Egypt’s Identity Crisis

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 fact, in the decades preceding the revolution, there was a Pharaonist movement, led by influential thinkers like Taha Hussein, which sought to define and promote a distinctly Egyptian character.