Golden Oldie: A Reformer in Egypt

Below is an article I wrote for Policy Review several years ago about Egyptian liberal writer Tarek Heggy. I don’t know if it sheds any light on current events, but perhaps it is still worth a look.

December 1, 2002
policy review » no. 116 » books
A Reformer in Egypt
by Aaron Mannes
Aaron Mannes on Egyptian Political Essays by Tarek Heggy

Egyptian Political Essays.

IMAGINE AN ARAB voice, based in the region, part of the elite, that calls for self-criticism and massive political and economic reform and that frankly admits the failures of the political ideologies dominating the Arab world. Moreover, this voice calls the conspiracy theories and overblown rhetoric that pervade the Arab media signs of a cultural crisis and insists that Arabs come to terms with political reality. Finally, this voice urges normalization with Israel, castigates the Arab media for their vicious anti-Semitism, and criticizes Al-Jazeera for reintroducing the radical rhetoric of the 1960s that led the Arab world to catastrophe.

Meet Tarek Heggy. He says everything a Westerner, stunned at the depths of Arab societies’ ignorance, tyranny, and rage — revealed in the aftermath of 9-11 — would hope to hear. An exceptionally well-read Egyptian businessman, Heggy has written 12 books of essays in Arabic and translated four of them into English. He has collected most of his work in English into a single, self-published volume, Egyptian Political Essays. Most of his writing in English and Arabic is available on his website,

Heggy’s main themes are the need for economic, political, and cultural reform in Egypt. In his essay, “Why Do I Write?” he explains that his purpose is to encourage self-criticism, to defend the shared values of all civilization, to advocate freedom of belief and a culture of peace, to advance market economics, and to counter the “Goebbels-style propaganda machines operating in Egypt and the Arab world and their dangerous manipulation of public opinion.”

Heggy is mercifully uninterested in the all-consuming Arab obsession with the supposed Zionist conspiracy. He recognizes that the hostility towards Israel promoted in the Egyptian press merely serves to distract Egyptians from their abysmal government. In “Between a Culture of Peace and a Culture of War,” he chastises the state-controlled media for encouraging enmity towards Israel and the United States despite the Egyptian government’s official commitment to peace with Israel. He reminds Egyptians that the several decades of hot and cold war with Israel constituted a period of “arrested development” for Egypt, replete with military and economic failures. Within the Egyptian intelligentsia, it is commonly believed that the West and Israel seek to achieve hegemony over Egypt by destroying Egyptian culture. Intellectual leaders consequently endeavor to limit Western cultural influences in general and virulently oppose normalization with Israel. Yet Heggy retorts, “To believe that our cultural identity will collapse when exposed to other cultures is an insult to our culture and civilization.”

But Israel occupies a small fraction of Heggy’s work. An Egyptian patriot, Heggy’s real dream is a strong, modern, and free Egypt. His earliest work critiques Marxism and socialism, then extends to explorations of Arab society and Arab mindsets. Heggy also addresses Islamist extremism, which springs from the same roots of poverty, ignorance, and oppression — and has similar totalitarian ends. His comprehensive analysis of Egypt’s present situation is devastating.

EGYPT NEVER became strictly communist, but during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule from 1952 to 1970, Egypt nationalized industries and built a statist economy. The results have been the massive — and predictable — economic stagnation that has plagued Egypt for the past half-century. Under President Hosni Mubarak, fiscal and monetary policies have been liberalized, but the central problems facing Egypt’s economy have continued to fester.

In his book The Four Idols, Heggy outlines reforms for the agriculture, housing, and public sectors and for the education system. His prescriptions, familiar to advocates of free enterprise, include eliminating loss-making public-sector enterprises and reducing government control over successful units of the public sector. Laws that have created economic disasters also regulate the agricultural sector and the housing market. Egypt, the breadbasket of Mediterranean civilizations for thousands of years, is now a net food importer. Nasser-era housing laws favored the tenant as the exploited party and led to a reluctance to invest in the housing market — and consequently to a deterioration in the quality and quantity of housing. For Egypt’s fast-growing population, the ongoing housing shortage is a central irritant fueling social unrest.

