15 August 2010
On modern-day Egyptian values
It is a fact that, over the last four decades, Egypt has witnessed cultural and social variations that resulted in visible behavioural changes among Egyptians. New notions have arisen relating religious texts to social change, increasing corruption, and the absence of critical thinking, as well as conduct such as bribery and money-making in roundabout ways. Even though some explain off the change as due to deficient State supervision and control, there is a widespread sense, especially among intellectuals, that the matter goes much deeper.
The topic was the focus of a recent seminar held by the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS) in Alexandria, under the title “Contemporary cultural change in Egypt”. A number of religious and political leaders as well as intellectuals attended. Many agreed that the obvious change in contemporary Egyptian values was the result of the invasion of foreign cultures.
Almost everyone complained that the situation was going from bad to worse and warned that it was essential that erroneous notions should be corrected and critical thinking promoted. This, it was stressed, should start with the civil society, and religious and State institutions.
Salem Abdel-Galil, deputy to the minister of religious endowments agreed that the typical Egyptian behavioural system has been severely disrupted. The huge development in global communication, technology, and physical and electronic connectivity of modern times has put an end to the isolation of any spot in the world; the world truly became a small village, no longer was any place or people immune to outside influences. This gave rise to an era of conflict between cultures, which especially peaked in the wake of 9/11, Dr Abdel-Galil said. The Arab World, he said, was no exception, it was invaded by a western culture which affected traditional thoughts and beliefs. “Western culture is able to invade and overrun the Arabs and achieve what the military invasion could not achieve,” Abdel-Galil said.
The notion of personal benefit prevailed over public welfare, and the culture of consumerism steadily gained ground. This gave rise to a new set of values; polished labels were assigned to negative conduct or behaviour; bribery became ikramiya (tip), and profiteering ‘cleverness’.
The apparent religiosity used to cloak such behaviour, Dr Abdel-Galil said, no longer endorsed such values as the compassion and honesty upheld by all religions. He strongly condemned the claim that a ‘religious’ person was one of implicitly good behaviour, insisting that in many cases people who did not belong to any faith at all held excellent ethical values and behaved finely.
Dr Abdel-Galil divulged that the Ministry of Endowments was in the process of publishing a series of books to rectify some erroneous notions that have been gaining ground. “When ‘religious’ persons have no scruples with telling lies, cheating, breaking promises, or working carelessly, it means they have no idea about religion in the proper sense. The duality can lead to the ruin of the nation.”
Totally agreeing with Dr Abdel-Galil’s view was Reverend André Zaki, deputy to the head of the Evangelical Church in Egypt. Rev Zaki denounced the veneer of religiosity enveloping Egypt and said that Egypt, which boasted a proportion of religious people among the highest in the world, also claimed one of the highest global levels of corruption. If we are ever to achieve cultural reform, he said, it should start with the people themselves, and rise up to the State.
Rev Zaki described culture as a man-made product which is a subject of economic conditions. Dire economic circumstances drove many Egyptians to migrate to Gulf States and to the West, and this greatly affected their outlook on life in general, and their sense of belonging to Egypt. It did not help that Egypt lacked a well-established democratic system, a mechanism for power rotation, or transparency. The end result was an invasion of cultural norms alien to the typically Egyptian. Rev Zaki also called for a new national project to embody cultural and economic reform.
On the same note Wahid Abdel-Meguid, head of al-Ahram Centre section for the 1952 revolution, said that the prevalent culture of hunger for money regardless of the means was behind the decline in values and behaviour. “This has created a new cultural environment that embraces corruption and gives way to negative patterns of social relations. The repercussions are obvious in the inferior Egyptian performance on the professional, skilled worker, and scientific levels,” Dr Abdel-Meguid said.
“We are in dire need of propagating a culture of rationality and critical thinking if are ever to advance,” Ahmed Megahed, head of the National Association for Cultural Palaces, said. He called for unfettered freedom of expression, and for a return to the traditional values of mercy, tolerance, and pluralism. This, he said, requires the joint effort of all Egyptians.
Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, head of the Cabinet-affiliated Future Studies Centre, talked about how the changes in values have affected the nature of the Egyptian community. The liberalism which had started back in the 1970s, he said, promoted individualism and selfishness. People started to strive to work for the private rather than for the public sector, since this had become a measure for social distinction. And since the 1990s, he added, virtues such as compassion and honesty disappeared to be replaced by hatred and selfishness. At the same time feelings of security and safety gave way to worry and depression, which resulted in a rise of such activities as drug dealing, addiction and suicide.
Role models are now set according to money and fame and not according to better knowledge or substantial values, Mansour added. Knowledge and education themselves have become tools of conceit, especially after the emergence of private schools and universities. All public virtues have disappeared, especially within the absence of a national project to retrieve the behavioural format that used to shape the face and identity of all Egyptians.
Rectify the damage
Nadia Halim, professor of sociology at the National Centre for Social and Criminal Research, talked about the social changes that have taken place within the family. A survey conducted by the centre, she said, revealed that levels of tension and violence within the family have considerably risen. Dr Halim denounced some of society’s rigid attitudes such as the preference that the father retains custody of a child in case his [divorced] mother remarries—as though, she said, remarriage was the prerogative of the man alone; a woman who remarries ought to be penalised. She added that in spite of long discussions on citizenship rights and democracy, discrimination was present at alarming levels both inside Egyptian homes and State institutions.
The seminar succeeded in formulating and diagnosing the serious problems of modern-day Egyptian values. As to rectifying the damage done, the participants unanimously agreed that a new religious address which stresses compassion, tolerance, honesty, pluralism, and which denounces double standards and hypocrisy was needed. Education and the media have a pivotal role to play there. Every societal institution, starting with the family, the religious institution, the school, and the administration is required to join.