In celebrated Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, we meet the traveller for whom the book is named, a man from a troubled land who embarks on a quest for answers. Following his teacher’s advice, Ibn Fattouma sets out on pilgrimage to the unknown “land of perfection” with the hope of returning “to [his] ailing homeland with a remedy to heal her.”
Though Mahfouz held both strong hopes and fears for his own ailing homeland, he did not live to see the beginnings of Egypt’s 2011 uprisings. However, the insightful perception of his own nation that permeates his novels makes Ibn Fattouma’s journey and the idea of pilgrimage in general a helpful one in understanding the path that Egypt travels today.
The Egyptians’ pilgrimage, like Ibn Fattouma’s, has taken them through numerous socio-political landscapes, even in the few years since the January 2011 revolution. While Mubarak was ousted in 2011, his later trial was a sham, and Egyptians can only mock the three years for corruption to which he was recently sentenced. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi, who was elected in June 2012 in Egypt’s most transparent election in history, was forced out in July 2013 in what remains a great Egyptian debate: Military coup or coup of the people?
Today, another election looms. Yet the refrain is old, as most Egyptians agree: whether they vote or not, Army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is sure to win, the spectre of Mubarak returning. Nonetheless, Egyptians have seen enough on their travels to continue to assert their voices in protest, even if the goals of protest seem dim. As Haifaa G. Khalafallah, director of the UK based Sinai Centre for Islamic Mediterranean Studies writes, “After their initial shock at the success of the Tahrir demonstrators, the subscribers to Egypt's old narrative of power recovered ground and began to reassert the authority of the familiar ways of running their country. A war between the old and new ways became inevitable. That summarises the story of Egypt today, where daily battles continue to rage in its streets, workplaces, media, prisons and even in its morgues.”
Amidst these daily battles, the military and state flaunt their power, stifling press freedoms, crushing dissent and arresting hundreds without charge. In March 2014, a court in Upper Egypt condemned 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for the murder of one policeman — just one of numerous flagrant abuses of power by a justice system that is still lauded by various academics and chief justices the country over.
Violence against Christians continues steadily. In August 2013, in the wave of protests following the ousting of Morsi, almost 40 Coptic churches were attacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In the violence, the military remained silent about the misdirected retaliation for a coup they had helped generate.
These are only a few of the dangers. For as with many pilgrimages, the road is fraught with peril. And perhaps one of the greatest threats to the entire journey is traveller fatigue. Egyptians are exhausted, feeling as if they continue to pass the same old landscape: military rule, sham elections, military rule again.
The youth are prone to sigh, “bring us back our dreams.” The question of “how are things in Egypt?” is met with silent stares, as opposed to the exuberance that once marked answers filled with optimism.
The Economist, quoting the Pew Research Group (an American polling group), noted that “72 percent of [Egyptian] respondents say they are dissatisfied with the country’s general direction. That is a higher proportion than in 2010, the year before Egyptians rose up and overthrew Hosni Mubarak, their dictator for three decades.” Yet, this dissatisfaction has as much potential to turn into apathy as it does into revolution.
The travellers’ exhaustion is to the military’s advantage, as they present the same difficult choice that has faced Egyptians for decades: that of security/stability, or better government. The army insinuates the country has little option but the former.
The Egyptians have, of course, not been journeying alone on this pilgrimage. Not all of their travelling partners, however, have been good companions. Wealthy investors and politicians from Gulf nations fund various sides in the conflicts, escalating tensions and perpetuating corruption. Meanwhile, the Americans appear to be forging new alliances with al-Sisi and friends, recently re-instating at least part of the military aid that was cut in Fall 2013. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s November 2013 words now ring hollow: “It is in everyone's interest that Egypt see a transition, live a transition, that results in a constitution that protects the rights of all Egyptians, including freedom of expression and assembly, the ability to participate in civil society, as well as in religious freedom.”
We North Americans, apart from our governments, have not always been encouraging partners either. We have often sided with one or the other of two extremes: naive and unsustainable optimism or despair tinged with cynicism. We have failed to consider our own nations’ histories and in doing so have drawn unfair comparisons, leading us to deride the Egyptians or condemn them to failure. Perhaps if we saw their situation more as a pilgrimage – and ourselves as fellow pilgrims – we would do more encouraging of the journey, and less lamenting that they have not “arrived.”
Yet even on a desert voyage, there are small signs of life – oases in the midst of the barrenness. “The triumph of a home grown, new political discourse is the real and most significant Egyptian revolution that took place early in 2011,” writes the Sinai Centre’s Khalifallah. This discourse is still far from vigorous, but its mere existence is a reason for hope. For though Egypt is always on the move, it is paradoxically only the rootedness of institutions and a flourishing civil life and civil conversation that can help further its journey.
Nonetheless, the destination is still in debate, with different factions in conflict over what constitutes the “land of perfection.” And investing in a rooted civil life is difficult when, as The Economist reports, “trust in national institutions, including the army, the media, religious leaders and the courts has slumped to an all-time low; in the case of the military from 88 percent approval in 2011 to just 56 percent now . . . Significantly, some 63 percent of respondents said the government now ‘does not respect’ personal freedoms, up from 44 percent under Mr. Morsi.”
Egyptians must avoid the all-too-real temptation of falling asleep on the side of the road or quitting the voyage altogether in the face of what seem to be insurmountable challenges. The path to reform is arduous and long, but there continue to be voices – Christian, Muslim, secular and others – calling that it is worth the struggle. They must learn from their history but perhaps also take wisdom from Mahfouz’s traveller, Ibn Fattouma: “No, I would not return. I would not look backwards. I had started as a traveler and as a traveler I would continue on my way. It was both decision and destiny, both vision and action, both beginning and end.”
At the end of his book, Mahfouz leaves Ibn Fattouma at the foot of the mountain that may – or may not – lead to the “land of perfection.” Mahfouz reminds us that a utopic civilization is, indeed, not so easy to define, and a “perfect society” is an ambiguous destination. Thus, like Ibn Fattouma’s, Egypt’s pilgrimage towards a healthier country — towards a remedy for that which ails her — continues.