Tolerance: The Nile's age-old lesson

To share the resources of the great river in the desert has always required one thing above all else: tolerance. In today's Egypt, that fundamental condition has been severely shaken.

Ann Hermes/Staff
A farmer’s daughter plays in crops used for cattle feed in Awlad Yehia, Egypt.

Civilization was born on the banks of rivers. The Indus, Yellow, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile valleys nurtured agriculture, engineering, astronomy, trade, and generation after generation whose unrecorded lives form the strata of today’s world. Riverine cultures had to work out a basic social problem: ensuring that people upstream were fair to people downstream. Tolerance, even if it had to be enforced by the state, was the key.

Cities now thrive far from water sources. The networks of aqueducts and mains that feed our homes, factories, and offices are man-made rivers that most people scarcely notice. But Egypt is still directly connected to its alluvial past. The Nile remains as crucial to daily life as it did millenniums ago. 

Ninety percent of Egyptians live along its banks. Winding through parched geography like the stem of a giant sunflower, the Nile made – and still makes – Egypt possible. Nowhere is that more evident than at the Nile’s First Cataract at Aswan. Turn your back on the sparkling river and its green and welcoming banks and all you see are sandy hills rolling toward a hazy blue horizon. Face the river and you see the temples that prove the depth of Egyptian history and its intimate relationship with the Nile.

Ancient Egypt lasted more than 3,000 years – far longer than the world we call modern. That was plenty of time to develop an elaborate culture and a system for continuous social stability. For most of that long history, the people of the Nile have worked out their problems peacefully, although in the background, from the days of the Pharaoh until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, a powerful military-backed establishment – an entity today’s Egyptians call “the deep state” – has ensured order.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Kristen Chick travels from Aswan north through Upper Egypt, taking the measure of an important but often overlooked section of a nation in the midst of a profound civil crisis. Since the Tahrir Square revolution of 2011, tourism has collapsed, lawlessness has soared, sectarian conflict has worsened, apportionment of water and other vital resources has broken down, and Egyptians have been losing faith in their country and each other.

Whether it was right or wrong for the military to oust Egypt’s democratically elected president, the fracturing of society that Kristen documents explains why so many Egyptians either supported the takeover or remained silent. The country’s deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, but much of Egypt’s overwhelmingly Muslim population wearied of Mr. Morsi’s Islamization project as law and order fell apart. As Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, wrote in the journal Foreign Policy: “You can’t eat sharia.” 

Two weeks after that article was published, Morsi was deposed. Mr. ElBaradei, now Egypt’s interim vice president, almost certainly was involved in the anti-Morsi coup. He and others tied to the deep state now have an exceptionally difficult job. They must stabilize Egypt without returning it to the repressive, military-controlled rule that preceded the revolution.

The Egyptians you’ll meet in Kristen’s journey are Muslims and Christians, farmers and tour guides, fundamentalists and secularists. Despite differences of class, politics, and religion, they drink from the same ancient river. Without tolerance, they know, Egypt would not exist – and will not continue. 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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