The UnEgyptians

The last century in Egyptian history is book-ended by the dual revolutions of 1919 and 2011. The first had its cry of “Egypt for the Egyptians” and the second had a subtle variation on that “The Egyptians are here”.  It is universally accepted that Egypt is the oldest nation state and has one of the most clearly delineated national characters.

Identity is rarely well-defined except in the dull instances where it is of trivial consequence. But Egyptian identity seems particularly slippery at the moment, perhaps because it is coming under repeated assaults. Since the rise of political Islam in the 1940’s, the definition of an Egyptian has been constructed ever more narrowly. First it was Jews, both Egyptian and Ottoman, whose ancestors in one case have lived in Egypt for centuries and in the other for decades, that were declared “UnEgyptian”. Such a declaration, as cruel as it was erroneous, was justified on the grounds of threats from Israel. Then the motley collection of other ethnic groups who have made Egypt their home for centuries were also declared “UnEgyptian”. The Ottoman Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Levantines were are suddenly bereft of the Egyptian identity. Such narrowing, once begun, can only draw ever narrower. Soon Copts, secular Muslims and other sympathizers will lose their citizenship. In the end “Egypt” will be entirely erased. The country will be defined as some vague outpost of the “Arab nation” or the “Muslim Ummah”. Those that pushed out their kin in the interest of faith will find no kinship with those sharing only a faith. All that will be left is the sad spectacle of former Egyptians waving an ancient black flag, dressed as Saudis, hoping for a handout from Qataris and claiming to have a Turkish economy.  The memory of loss will remain with a few, but for the majority there is only the loss of memory.

If there is hope it will be in Egypt’s remarkable capacity to absorb invaders and turn them into Egyptians. Invaders walked like Egyptians long before the Bangles urged them to do so. Perhaps they were enticed by the fleeting but intense reverence Egyptians have for their rulers, or maybe it was just cool to be an Egyptian.  Whatever the reason, they all did it; the rustic Macedonians, the worldly Romans, even the pious Fatimids. History records that of all the people who crossed into Egypt through the soft underbelly of the Sinai, only one wished to leave voluntarily. Ironically, the Jews still choose the Sinai as the stage upon which they received their laws, suffered their punishments and, centuries later, perfected their tans. So perhaps this moment is a temporary insanity brought on by a narrow cult, and in time the “Arab Islamic Republic of Egypt”, will shed the fetters of these identities preferring the more maternally embracing “Egypt”.


One Comment on “The UnEgyptians”

  1. [...] Egypt as part of a larger Islamic entity opens possibilities toward wider integration. It certainly tightens the identity of the nation along a particular religious [...]


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