The Surge in Egyptian Nationalism

By Darwish, Adel | The Middle East, October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Surge in Egyptian Nationalism

Darwish, Adel, The Middle East


EGYPTIAN NEW YEAR'S Eve, which fell on 11 September, was celebrated by Egyptians across the globe in major cities as far flung and diverse as London, San Francisco, Sidney, Oslo and Dubai.

For the first time in modern history Egyptians publicly revived the old rituals in Giza, celebrating the New Year with wide media coverage as groups of dancers, reviving the ancient spirit, moved to 3,500-year-old rhythms found on papyrus recovered from ancient tombs.

The Giza celebrations were the brainchild of Egyptian Salon (ES), a cultural forum raising the nation's awareness of its ancient spirit to reclaim a national Egyptian identity, obscured by five decades of military autocracy of pan-Arab political leanings, and further confused by creeping radicalism.

The ES was quickly joined by the Egyptian Liberal Party ELP, a group of secular and nationalist parties Tahat El Ta'ssis (under-formation) the oldest of which is Hizb-Masr Al Um (Mother Egypt Party) MEP. Under formation is a label used by secular parties to subtly condemn President Hosni Mubarak's regime, against which they are engaged in a decade-long judicial battle seeking a licence enabling them to contest parliamentary elections. Within hours of the ES email advertising its New Year celebration, scores of the year 6249 websites sprung up, posted by Egyptian Nationalists, neo-Pharaonic religionists and Egyptology addicts advertising their celebrations worldwide.

So, what lies behind this feverish revival by Egyptians of their ancient spirit?

The momentum is the strongest since Nahadt Masr, Egypt's modern renaissance, peaked with the 1919 revolution, when Egyptians of all faiths joined by immigrants and settlers, including Jews, rose up against the British military presence. Their rebellion led to the 1922 breakaway from the Ottoman Caliph (Imperial rule from Constantinople with the Sultan as head of all Muslims).

Egyptian nationalists hailed the 1922 independence as recovering the national identity from a 700-year-old Imperial Islamic rule (in the 13th century the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam, pressurised by a backdated Jizyiah, poll tax levied on non Muslims).

Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb further boosted Egyptianism enshrined in the 1923 constitution. The most advanced, liberal, and democratic in Egypt's 7,000-year history, the constitution gave women equal rights, enshrined freedom of thought, expression and faith, and set up a Westminster-style pluralist democracy until it was abolished by Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser's 1952 military coup.

The post-Nahadt Masr Egyptianism, which is liberal and secular by its nature, is a reaction to Islamists' increased violence and their intimidation of women and liberals, says columnist Ahab Qasim. Readers' letters and Egyptian bloggers see radicalism as an alien culture to what they consider has been their normal social life since Mohammed Ali Pasha founded the modern state 200 years ago in 1805.

Many Egyptians say they hate the Muslim Brothers (MB) and radical Islamists for intimidating women into taking up the veil and threatening secular and liberal Egyptians (some assassinated whilst others fled abroad), as well as Christians (some churches were attacked), while MB called for subjecting non-Muslims to Jizyiah while seeking to ban all aspects of modern life and eliminate the individuals' right to free choice.

Few Egyptians object to Islamists being rounded up routinely by the regime. Only liberal lawyers and other secularists (likely to dangle from lampposts if the Brothers were to reach power) are defending the Islamists right to free expression.

While claiming to have given up the kind of terrorism enshrined in the group's founding literature and making noises about believing in freedom and democracy, the Brothers' imams still tell their Friday congregations that death in the cause of God is a virtuous goal (as set by their founder Hassan El Banna 70 years ago). …

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