The Egyptian nation - the banner for identity, allegiance and loyalty
Taha Abdel Alim, Monday 12 Sep 2011
Egyptian national identity is not about Islam, but rather about a shared homeland and history

The people of Egypt defined their identity with loud chants during the January 25 Revolution, declaring: “Raise your head high, you are Egyptian.” This was a conscious declaration that they have revived an unwavering awareness of their identity and pride in their allegiance and loyalty to “the Egyptian nation”. Nonetheless, the issue of identity (essentially, as Egyptians, who are we?) has once again become a matter of controversy since the forces calling themselves “Islamists” fused politics with religion during the referendum on the constitution, and the Christian trend isolated itself from those calling for co-citizenship, but have now safely returned to the fold of “the Egyptian nation.”

An incorrect answer to the issue of identity would threaten the future of Egypt and the revolution, once the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and jihadist groups morphed from supporting and pandering to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) when it agreed to hold elections before a new constitution is written, into threatening SCAF when it decided to issue a constitutional declaration outlining the main principles of the new constitution that guarantee a civic state and uphold human rights and co-citizenship. The declaration also defined the criteria for the new parliament in forming the Constituent Assembly that will draft the constitution, although it made this is contingent on the approval of political forces.

Democratic forces calling for a state of co-citizenship agreed on these principles and criteria as a compromise over the dispute whether a new constitution or elections should come first. What is truly surprising is that the champions of a religious state and a Caliphate believe that their opinion is an expression of “the people’s will”. They forget that the results of the referendum on constitutional amendments and the additional paragraphs that followed were not a victory for merging identity and religious beliefs. Instead, it was the people’s will to choose “stability” and their aspiration to quickly rebuild a new regime to end the state of lack of security and direction after the revolution.

The opponents of the state of co-citizenship forget that there is a large consensus among Egyptians that has historically sided with a state of co-citizenship, whether under the leadership of the democratic Al-Wafd Party or the authoritarian regime of the July Revolution. The Egyptian nation strongly condemned terrorist crimes committed in the name of Islam by jihadist groups, and opposed igniting the fires of sectarian strife by Salafist groups before and after the revolution. It views the Muslim Brotherhood as merely “a group of Muslims” that does not have the right to monopolise the name of Islam, and as a group of Egyptians that does not possess what it claims to represent – namely, the will of the people.

The issue of identity in Egypt – like anywhere else – concerns a specific nation existing in a specific homeland. It is the issue that defines loyalty and national allegiance. In fact, if there is any nation in the world whose identity is definite, it is the “the Egyptian nation” – the first nation on Earth. Since its creation, the Egyptians have been innovative in building human civilisation, and made the phenomenal discovery of social consciousness thousands of years before the arrival of Christians and Muslims. Neither are they guests “of creed” or “Egyptianised” newcomers, except in the minds of those ignorant of the history of Egypt and Egyptians… the homeland and nation.

Egyptian nationalism has become the banner for identity, loyalty and allegiance to “the Egyptian nation” through comprehensive and concentrated progress which began with the birth of the modern state nearly two centuries ago. Discovering identity also required ground-breaking and intensive intellectual effort spearheaded by the pioneers of modern Egyptian intellect, beginning with Rifaa Rafie El-Tahtawi, continuing until Ahmed Lotfi El-Sayed. This process is meticulously detailed by Sobhi Waheeda in his book The Fundamentals of the Egyptian Question.

Nevertheless, the issue of identity has been disputed again and again since Egyptians recovered their “absent or absented” consciousness regarding their national Egyptian identity, after long years of fusion or merger with empires and conflicts since Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt until Mohamed Ali freed Egypt from Ottoman control.

There is no doubt that our “Egyptian national identity” has been enriched over centuries, but the “untainted” awareness of the Egyptian identity was absent or made absent for centuries. Our identity was enriched as a result of successive civilisations that Egyptians innovated and augmented, namely the Pharaonic, Hellenic, Coptic and Islamic civilisations.

Our identity broadened further because of “the genius of location” that made Egypt multi-dimensional. Since it became a target of its neighbours which our ancestors called ‘The Nine Wretched Bows’, specifically since the barbaric invasion of the Hyksos, Egypt, instead of “going into seclusion” based on “self-sufficiency”, has been diversifying its outlook between Africa, the Nile, Asia and Mediterranean.

Diversity, as a component of civilisation and geographical extent, was a source of the controversy over the problem of identity. For example, under the rule of the Mohamed Ali family – of Ottoman origins – and despite awareness of national identity, it remained alive. The issue of reviving the caliphate and allegiance to it was resuscitated again in “Islamist” Egypt at the behest of Rasheed Reda followed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Under Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s rule, during the years of pan-Arabism and despite major national battles, the Egyptian identity was lost. In “Arab” Egypt a sector of Muslim Egyptians boasted their Arab ancestry.

In “Mediterranean” Egypt, some Egyptian Christians believe that the Christian West is a safe haven for them to confront incomplete rights of co-citizenship and the threat by those calling for a religious state and caliphate as opposed to a state of co-citizenship. Some within their ranks even imagined that loyalty to the Church could replace loyalty and allegiance to the Egyptian nation.

In “African” Egypt, some Nubian Egyptians advocate the notion of “the purity of Nubian ethnicity”; as for “Asian” Egypt, the Bedouins in the deserts of Sinai uphold their “ethnicity” as superior, and so on.

Gamal Hemdan’s observations in Egypt’s Personality as a summary of all the research done on the origins of Egyptians is poignant: Egyptians in Pharaonic times are the descendants of Egyptians since before Pharaonic rule. Newcomers were always a small minority, and Egyptians always remained a sweeping majority. Foreign ethnic influence was no more than ten per cent of Egypt’s population. Meanwhile, the unity of the origin of the Egyptian nation – since its formation within permanent borders centuries ago between Rafah and Halfa – continues to hold this truth: “Egyptians are those who settled in Egypt, integrated and lived there permanently.”

The dilemma of identity has made a comeback after the euphoria of revolution subsided, and the notion of “hijacking” the revolution is now on the table. There are rising calls – rooted in good intentions or not – by all forces that benefit from domestic and foreign attempts to fragment the “Egyptian nation”. The most threatening surge has come from religious political forces – out of ignorance or for pragmatic reasons – embracing misconceptions of mistaking preference for identity and its definition with allegiance and loyalty to the homeland and Islamic beliefs.

I believe Egypt’s future and the promise of the revolution will remain threatened if the “Islamists”, especially the Brotherhood, do not shoulder their national responsibility and stop confusing identity with religion, and admit that the Egyptian nation is the sole banner for identity, allegiance and loyalty to the homeland.