Of all the recent calls for reform made by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, perhaps most adamant has been his insistence that all Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—see themselves first and foremost as Egyptians.
This came out very clearly when he visited the St. Mark Coptic Cathedral during Christmas Eve mass. Then, he passionately (see video) declared:
Listen, it is very important that the world should see us… that the world should see us, Egyptians… and you’ll note that I never use a word other than “Egyptians”…. It’s not right to call each other by any other name…. We are Egyptians. Let no one ask “what kind of Egyptian are you?” [Copt or Muslim]… As I said, Egypt has brought a humanistic and civilizing message to the world for millennia and we’re here today to confirm that we are capable of doing so again… This is why we mustn’t call ourselves anything other than “Egyptians.” This is what we must be — Egyptians, just Egyptians, Egyptians indeed!
Ironically, back on February 14, 2011, when the first Egyptian revolution broke out (then called “Arab Spring”), I wrote an article making the exact same point, arguing that “Egypt’s future begins when Egyptians see themselves as Egyptians.”
Titled “Egypt’s Identity Crisis,” the article explored how the Egyptian identity was lost in stages. (It also predicted the seduction/threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood—well over a year before the group came to power under Morsi’s presidency. For more on this latter theme, on February 2, 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was still in power, I predicted in this article that “the Muslim Brotherhood will take over Egypt by default. And if that happens, the Middle East will rock like never before in the modern era”—which proved true after the largest revolution in human history ousted the Brotherhood in June 2013.)
Due to its exploration of the importance for Egyptians to see themselves as Egyptians—which Sisi is now adamantly calling for—“Egypt’s Identity Crisis” (first published February 14, 2011) is reproduced below.
With Egypt’s “July Revolution” of 1952, for the first time in millennia, Egyptians were able to boast that a native-born Egyptian, Gamal Abdel Nasser, would govern their nation: Ever since the overthrow of its last native pharaoh nearly 2,500 years ago, Egypt had been ruled by a host of foreign invaders—Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and Brits, to name a few. After 1952, however, Egypt, it was believed, would finally be Egyptian.
Yet, though Nasser was Egyptian, the spirit of the times that brought him to power was Arab—Arab nationalism, or “pan-Arabism”—the theory that all Arabic-speaking peoples, from Morocco to Iraq, should unify. (Along with Nasser, the tide of pan-Arabism also brought to power Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, Syria’s Hafez Assad, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.)
The revolution significantly Arabized Egypt. That Egypt’s official name became the Arab Republic of Egypt—as opposed to simply the Republic of Egypt—speaks for itself. Whereas before 1952, one could have spoken of a distinctly “Egyptian” character and identity, after it, this identity gave way to an Arab identity. From there, it was a short push to an Islamic identity. Or, as Egyptologist Wassim al-Sissy recently put it, the revolution “erased the Egyptian character, which had been known for its tolerance, love, freedom, and so on. The revolution created a nation of slaves.”
My Egyptian-born parents, who personally lived through the 1952 revolution before immigrating to America, often reminisced on this change. Growing up I used to hear how pre-revolution Egypt was absolutely nothing like it is now. According to them, because it was under British rule, it was freer and more secular; hardly any women wore the hijab; Alexandria was something of a “mini-Europe.”
Indeed, if you look at pictures taken in 1940s Egypt and compare them to pictures from today, you might think the former were taken in Europe, the latter in Arabia.
In short, Egyptians saw themselves first and foremost as Egyptians. Certainly no Egyptians would have referred to themselves as “Arabs”—a word back then that connoted “lowly bedouins” to Egyptian ears. (After all, for Egyptians to think of themselves as “Arabs,” because their first language is Arabic, is as logical as American blacks thinking of themselves as “English,” because their first language is English.) In the decades preceding the revolution, there was even a strong Pharaonist Movement, led by influential thinkers like Taha Hussein, which sought to define and promote a distinctly Egyptian character.
Today [writing in February, 2011], as Egypt rocks with revolution, it is poised to assume an even more alien identity. Enter the Muslim Brotherhood: if the 1952 revolution Arabized Egypt, a Brotherhood takeover will thoroughly Islamicize it, thereby taking it even further away from its roots. Whereas the Arab nationalists of Egypt maintained remnants of the Egyptian character—their Islam was notoriously lax—the Salafist brand of Islam promoted by Egypt’s Brotherhood since its founding in 1928 is thoroughly alien to Egypt.
For example, as opposed to the Egyptian Arab nationalist, who takes great pride in his nation’s ancient heritage, today’s Egyptian Islamist exults in rejecting and condemning it, calling the pharaohs “infidels” and “tyrants” (according to the terminology of the distinctly Arab Koran), and even trying to destroy Egypt’s proudest treasures—as we have seen with the recent attacks on Egypt’s museums—hardly the behavior of someone who thinks of himself as an “Egyptian.”
Born in America, I often returned to Egypt, beginning in 1974, when I was a year-old. My experience of Egypt’s evolving identity differs from my parents’: whereas they watched the Arabization of Egypt, I have been observing its Islamization. Yet, from personal experience, I also know that hardly all Egyptians share the Brotherhood’s ideology: for starters, there is a significant Christian minority, the Copts, who clearly have the most to lose should the Brotherhood come to power; then there are the many secularists. Put differently, a great many revolting in the streets of Cairo are doing so for mundane reasons—food and jobs—rather than to implement sharia law (which, incidentally, is already a “principal source of legislation” in Egypt’s Constitution).
The problem, however, is that, along with having a strong base of direct support, the Muslim Brotherhood is especially poised to assume leadership simply because many Muslims, while indifferent to the Brotherhood’s ideological vision, have come to trust them. After all, Hamas’ famous strategy of endearing the people to it by providing for their basic needs was learned directly from its parent organization: Egypt’s Brotherhood.
Thus, as turmoil engulfs Egypt, it is well to remember that, fundamentally, who the Egyptians see themselves as will determine who they will be. Egypt’s future begins when Egyptians see themselves as Egyptians—not Arabs, and certainly not Islamists. This is not to say that Egyptians should resurrect the pharaonic language, dress like Imhotep, and worship cats. Rather, as Taha Hussein and others till this day maintain, the Egyptian identity needs to be resurrected, thereby allowing all of the nation’s sons and daughters to work together for a better future—without the dead weight of foreign encumberments, namely Arabism or, worse, Islamism.