A Salafist Muslim intellectual, overlooking an Alexandrian beach last summer, tells me over coffee: “The cosmopolitanism of our city [Alexandria] may look like it has died, but the skeletal structure of cosmopolitanism is still there.
The Bastion of Refuge
Alexandria fashioned itself over the decades as the only viable and structural oppositional city to Cairo. It could do this not only because it was relatively out of the central government’s sights, but it also did not have to suffer from the same constraints that Cairo-centered opposition initiatives constantly confronted. The closer a political group moved toward the centers of power in Egypt’s capital, the more likely they were to be compromised and co-opted by the vested interests inherent in a proximity to political power. Alexandria provided an ideal locality for Islamists to establish new movements, build social capital with the poor, and fill in the gaps where the state failed. Whereas Cairo represented the state, Alexandria represented the mantle of opposition, dominated by Islamists for years.
The deepening of the Egyptian state’s centralization over the past sixty years also meant the heavy concentration of the security and intelligence sector in Cairo. Consequently, Alexandria was not subject to the same degree of hawkish surveillance and brutal crackdowns as was the case in the capital, and therefore was given some leeway to maneuver.
The late Samer Soliman argues in his brilliant work The Autumn of Dictatorship: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in Egypt under Mubarak (p 87) that centralization also meant a shifting of resources to Cairo, which contributed to a dispirited Alexandrian public psyche that their city, which had relatively prospered in the monarchical era, was now relegated to a shadow of its former self. This was apparent in the self-styled culture wars of Alexandria’s elites to wrestle away from Cairo the reins of the country’s cultural leadership. Their significant achievement was the unveiling of the reincarnated Library of Alexandria in 2002.
An Illusionary Seduction
Alexandria's ability to sway political dynamics throughout Egypt has much also to do with the socio-cultural relationship the coastal city establishes with population centers.
Power is relational and the Alexandrian diffusion of ideas and trends beyond city boundaries works, not so much because Alexandrians are effective in projecting their “pre-eminence”—underscored by cliché titles such as “Bride of the Mediterranean” and “Champion people”—to the rest of Egypt, but rather because Egyptians are predisposed to associate the coastal city with romance, escapism, summer holidays, and various positive connotations—connotations that are culturally reinforced by the popular arts. An idea or political actor coming out of Alexandria, the conventional story goes, can only be “good” for their equivalents in other cities, towns and villages. Therefore, Alexandria’s revolutionary actors, for example, embolden other revolutionary actors in areas of Egypt. This ideational soft power relationship operates effectively because influencer and recipient have an unspoken pact that is disproportionally favorable to Egypt’s second largest city. It partly explains why Khaled Saeed, the young Alexandrian beaten to death (some fifty meters away from the beach) who would be the spark of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, was elevated to chief martyr of the nation. This would have arguably been unlikely had Khaled died in Sohag or Aswan.