How we changed from a civilized society into a nation where uncivil behavior is widespread is a dilemma that we have not yet been able to comprehend. We Egyptians are not in agreement about the reasons for this regression; however, we do acknowledge that the overall loss in moral values substantially outweighs the benefits of the relative modernization that we have achieved.
The good news is that Egyptians admit their country has changed for the worse over the past few decades. The bad news, however, is that nobody is working on, or even cares about, restoring the civilized, enlightened society that we used to be. Egypt used to have plenty of refined citizens leading our nation in many fields. We have always been a poor nation, but our poverty used to be dignified. We have always been an Islamic-majority nation, but we used to abide by the true values of our book. We are a country where force has always been valued, but our muscle power used to be gently shaped. Egypt’s social dynamics remain the same, but we tend to act and behave in an extremely uncivilized manner.
Exactly what happened to our society is not clear to most Egyptian scholars; they often provide plenty of justifications, but they never address the question of why our society had become so vulnerable as to suffer such a decline. Either the magnitude of the drop was too great to withstand, or deterioration was dragging the nation, unawares, downward. In both cases, the outcome is miserable and intolerable. It is not clear to me how we went from being a leading civilized nation to being the uncivilized state that we live in today. I often argue that a truly civilized society should have had more immunity, allowing it to resist this decline.
Sadly, consecutive Egyptian governments have not been troubled by this issue. I have not observed any government attempting to resolve this matter or even organize open discussions about it. For decades, our nation has been preoccupied with feeding our large population, along with the recent challenge of terrorism and, formerly, our engagements in several regional conflicts. Had we preserved the true essence of our civilized society, we might have avoided these challenges.
On the other hand, we, Egyptian society, are not able to work as a team; our tendency to disagree is much greater than our shared commonalities. There is no social consensus in Egypt on what is truly culturally acceptable and what is categorically unacceptable. While we often speak of equality, freedom of expression and tolerance, we rarely, if ever, abide by the values we claim to believe in. Nevertheless, when I discuss our society’s deficiencies with scholars from other nations, they tend to acknowledge that they face their own internal cultural challenges.
The good news is that Egyptians admit their country has changed for the worse over the past few decades. The bad news is that nobody is working on, or even cares about, restoring the enlightened society that we used to be.
Many Egyptian intellectuals argue that consecutive governments have deliberately devised our current cultural dilemma to maintain their iron rule over our uncivilized society. I am not yet ready to accept this argument. However, Egypt is certainly a nation that is governed from the top down! The state controls the media, employing a third of its labor force, and spends half of its budget on government employees’ salaries and subsidies for less fortunate citizens. Thus, any real social paradigm shift must be led, or at least endorsed, by the government.
I don’t have a comprehensive recipe for regaining our enlightened civilization, but it is evident that Egypt needs a clear compass that defines the breadth and depth of its society’s moral values. We must revisit our current cultural understanding; faith is a completely personal issue that each citizen may hold and practise individually, without government interference. However, we do need to promote clearly explained moral and ethical values that all Egyptians should abide by. As for individual citizens’ behavior, this should be subject to the strict — and uncompromising — application of the rule of law.
• Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom. Twitter: @MohammedNosseir