Identity in Crisis: Egyptian Political Identity in the Face of Globalization

By Springborg, Robert | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Identity in Crisis: Egyptian Political Identity in the Face of Globalization


Springborg, Robert, Harvard International Review


National political identities reflect material interest and the exercise of power, hence they mirror the outcome of the clash of those interests and the capacity as well as the inclusiveness of governmental institutions. A coherent national political identity suggests the existence of a dominant social formation or broadly inclusive governmental institutions with ample capacity to make, implement, and adjudicate public policy. Conversely, a fragmented national identity points to the existence of competitive social formations and the likelihood that governmental institutions are immobilized by competition between those formations, or rendered illegitimate by virtue of having been captured by one such formation. National political identifies are thus plastic, reflecting both shifts in power relations between social formations and the dynamics of political institutions as their capacities and inclusiveness undergo change. The outcome of political contestation, national political identities are necessarily fluid and constantly subject to reinterpretation.

Although the characterization of national political identity as being other than immutable has become commonplace, it bears emphasizing within the Arab context because both scholars and political practitioners have sought to imbue it with a more transcendental character. The rise of Arab nationalism, culminating in the formation of Arab nation-states, is widely depicted as the fulfilment of a manifest destiny. Once the historic mission was accomplished, the issue of political identity in the "Arab" world was considered closed. For many, attempts to reopen the identity issue amount to heresy. This refusal to countenance an ijtihad (interpretation) of identity reflects the interests of most incumbent Arab elites, for whom an alleged, homogenous, unified national identity serves to obviate the need for political pluralism. In the absence of a pluralism of identities, no commensurate institutional pluralism is deemed to be required.

The Arab-centric view of political identity, however, is history written by the victors. The nationalist struggle entailed, possibly necessarily, the sublimation of particularistic, sub-national identities in order to mobilize and unify the population. For those leaders whose hands were on the levers of power when true independence was finally achieved, nationalism served as justification for the subjugation of competitive elites and the social formations they represented. In those heady days, the claim to be the true articulator of the Egyptian or any other variant of Arab nationalism was sufficient to legitimate the incumbent and, by implication, discredit any and all challengers.

But this political situation was inherently non-sustainable. In the first instance, the myth of the unified, homogenous nation could not long endure in the face of a heterogenous, disunited reality. In the second, fulfilment of the nationalist mission was beyond the capacities of the nation, thereby inevitably forcing accommodations and compromises, as well as bringing about disastrous defeats, thus undermining incumbents' claims to rule and rekindling sub-national identities while intensifying the hostility, of those social formations excluded from power. In sum, the radical nationalist phase was just that, a phase, the accompanying political identity of which was necessarily also transitory.

Challenges to Nationalism

The problem is that this phase has not yet been superseded by any clearly identifiable successor. Radical Arab nationalism is dead, but is yet to be buried. Its corpse is retained, like an El Cid, as a symbol of the earlier phase, the linkage to which serves as justification of claims to present incumbency. The rotting corpse cannot be interred until a new source of legitimacy is produced, a legitimacy which must rest on the recognition of three separate realities and accommodation to them, tasks to which the Egyptian leadership as well as that of most other Arab states, have thus far proven unequal. …

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