Monthly Archives: April 2014

Egypt’s cultural decline and the boiling frog theory


–By: Alexandra Kinias

With the abhorring cultural decline in Egypt one can’t help but draw a correlation between such decline and the rise of radical or what became known as political Islam, that has swiped the country and already mutated into terrorism in the name of God.

It is quite a thorny thought that on first impulse, may initiate fervor attacks and criticism from devout Muslims. However, it is not Islam that is under attack, but rather the actions of radical sheiks and religious scholars who have appointed themselves custodians of the faith; the neo-Islam. These fanatics believe that by demolishing the culture of beauty and creativity from the hearts and minds of people, and by filling the vacuum with God’s teachings that they have falsely misinterpreted to support their doctrine, that would enable them to resurrect their lost Caliphate.

The warped mentalities of zeal and fanaticism  that ceased to evolve since the Middle Ages, persist on rejecting any adaptation to exist within the contemporary boundaries of modernity, except, of course, the use of modern devices, gadgets and weapons that enable them to spread their venomous belief  of hatred, intolerance and annihilation of the other.


They are fighting arts and science today and ignoring that the Islamic Caliphate thrived in Baghdad and Andalusia when the Emirs embraced tolerance and enlightenment. At the peak of the Andalusian and Abbasid Dynasties when Arabs were more advanced, refined and cultured than the neighboring lands, arts, music, science, philosophy and literature thrived. And no historian would refute that the light of the Islamic civilization went out when they followed the rigorous creeds of fanatic scholars.

Egypt, once the beacon in the Middle East; its culture has not just gone stagnant, but is also sliding into the dark ages with tangible decline that the country has not witnessed in more than a century. Anyone who would refute the idea that Islamists were to blame, since they were in power for just one year, must remember that the destruction of the cultural identity had started over half a century ago. The Islamists whom their target is to wipe the Egyptian identity were the catalyst added to the equation and who played a viable role in expediting the process.  In other words, the rise of Wahhabism influence imported from the Arabian Sahara was directly proportional to the deterioration of the cultural standards of the people. The decay in the cultural infrastructure of Egyptians has left its fingerprints everywhere. The masses are no longer appreciative of music, literature or fine arts. And with the plummeting cultural standards many Egyptians, who are nostalgic to the good old times, are wondering what the hell had happened to the artistic taste of the people.

Affected by collective reasons, the snow ball that had started rolling with Nasser’s military coup d’état in 1952 had gained momentum along the way. For many years after the military coup, and until Nasser’s death and beyond, Egypt was the cultural beacon that shone on the surrounding lands. It may be more truthful and accurate to describe Egypt during that time as a vehicle that was still moving with the momentum of the past era. Music, theater, movies, opera, ballet, folkloric and other forms of dancing, and arts thrived prior to Nasser and kept rolling by the force of inertia until it finally ran out of momentum.

The era prior to Nasser’s military coup was referred to as la belle époque. This era started with the reign of the Khedive Ismail (1830 –1895) which was a period of extreme extravaganza in the Egyptian history as Cairo became the mirror image of Paris, both architecturally and socially.  This era reached its peak with the majestic celebrations of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1879. And during the time of the descendants of the Khedive Ismail and from the cultural, social and literary heritage represented in movies, books, music, and art collections, Egypt was not inferior to European countries.1


Khedive Ismail with world leaders at the inauguration of the Suez Canal

With the international acclaim that came with the Suez Canal, Egypt became a magnet that attracted artists, architects, writers, merchants and businessmen from all over the world. They settled in Egypt, blended in this cosmopolitan society and lived in harmony with Egyptians. These expatriate communities were pivotal in the building of the thriving culture.

Unlike Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, and his successors, Nasser’s dreams or illusions – depends on which side of the spectrum one stands – of creating a Pan-Arab state and bringing Egypt back to the sphere of the Arab realm, was a repellent to the expatriate community. To achieve his dreams Nasser stomped on the bodies of the foreigners and the Egyptian Jews. His vision not only failed to unite the Arabs, but also deprived Egypt of a community that had enriched it culturally, professionally, economically and socially. And while it was fortunate for the neighboring countries to inhale the richness of the Egyptian culture, they contributed nothing to Egypt but their impoverishment; then, oil had not yet been discovered.

With the forced or voluntary expulsion of expatriates who were major contributors to the Egyptian cultural life, a vacuum was left in many sectors of the society. And without having a new experienced generation to step in and fill the gap; many activities eventually faded. And as the older generation of Egyptians who grew up living in this cosmopolitan environment aged and perished, it was replaced with a newer one that had already been bred with minimal interest or appreciation to arts and beauty.