Heggy’s analysis of Egypt’s failed educational system leads him to study the moral and cultural decline of Egyptian society. In the first half of the twentieth century, Egypt underwent a renaissance in which several generations of intellectuals, well versed in Egyptian civilization, absorbed Western culture and attempted to fuse the two traditions to create an Arab modernity. Meeting with Egypt’s present university elite, Egyptian graduate students studying abroad, Heggy finds the exact opposite of these earlier generations:

For the most part, they had been defeated by the challenges of an unfamiliar culture and so had avoided the difficult path of adapting to and absorbing this culture and opted for the easy one of retreating into themselves. . . . The reason for the cultural introversion of our graduate students abroad is, I believe, the poor educational and cultural baggage they carried with them from their country and which was totally inadequate in the face of the cultural and intellectual challenges of the host country. . . . [They became] completely wrapped up in themselves and their own narrow vision, isolated and brewing ideas that belong to the age of darkness and obscurantism.
This sad reversal is in great part due to Nasser’s education policies. The Egyptian education system became just another part of the civil service and fell prey to the corruption and incompetence plaguing all of Egypt’s bureaucracies. Currently, Egypt’s primary and secondary schools focus on rote memorization. Poorly paid teachers use their classes to market themselves as private tutors.

But the greatest disasters Nasser inflicted on Egyptian education fell on the universities. The general repression of Egypt’s intellectuals hampered the free exchange of ideas. But Nasser, in order to bolster Egypt’s prestige, instituted a system of free higher education. Heggy notes that wealthier societies do not provide free universal college education and that Egypt’s attempts to provide what much wealthier societies cannot resulted in a haphazard system that generates many graduates but very few of any quality.

This degradation of Egypt’s educational system was not limited to secular universities. Islamic institutions of higher learning — particularly Al-Azhar University, the leading Sunni religious institution of the Middle East — were also affected. The lowered quality of debate in Islamic institutions allowed extremist versions of Islam to make inroads into the core of the Sunni religious establishment, with ultimately disastrous consequences for Muslim civilization.

Combined with massive economic problems, this cultural calamity created the current atmosphere in Egypt in which extremism (religious and secular) flourishes, outlandish conspiracy theories masquerade as political commentary, and vicious rhetoric replaces reasoned debate.

Heggy pulls no punches in his critique of Egypt’s cultural and political discourse. He observes that Egypt’s obsession with self-praise over the past several decades is a form of escapism that allows the country to ignore the necessity of massive reform. After comparing Egypt’s civic discourse of the 1920s with the present, Heggy concludes that there is a growing fascist trend in Egypt that makes an honest exchange of ideas impossible. In his quest to bring reason to the public debate, Heggy tries to explain how not every event is a European, Zionist, or American plot and that the conspiracy theories pervading Arab media are intended to engender feelings of powerlessness.

IN HIS prescriptions for these problems, Heggy argues that truly accountable government is the only way to enact the necessary reforms. As a businessman, Heggy is schooled in modern management science. He grants the importance of academics developing the framework for reform but suggests that reforms often fail because the theorists remain in control too long. Reforms need to be managed by trained executives who understand how to set realistic goals and achieve them, apply resources, and delegate authority.

These management homilies sound trite to American ears, but such organizational principles may be revelations for Egypt. In the past few decades, several East Asian economies starting from a lower economic base have bounded past Egypt. India, despite being poorer than Egypt, has developed a high-tech sector; Egypt has not. Egypt is clearly missing something.

Egypt’s development has been stymied because its institutions are characterized by careerism and overcentralization. Supervisors view empowered subordinates as threats, so loyalty is valued over competence. (In the Egyptian army, officers who receive American training, which emphasizes initiative, face reduced promotion prospects.) The result is that the employees do not possess the shared sense of purpose necessary for an effective organization. Management science, with its emphasis on teamwork, delegation, and empowerment, may foster these habits. This voluntary cooperation is also the essential building block of civil society. Heggy’s ideas about applying effective management techniques may have implications beyond merely expanding Egypt’s GDP.

