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Egypt’s Identity Crisis

Today, 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 elements, namely Arabism or, worse, Islamism.