The cultural decline that had started during Nasser’s time was politically and not religiously motivated.  In one of the most failed moves by a leader, the sequestration of assets and properties included movie theaters, studios, labs, music and movies production companies that belonged to both Egyptians and non-Egyptians. Under his dictatorship, the censorship bureau thrived and set new standards for books and movies’ production.  It is no surprise that the government control of the entertainment business propelled the decline. Nasser, with all his faults, however, may be credited for curbing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] who were after closing down the entertainment business altogether. With the crack down on them and as they became enemy of the state, the MB understood that they won’t be able to overpower Nasser, so they changed their strategy. Instead of fighting the leaders they brainwashed the people. With the death of Nasser in 1971, the snowball of cultural decline that had started rolling kept gaining momentum. Inevitably by then the MB had already entered the scene.

The MB and the other groups that were spawned out of it, adopted a rigorous creed that battles human creativity and arts in all its forms: music, sculpture, photography, dancing and painting. They consider such activities as a waste of the Muslim’s time that should be spent in worshiping his God. With no appreciation for culture or arts, the neo-Islamists’ continuous battle has and always been the destruction of both the Egyptian identity and culture to be easier for them to control the people. They view the monuments of the ancient Egyptian civilization as idols that should be destroyed; same as the Taliban destroyed the Buddha Statues in Bamian.  Also in their footsteps the Taliban justified the burning of books and films’ reals of Afghani movies produced prior to their rule thus wiping out the cultural heritage of the country. And following the same creed, the books of the Andalusian philosopher Averroes were collected and burned during the reign of the Andalusian Emir Al Mansour who ruled from 1884 AD – 1199AD. Averroes, known in Arabic as Ibn Rushd, was the founding father of secularism in Western Europe and whose work was the base of the 13th century philosophical movement. Burning the books of this great philosopher was among the many nails in the coffin of the Andalusian Caliphate.


I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, but history would be distorted if we ignored that the 30 years of Mubarak’s corrupt regime contributed immensely to the decline of all human values. Mubarak, a leader with no vision, had set the clock back to the dark ages. The last generation born under his rule had been living in nothing but a cultural decline. And the boiling frog theory could easily be applied to both the older and younger generation of Egyptians whom their culture was being destroyed gradually and steadily.

The boiling frog story is a widespread anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually. And that’s exactly what happened to Egyptians.

The neo-Islamists, and with the golden opportunity handed to them, of the absolute no reaction from the Mubarak’s administration towards the changes that were introduced through them into the society; they were able over three decades to sow the seeds that advocated against culture and arts as anti-religious. And with the punishment of God’s wrath hovering over the heads of those who are involved in them, arts were abandoned and creativity was chocked. And gradually they succeed in wiping out the remnants of a culture that was once glowing.   But they continue on this slippery slope, Egyptians who were submerged inside the boiling pot where the frog was being boiled are finally feeling the heat and are wondering in apprehension how the decline had reached this deteriorating level.

Unfortunately there are no short term solutions. The road to reformation is long and bumpy. There are no miracles or magic wands that would reverse the damage that the nation had been subjected to, but no hope is ever lost. Egyptians are well aware that there is a problem and acknowledging that is the first step to solve it. Salvaging the Egyptian culture is a mass scale project. It is the responsibility of every Egyptian. They owe it to the future generations.


1. Egypt’s Belle Epoque: Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists Paperback by Trevor Mostyn


Filed under Editorial, Politics

The Power of the Pen


By: Alexandra Kinias —

Original article published in Kalimat Magazine

In June 2010, Yasmin Helal was attending a film festival in Cairo. Three children approached her asking for money. She had no change to give them, but Helal had three school bags in her car trunk that she was donating to a charitable organization. So instead of sending the kids away, she gave each a school bag. This simple act of goodness changed not just the children’s lives but Helal’s as well. The events of that night culminated with the young engineer quitting her job and founding Educate-Me, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was initially founded to help reinstate dropouts back to school. In its short lifetime, however, Educate-Me has broadened its mission, becoming an organisation that also tries to improve the well-being of underprivileged children. Educate-Me is also developing special educational programs for children to help them improve their skills and enable them to pursue their future dreams. Helal was attending a conference in Boston, Massachusetts where I had the chance to talk with her.

“I was selected among ten other candidates, after winning the entrepreneurship competition of NEGMA, the American-based NGO, back in March 2013, to attend an accelerator program and to present my project at MIT,” Helal explained.

NEGMA was established by seven Egyptian-American and Egyptian professionals from the Harvard and MIT communities after the January 25th uprising. They wanted to have an impact on the social and economic needs in Egypt by empowering entrepreneurs and innovators who are developing programs to solve some of Egypt’s significant challenges. To support this vision, the NEGMA Conference was established to help translate ideas into action for a brighter future for Egypt. And since education is a topic that cannot be ignored, it was no surprise that Educate-Me was among those selected by NEGMA.

