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Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Continuity and change

Change against a backdrop of continuity has always been the keynote of Egyptian political and societal thought

Samir Sobhi , Wednesday 2 May 2018

Egypt has witnessed periods of change throughout its history, with landmark events transforming Egyptian political thought.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, for example, Egypt underwent a severe societal and identity crisis.

Though Egypt was no longer under Ottoman rule, it now found itself under a British protectorate.

As a result, Egyptian men and women focused on finding a new style of political thought and identity that would help them find a way of gaining independence.

Another critical event that transformed Egyptian political thought and identity was the signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel at the end of the 1970s.

It is this that set back the Pan-Arab ideology that Egypt had adopted during the preceding Nasserist era, and it gave rise to the re-emergence of Pharaonism or Pharaonic identity, an idea popular in the 1920s and the 1930s.

The peaceful resolution of the Egyptian-Israeli conflict caused many people at the time to call for a return to older political identities.

Two abandoned identities then being championed were Nasserism and Political Islam. At first, these two schools of thought fought many latent ideological battles, but eventually these came out into the open.

Such clashes of political identities are still happening today, though perhaps for different reasons.

The main reason for such confrontations is because of the genetic make-up of Egyptian individuals. Egypt’s sociological composition interacted and merged with Arab-Islamic culture, and this component of identity was added to the Pharaonic, Greek and Coptic components that already existed, giving rise to today’s fully Egyptian individual.

This unique mosaic of identities does not give rise to conflict, as each component works to maintain the overall balance.

For instance, Pharaonism rejects any fundamentalism that may arise from Islamic thought, since extremist sentiments would hinder the spirit of modern Egypt that seeks to advance society and take it to new heights.

Despite today’s occasional nostalgia for political identities such as Nasserism and Islamist thought, modern Egyptians can only really adopt parts of each, since as a whole neither is well adapted to present reality.

In the case of Nasserism, the rhetoric of Pan-Arab unity can easily turn into so much political hot air as the true unity of states can only succeed where there is an exchange of interests. This is precisely what is happening among Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt today.

Furthermore, the role of culture cannot be ignored, and it therefore should not come as a surprise that the three most culturally influential states in the region are paving the way to more cooperation among the Arab states.

The European Union is evidence of how an exchange of interests can create a pan-regional union.

Today Europe is on the brink of successful union, despite Britain’s decision to leave the EU and the presence of diverse cultures, languages and religions within the EU states.

However, Pan-Arab unity has collapsed and is now a dream that can be set aside. In its place, people are calling for further globalisation, a concept conceived by the Western countries.

People within the Arab region called for greater globalisation after the Gulf War in the 1990s, and it then became even more popular in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.

All this shows that for modern Arabs the relationship with the West can be just as beneficial as Pan-Arab unity with the other Arab states.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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