Modern Egypt – (XX) The personality of Egypt

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 28 Feb 2023

For geographer Gamal Hamdan, it is Egypt’s geographical location that has given it its stability and permanent character, writes Tarek Osman in his series of articles on the makers of modern Egyptian culture

 

Geography is destiny says one dictum of international relations. The work of Gamal Hamdan, modern Egypt’s most prominent geographer, aimed to explain the country’s destiny in just such terms.

His most famous book, “The Personality of Egypt: A Study in the Genius of Location,” revolves round six themes.

First, there is the way in which Egypt’s geography allows for a natural connection across the Nile Delta and along the Nile Valley from the shores of the Mediterranean in the north to the cataracts of the Nile in the south.

Second, there is the way in which the flow of the Nile in the last part of the river’s journey in the Delta has made that area one of the most fertile in the world.

Third, there is the way in which the connection between the Nile’s cataracts in the south and the shore of the Mediterranean in the north, all anchored on an agrarian economy, gave rise to similar socioeconomic needs and a largely similar lifestyle in both northern and southern Egypt.

Fourth, there is the way in which this created a cohesive society in the Nile Valley in Egypt.

Fifth, there is the way in which the features of this agrarian socioeconomic system, mostly isolated from its neighbours, led to the emergence of a state with consistent borders and governing structures that has hardly changed for millennia.

And sixth, there is the fact that these factors, unique to Egypt in the Middle East region, have given Egypt the “permanence” it enjoys.  

In Hamdan’s view, this permanence has endowed Egypt with an historical gravitas that has extended beyond prestige and soft power. The Middle East, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean have long been quick sands in which many states have sunk and many state-projects have come and gone.

Egypt, however, a state with consistent borders, a cohesive society, and guaranteed sustenance because of the Nile, has never undergone transformative changes that altered “her personality.”

No doubt Hamdan’s perspective is a highly nationalistic one, and several reviewers of his books questioned the causal connections and underlined what they considered to be flaws in his arguments. Were it to be published today, “The Personality of Egypt” would doubtless face acute academic criticism. Yet, despite all this, his work, with this book at its core, was always detailed and scrupulous and is most likely the most rigorous research that has ever been done on Egypt’s geography.

Hamdan was not the first to write on the special characteristics of Egypt’s geographical location. Almost 150 years earlier at the end of the 18th century, the French general and later emperor Napoleon Bonaparte wrote a paper arguing that Egypt’s location was the most strategic in the world, a theme that later appeared in the “Description d’Egypte,” the colossal research work undertaken by the scientists that accompanied Napoleon on his campaign in Egypt in the final years of the 18th century.

But Hamdan’s approach to Egypt’s geography was different. It was not only that it was the work of an insider, some would say of a lover of the country, but there was also the fact that it was also historical in method. In many sections of the “Personality of Egypt,” Hamdan anchored his theses on historical examples, for example of the development of certain parts of the Delta or Upper Egypt or the evolution of industry in different parts of the country.

While the “Description d’Egypte” and later works by British colonial administrators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries offered detailed and at times innovative views of the uniqueness and importance of Egypt’s location, Hamdan’s work transcended the here and now and gave his readers the sense of an overarching trajectory of Egyptian history seen through geography.

“The Personality of Egypt” proved to be a seminal book, making the idea that Egypt has a unique character a fixture of Egyptian political narrative. Hamdan’s theses resonated with large sections of Egyptian society, especially the intelligentsia. More importantly, the timing of the book’s publication was also perfect.

Hamdan put forward his ideas at the moment when Arab nationalism was facing its severest challenge after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War. The defeat was a major blow to the Nasserite project of a united Arab World with Egypt as its leader and political and cultural centre. Hamdan’s work came as a strong intellectual compensation for that defeat and a reminder of Egypt’s importance, uniqueness, and inherent power at a time when the country’s regional position was at a low point.

This reminder did not exalt Egypt at the expense of Arab nationalism. Hamdan’s thesis that Egypt was the most strategically important country in the region, that its stability was almost guaranteed, and that it was destined by geography to be a magnet to the wider neighbourhood sat comfortably with the view that Egypt’s modern identity was Arab and that its geostrategic interests could be achieved through close cooperation with its Arab neighbours.

Hamdan believed in a harmonious relationship between Egyptianness and Arabness and between the factors that had shaped the personality of Egypt and those that had underpinned the Arab nationalist project in the mid-20th century.

He saw no contradiction between this Egyptian personality and the role of religion, particularly Islam. He wrote extensively on secularism, regularly portraying it in soft hues as a gradual process that would advance society and strengthen economic development, but that did not stand in contradiction to individual piety and a special place for spirituality in the collective psyche.

This was a comfortable message, and in general Hamdan under-emphasised and often utterly eschewed the factors of division in modern Egyptian history. Given his emphasis on the uniqueness of Egypt’s location and therefore of its role, he often seemed to be saying that Egypt possessed intrinsic power, or potential, irrespective of its present condition.

He also drew a distinction between the personality of Egypt and that of Egyptians. This was also another comfortable message of his book, since in Hamdan’s view modern Egyptian society had been subjected to major, especially economic, transformations that had created class imbalances, instilled inequalities, and diluted the country’s regional positioning.

He himself was particularly hostile to the laissez-faire free-market economic policies that former president Anwar Al-Sadat adopted in the mid-1970s. But such socio-economic shocks and resulting socio-political imbalances were, in Hamdan’s view, superficial since they only temporarily affected conditions in a given period.

They could not alter the ingrained personality of the country as a whole and the characteristics of its society, which in his view represented some sort of historical mean to which Egypt must return.

Hamdan had a clever way of escaping the criticism that the present condition of Egypt flew in the face of his arguments, a criticism that gained momentum after the demographic boom of the 1970s and 1980s began to exact major costs on the country’s development and after the fall of Arab nationalism reduced Egypt’s preeminence in the Arab world.

In order to meet such criticism, he invoked an old argument about Egypt, saying that it was “a land of paradox” in which a thousand-year tradition of refined and spiritual philosophy existed alongside a highly prescriptive theology and an inward-looking agrarian society had given rise to the Middle East’s most culturally powerful state.

It was a country in which immense riches were concentrated in tiny groups amidst pervasive poverty and in which the Nile produced lush agriculture in the midst of a vast desert. For Hamdan, these paradoxes were not only features of Egyptian society, but factors that had shaped her whole personality.

Hamdan’s arguments often leave readers wanting to contest points that he presents as givens. Often his sentences seem to come from the heart of a lover rather than from the mind of a scholar. However, his work as a whole, particularly “The Personality of Egypt,” remains one of the most impassioned intellectual contributions in the country’s modern history.

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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