Helal goes on to say that the “accelerator program started with attending the Harvard Arab weekend conference then followed by workshops and field visits to other organisations and schools. The workshops have been really helpful in terms of covering different topics that we had identified as potential areas of development, and the field visits gave us access to a network.

Helal recalled how this organization project started. On that same night she gave away the three school bags, she was approached by a middle-aged man asking her for school bags for his daughters. “I had no more bags, but I promised to bring him the bags the following day. I also learned that his daughters dropped out of school because he couldn’t afford the small tuition. I told myself that I will confirm his story and if in fact he was telling the truth, I will pay for their tuition. At the same time, I thought this is not enough, because I was certain that there are many similar cases like his. These cases needed more effort from our side to be able to reach them. At this point I decided to start this project with a goal to look for dropout children who could not afford the tuition and reinstate them back to school. I wanted to give them a chance like the chances we were given in our lives.”


Educate – Me classroom

Helal, who graduated with a biomedical engineering degree with honours from Cairo University, was also a player for the Egyptian Basketball National Team. She quit her job at the telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent, where she worked as a Middle East and Africa Network Design Engineer, to launch her NGO—which raised a lot of eyebrows. When asked about the challenges she had launching her project, Helal responded, “One of the main challenges I faced was the social pressure I was exposed to when I decided to quit my engineering job and dedicate my full time to Educate-Me. This was not familiar to our culture. The whole social entrepreneurship ecosystem is not yet mature or empowered like it is in the West. It was also challenging to find the right people who shared the same passion and vision for a better education.”

Helal continued, “Even though my initial aim for Educate-Me was a small fundraising initiative that assists in reinstating school dropouts back to school, I was lucky to be joined by my co-founders Mohamed El Haw and Amr El Salanekly, and together our journey changed course. Educate-Me evolved into a foundation that is now fully established in the community—with a community development centre and with its own educational system and educational curriculum. We are not just reinstating the children back to school, but we are also helping them develop their skills and talents that enable them to compete in today’s world. We are helping them grow up with goals, ambitions and vision, and to become of benefit to their communities.”

Since its founding, Educate-Me has been well received by both the children and the parents of the village of Konayyesa, Giza, where it was established. This positive reception inspired Helal and her team to establish their first community development centre in this neighbourhood. “So far, we have reinstated more than 200 children back to school over a period of three years, and recently we have established illiteracy sessions for mothers in the community. We have also created jobs. The illiteracy classes are delivered by four women from the community who are trained to deliver the service. So our service is from the community and to the community.”

When asked about the method that Educate-Me has developed for its tutorial program, Helal explained, “What we do generally is let the kids decide for themselves what they want. They come to our centre and decide what they want. We offer them many options they can choose from: English, handicrafts, digital literacy and other subjects, but it is their responsibility to decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. We’ve been getting more than 75 percent attendance rate in the centre, which means that kids are actually interested in the project.”

There’s no doubt that the education system in Egypt is in peril. The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014 rated Egypt as the worst country in the world in the quality of primary education. Egypt is listed 118th overall, eleven spots lower than last year’s ranking. Providing some insights about the poor quality of education in Egypt, Helal said, “Among the major problems that students face in public schools is the learning environment itself. The classrooms are not well equipped, the desks are broken and some classes are crammed with more than 100 children. It is impossible to learn in this environment, especially when you have just one teacher per class. Moreover, these teachers are underpaid so they force the children to get private tutoring with them. And this is the decisive factor for whether the children will pass the exams or fail. One of the children showed me his mathematics test results where he scored 23 out of 25. I tried to resolve it again with him to help him understand what he had missed, only to realize that he doesn’t even know how to read. The teachers give the answers for the test to those who take private lessons with them. Education should have a purpose and not just to get a good grade or a certificate. Another problem in the education system is that it relies mainly on standardized testing and getting the children to score well on exams, which defines what is going to happen in their future.”

In spite of the political turmoil in Egypt, Helal admitted that the current situation has benefited Educate-Me. After the revolution, a lot of Egyptians started feeling the urge to contribute to the development of the country, and accordingly, the number of Educate-Me staff and contributors increased immensely. And because Educate-Me started before the revolution, Helal and her team has managed to be ahead in terms of understanding the depth of the problems the country is facing. However, given the security issues and instability in the country, many of the organisation’s activities have been periodically interrupted.

Educate-Me is a long term project. It will grow and evolve, just as the children do. Helal and her team recognize that there are no speedy solutions. Success is achieved and milestones are met on daily basis, but the project will really bear fruit when the children complete their high school diploma. Educate-Me in not just a tutoring program, but is rather a second chance handed to underprivileged children who have been living in harsh social conditions and with bleak futures. When their world turned against them, Educate-Me reached out to them and allowed them not just to dream of changing their world, but also showed them how to strive towards achieving a better and more hopeful future.

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