As Egypt goes, so goes the Arab world: if that idea has lost some of its currency in recent years, Egypt’s latest revolution is proving its worth once again. By far the most populous Arab country, Egypt has long had a cultural influence that extends far beyond its borders — a status reflected in Cairo’s Arabic nickname, “Umm Al-Dunya”, or “Mother of the World.” A brief look at a few of Egypt’s “greatest hits” shows why events there have such an outsized impact on other Arab countries, and why the rise of democracy in Egypt could pave the way for a new era in the region.
Politics. For better or worse, Egypt has long been at the leading edge of Arab politics. The fiery President Gamal Abdel Nasser breathed life into Arab nationalism and inspired a generation of young revolutionaries — though his star dimmed after Egypt’s disastrous 1967 war with Israel. His successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, lacked Nasser’s popular appeal, yet he transformed Arab politics yet again by making peace with Israel and aligning Egypt with the West.
Music. Cairo and Beirut have a longstanding rivalry as capitals of the Arab music industry. For lovers of traditional Arab music, twentieth-century Egyptian stars such as Umm Kulthum and Farid Al-Atrash remain legends. More recently, singer Amr Diab has become one of a handful of Arab pop stars to achieve worldwide fame, most notably with his 1996 single Habibi ya Nur al-‘Ain.
Literary and intellectual life. “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads” — this old saying points to Egypt’s leading place in Arab thought and letters. The novelist Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Since then, chemist Ahmed Zewail and nuclear watchdog Mohamed Al-Baradei have also won Nobel prizes, putting Egypt far ahead of the rest of the Arab world.
Film and television. Since the 1940s, Egypt has dominated the Arabic-language film industry, at one time churning out hundreds of new movies each year. Egyptian cinema continues to produce new stars such as Ahmed Fahmy, whose comedies satirize today’s social trends. Meanwhile, Egyptian soap operas are a fixture in living rooms across the Arab world, especially during Ramadan.
Recent trends have challenged Egypt’s identity as the heartland of Arab culture. Under President Hosni Mubarak, state censorship and repression hampered intellectual and political debate. Egypt also suffers from a so-called brain drain, as many of its best scientists and engineers have moved abroad in search of greater opportunities. Smaller, richer countries such as Qatar, the home of the Arabic-language news channel Al Jazeera, have made themselves into rival hubs for media and higher education. Even Egyptian soap operas have faced new competition from low-cost Syrian productions.
Today, the rest of the region is once again looking to Egypt — yet this time it is ordinary men and women calling for freedom and democracy, not a military strongman such as Nasser, who are inspiring their fellow Arabs to change their societies. As the world has seen, Egypt has enormous human resources to draw on, as well as a deep reservoir of national pride. In moving towards a more democratic, open society, it seems poised to regain its place as the trendsetter of the Middle East.
Photo attribution: Youssef Abdelaal