Egypt looks to the past to rebuild its national identity
Despite being an important voice in the Arab world, Egypt has not always had an easy relationship with its people
Not so long ago, the world witnessed an extraordinary takeover of Egypt’s Pharaonic past on the streets of Cairo, when 22 mummies were moved from the Egyptian Museum to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.
The fanfare was absolute. Hundreds of old-fashioned men and women marched along the route. The dead, locked in their environment controlled by specially designed vehicles, received a salute of 21 cannon shots, worthy of their royal status, on their arrival in their new “palace” and were greeted by President Abdel Fattah el- Yes Yes. The majestic event was streamed online for ancient Egyptian enthusiasts around the world.
One might wonder what the idea behind such a global spectacle is. The answer is that Egypt is today at the dawn of history, where it must redefine itself as a nation. Historian Eric Hobsbawm says that an element of social engineering goes into the formation of nations; and in most cases it is not nations and nationalisms that make the state but the state that makes nations and nationalisms.
But what drove Egypt to this point, where it had to summon the pharaohs to redefine itself? Sometimes looking carefully into the past can light up the future.
The Nile Basin and the lands of North Africa have the longest known history in the world and have contiguous with great empires and smaller dynasties. Beyond the ancient period, it became part of the larger Greco-Roman universe and an important center of Christianity. Egypt today has the largest Christian population in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region and, with around 15% of the population, it is the largest minority in the country.
From the 7th century on, a number of Muslim dynasties developed and fell here, followed by the Ottoman conquest in 1517. During this period, Egypt emerged as an important seat of Islamic learning. Al-Azhar University, which opened in 972 CE, is the second oldest a globally active university and an influential voice in global Sunni Islam. The majority of WANA’s population gradually became Islamized during this period, and Egypt’s Muslim population is today the largest in the Arab world.
In modern times, Egypt has retained its sovereignty under different kingdoms, except twice when it was colonized by the French (1798 and 1801) and British (1882-1922) empires. The last kingdom of Egypt was overthrown in the Egyptian revolution of 1952, giving way to the republican era.
Under the new leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has become a strong voice among the new states. She has played an important role in the geopolitics of the Arab world, especially with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nasser also helped found the Non-Aligned Movement. His reign of 18 years was followed by 11 years of Anwar Sadat who buried the hatchet with Israel by signing the Camp David Agreement in 1978. Sadat began the process of liberalizing the economy but many dissatisfaction covered in the state leading to his assassination. in 1981 by Islamist extremists.
Hosni Mubarak, vice-president since 1975, was elected new president after Sadat. His era spanned 29 years, during which time he was repeatedly re-elected by referendum. Egypt underwent widespread economic change during this period, but Mubarak was an autocrat and the rights and freedoms of the people were restricted. There has been a gradual degeneration of state and society with widespread corruption, arbitrary arrests, extreme income inequality, poverty and unemployment.
A number of Arab states that shared history with Egypt were also in similar circumstances. In 2011, the people of many of these countries took to the streets in a historic uprising known as the Arab Spring. After the overthrow of their longtime authoritarian rulers, these countries are in the throes of instability.
In 2012, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood became president of Egypt, but people rejected him in less than a year. It took three years after the revolution for Egypt to have its first stable government. The current government has been in power since 2014.
Besides its political role, Egypt has been a religious and cultural center for centuries. In modern times, too, its film and music industries have pioneered entertainment in the Arab world, but its importance is gradually diminishing. Emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, the country needs a new understanding of itself. In its quest for a national identity today, Egypt turned to its ancient past.
Since the discovery of the mummies just over 100 years ago, ancient Egypt has captured the popular imagination. Tourism is a major contributor to the country’s GDP as well as a major source of employment. Currently, there is a global tendency to look back – real or imagined – to construct a nationalist narrative, but national identity can be flexible and adapted to changing scenarios. Hobsbawm said attempts to establish objective criteria for nationality have failed because they attempt to integrate historically new, emerging, changing and far from universal entities into a framework of permanence and universality. In Egypt too, using the ancient past to define its present is not easy.
The relationship between Islam and ancient Egypt is complicated. The pharaohs appear in the Koran, representing all the vices of the material world. It has become terminology for excessive rulers. Almost all Egyptian presidents have been called pharaohs at some point. There are also other aspects. Tombs are sacrosanct in Islam and many believe that the dead should be able to rest undisturbed rather than being displayed in a museum. A more orthodox view compares mummies to idols that must be destroyed. Since the 90s, there have been several terrorist attacks against tourists who come to visit ancient sites.
What we saw on the streets of Cairo was an attempt to redefine the Egyptian nation state. This event, and the comments of the president and his wife, stating that the parade signifies the greatness of the people and is a symbol of the country’s rich history and diversity, are indicative of the government’s attempts at inclusiveness. However, the formation of national identity is terribly difficult and requires more than an event and mere words.
Writer Amro Ali tweeted that “Egypt will condemn the cruelty of the pharaohs from the pulpit of mosques and churches, then rush to the streets to celebrate the greatness of the pharaohs” and that “contemporary Egypt in its quest for identity, modernity, and nation building has yet to reconcile the contradictions of pharaoh’s employment on both the religious and nationalist spectrum. ”
In this situation, it is worth noting that the pharaohs and their gold were snatched from what was supposed to be their final resting place and are on display in museums far away. What remains are monuments like the pyramids that arose out of the blood and sweat of countless nameless people. These have stood the test of time as the only remaining wonder of the ancient world. It is hoped that the new Egypt will usher in inclusion and bring prosperity to the long-suffering people whose legacy is primarily used to define the present.
The author works as a policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Governance Accountability. Twitter @VijaytaMahendru