Egypt's rich history bears little relation to the dismal realities of today. The choice facing Egyptians, between Ahmed Shafik and Mohammed Morsi, is a false dilemma.
Shortages—of petrol, electricity, hard currency, patience—plague Egypt. But there is an abundance of ghosts.
Egyptians are consumed with the estrangement of their dismal present from their glorious past. Nostalgia, either for the Arab Caliphate, the relatively light touch of Ottoman rule, or the secular idyll that prevailed before the era of Israel, is the baseline for progress. It is a high bar, and for the last sixty years Egypt has had little to offer that the citizens of yesterday’s Egypt would find enviable. (Though one could argue that decades of oafish, autocratic rule has vastly enriched the Egyptian instinct for ironic humor.)
I think of this whenever I enter a Cairene apartment building or office tower that was built before the war, with their grand, art-deco lobbies, open elevators and sleekly elegant stairways. Most of them have gone to seed; where opulent chandeliers would have been hung, there is now fluorescent tubing. Once gleaming parquet floors are dull, damaged and strewn with trash.
At the stock exchange in downtown Cairo, a beautifully restored Victorian relic, I lingered over a photo gallery of board members dating to the turn of the last century. They wear linen suits and bowlers—a few don the Ottoman tarboosh—and posture proudly before the trading hall of what was then the world’s third-largest securities market. There is not a beard or skullcap in sight.
Here was the most secular of temples in a famously secular Egypt. There is no badge or insignia about these men that would distinguish them by faith, sect or ethnicity. By the ecumenical standards of the day, however, they could be alternatively secular or pious, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, and Arab, Greek, Armenian, French, British, Swiss or Maltese.
One can imagine what these men, these specters of a lost age, would say about the two candidates who are contesting Egypt’s first genuine presidential elections. One of them, Mohammed Morsi, is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive, hierarchical order that rewards obedience, punishes dissenters and thrives in the politics of identity. His rival, Ahmed Shafik, is the creature of a predatory regime who would drag Egypt back to the wrong side of history with the support of those who, to quote Benjamin Franklin, would trade liberty for security and are thus deserving of neither.
There is little about Morsi and Shafik that the elites of yesterday’s Egypt would recognize, except as something alien, odd, and fatally wrong about our Egypt today.