Egypt has embarked on the long-awaited mission of regaining its identity, which is a great relief to many. But relief is not enough, and embarking on a journey does not necessarily guarantee its accomplishment.
Regaining a stolen identity requires a clear vision, strong will and the courage to confess, face and rebuild.
Rebuilding an individual’s identity can be a tough job, let alone rebuilding a whole country’s distinctiveness and personality. Borrowing ideas, strategies and advice from human development experts is always a good starting point.
One starting point would be to confess to ourselves that we are suffering from a “post-lost and distorted and identity syndrome”, a term that adequately fits Egyptian society in 2018. We woke up one day to discover that the Egypt we once knew was no longer there.
The Egypt that was once the ancient world’s lighthouse, the Arab world’s cultural powerhouse, and the modern world’s balance of power in the Middle East had showed signs of ageing and waning.
The Egyptian society that had remained as it was for hundreds, if not thousands, of years had turned from a hub of diversity and an example of peaceful and loving coexistence into an ugly monstrosity.
Extreme efforts had been made over the years to empty the society of its singularities and its good ingredients that had made Egypt stand out as it had over the centuries.
The task of turning Egypt into a deformed society was something looked on with enthusiasm by the Political Islam groups, which pushed to substitute the country’s unique cultural components with an obscurantist and retroactive culture.
This task enjoyed a success that left one bewildered, especially when reading reports issued by international and global institutions elaborating on the “great job” that successive governments in Egypt had made of preserving diversity and encouraging enlightenment and open-mindedness.
Had such institutions not seen what had been going on over the past few decades? How did they manage to turn a blind eye?
From the thousands of studies and reports, the following lines were included in a report prepared by UNESCO, the UN cultural body, in 2007.
“Egypt is a country with an immense diversity of cultural expressions, and its government has always believed strongly in the importance of working and living together.” Together, cultures can create a rich and strong tapestry and can be an engine for sustainable development for individuals, communities and countries. As the organisation’s Johannesburg Declaration said, “our rich diversity... is our collective strength.”
Yet, despite the UNESCO prescriptions Egypt’s collective strength was left to fade away. The cultural hegemony of Political Islam, based mainly on the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood and fed with an imported culture dressed in Islamised garments, led to what Egypt has become today.
Looking at the streets of Cairo today, anyone who lived through the 1960s and 1970s and was familiar with the Egyptian film industry of the time and the forward-looking and enlightened society would think that the country had been hijacked.
However, this hijacking went unnoticed. The Islamists were allowed to succeed in turning Egyptian society upside down.
“The Islamists succeeded in transforming popular consciousness and winning the support of a sizable majority for their worldview. This was not only evident in election results, whether parliamentary or associational, but also observed in the changed social attitudes towards Islam,” said academic Hazem Qandil in an article called “Islamising Egypt?” published in January 2011 just days before the Arab Spring Revolution.
In his article, Qandil adds that “the consensual conception of power offers important insights into the cultural aspects of modern state power. While a culture-oriented counter-hegemonic strategy might not lead to the conquest of political power, it could secure social support for a new regime, should it succeed in coming to power through other means.
A counter-hegemonic strategy could perform the important function of uniting the opposition and carrying it to the brink of political power, though it will not shift the balance of power between the opposition and the rulers.”
Experts in personal development tell us that when we feel we have lost our individuality in a relationship, we may miss feeling independent and self-confident, having lost ourselves and let our identities fade away.
For societies, too, regaining a faded identity is a long road and includes many steps.
Experts tell us that looking back at what and how we used to be is a good start, which is why The Seven Pillars of Egyptian Identity, a book written by the late Coptic intellectual Milad Hanna and revived as a main reference at the recent World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh, is a crucial step and a very significant choice.
Such choices send significant messages, and the message here is that there is a road and a strategy to regain Egypt’s stolen identity.
Hanna tells us that the Egyptian identity has been influenced by both time and space. Time means history, where four civilisations have accumulated in the ancient Egyptian, the Graeco-Roman, the Coptic and the Islamic.
And space means geographical position, where Egypt lies at the heart of the Arab world, overlooks the Mediterranean, and is an important part of Africa.
Hanna says in his book that seven historical and geographical “pillars,” four temporal and three geographical, can be found in every Egyptian in one form or the other, but to varying degrees.
The Islamists hang onto the Islamic and Arab identity. The Coptic fundamentalists hang on to the ancient Egyptian and Christian identity.
Yet, Egypt remains the only country in the world that has such an accumulation of civilisations noted for their diversity and pluralism.
Diversity can make some people crave uniformity, and pluralism can threaten hegemony. Egypt’s road to regaining its true culture and identity may not be easy, but it is definitely worth the effort.
* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Seven pillars for regaining Egypt