I was asked along with several other people to make a statement on Egypt. This is a nearly impossible task, so I decided to specialize, doing what I do best by providing some historical depth to the Western habit of trying to make Egypt's course run this way or that. You can see the other contributions here.
Justin E. H. Smith
By the middle of the 17th century it was sometimes heard that, while China is the France of the Orient, Egypt is its Holland: the former pair represented two massive and stagnant imperia, while the latter were dynamic pivot points of global trade. Since the Low Countries were too strong to be taken over directly by France, it was often proposed to Louis XIV that he, in effect, acquire his own Amsterdam by acquiring Cairo. The scheme would however have to wait for Napoleon to be attempted, but it was one and the same simmering ambition that was carried on from the old regime to the new one.
The plan for bolstering trade through an Egyptian presence was helped along by a parallel mythology, of Egypt as the ultimate homeland --going back to deepest antiquity-- of Occidental learning (see, for example Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus of 1652). Seen in this light, the current inhabitants of Egypt, the 'Saracens', were not so much stewards of the place as mere interlopers. They had not built the pyramids, nor devised the hieroglyphs, nor anything we hold dear. But that's all just mythology; geopolitically it really does make sense to subsume Egypt into a broader, continuous Mediterranean cultural sphere that includes (whoever we are) us. I recall seeing off in some dusty corner of Egypt a statue to none other than Il Duce, proudly proclaiming in its inscription that he was finally bringing the Imperium Romanum back together.
Meddling in Egypt, I mean to say, is not quite like meddling in Hispaniola or Borneo. We go way back; in fact, if the Hermetic corpus has a grain of truth in it, we go all the way back with respect to tradition. Even if Greece is the true birthplace of Western values, this does not permit us to discern at their onset an arrow pointing to the northwest and not one to the south. In fact, if we think of universalism and democracy as the greatest gifts of our Greek heritage, then it must be noted that they first started giving themselves in northeast Africa long before 'Europe' meant much of anything except by way of rough geographical contrast to Asia Minor. Neoplatonists were writing in Alexandria about religious toleration, for example, at a time when Anglo-Saxons could not even write their own names.
I don't know how helpful it really is to probe so deeply into history. But I am convinced that the myth --whose perpetuation really only got going in the 19th century, thanks in large part to the misguided analyses of Marx-- of the ahistoricity of Asiatic regimes is today nothing more than a convenient pretext for the Western support of mediocre kleptocrats and their shopaholic wives and mistresses. Egypt is as dynamic as anywhere else-- at times Cairo has favorably been compared to Amsterdam; and Alexandria to Athens. It has appeared stagnant over the past several decades because parties who are afraid of the forms its dynamism might take have conspired to make nothing happen at all. But where nothing is happening, something is usually simmering; and the glorious revolutionary outburst of the past week has reminded us of what we should have known all along: that Egypt is now as ever a powerful locus of change, and a pivot point of world history.