Absent from Heggy’s work is a critique of Hosni Mubarak’s two decades as president of Egypt. Heggy criticizes cabinet ministers and proposes policies and objectives the Mubarak administration should embrace, but he does not directly criticize the president of Egypt despite Mubarak’s legacy of economic stagnation and undemocratic practices. Heggy is courageous in his writing. He stands against the prevailing trends in the Arab world; he harshly criticizes the former president Nasser, who is a towering figure in modern Arab history; and he debunks popular conspiracy theories. But, in the Arab world, the prudent do not directly criticize their sovereigns by name.

Heggy offers some arguments that may not sit well with Americans or Israelis. For example, Heggy cites American support for Egypt in the 1956 war with Israel, Britain, and France as an example of American foreign policy at its most visionary and moral. (In fact, American support for Nasser’s position encouraged his foreign adventures and launched him onto the world stage as a leader of the Third World.) But these are quibbles. Heggy is not a Zionist; he is an Egyptian patriot with a compelling vision of a modern, democratic Egypt.

WHILE HEGGY IS music to Western ears, he is not writing for Westerners. His essays appear in major Egyptian publications, including the leading government-sponsored dailies Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar as well as the foremost opposition daily Al-Wafd. He gives lectures both in Egypt and worldwide. Most important, Tarek Heggy is not alone in his ideas.

Egypt, with its distinct identity, ancient history, and large population, is the heart of the Arab world. The major intellectual trends of the Arab world were cultivated in Egypt. Pan-Arabism reached its zenith in Egypt under Nasser, and Islamist extremism’s roots are with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt as a reaction to modernity. But Egypt also fostered a generation of intellectuals who wore their Arab and Muslim identities with confidence and sought to engage the West and to fuse its rich cultural legacy with their own.

The heirs to this great tradition remain an important presence in Egypt. Most notable is Nobel laureate and novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who, first through allegory and then explicitly, criticized Nasser and urged Egypt to focus on its own problems instead of foreign adventures. Ali Salem, a leading playwright, drove to Israel and reported on what he found: a normal country full of people trying to lead regular lives. Salem was expelled from the Playwright’s Union for “normalization,” but he has continued to lobby for peace with Israel and for more freedom and tolerance within Egypt.

Beyond this segment of the elites, the Nile may have hidden depths. Salem’s book about Israel was a bestseller. A survey conducted by Egypt’s Ministry of Education revealed that, on the whole, the most educated Egyptians were the most opposed to normalization with Israel. This is a terrible commentary on Egyptian higher education, but it shows that a pragmatic current may be found under the turbulent surface.

This is not to imply that Egypt will soon transform into a liberal democracy. The forces of extremism, fed by repression, economic stagnation, and state-sponsored incitement, are growing in Egypt. More immediately, the reformers are under pressure from the Egyptian government. The arrest and imprisonment in June 2000, on dubious charges, of Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim (in order to prevent him from monitoring Egypt’s fraudulent elections) was a stunning blow to Egypt’s reformers. The shock was amplified by Ibrahim’s prominence. He is a familiar figure in Egypt’s most elite circles, and the board of his Ibn Khaldun Institute (which includes Tarek Heggy) is a roster of former ministers.

Ibrahim’s incarceration is a signal that Mubarak is prepared to sacrifice the reformers in order to protect his power and secure his son Gamal’s succession. The recent airing on Egyptian state television of a mini-series inspired by the anti-Semitic czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the court-ordered closing of the Cairo Association for Peace, which fostered Egyptian-Israeli relations, are further signs that Egypt’s voices of moderation are being forced aside when they hinder Mubarak’s agenda.

While Mubarak is a professed American ally, it is Egypt’s reformers who truly share core American values. Their silencing would be a grave setback for Arab modernization at a critical juncture. If supported and cultivated, the ideas of Heggy and Egypt’s other reformers have the potential to lead their ancient nation into modernity, and perhaps to pull the rest of the Arab world with it. The people of Egypt deserve no less.

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