How Egypt’s Heritage Became a Political Battle

Islamic, Pharaonic or both? That's the dilemma facing Egyptians as they look to the past for a new sense of national identity

How Egypt’s Heritage Became a Political Battle
In Cairo in April 2021, as part of a convoy called the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade that included 22 royal mummies, a specially designed vehicle carried the mummy of Ramesses III from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization / Islam Safwat / Getty Images

Pick up any Egyptian banknote, look at both sides of it, and you will see two competing strands of the country’s heritage. The design on one side evokes Islam, while the other evokes the Pharaohs. Both have a central place in the nation’s history but, 2,000 years since the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty and almost 1,400 years after the arrival of Islam, Egyptians still argue about their respective contributions to national identity.

It’s a dispute that the passage of time has failed to resolve, and it has come to the fore again as the Sisi regime attempts to claim some of the ancient glory for itself.

The nub of the issue is simple enough, though its ramifications are far-reaching. There’s no denying that Egypt, under the Pharaohs, had one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world and yet — according to Islamic teaching — it was a place of “jahiliyya” (ignorance and darkness) until the Arab-Islamic conquest brought enlightenment.

Efforts to resolve this uncomfortable paradox have spawned a vast culture of apologetics over the years. For many pious Egyptians it starts with a basic question: Will the Pharaohs go to hell because they were not Muslims? On that point the answer from clerics is usually reassuring: Anyone who died before the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad will not be punished for nonbelief, because they had no opportunity to hear the divine message.

But that’s not all. The Quran itself incorporates several well-known biblical narratives casting the ancient Egyptians as the bad guys. First, there’s the story of Moses and Pharaoh, then Joseph and the lustful wife of Potiphar. In both tales, the Egyptians come off badly. They are portrayed as gross, tyrannical and violent — in contrast to the wisdom and mercy shown by chaste and righteous young Hebrews.

When I mentioned that to a friend recently, he quickly rebuffed me, saying that the negative stories in scripture apply only to the Pharaoh, not the entire Egyptian people. That overlooks the fact that the Pharaohs were an integral part of the ancient culture, but my friend is in good company: none other than Zahi Hawwas, the former antiquities chief, told an Egyptian publication recently that the Quranic narrative “does not hurt Egypt.” There was one tyrant king there who disobeyed the order of his lord and received the punishment he deserved, Hawass said. “Egypt was ruled before him and after him by hundreds of great kings who built a human civilization whose merits can only be denied by a hateful or an ignorant person.”

Numerous writers have noted the piety of ancient Egyptians, quoting at length from ancient sacred texts such as the “Book of the Dead.” But the fact that they need to point this out, and argue the case with supporting evidence, is testimony of how deeply the Christian/Muslim/Jewish view of the ancient Egyptians has penetrated into modern Egyptian consciousness.

Another line of argument — popular with nationalists — is that ancient Egypt’s bad reputation was generated by her historic enemies and handed down through scripture. Thus, when Christianity came to Egypt, followed later by Islam, Egyptians internalized these negative portrayals and lost sight of their great past. In the nationalists’ view, that was the ultimate defeat, and the only way to become a great nation again is for Egyptians to reclaim their ancient past. While this is not currently the predominant view, it’s one that has been gaining ground in the past few years.

In contrast to the maligned history of the Pharaohs, the Arab-Islamic conquest in the seventh century A.D. is often viewed more favorably (by Muslims, if not by Egypt’s large Christian minority). The official narrative, as reflected in school textbooks, is that the Arabs liberated Egypt from Byzantine oppression and in doing so were motivated by religious zeal and lofty principles. Historians know that is not quite true. Egypt was Christian when the Arabs invaded and there were repeated revolts against the “jizya” tax imposed by the new masters on the non-Muslim population. The textbooks don’t mention how the revolts were brutally suppressed and, not surprisingly, Egyptian Christians and others sometimes complain about the terminology used to describe the conquest. The usual Arabic term — “fateh” — has positive connotations, implying that the Arabs “opened” rather than subjugated Egypt.

During the struggle for independence in the first half of the 20th century, there were broadly two currents. One, which viewed Egypt primarily as a Muslim nation, sought to free it from British tutelage and return to the Ottoman sphere. The other current sought independence for Egypt as a modern nation state — which brought the country’s Coptic minority on board by prioritizing national cohesion over religious identity. Incidentally, the historical leader of this second trend, Saad Zaghloul (1858-1927) of the Wafd party, lies today in a Pharaonic-style mausoleum in central Cairo.

Since the 1950s the Arab strand of Egyptian identity has become indelibly linked to Gamal Abdel Nasser — the first real Egyptian to rule the country in well over 2,000 years. From the fourth century B.C. until the 1952 coup that brought Nasser and his fellow army officers to power, it had effectively been in the hands of foreign dynasties. Nasser almost single-handedly steered Egypt away from the European sphere and thrust it into the heart of Arab politics. It became officially known as the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Buoyed by his political triumph in the Suez Crisis of 1956, Nasser quickly assumed the mantle as the Arabs’ leader, standing up to the old colonial powers and pursuing the dream of pan-Arab unity. But that dream came quickly crashing down after the short-lived — and by all accounts disastrous — union with Syria (1958-1961). Worse disasters were to follow.

Nasser’s foray exposed the flaws of the basic idea of uniting all Arab states, from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. The sheer grandiosity and impracticality of the project should have killed off the idea once and for all. But far from it: The dream of pan-Arabism is still alive and kicking.

Nasser died in 1970, with a chunk of his country (the Sinai Peninsula) occupied by Israel. Every year on the anniversary of his death or his coup a dispute breaks out over his legacy. Critics say he was a disaster — that his brand of socialism and pan-Arabism destroyed a once-prosperous country. But he still has a big following both in Egypt and beyond, and the politics he championed still pervades the public discourse to a remarkable extent. This annual tussle is not just about economic policy and the nature of the political system Nasser created, but in a fundamental way it’s about national identity. It was Nasser who made Egypt officially “Arab.”

Today, half a century after Nasser, the Egyptian constitution has enshrined the two pillars of Egypt’s supposedly Arab-Muslim identity: Arabic is the official language and Islam is the state religion. It even pays lip service to the ideological aims of pan-Arabism as part of the constitution: “The Egyptian people are part of the Arab nation and work toward its unity.”

More visibly, though, Egypt’s architecture often tells a different story. There are Pharaonic motifs in all kinds of buildings — public and private — and some of the most conspicuous ones have been erected by the state. There are the constitutional court, built in 2001 on the eastern bank of the Nile, which resembles an ancient temple, and the monument of the unknown soldier, shaped like a hollowed-out pyramid. Constructed in 1975 during the presidency of Anwar Sadat, the monument is adjacent to the spot where Sadat was assassinated six years later. It also became his burial place.

Aside from the monument’s design, its site links ancient and modern Egypt in an uncanny but telling way. Sadat was gunned down by Islamist militants among his own soldiers, with one of them — chief assassin Khaled el-Islambouli — reportedly shouting “Death to the Pharoah!” as he pulled the trigger.

This reported phrase made the tragic moment reverberate back and forth between pre-Islamic Egypt and modern jihadism. According to testimony during the investigation, the assassins killed Sadat because two years earlier he had made peace with the Jews, i.e. the state of Israel.

The moral standing of ancient Egypt vis-à-vis the Torah or the Quran is not an arcane theological or archaeological topic for modern Egyptians. Far from it. It’s still debated and argued over vigorously, not least because it strikes at the heart of questions about the nature of Egypt today — its own perception of itself, its national identity. As such, the issue has serious political and cultural implications.

Attempting to reconcile the two strands of national heritage — the purely Egyptian and the Arabized/Islamized Egyptian — has the potential benefit of defusing religious tension between the majority Muslim communities and Coptic Christian minority. At times they coexist peacefully but at others less so.

Diverse arguments have been marshaled over the years in an effort to reach some accommodation. One of modern Egypt’s outstanding intellectuals, the late Professor Gamal Himdan, wrote extensively on the interface between geography, history and culture. In his much-quoted work, “The Genius of Place,” he sought to offer a rational economic explanation for the enormous centralisation of power around the Pharaohs. As any school textbook would tell you, without the Nile, there would be no Egypt. Its water was a vital resource, and a strong central power was needed to manage it.

Others have sought to rehabilitate ancient Egypt in the eyes of pious Egyptians with the self-congratulatory claim — officially promoted by the state itself — that Egypt was “the cradle of monotheism.” This refers to the short-lived cult of Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV, the Pharaoh who sought to replace ancient deities with one god (Aten, the sun disc), in the 14th century B.C. There are even some who peddle the theory that Akhenaten was none other than Moses himself.

