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Is Egypt Having an Identity Crisis?

October 17, 2011

Is Egypt suffering from an identity crisis? Photo by Malak Rouchdy.

Shortly before the violence that shook Egypt this month, Steven A. Cook published an article in Foreign Policy commenting on the current anxieties besetting pretty much everyone in Egypt these days.

Like me, and several other commentators, he recognizes that current conditions of ambiguity are eroding hope and increasing anxieties. He describes it thus:

Everyone seems to be struggling with the complexities of the present moment. Egyptian liberals are despondent over what they fear will be a Muslim Brotherhood rout in the November elections; revolutionary groups are having trouble gaining traction with a fatigued population; Islamists are confident, but have flailed tactically in an unfamiliar political environment; Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s government is a non-factor; and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seems to be staggering under the pressure of a political role for which they were never trained. This bleak atmosphere is a stunning turnaround from the post-uprising mantra of “Anything has got to be better than the Mubarak regime.”

Unlike many other commentators, Cook suggests that there is nothing wrong with this state of anxiety. It may be unpleasant, but it’s also natural.

In his article entitled Egypt’s Identity Crisis, Cook argues that what Egypt is searching for is its identity. Now that Mubarak is gone, and Egypt can be anything the people want, what is it, exactly, the people do  want? What is needed, he says, is a vision, and this is precisely what emerged out of chaos in countries undergoing political transition:

Egyptians and outside observers have been preaching patience, but they are are not exhibiting any. Without the development of a set of positive myths about Egypt’s future, any group, party, or leader will be politically vulnerable, heralding instability and the potential return of authoritarian politics. Uncertainty and contestation are precisely what political transitions are all about. They may be hard to accept, given all the challenges Egypt now confronts, but Egyptians are exactly where they should be.

That Cook should focus on the  inability of SCAF, or of any of the individuals and groups currently vying for leadership of the post-Mubarak Egypt to articulate a clear vision that captures the minds of a majority of Egyptians is not surprising–it is the topic of his new book The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square (Oxford University Press, Fall 2011). As the following video ad for his book makes clear, Cook thinks Egypt has been searching for an identity ever since it acheived its independence from Great Britain:

How does the recent clash between military and protesters over Coptic demands for redress fit into his vision? So far, he hasn’t weighed in. His only blog post just directs people to other people’s articles about the clashes.

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. His first book was Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (John’s Hopkins University Press, 2007). I’d describe it for you but honestly, the title says it all.

He blogs at “From the Euphrates to the Potomac.”

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