”Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world; the rest are just tribes with flags.” Thus declared Tahsin Bashir, well-known Egyptian diplomat, asserting the countries’ supremacy. He served in the 1960s under Nasser and subsequently Sadat and Mubarak, yet his view is one that is remarkably still shared by many folks reflecting a sense of superiority and dominance vis-à-vis the rest of the Arab world. Perhaps motivated by a dire present there is a need to constantly remind oneself that Egypt is the only country in the region that matters. In turn it follows that Cairo is the center of the Arab world, its shining light, a beacon of hope and progress in a sea of backwardness (provinciality, artificiality, the list is long). Not surprisingly a popular saying in Egypt “Masr Om Al Dunya” (Cairo — Masr denotes both the country and the city — is the mother of the world) evokes a Cairo-centric worldview that permeates its citizens psyche, or as historian Nasser Rabbat would argue an assertion of Egyptian “cosmo-centrism” (Rabbat, 2005).
Figure 1: Cairo, “Mother of the World.” As it appeared in 1984
And this is not just restricted to Egypt or Cairo. Indeed many observers from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, those ancient centers of Arab/Moslem civilization, have similar views. And they are always, invariably, expressed in relation to the countries/cities in the Gulf region, whose perceived rise and dominance is chalked up to a mere blimp, an aberration because of oil, perpetuated through the rise of a nouveau riche populace lacking class, sophistication and the taste for the finer things in life. It will go away, so it is hoped, and the real centers will re-emerge again.