The aim of this is to rehabilitate ancient Egypt as a place of “one god” rather than “shirk” — the term used in Islam to describe idolatry or polytheism. The truth or otherwise of the claim matters less than the idea, which seems to offer some form of redress to ancient Egypt, and comfort to contemporary Egyptian Muslims, for whom shirk is the ultimate depravity and the fastest way to hell.

One of the most bizarre examples of this apologetic trend came when Sheikh Khaled el-Guindy, a senior Islamic scholar and a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, stated in a religious talk show: “The Pharaohs are our fathers, and there were Muslims among them.” This was a radical departure from the orthodox view embraced by al-Azhar, Egypt’s pre-eminent seat of Sunni Islamic scholarship.

Another highly controversial attempt to put ancient Egypt on an equal footing with its Abrahamic detractors involves the mysterious “muqatta’at” — disjointed sets of Arabic letters that appear at the start of 29 chapters in the Quran. Their significance has never been conclusively explained but one theory (among many) can be found in a book titled “Hieroglyphs Explain the Quran,” in which its author, Saad Abdel-Muttalib, tries to establish that the letter combinations are in fact ancient Egyptian phrases with spiritual and religious meanings relevant to the Quranic chapter. Another unsolved mystery is how the author received approval from the Egyptian censor and the religious authorities at al-Azhar to publish such a contentious book.

It’s against this backdrop of a tortuous and contentious striving for national identity that the recent spectacular displays of ancient Egyptian culture organized by the state ought to be seen. Twice last year, the Egyptian government staged huge events — one in Cairo and the second in Luxor — to celebrate ancient Egypt in ways never seen before in the country.

The first of these, in April, was an elaborate ceremony to transfer the mummies of some 20 ancient kings and queens from the old Egyptian Museum in central Cairo to a new museum on the outskirts of the city. It was a carefully choreographed show accompanied by operatic music and dancers on the city’s streets. The occasion for the second spectacle, in November, was the opening of the ancient (and newly restored) “Avenue of Sphinxes” linking the monumental temples of Karnak and Luxor.

It was not only the grand scale of the celebrations that made these events stand out but also the pageantry, which included hymns sung in the old language, understood today only by Egyptologists. Egyptians themselves had never heard their ancient language before, and Arabic subtitles had to be provided for the TV broadcasts.

Obviously, one purpose of this was to promote tourism, which provides the state coffers with much-needed hard currency and employs millions of Egyptians, but at the opening ceremony in Luxor antiquities minister Khaled el-Enany made clear that its other aim was to “grow a sense of belonging” among the Egyptians. “We have all seen in our homes and among our friends how the children reacted to the caravan of the royal mummies, how they felt proud and felt that there was something that binds us all together, that they haven’t seen before,” the minister said.

It was a political message that many Egyptians greeted with genuine pride and growing curiosity about their distant past. On social media, which is a good barometer of opinion in Egypt, pages dedicated to ancient Egypt proliferated and people changed their Twitter handles and Facebook profiles to show related images. Artists joined the trend, too. One launched a program to teach ancient Egyptian design to schoolchildren. A young opera singer offered her own interpretation of an ancient Egyptian love song, and the government announced plans to teach hieroglyphs in primary schools — which would be a first.

For the regime, the return to ancient Egypt had its own attraction, because the long-dominant themes of Arabism and Islam have outlived their usefulness. Arabism embroiled Egypt in pan-Arab conflicts with devastating effect — whether this was the wars with Israel or the disastrous intervention of the Egyptian army in the Yemeni civil war during the 1960s. Nasserist intelligentsia and the state media on autopilot may still trumpet the pan-Arab rhetoric, but in practical terms it amounts to nothing. When Egypt signed the peace deal with Israel in 1979, it effectively turned its back on Arabism and became focused on its own problems.

Meanwhile, the twin brother of Arabism — political Islam or Islamism — has been declared the official enemy of the Egyptian state. Its foremost proponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been outlawed and designated a terrorist organization. Although the movement came to power through the ballot box after the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011, its failure to build a broad consensus with other political forces quickly brought all its enemies together to oust the Brotherhood’s president in 2013. The turmoil of the past decade has polarized Egypt, and there are still huge disagreements on how best to describe what happened: an uprising, a revolution, a coup, a foreign conspiracy or perhaps all of them together.

Having declared war on political Islam and bereft of Arabism as a guiding ideology, the Egyptian regime had to develop a new narrative of legitimacy — and what better way than to project the power and glory of a distant past?

