Egypt's aura spills across the Arab world

There was nothing random about the White House picking Cairo for President Barack Obama's goodwill outreach to the Muslim world in 2009. It understood what Arabs know in their bones: few places resonate so profoundly in Islam's heartland.

Egypt — with Cairo as its centerpiece — is so intertwined with the modern Arab consciousness that it can seem at times that the entire region is Nile-fed. Egypt has, at various moments, been lionized as a beacon for Arab pride, ostracized for swinging from war to peace with Israel and idolized as a cultural crucible from slapstick movies to the Nobel-winning literature of Naguib Mahfouz.

Although Egypt's aura has been somewhat eclipsed by Dubai and the rest of the gleaming Gulf in the past decade, it still retains an old school stature in the popular Arab imagination — now captivated by the uprising on Egypt's streets with a sense of shared destiny.

"Egypt has been the political, cultural and social lighthouse for the Arab people," said Hadi Jalo, a political analyst in Baghdad, which was replaced as the Arab world's center of gravity centuries ago.

Speaking to the pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, called Egypt the "epicenter" for both Arab political trends and the West's ability to interact with them. Qatar University's Ibrahim Arafat called Egypt the Middle East's "cornerstone country."

In his June 2009 address at Cairo University, Obama began by touching on some of the region's most self-scrutinized scars, including the shortcomings of past colonial masters and the proxy political battles during the Cold War. Indirectly, he was also reaching back to the beginnings of Egypt's emergence as a shaper of the contemporary Arab soul.

The Muslim Brotherhood — perhaps the strongest link in the opposition against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — was founded by a primary school teacher in 1928 at the apex of British colonial power. It began as a call to reject Western influences and embrace Islam's traditions.

The group's message has morphed over the decades. Its makeovers included a renunciation of violence in the 1990s and efforts to reach a shaky accommodation with Egyptian authorities, who gave the group some limited political breathing space even though it remained officially banned.

But the Brotherhood also looms large in the wider Arab narrative of struggle against injustice — particularly the fight by a prominent follower, Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Egyptian authorities in 1966 and whose works are cited by groups as diverse as Muslim charities and al-Qaida.

Egypt's other political giant from the 1960s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, is seen as the patriarch of the idea of an Arab identity that transcends tribal allegiances and political borders. His reputation as a leader for all Arabs was battered by the stinging defeat of Egyptian-led forces in 1967's Six-Day War with Israel, but few Arab figures have yet to match his mystique.

"It is impossible to speak about a healthy situation in the Arab world if Egypt is sick," wrote Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper in an editorial on Sunday.

Still, it's an opinion coated with some nostalgia.

Egypt was further nudged from the Arab mainstream with its peace pact with Israel in 1979 by President Anwar Sadat, whose assassination two years later opened the way for Mubarak's rise. Then in the 1990s, Arab attention also became increasingly drawn to anti-Israel militias such as Hezbollah and the economic tug of the Gulf boomtowns.

In Jerusalem, a Palestinian scholar sees another challenge to Egypt's old-line prominence coming from outside the Arab fold. Increasingly, the non-Arab states of Iran and Turkey are gaining reputations as greater champions of Arab causes, including aid to embattled Gaza, than the birthplace of Nasser's pan-Arab spirit.

"For the man in the street, whether he's in the Gulf or in the Mediterranean, Egypt always has been the leader. But this has been weakened by two regional components: Turkey and Iran," said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. "Turkey and Iran moved in on certain battles to speak on behalf of Arab national pride."

Beyond politics, however, Egypt's cultural light burns brightly. It's particularly vivid for the Arab generations that came of age before the Internet and followed Egyptian cinema as their own Hollywood-style star factory that produced, among others, Omar Sharif.

Arabic channels today still dig into the huge catalog of Egyptian films ranging from campy love stories to the celebrated 1958 noir classic "Cairo Station" that — at the time — was a daring portrayal of the city's desperately poor underclass.

And the songs of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who died in 1975, remain as much part of current Arab culture as Elvis in the West.

"Egypt for Arabs is like the pyramids to the world," said Odai Rasheed, an Iraqi film director. "The pyramids still stand, weather-beaten, after thousands of years and have survived all the invaders and looters. With Arabs, this is the case with Egypt."


Associated Press writers Sameer Yacoub in Amman, Jordan; Ben Hubbard in Ramallah, West Bank; Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this report.