Tag Archives: egypt

Chatting Lightly About Dark Matters

cover IMA

Reflecting on the Future of the Arab World.

When my friend and I meet, we go straight to the point because we barely ever meet. So we asked ourselves the other day: Can any good come out of this darkness?

Those who did not yet succumb to cynicism in the West cling on to the idea that some day, out of the current Arab nightmare will rise new types of leaders, more popular, more liberal, some kind of Islamic Martin Luther that would help Muslims leap into modernity. They are In fact not so sure about the job description, and despite their flexibility, they haven’t found anyone yet.

As for us, we apprehended the matter in a different manner and looked into the potential blind spots of the reformist quest, asking ourselves what the least expected game-changers could be on the longer run. In other words, we examined potential signs and indications that something is changing deep within the social fabrics of the region.

The elements we are about to mention now have no academic value; we are mainly sharing impressions and intuitions that would require thorough research to be confirmed or invalidated.

New signs of an Arab Stream of Consciousness

Over the past couple of years, Arab media from all affiliations have been publishing a stream of editorials and essays critically reflecting on the meaning of Modernity for the Arab-Islamic world: What are the status and the role of the region in the post-Cold War world? Does modernization equal westernization? Does democratization impose secularization? What are the possible alternatives? And what is most remarkable is that, along the way, they are tearing down intellectual boundaries inherited mainly from Arabism.

Asad Azi's Napoleon, from the exhibition

Asad Azi’s Napoleon, from the exhibition “The wandering rider”, someone who looks for a Kingdom

One common feature of this intellectual anxiety is the critical questioning of modern history: many authors turn to the past to try to better fathom their present with one main question in mind: How did we get there?

Far from the hagiographic historiographies each nation crafted for itself after the Independences, these new readings really look for answers: Why did the first Nahda[1] fail? Why couldn’t the Arab revolutions prevent Colonialism? Why didn’t the independence bring freedom and prosperity? Israel, the usual suspect for more than four decades, is barely mentioned in this context.

These debates are also spreading on social media. We have witnessed Facebook discussions whereby Arab citizens discover with dismay that a national hero can be a neighbor’s villain[2]. The first reaction is of course for each one to reassert his idols. However, these clashing narratives cannot but sow doubt and suspicion about the official history Arabs were taught.

The second remarkable element of this intellectual effervescence is that, instead of resorting to isolationism, a normal reflex in times of crisis, Arab thinkers actually look around for answers beyond the West. Japan’s Meiji era (end of the 19th century) has always inspired the Arab intelligentsia as a successful synthesis between tradition and modernity.  What’s new is a wider outlook including contemporary Latin America and Asian Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia as potential models.

Arabs also display a new ownership of western references and controversies that are rephrased in accordance with local realities.For instance, mass media editorials discuss and criticize Fukuyama’s End of History and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are also some signs of a new critical understanding of Capitalism and the impacts of Globalization after the 2008 crisis – something which is different than the old Arab communist criticism of the market economy.

In one of the most striking display of this new intellectual autonomy, the great Syrian thinker, Yassin el Hajj Saleh, reflects in a crucial article on Adorno and the meaning of Poetry after Auschwitz applied to the Syrian case[3], undeterred by the traditional taboo surrounding the Jews and the Shoah in the Arab world.

Naturally, this new stream of Arab consciousness cannot but tackle the central issue of Islam. To read more in PDF format, click here.

[1] The Nahda (“Awakening”) refers to a moment of cultural effervescence that began in the late 19th century in Egypt and in the Levant. It is often regarded as a period of intellectual modernization and reform that was sparked by the shock caused by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and in general by the new awareness of the Arab elites regarding the gap between Europe and the Ottoman Empire in terms of technical and scientific development. [2] You’d be surprised how popular Saddam Hussein still is across the region. [3] Looking into the eyes of Horror, a contribution to the Syrian debate over pictures, May 30th, 2015 (Arabic only)

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Al-Azhar and the Egyptian Revolution

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This article is available in Portuguese here. A PDF version of the English article can be downloaded here.

“Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people. There is a need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam—rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years.”

General El-Sisi’s speech, Armed Forces’ Department of Moral Affairs – January 2014

 

How has al-Azhar, often referred to as the highest reference in Sunni Islam, navigated the recent Egyptian upheavals?

The institution, both a Mosque and a University, could have cloistered itself away from the course of History, waiting for the dust to settle. Instead, it found itself at the very center of events, both as an actor taking sides and position, and as the object of opposing national and constitutional projects for Egypt[1].

Such a central and active role in a highly volatile environment, where today’s victors are tomorrow’s fools, has not been without contradictions and conflicts within and around the institution. This may ultimately come at a high price for the already weakened authority and legitimacy of al-Azhar in Egypt and beyond.

The following article intends to shed some light on al-Azhar’s role in contemporary Egypt (I), rectifying certain misconceptions about its status in Islam, before analyzing its positioning during the Nile Revolution (II) and since the restoration of the military rule (III). Continue reading

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NGC Special Report: How can we help Arab Entrepreneurs?

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NGC was honored, as a Knowledge Partner of the Arab Thought Foundation, to plan and moderate the Fikr 12 workshop on “Entrepreneurship and Start ups: from individual achievement to collective success” (Ritz Carlton Dubai, 5th December 2013) with the valuable participation of distinguished guests representing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Arab world:

H.E. Mr. Abdul Baset Al Janahi, CEO, Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for SME Development (“Dubai SME”), United Arab Emirates
Dr. Khalid bin Othman Al-Yahya, Managing Director, Accenture Management Consulting, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Mr. Eyhab AlHajj, Co-Founder, Managing Director, Prosper, Sultanate of Oman
Mr. Fadi Bizri, Managing Director, Bader Young Entrepreneurs Program, Lebanese Republic
Mr. Ziad Mabsout, Financial Consultant and Analyst, Lebanese Republic

Following a brief presentation, NGC co-founder, Issam al Khatib, moderated a lively session based on Q&A with the speakers and the public to better define obstacles to entrepreneurship in the Arab countries and identify priority reforms.
Continue reading

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Muslim Brothers in Power: a Cultural Clash

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Are Muslim Brothers in Egypt failing because they are Islamists? Are Islamists incompatible with democracy?  Is it the very essence of Islam that explains the Brothers’ inability to design a sound economic policy?

History and sociology are of critical importance when it comes to better understanding the difficult political transition in Egypt. Religion is only one part of the story, and maybe not the main one. Continue reading

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Climate Change in the Arab world: How much worse can it get?

aridI remember witnessing a surreal scene during an international Forum in Northern Europe, in 2011. A group of young Arab pro-democracy actors, heroes of the day, had been gathered for lunch break to meet with one of the Forum leaders. They were duly reminded of the importance of protecting the environment and asked to start promoting ASAP a “green agenda” for their countries. The Arab heroes, slightly taken by surprise, promised politely to do so.

How can you be so disconnected from the realities and preoccupations of the Arab peoples and be so right at the same time? Continue reading

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Did you know that the last Brazilian Emperor was a passionate Orientalist?

dom-pedro-PortraitThe 19th century’s official history was and remains too Eurocentric to notice the greatness of a non-European statesman and its sincere interest in other cultures, notably Oriental cultures.

In many ways, Pedro the Second, Emperor of Brazil (Rio, 1825- Paris, 1891), embodied the Enlightenment’s ideal of a humanist leader.

He was as fair and principled as Saint Luis, as cultured and enlightened as Frederic II of Prussia, and as unhappy on the throne as a true intellectual and adventurer could be. He had the most romantic death: in exile in Paris, poor and lonely.

His 58 year old reign transformed Brazil into a prosperous country with a liberal parliamentary monarchy. What’s more, he was a true abolitionist. In 1850, he even threatened to abdicate unless the Brazilian General Assembly declared the Atlantic slave trade illegal, and then fought to end the enslavement of children born of slaves (the “Law of the Free Birth” 1871). Continue reading

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