude and ease of life hardly ever generated such acute rejections and strong compulsions to change the prevailing order. And with centuries-long political systems that had sustained fear in the society, the momentum for change was weakened even further.
It was a difficult message. And it got blunter. Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed did not believe that education for small sections of the society – as in Egypt’s first non-religious university that he played a leading role in establishing - would result in uprooting the residue of that fraught history. For him, what was needed was to ignite a desire for change within major sections of the society. A strong desire does not emerge merely from gradual slow accumulation of knowledge. A change in the collective consciousness was a must. And for that to take place, old mental structures needed to be seriously scrutinised, if not demolished.
Ahmed Lotfi al-Sayyed’s painful but courageous message found a receptive mind in a scholar who would become one of the most prominent thinkers in modern Egyptian culture, Taha Hussein, the subject of the next article in this series.