A very distinguished Chinese academic, Dr. Wang Jisi, just gave a talk at the American University in Cairo on China’s understanding of the international order (Tahrir Dialogue No. 64 – “Listening to and Looking Towards Asia”, Tahrir Campus, March 29, 2017). Something that came up during his talk was figuring out how Egypt looks at the international order and how congruent this vision was with Chinese priorities, which were primarily local (domestic stability) and economic (trade, growth, jobs). I am glad to say the other speaker there, the very distinguished Dr. Ahmed Darwish of the Suez Canal Industrial Zone, was indeed very congruent with Chinese interests. Egypt would be part and parcel, God willing, of China’s One Belt, One Road policy of commercial and industrial integration with everything to the west of it. There were, however, other dimensions too that I will address later.
That being said, you could not help but notice the description of Dr. Jisi’s post, as a professor and head of the International Institute and Strategic Studies at ‘Peking’ University. But the capital city is no longer called Peking, but Beijing? Dr. Jisi himself, however, used the proper Chinese phrasing ‘Beijing’ during the Q&A session. Peking is a Western mispronunciation, and putting the word Beijing on the world map is a mark of China’s ability to tip the balance in favour of the developing world.
This may just have been a typo but one ‘suspects’ that Egypt is still looking at the world through foreign and, more specifically, Western-centric eyes. In Egypt, to this day, we do not refer to the English Channel as the English Channel, but use the French term, which nobody uses anywhere, except Francophiles. We also refer to Beijing as Pikeen. You need to look no further than the controversy raised by the legendary Taha Hussein in his classic “The Future of Culture in Egypt” (1938). Contrary to the criticism, Taha Hussein never advocated doing away with Egypt’s Arab identity. Culture here means ‘intellect’, with a focus on education. Instead, he wanted to do away with Egypt’s ‘Eastern’ identity altogether, albeit with the best of intentions, to sustain the liberal democratic foundations of post-independence Egypt—as he understood them.
That is, Greek rationalism, secularism, and the whole notion that modern Egypt was ‘European’ Egypt. He was particularly worried Egypt would return to the dark days of Ottoman imperialism at the behest of reactionary religious clerics at home. Hussein was quite prophetic in this regard, given Erdogan’s own self-professed Islamist ambitions, using the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool in both Syria and Egypt. Still, that is no excuse for obfuscating the facts of history. Egyptians may have nothing in common with the Chinese and Japanese, but that does not make them Westerners either. What is even more disturbing is that Taha Hussein internalised some very brazen Western readings of our history—retrospective myth making—about how ancient Egypt fought the expanding Persian empire, to supposedly stop the onslaught of the East. I’d come across an archaic history book from Britain’s own imperial heyday making the same self-serving claims. Later, Hussein praises the Arabs for taking up both Greek and Persian civilisation.
This is tragic because the West of today, particularly the power brokers and intellectual decision-makers, no longer cling to these outdated ethnocentric illusions. I once watched a former BBC newscaster, during a broadcast about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, praising Iran for being a thousand year-old civilisation still in existence that demanded respect because it could get its way in its Middle Eastern theatre of operations. More relevant still are the views of Henry Kissinger on how to deal with China, extolled in his 2014 book, “World Order”, where he explained that there was no need for a confrontation with Asia, because the word Asia itself is classical Greek (Please see Amitai Etzioni, “Kissinger’s Order”, “The Diplomat,” 16 September, 2014). Asians have never thought of themselves as a single people and have no reason to, so they have no reason to vie with the West—and vice versa.
Wouldn’t you know it; Dr. Jisi himself mentioned Kissinger’s most recent gesticulations on the matter of American-Chinese relations and how the two countries should co-evolve together. In Kissinger-speak, the US could develop a ‘Pacific’ community, on the model of the Atlantic community, and include China in it so that all could benefit instead of polarise the region round American and Chinese alliance systems. This way you could have mutual economic interests and common forums to help settle disputes.
This would mean, in turn, that the very language used to divide up the world should change accordingly. We can only hope this will take root here. Dr. Darwish gave us all hope, noting how Chinese investors were not like their European counterparts, willing to give largesse to delays and other problems on the Egyptian side, taking political relations into consideration. He also phrased the challenges and priorities of economic development in civilizational terms, noting how China had given us all hope because it was a once great civilisation that was now reviving itself. Egypt and the Arabs and Muslims were civilised once and so now have a second shot at being civilised again, if they studied their economic policies and executed them properly.
The New Suez Canal was such an example because it undercut rival plans in the immediate vicinity, without naming names, and was a must in the face of what was happening elsewhere: the Panama Canal expansions, Chinese plans to navigate the North Pole, and a possible new Pacific-Atlantic Canal in Nicaragua. Egypt could also be China’s conduit to the African marketplace because of Egypt’s free trade treaties with African and Arab North African states. ‘Made in Egypt’ means zero customs on the African continent, no matter who actually did the making.
But I’m still worried. I read an article some time ago in a local publication claiming that Egypt and Greece were two peas in a civilizational pod, because Greece’s “no” to the European Union was like Egypt’s “no” to Morsi’s tyrannical rule. Both were heirs to a glorious civilization and so stood up when they felt their independence and dignity were under threat. If Greece was so civilised, how did it fall into debt to begin with, and what has Egypt got to do with Greek civilisation anyway? Taha Hussein again.
I’d hate to replace Taha Hussein with Henry Kissinger, but the ultimate lesson of co-evolution is that you do not need to. Egypt can resist the Islamist lure of Erdogan’s Turkey without cutting itself off from all things Eastern, especially in the economic realm. And then there’s Taha Hussein’s advice on how to fix the educational system, full of even more galling prophecies. Better keep that for later!
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. Since 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas.