A deep report on Alexandria today
Alexandria, once the pulsing cosmopolitan heart of the Arab World, is now the base of Egypt’s Salafists, a hardline Islamist movement that has tied its fortunes to the country’s autocratic new president.
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — ON A FRIDAY MORNING IN SEPTEMBER, A FEW HOURS BEFORE PRAYERS, I WAS PICKED UP AT MY HOTEL IN ALEXANDRIA BY ASHRAF GOMAA EL SAYED, A 28-YEAR-OLD PREACHER AND ADMINISTRATOR IN THE SALAFI DAWA, THE MOVEMENT THAT COORDINATES THE RELIGIOUS AND EDUCATIONAL LIFE OF MILLIONS OF EGYPT’S MOST CONSERVATIVE MUSLIMS.
North Africa used to be a civilizational crossroads in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews not only lived alongside one another but also shared one another's language and culture. This mingled society, formed from many intense particularities, is what we call cosmopolitanism. It was born in the Middle East, and it now seems to be disappearing there, including from the one place where the cosmopolitan ideal reached its supreme realization: Alexandria.
In an agonized reflection on the collapse of Arab culture, Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, recently wrote that a “byproduct of the depredation of the national security state and resurgent Islamism has been the slow death of the cosmopolitanism that distinguished great Middle Eastern cities like Alexandria, Beirut, Cairo and Damascus. Alexandria was once a center of learning and multicultural delights.… Today Alexandria is a hotbed of political Islam.
Alexandria is still, in its own way, a cosmopolitan city. There’s an underground music scene—though I was told that at one pop-up concert, outraged Salafis destroyed the stage. Amira Hegazy, a language teacher who also works with local researchers, made the peculiar observation that the city has the largest proportion of both gay men and Salafis in Egypt. “That’s Alexandrian cosmopolitanism,” she said. “Everyone can coexist.”
The institutional embodiment of this vision of a progressive Alexandria, and a progressive Egypt, is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a new version of the ancient library. The library, which opened in 2002, faces the sea from the far side of the Corniche, occupying the site where, it is believed, Alexander the Great founded the ancient city. The library’s granite façade is inscribed with the world’s alphabets; the roof is a tilted disk whose louvers let the light pour in. The great terraced reading room that occupies much of the interior steps down toward the sea like a series of gardens—an air-conditioned paradise for scholarship. It is the one interior public space in Alexandria that is elegant, spacious, clean, shiny, and welcoming.
The Bibliotheca was one of Hosni Mubarak's grand projects, designed to reassert Egypt's fading status as a forward-looking nation and the leader of the Arab world. The idea caught the imagination of Western leaders and institutions eager to promote progressive values in the Middle East. The $220 million cost was shared by the United States, Russia, EU nations, and Gulf and Arab states—Saddam Hussein even kicked in $21 million—and built by the Norwegian firm Snohetta. Over the years, the Bibliotheca has come to include museums and art galleries, research centers and conferences, and a planetarium. On the Bibliotheca’s website, the director, Ismail Serageldin, writes that it is meant to be “the world’s window on Egypt” and “Egypt’s window on the world”—as much Egypt’s lighthouse as its library.