Egyptians and Arabs: The Continuing Controversy

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Recent Egyptian pronouncements concerning Israel and the peace process have had a mixed reception in the Arab world. President Hosni Mubarak's counsels against warlike declarations, and his derisive comments on those fellow-Arabs who call for an all-out Arab attack on Israel as punishment for the way it in which it was reacting to "Al-Aqsa intifada," have had a cool-to-hostile reception not only among the Palestinians but also in some more moderate Arab quarters. In some of these, indeed, the very question was raised as to where Mubarak stands and, more important, of how Egyptians as a collectivity view themselves and their place in the Arab-Muslim world. Although such questions have been asked quietly, and often only by implication and in roundabout ways, they were not ignored, and, equally, soft-voiced responses were not lacking.

Egypt's cultural orientation, or identity, a subject which in the 1930s and 1940s gave rise to fierce controversies and wide differences of opinion, has in recent decades all but ceased to be the cause of such controversies. Time was when leaders of opinion and intellectual pathfinders like Taha Hussein, Salama Mousa, Muhammad Hussein Haykal and Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, found themselves troubled by the question as to where, precisely, Egypt belongs culturally: Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, or the Arab world. Since the 1950s, however, there has been something very near a consensus that Egypt belongs to the Arab world and is, as Gamal Abdel Nasser told the Egyptian National Assembly upon his re-election as president in January 1965, "an integral part of the Arab nation."(1)

What to Nasser seemed obvious, however, had not always gone unchallenged by other Egyptians. As far back as the early 1960s, as the dust was settling on the ruins of the Egypt-Syria merger, some voices began to be heard in Cairo suggesting that the whole idea of pan-Arab unity lacked a solid foundation both in history and in actual reality. One of these was Taha Hussein, who in a newspaper article related how he first encountered the idea of pan-Arab unity.

It was from the Syrians, he wrote, that he heard "talk about Arab unity" many years before -- and "I never heard it for the first, the second and the third time except from the Syrians." Arab unity was the Syrians' dream when their land, their lives and their interests were in the hands of the French -- and it may have been their dream before that, too, when Syria suffered under the despotic rule of the Ottoman Turks. Syrians hated to hear an Arab speaking of the Syrian "nation" (umma); they always hastened to correct you, arguing that there was no such thing as a Syrian nation, an Iraqi nation or an Egyptian nation: there is only one nation, and that is the Arab nation. They conceded, however, that there was a Syrian "people" (sha'b), an Iraqi people, and an Egyptian people -- but they added that these peoples will inevitably be united as they used to be united in the past and merge into an Arab nation as it used to be throughout its history.

"I remember," Taha Hussein added, "that I used to argue with them at length on this union; I used to ask them where would the capital of such a union be -- in Medina, as in the days of the first caliphs? In Damascus, as in the time of the Umayyads? Or in Baghdad, as in the days of the Abbasids? ... Eventually they accused me, in their newspapers, first of Pharaonism, later of shu'ubiyya (non-Arab orientation). Then they proceeded to accuse all or most of Egypt's writers of Pharaonism, which they used to hate exceedingly and condemn root and branch."(2)

Such "non-Arab" sentiments, expressed by Taha Hussein and other Egyptian thinkers, following Syria's secession from the United Arab Republic in the early 1960s, were soon to be reciprocated by certain quarters in Damascus -- with the result that the Nasser regime now had to defend its belief in Egypt's Arabness on two fronts. "We have no choice," declared Nasser in an address he gave at a mass rally on 22 February 1962. …