Egyptian National Identity


A sense of their uniqueness, of their separateness from the rest of the world, has been permanent in the people of Egypt, but apart from this deeply ingrained feeling, no thoughts of national identity troubled the Egyptians until the end of the eighteenth century, when the bey ‘Ali al-Kabir took up arms against the Turks and when General YA‘QUB planned independence for Egypt. The question of national identity was not really broached before the French Expedition made its tremendous impact on Egypt and before Muhammad ‘Ali became the unquestioned ruler of Egypt—after breaking the resistance of the Mamluks.

All through the nineteenth century, the history of Egypt was that of an opening up to Western influences, a gradual modernization imposed by Muhammad ‘Ali and his successors Sa‘id and Isma‘il. This finally had its impact on Islamic thinkers, who were brought to ideas of reform in order to come to terms with the modernizing process. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abdu, and Qasim Amin were in the forefront of a movement that aimed at reforming Islam without weakening the deep faith of its followers and its pervasive presence in everyday life.

At the same time, the vastness of the Egyptian cultural heritage and its great were opened up to a cultured minority of Egyptians through the work of informed and devoted foreigners. But the importance of this heritage only penetrated—or appeared to penetrate—the consciousness of the people during the 1919 uprising against the BRITISH OCCUPATION, when an inspirational return to the past glories of Egyptian history was in evidence; this was exemplified in the pharaonic character of the sculptor Mukhtar’s monumental group of the “Awakening of Egypt.” But this turned out to be only a short phase in the history of modern Egypt.

Meanwhile, the promises of Westernization were not kept, mainly because the king and the British fought so hard to reduce the power of the main party, the Wafd, which alone could have imposed the necessary adjustments. Also, the Wafd’s outlook was too exclusively political, so that it did not give enough attention to social and economic problems. For these and other secondary reasons, there was a reversal in the Westernizing tendency. People remained willing to accept the West’s science and technology but not its moral and intellectual values, without understanding that the West’s technology could not be separated from its values.

Growing disappointment with the opening toward the West led intellectuals to turn back to the East and to Islam. Great writers disowned the Westernizing fervor of their younger days and the liberal beliefs of their mature age. Some imagined an Oriental culture to Occidental culture; they advised people to resist European the better to preserve genuinely Oriental values. Others sought refuge in traditional notions representing religion as a sufficient font of political and social principles; they thought that Islam could supply the inspiration for remaking Egypt and restoring hope to the Egyptians.

After the failure of the liberal and democratic experiment, revolution came in 1952, fostered as always by selfishness and lack of foresight in the ruling minority. The military regime started by declaring its faith in an essentially Egyptian nationalism. As a token of this assertion, a colossal statue of Ramses II was moved from Memphis to a main square in Cairo, and an obelisk from Tanis was erected in a public garden on the banks of the Nile.

But a factor in the background of Egyptian concerns, arabism, suddenly surfaced. This new departure from Egyptian nationalism was the result partly of the Arab awakening, partly of the failure of the liberal and democratic experiment. It was also a result of the establishment of the state of Israel as an alien, West-supported body in the Arab world. This situation aroused inordinate ambitions in Egyptian leaders, who aspired to be at the head of an Arab empire.

So the Arab contribution was inflated to the point of constituting alone the whole content of the Egyptian cultural heritage. The Arabic character of Egypt was officially established as the dominant element of the Egyptian national spirit—which was therefore lost in arabism. This orientation was pushed to such a degree that the venerable name of Egypt, as well as its name in Arabic (Misr), was struck out from the title of the state from 1958 to 1971. It was called the United Arab Republic until after the death of President Nasser.

Young and old alike became confused by these repeated changes, which were immediately implemented in school curricula as well as in the press, radio, and television. The sudden changes in orientation were reflected in the violent oscillations of policy that inflicted so much damage on Egypt in the thirty years between 1941 and 1971.

After President Sadat came to power, a more thoughtful attitude prevailed for some time in the councils of state, but since about 1978 the call for a return to Islam has come back in full force. This movement was allowed to by President Sadat, who was more afraid of communist subversion than of extremism. This was a grave mistake on his part, and he paid for it with his life.

Besides the importance of a stable national orientation for Egypt itself, Egyptian national orientation is of capital importance for the whole Arab world, of which Egypt is truly the hub and the axis, the center of gravity. Egypt’s geographical position makes it either the link that unites the Arab world or the rift that divides it. The cultural and political orientation of the Arab community, the degree of union or disunion among its members, the form of its international institutions, all these depend on the Egyptians. This was amply proved during the furor caused by the Camp David agreements, which ended with Egypt being unconditionally invited back into the Arab fold.

Egypt’s contribution to Arab civilization has been greater than any other; in turn, it was deeply marked by Arabic civilization. Egypt is thus part of the Arab world, but it retains its national identity, just as the other Arab countries retain their national identities.


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