Reconsidering Egypt’s identity

Emad Gad , Thursday 25 Aug 2011

Fierce debate over Egypt’s identity and that of its citizens is recurring in its history, and is coming again to a peak now

For a long time, debate over “Egypt’s identity” has been unwelcome in many circles in Egypt because of the campaign by nationalists and Islamists regarding the country’s character. They tried to push Egypt’s identity to the backdrop of debate for the sake of the cause they are defending or the vision they are adopting. The nationalists embrace the notion of Arab nationalism and believe any talk of “Egyptian nationalism” or the country’s unique character is a challenge to Arab nationalism, or even an attempt to avoid “Egypt’s fate” since it is the largest Arab state. It is Egypt’s fate to lead other Arab states on the road to unity, they say.

Naturally, Islamists deem Egyptian identity as the antithesis of their plan of an umma which is rooted in religious foundations, and that anyone sharing the same faith irrespective of their nationality is closer to an Egyptian Muslim than their co-citizens who are of a different faith. The former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) Mahdi Akef declared clearly and unequivocally, when he mocked the Egyptian identity: “To heck with Egypt or anything Egyptian.” Akef added that he welcomes the idea that a Malaysian or Pakistani citizen leads Egypt, since the paramount issue for him is about the Muslim umma based on faith.

Both nationalists and Islamists have sneered at the Egyptian identity and cooperated in finding a religious justifications for this derision, by invoking the word “Pharaoh” and presenting a disfigured image of Pharaonic history. They ignored the accomplishments of Egyptian civilisation on many planes and focused on the “apostasy” of the Pharaoh. Others made faith the focus of debate and judged ancient Egyptians, although they were the first to preach monotheism, as “apostates and idol-worshippers” —even though at the time only Judaism existed and was closed to outsiders and based on blood relations.

The nationalist and Islamist forces disfigured Egypt’s history and tried their best to make average Egyptians feel ashamed of their history and especially their forefathers, to the extent that some even boasted their non-Egyptian roots. This was propagated in school curricula and the media, making Egyptian roots, which the best universities in the world pride themselves in teaching specialised classes about, a subject of ill repute inside Egypt.

Leading Egyptian figures who attempted to restore the stature of the Egyptian identity were subjected to harsh media campaigns, accusing them of being Westernised and loyal to foreign forces; some were even accused them of being enemies of nationalism and Islam. This happened to the pioneers of the Liberal movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and it reoccurred in the 1970s after books by Tawfiq Al-Hakim and Louis Awad promoted Egypt’s “neutrality” regarding conflicts in the region. This was followed by debate about Egypt’s identity; is it Pharaonic rooted in Mediterranean civilisation that includes Greece, France, Italy and Spain, or is it an Arab state that is naturally located next to Libya, Algeria, Iraq and the Arabian Gulf?

Debate over Egypt’s identity is not new and rises to the surface every time Egypt faces a serious problem in its regional relations; it occurred at the beginning, middle and last quarter of the 20th century. It was resurrected again after what happened to Egyptians in Algeria and Sudan, and leaped to the forefront after the 25 January Revolution succeeded in overthrowing the regime and when the Islamists began to dominate the media, based on a carefully crafted plan that takes into consideration domestic and region factors that are entirely un-Egyptian.

It appears that talk and debate about Egypt’s character is almost cyclical, rooted in a deep desire to break away from this bond that for many is nothing more than a cultural link. Large sectors of Egyptians view their country as one with a glorious history that once possessed an advanced and developed civilisation for the times, and that Pharaonic Egypt is intrinsically part of the Mediterranean civilisation and its place is with the countries on the northern banks of the Mediterranean Sea.

It is also apparent that questioning Egypt’s identity is a reoccurring issue for Egypt’s intellectuals, which reveals a genuine desire to reconsider the country’s identity and restore its stature as Egyptian —only Egyptian and nothing else. The word Egypt is enough and we do not need to add to it a larger framework.

The identity struggle is at its peak in Egypt, and we are on the threshold of a fierce battle over the country’s character that will be mostly decided after the next parliamentary elections.

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