The patriotic slogan adopted by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is “Tahiya Masr” — roughly equivalent to “Long Live Egypt.” Resurrecting a great and glorious past always works, especially in dictatorship or authoritarian states. Further, the promotion of ancient Egypt as a national identity that binds Egyptians together has the advantage of undermining the divisive narrative of political Islam which sees Egyptians in exclusively Islamic terms.

Resurrecting Egyptian (as opposed to Arab) nationalism taps into the pride that many genuinely feel about their ancient history, especially those who see themselves excluded from the discourse of Arabism and Islamism — such as Egypt’s sizable Coptic minority and the liberal or secular constituencies.

Naturally, not everyone was pleased by the recent Pharaonic spectacles. To some, they looked more like a coronation, reinforcing fears that Sisi has no intention of relaxing his iron grip. He was central to both events. In the first show, he was seen walking alone surrounded by glittering lights in long corridors before receiving the royal mummies in their new resting place. Yet again, there was a long sequence of him walking alone, surrounded by the massive columns of the Karnak temple.

If that’s what resurrecting ancient Egyptian identity means, critics say they want none of it: The last thing Egypt needs today is another Pharaoh. Sadly, for those still nursing the hope of freedom and democracy of the 2011 uprising, Sisi is a dictator in all but name, much like all his predecessors and arguably even worse.

Others, though, saw the prominent role played by women anchors, dancers and singers in the two spectacles as a cause for celebration. It was decidedly un-Islamic and a far cry from the image of headscarfed women promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood in what they claimed was an “Islamic Awakening.”

Countering the Brotherhood, veteran journalist Ibrahim Issa dubbed the Pharaonic spectacles an “Egyptian Awakening” on his talk show. Novelist Hamdi Abu Golayyel observed: “Egypt’s salvation lies in being close to its Egyptianness. I am not against the Arabs. But Egypt is different from the Arabs and older than the Arabs. Attaching Egypt to that Arab entity as if she was part of it has been extremely damaging.”

It was a remarkable statement from a writer who is avowedly Arab of Bedouin stock and who has built his literary career on classical Arabic — not the Egyptian vernacular, the everyday language of the Egyptians. The conflict between the two is yet another twist of the unfolding drama of national identity in Egypt. Not a year goes by without calls in Parliament to protect the purity and dominance of Arabic against the encroachment of the vernacular or foreign languages.

Arabic is the official language of Egypt, but in reality the Egyptians live with two languages: classical Arabic and the Egyptian vernacular, which is a hybrid of Arabic and the kind of Egyptian spoken when the Arabs conquered Egypt in the seventh century. The first is the language of writing — official documents, preaching, literature and news reports. But the vernacular has over the centuries become the language of everything else. It is the language of popular culture — films, drama, soaps and songs — and more recently it has become the language of populist Muslim “televangelists.” The vernacular has a rich tradition of poetry, but not novels. Yet that is beginning to change too.

The recent translation to the Egyptian vernacular of the French classic “L’Etranger,” by Albert Camus, which had been available in classical Arabic for decades, has provoked a very angry and predictable reaction from all and sundry. The new translation was a decidedly defiant statement about cultural identity, a challenge to those who look down upon the spoken language, viewing it as incapable of reaching the literary heights of Tolstoy, Balzac or T.S. Eliot. Challenging that bias is self-evidently a frightening prospect for the guardians of Arab identity.

The young translator Hector Fahmy had to endure a barrage of vitriol that ranged from contemptuous ridicule of the Egyptian vernacular to predictable claims that his translation was part of a foreign plot to undermine “Arab unity” — since the Arabic language is one of the foundations of the pan-Arab ideology.

In response to these insults Fahmy wrote on his Facebook page: “We are Egyptians, we have the right to write and translate to our Egyptian language, just as we think and dream and live in that language. I will continue to defend that right. Those who want to hurl abuse at me can continue to do so, and I will [continue to] translate.”

Developing a distinct awareness of Egyptian identity may help curtail the pervasive influence of Islamism and pan-Arabism on the public discourse. The idea of an “Egyptian Awakening” will undoubtedly make many people happy and inspire artists and intellectuals to find new forms of expression.

But can a return to ancient Egypt provide what the dominant ideologies of pan-Arabism and political Islam have so far failed to deliver: a confident and prosperous nation free from want or fear of voicing dissent? For that to happen it will take much more than glamorous pageantry — and certainly not worship of an infallible leader. It will have to translate into some palpable value for the majority of Egyptians, some 30 percent of whom live under the poverty line. Otherwise, lofty ideas about a great past will remain just that.

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