Back to the Future

I have to wonder if we Egyptians are traveling backwards in a time capsule. Lately, we seem to have arrived in the 1960s.

We have all enjoyed fantasy movies like Back to the Future, in which a young man (played by Michael J. Fox) is accidentally catapulted thirty years into the past in a time machine in the form of a sports car. Normally I shun make-believe in real life, but I have to wonder if we Egyptians are traveling backwards in a time capsule. Lately, we seem to have arrived in the 1960s.

In that decade, we had a charismatic leader, a military man named Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became president after events that were variously debated as to whether they were a coup d’état or a popular revolution. Today, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is a military man described as charismatic by many Egyptians; the June 30, 2013 events that preceded his election are being debated by some as to whether they were a coup d’état or a popular revolution. Like the date of July 23, 1952, the date of June 30, 2013 will definitely be recorded in school textbooks as a people’s revolution.

In the 1960s, large numbers of the Muslim Brotherhood were in jail and were barred from participating in politics. They were accused of being traitors and spies and subjected to the worst kind of treatment. As a child, my father, president of the Bar Association, told us stories of how Muslim Brothers were tortured in Nasser’s prisons, causing many a nightmare to keep me up all night. Again the nightmares are coming back.

In the 1960s, the government mobilized people around a grand national project, the Aswan High Dam. Abdel Halim Hafez, one of Egypt’s most popular crooners, lifted hearts with his patriotic Story of a People—it is not simply the story of a dam, the lyrics explained, but the struggle of a nation. Today, the government is mobilizing Egyptians around the Second Suez Canal project. Television and radio ads are calling on Egyptians to hurry up and buy high-yield bonds to help build their country. Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, known as the Imam of Tahrir Square, is preaching that buying the bonds is more important than going on another hajj pilgrimage.

In the 1960s, the government censored and controlled the media, and there were limited opportunities for freedom of speech. Partly due to the advancement in technology and the presence of social media, it is difficult to turn back the clock. But we certainly seem headed in reverse: every other day we hear of columnists being banned from writing, or broadcast channels being closed down.

In the 1960s, we understood that everyone was under surveillance by the police state. At home, we were careful when discussing politics, knowing that the “walls have ears.”  Recently, former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly bragged during a court hearing that “we tape the phone calls of everyone in Egypt.” Perversely, a TV program with high ratings called Black Box has been airing recordings of private phone conversations. In Nasser’s time, phone conversations were recorded and stored under lock and key; now we are listening to them on television.

In the 1960s, we experienced chronic electricity cuts, especially in the period during and following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. All homes kept a supply of candles as a means of coping with the outages. Today, we are suffering through regular electric cuts—although in addition to the candles, we have learned to keep a supply of flashlights on hand.

In the 1960s, Moscow was our main ally. On the beaches of Alexandria, you could find Russians sunbathing during the summer (and sometimes even in the winter). Today, relations with our Russian friends are warming up again. Our president has visited Moscow and the Russians are helping us diversify the sources of our military supplies.

Nagat Al-Saghira, an Egyptian diva from the 1960s, is still singing today, and she has a new patriotic song, Egypt, Humanity’s Conscience. Welcome back to the future, and enjoy the music!

Laila El Baradei is associate dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.