Understanding Egyptian Nationalism

The newest version of Egyptian nationalism is the strongest challenge to Islamism in recent history.

al-monitor Protesters cheer near a poster of army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as they gather to demonstrate in support of the army, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, July 26, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.
Bassem Sabry

Bassem Sabry


Topics covered

nationalism, middle eastern history, egypt

Sep 5, 2013

One of the most persistent and remarkable elements of the post-January revolution anti-Islamist movement in Egypt has been its struggle to articulate a coherent and attractive intellectual frame and political banner, one that could appeal to a wide public and stand at least toe-to-toe with Islamism.

But if the current discourse and what appears to be a growing public sentiment especially since June 30 continue, then Islamism might have just found its strongest challenger in quite some time in what is a revived and rejuvenated Egyptian nationalism, with army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as its central and visibly popular figurehead. This nationalism is not a precise ideological construct, but rather a complex and multi-faceted concept with many elements that are the subject of some debate. But there are generally several historical milestones that are often considered to be critical points in its history and development. 

The predominant view is that the rebirth of the idea began with the ascension of Muhammad Ali and his family to the throne of Egypt in the early 1800s. Ali, who was neither born in Egypt nor ethnically Egyptian, enacted a series of reforms that are widely considered the historical birth of the modern Egyptian state, and managed to strengthen Egypt’s relative independence from the Ottoman Empire (which was officially based upon the Islamic identity) and with it the Egyptian national identity.

This was followed up by the “Orabi Revolt,” named after the Egyptian army general Ahmed Orabi who led an uprising against (according to the most popular narrative herein) the growing European influence in the country, absolute monarchical rule, the corruption of the ruling Khedive as well as the discrimination against non-aristocrats in the military. It was during this revolt that the phrase “Egypt For Egyptians” was coined, and Orabi — despite his eventual defeat and exile — became historically celebrated as an archetypal Egyptian and non-aristocrat nationalist leader, and the intertwining of the concept of nationalism and the military perhaps began to cement.

The third milestone is often considered to be the early 20th century, following Egypt’s “1919 Revolution” against British rule and its dominance over the monarchy, the subsequent nominal independence from Britain and during what is also often described as “Egypt’s Liberal Era” in the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, ideas such as “national unity” (especially Christians and Muslims), that of the Egyptian identity being unique from Arab and Islamic ones, the growing appreciation of the Egyptian vernacular, constitutionalism, all began to further materialize and crystallize, coupled with the rise of Al-Wafd party founder Sa’ad Zaghloul as the national figure of his era.

The Nasserist period might have officially replaced Egyptian nationalism with Arab nationalism, but Egypt was still considered the heart and engine of the pan-Arab movement, allowing both the embrace of Arab nationalism while also retaining a sense of Egyptian uniqueness. Subsequently, when Egypt had a falling-out with other Arab nations following the peace treaty with Israel during the Sadat era, Egyptian nationalism experienced a resurgence. The Mubarak era, on the other hand, was more of a calm and fluid amalgam of bits and pieces of Arab and Egyptian nationalism. 

Reading through the current discourse in Egypt, pervasive since June 30, one can attempt to identify some of the predominant elements and themes of this modern wave of nationalism, explored here in a largely descriptive rather than critical manner. The first, as is with most forms of nationalism, is obviously a strong view of the Egyptian identity as separate from the other larger competitors, namely: Arab, African and Islamic identifications.

That is not to say that there is hostility to such identities, not at all. Rather, there is a strong interest in these “circles” (an often used expression) of identities and their causes, in actually having a leading role within their politics, as well as with integration prospects. But the uniqueness of the Egyptian identity and national interests are still not meant to be absorbed or compromised nonetheless. This nationalism is also a civic and political one, and not based on ethnic or religious lines. An appreciation of Egypt’s extended history, especially the Pharaonic era, also plays a key element in shaping the identity, and the idea of Egypt’s ancient civilization as “the mother of the world” is another strong component and often is repeated in rhetoric.

Religion plays a key role as well, unsurprisingly. Islam remains here a strong component of the Egyptian state, but it is a moderate form of Islam, and Al-Azhar — whose national and international respect is paramount — plays a central role in protecting and promoting such a moderate approach to religion, and is seen as both independent yet also connected to the state.

Coptic Christianity and the Coptic church are also key components in the national identity, and the idea of the “unity of the crescent and the cross” (i.e., the unity of Muslims and Christians as the “two elements of the nation”) is a strong recurring theme. One interesting manifestation of this idea was in 2011, when — following sectarian violence — a bi-religious council dubbed in the Egyptian dialect (rather than the expected Classical Arabic) the “House Of The Family” was constructed, to be alternately chaired by the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the Coptic pope, aimed at promoting harmony between Christians and Muslims.

The ideas of the “civic state” (al-dawla al-madaniyya) in which everyone has “equal citizenship rights” (huqooq al-muwatana) is another official central theme, though in effect groups outside of Sunni Islam and the major Christian groups continue to experience difficulties and challenges. And while religion does play a strong role in a relatively conservative society, emphasis is often placed on Egypt being a cosmopolitan country, one that is and should be hospitable to tourism and other cultures, and that a degree of personal freedom of choice is still respected. 

The “state” is another central component in the nationalist discourse, almost having a life of its own, and it is at times used to indicate the “nation” as a whole, but it remains mostly used to indicate the state’s institutions and their significance combined. The structural integrity, security and strength of the state are paramount, and there is even — in a way — a respect for the state’s old bureaucracy, despite its many problems. Expressions such as protecting the “identity of the state” and “the respect of the state’s power” (the latter mainly in reference to criminals) are common.

The importance and prominence of national security, whose exact definition is debatable, in the discourse is profound, and can at times be taken too far with regard to what that entails or necessitates. There is also a strong belief that Egypt is the target of many pernicious schemes from unfriendly nations and entities, and popular discussions of conspiracy theories are substantially existent. Economically, some of form of Keynesianism or preference for mixed economies exists, wherein the state is expected to also play some direct role in the economy, providing a support net for the most vulnerable, and engaging in grand national economic and infrastructural projects, all without necessarily indicating desire for socialism or a hostility to the private sector.

The respect (often coupled with some fear) of Egypt’s security institutions and what are seen as their historic and patriotic acts, particularly the intelligence and the military, also runs high within this rhetoric. But the military remains at the heart of the discourse, and it is r exalted as the nation’s backbone, protector, in being the strongest army of the Arab world, as well as the source of its greatest national leaders. In fact, polls regularly indicated that the military remained by far the most trusted and favorably-seen institution in all of Egypt, even after the mismanagement of the post-January transition. The decisions of the military during the January revolution (setting aside the controversy over what ensued) in not supporting Mubarak or opening fire at protesters, as well as their role in the June 30 uprising have also further contributed to the exalted status of the institution (though definitely not within the pro-Morsi camp this time.) 

Some will make the argument that nationalisms are ideas and constructs that are destined to wither in favor of more internationalist (or pan-regional), individualist as well as liberal-leaning trends. Others might make the counterargument rather that nationalisms evolve and adapt, and that they are persistent and even resurgent in varying ways within European Union countries. But that is an extended debate.

Either way, the reality is that within Egypt this nationalist wave is the strongest challenger Islamism has ever witnessed in recent history, and the potential of its evolution into a more coherent and evolved ideological structure should not be discounted. 

Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian political writer and commentator. On Twitter: @Bassem_Sabry

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