Egypt. The five letters that evoke timeless exoticism and fascination. The pyramids and the Sphinx. The land of the Pharaohs and of the Nile. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Western imperialists. Pagans, Christians and Muslims. Ancient history and the Arab Spring. The land where the males suffer from such â€œsexual weaknessâ€ that they cannot satisfy their women and so the only way to equalise the respective sex drives is to subject women to female genital mutilation.
This, according to an Egyptian member of parliament, Mr Elhamy Agina: “We are a population whose men suffer from sexual weakness, which is evident because Egypt is among the biggest consumers of sexual stimulants that only the weak will consume. If we stop [female genital mutilation], we will need strong men and we donâ€™t have men of that sort.” Those insatiable Egyptian women! (FGM is fortunately now illegal in Egypt).
I was hooked and I had to visit â€“ for the history of course. I have no plans to come anywhere near Egyptian women (as lovely and unsatisfied as they might be) and in any case I doubt whether Tinder is all that popular in Cairo. This trip â€“ and this year more generally â€“ has been a holiday from dating, for which all of you, who in an example of peak sadness live your lives vicariously through me, will have to accept my sincere and profound regret. And be satisfied (as will have the Egyptian women) with my occasionally incisive and insightful political and social commentary.
Egypt has always been an interesting place, but now it is now even more so, for under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi an important experiment is going on, with ramifications extending well beyond the national borders. It is whether the siren call of political Islam (Islamism, as represented in Egypt, among others but mainly, by the Muslim Brotherhood) can be silenced by a modernised Muslim polity that embraces many of the Western values and institutions while eschewing traditions and beliefs that have over the past centuries, including throughout the 20th century, held much of the Islamic world back. What Sisi has been attempting to do is in a lighter version (as befits the times and realities) to Ataturk Egypt. This laudable task is made significantly more difficult by the numerous economic and social challenges the country faces: unaffordable government, sclerotic economy, widespread poverty, and general underdevelopment. The challenge of political and social modernisation would be difficult enough in a wealthy country like the United Arab Emirates, but is excruciatingly hard in a country where the government has to heavily subsidise bread for about half of the population living below or around the poverty line.
The process of reform is uneven, messy and far from perfect. For example, four Coptic Christian teenagers have recently been sentenced to five years in jail for â€œcontempt of Islamâ€. They have by now managed to leave the country and applied for asylum in Switzerland. The situation might be improving but itâ€™s still not Australia. Then again Australia is not Australia either, with its own â€œblasphemyâ€ laws in the form of racial vilification (or more accurately racial and miscellaneous offence) provisions. As Iâ€™m waiting at Heathrow for my flight to Cairo Iâ€™m very much looking forward to not being contemptuous of anything over the next four days.