Those who regularly read my column will know that I have spent the last 15 days with a marvellous book, the US academic Martin Malia’s “Russia under Western Eyes”.
Malia discusses the evolution of Western discourses on Russia since the rule of Peter the Great. This evolution changed over time and with the changes that occurred in Western societies and in Russia itself. For instance, Russia had a “good press” in the West when people were longing for an enlightened despot. Things changed when they started to try to topple the anciens régimes in Europe. All of a sudden, Russia was considered to be the worst of them and to have an iniquitous social system and suffer from inequalities of all sorts.
Things changed once again at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The Russian regime remained reviled, despite its reforms, but few people in Europe feared it. It had been decisively beaten during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century and during the war against Japan in the early 20th. When there is no fear, you can start to study things at the required distance. Distance and serenity are not sufficient, of course, and they do not prevent mistakes. But they are necessary for study, nonetheless.
Something else was also very important in Western views of Russia. While almost all westerners agreed on the “despicable” nature of the Russian regime, they discovered the magnificence of Russian intellectual production. For all its mistakes, the regime had succeeded, maybe inadvertently, in creating great universities, a small middle class and many intellectuals and artists.
The Western elites and the broader Western public began to discover Russian literature, Russian music and ballet and the Russian arts more generally. Many Egyptians who are not otherwise well-informed about Russia know the name of the novelist Dostoyevsky – or Dostofesski, as they pronounce it. But his was simply one name among many others, with the Russian canon including works by Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and so on. These writers were very different from each other, and some of them were more westernised than others, but they all produced magnificent masterpieces that were, and still are, among the finest ever written.
The same thing was true to some extent of Russian music, which included composers such as Rimsky Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin and later on Stravinsky. We tend to forget today how many great scientists and economists Russia has produced, including names such as Mendeleev, Lobachevsky, Pavlov, Kondratiev and Leontief.
The Russian regime, reviled by westerners, contributed to producing such great names and many others, and many westerners acknowledged this. Their perception of the tsarist system did not change, but their admiration for Russia’s intellectual and scientific production had an impact and political consequences. It killed off many stereotypes. It weakened the position of those who said that Russia was irremediably barbaric, essentially different from Europe, or decisively stuck in backwardness. It also contributed to spreading a better understanding of Russia’s problems, system of representation, popular culture and history.
Malia points to another crucial factor in his book, which is that since the dramatic failure of the 1848 Revolutions in many European countries, nothing further happened on the revolutionary scene across the continent before 1905, the year of the First Russian Revolution. This was a failure, but it gave hope to left-wing forces and struck fear into liberals and conservatives. It inspired curiosity and contributed to “normalising” the Russians. Now, nobody could say that they simply accepted tyranny. Like the Europeans, they could also rebel. Even those who opposed the regime were able to produce things of higher than average quality.
You have probably guessed my intention by now in writing this article. Every time I travel abroad or speak with knowledgeable colleagues, I am struck by the number of stereotypes of Egypt and other countries that affect their judgement. Of course, they have the right to dislike the regime, and they have the right to criticise or condemn it. The problem is with the impact of stereotypes on the analyses of people who should know better and on Western public opinion.
One Western expert I admire and who frequently inspires me once told me that “in Tehran, you do not find rubbish on the streets, and cars and pedestrians stop when the lights turn red. In Egypt, the state can’t obtain anything like this, and so it is either weak or unserious.” Trying to tell this man that the Egyptian state, despite its shortcomings, knows how to draw up plans and implement them is useless. He will not believe you.
Another Western expert, a very nice man and a senior academic, still thinks that Egypt’s army is weak and inefficient and considers the Egyptian people as being unable to fight. This affects his evaluation of the present regime. I do not say he would approve of that regime if he understood things better, but of course such assessments play a role in his views. For him, the army’s alleged war record proves it cannot claim to be a good moderniser. His assessment has a lot to do with the 1967 War, of course, and with the hostile discourse on what is happening in Sinai.
Experts on military affairs and members of foreign militaries know better. Many such experts have told me that Egyptian Air Force fighters are among the best in the world, for example. Even experts who are not especially fond of Egypt admit that the army in 2019 is much stronger than it was in 2011 and consider its staff to be highly competent. But this knowledge of the true state of affairs remains circumscribed, and even some very influential academics have not taken notice of it.
Even in valuable foreign works on Egypt, and there are a lot of them, you may find here and there a sentence that betrays the persistence of groundless stereotypes. Some of these may be traced to Muslim Brotherhood and left-wing propaganda, while others are simply unexplained. You do not know where they come from, but you can see the damage they inflict.
A great part of the problem can be correlated with the failure of Egypt’s contemporary intellectual and academic life. We no longer produce Egyptian discourses that have an impact on the West. Our intellectual production is not up to the task, despite some important exceptions.
Let us be clear: I am not attacking hostile or friendly spin-doctors, propagandists and so on. I am not defending them either. Some of them do a fine job, while others’ incompetence and dishonesty are criminal. I am not claiming that “if you only knew better, you would like us more,” whether that goes for the regime or the people. I know we deserve a lot of criticism.
What I am saying is that to become familiar with Egyptian affairs and to avoid an addiction to stereotypes, you need a relation with this country that is based on great novels, scientific discourse, films, the arts and so on. But our intelligentsia, with some exceptions, is not delivering the goods. It has a lot of excuses, as its plight explains this state of affairs.
If you want to see what I mean, consider the 2017 Lebanese-Italian film “The Insult”. We simply do not produce such great films in Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.