Return of the Natives – Pharaonism Redux

In the late 1930s and early 1940s Naguib Mahfouz penned a trilogy of novels set in ancient Egypt but with contemporary themes relating to political succession, legitimacy, social mores and struggle against foreign domination.  “’Abath Al Aqdar”, “Radubis” and “KefahTeba”  (Play of Fates, Radubis and Thebes’ Struggle)  all sold well and were received with some acclaim, even if they lacked the mature Mahfouz style of psychological insight and realism. Mostly they were wooden set pieces designed to carry forward Mahfouz’s ideas.  Two critics stood out in their fulsome praise of the novels. One was Salama Moussa, Mahfouz’s mentor and one-time employer. This is not surprising given Moussa’s lifetime espousal of Pharaonism. He was past his prime by then, and the remaining two decades of his life would be dedicated to retrospective reflections, score-setting, ideological agitation against the Muslim Brotherhood and occasional stints as a safe journalist for the 1952 coup makers. But Moussa’s praise was exceeded by that of Sayyd Qutb, who went further to suggest that the books be made mandatory readings for Egyptian schools, insisting that ancient Egypt should be a guide post for future development in the country. Within two decades Qutb would walk to the gallows for peripheral participation in farcical seditions, but his influence would continue to grow within Egypt and eventually outside it. His final works found new guide posts in a romanticized version of early Islam, and saw in ancient Egypt a warning tale about ignorance, cruelty, and dictatorship. Moussa’s descent to obscurity and Qutb’s rise to fame both reflect the fate of Pharaonism in Egypt, and outside it as well. The Western obsession with ancient Egypt has never truly faded, but it has been superseded in many quarters with fascination with Islamism, driven largely by its threats to the West, as well as how it neatly fits with “post-colonial” discourse currently in vogue among academics. Moussa, who respected the West and favored a constructive engagement with its heritage, is rarely studied, considered “safe” and therefore safely ignored. Qutb’s flammable narrative of grievance towards the West, the loss of imagined greatness and the promise of eventual triumph is deemed more worthy of study. When Sadat’s assassin screamed “I killed the Pharaoh”, 15 years after Qutb’s death, he was a witness to the damage Qutb’s ideas inflicted on the nation that damaged him. Pharaonism, one of the main engines of Egyptian nationalism, has been largely ignored and discounted, and when its effects come to the forefront on occasions, they evoke a puzzled response.

Pharaonism has assumed a variety of forms and as a result escapes easy definitions. At the core of it is a view that Egypt has a unique and integral history, from its earliest moments to its present day. The variety of historical forces, cultural transformations and religious shifts in Egypt are seen as mere surface ripples, a superficial reorganization of unique native features. There is more than a passing resemblance to various European forms of nationalism, especially those inclined to romanticism, such as German nationalism. It is a unifying force with a dark underside. Mahfouz’s third novel, “KefahTeba”, is laced with no small amount of xenophobia. The Asiatic invaders, the Hyksos, are sometimes described as “pale”, “flabby” and “treacherous”, in contrast to the dark, lean and honest Egyptians. Surf through Egyptian cable channels today and you will find echoes of that among the low grade peddlers of incitement, who frequently call Hamas, or even the very Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, “Hyksos”.

What are we to make of Qutb’s about-face regarding ancient Egypt? It would not be wholly correct to see it as part-and-parcel of his transformation from a liberal esthete to an Islamic “Fundamentalist”. Qutb’s rabid hostility to ancient Egypt seems more modern than atavistic. Early Arab invaders and subsequent Muslim historians generally lacked this level of hostility. Many (Al Mutannabi, Al Baghdadi) saw in the puzzling and silent massive monuments a witness to God’s wrath against pagans; that such a mighty empire can disappear without a trace.  Others, such as Ibn Wahshyia  or Abu ‘Ubayd Al Bakri, ,  were closer to later Western observers, marveling at these wonders and insisting they were built by a superior race of men (“they begat children who spoke at birth”). Islamic iconoclasm was never deployed towards the systemic destruction of the ancient Egyptian Atlals. They were certainly plundered, neglected and occasionally used as a quarry, but in only very few isolated instances did the rulers direct actual destruction.  Qutb’s anger is closer to the attempt by various totalitarian systems to erase the past and create a “new man”. It was also motivated by his alienation from the ruling elites, which often employed ancient Egyptian history as a legitimizing tool (Nasser’s partisans claimed he was the first true Egyptian to rule the country since ancient times).

Pharaonism had its heyday from the late 1800s to the 1940s. It became closely associated with the Egyptian national struggle for modernization and independence, as can be seen from works such as Sa’ad Zaghloul’s tomb (attacked as un-Islamic) and Mahmoud Mokhtar famous statue outside Cairo University. Starting in the 1940s the struggle against the British took on less national and more religious tones, as the Brotherhood formed armed groups and agitated less for Egyptian independence than for a broad rejection of the West, including the newly formed state of Israel.  From that point on, Pharaonism fought what seemed to be a losing rear guard action against Islamism. Mahfouz, for example, never renounced it, but never completed his project of additional novels set in ancient Egypt. Political repression post-1952 further weakened Pharaonism, draining vitality out of nationalist parties and channeling much of the political discourse toward Arabism, and since the 1970s, Islamism. The revolution of 2011 was notable for its lack of Pharaonic symbolism, aside from the odd demonstration by Copts, who clung ever closer to the Pharaonic past as the public sphere became more Islamicized ( we should note here with some amusement what the 12th century Al Baghdadi wrote “Copts continue to preserve a great preference for the worship of the nation of their origin and suffer themselves readily to the customs of their ancestors“)  . In fact, many of the young revolutionaries, purposely or otherwise, adopted the Islamist narrative of oppressive rulers as “Pharaohs”. This narrative, which seems natural to our ears today, would have been off-key in the 1930s when Mahfouz began his novels. In his trilogy the Pharaoh is a symbol of the nation, a manifestation of its hopes and an expression of its health. Oppression is associated with foreign influences; the Asiatic invaders and the marauding Bedouins. It would have been easy to think that Pharaonism is a quaint but irrelevant relic.

There is little question that the Muslim Brotherhood has been instrumental in shaping Egyptian social attitudes since the 1940s, even under repression. It is telling that Nasser, as Prime Minister prior to becoming President, took the reins of education from one Hussein (Taha) and handed it to another (Kamal El Din), almost certainly a Brotherhood sympathizer or perhaps a secret member. The Arabization program of the 1950s and 1960s was at its root Islamism-lite. Historians have yet to write a full account of the spectacular fall of the Brotherhood. But the warning signs were present at their moment of triumph. The organization wrapped itself tightly in the 2011 revolution that it would never have started. As the balance sheet of the revolution began to dip into negative territory, the public soured on those associated with it. The parliamentary elections of 2011 seemed a triumph for the tactics of the group. But there were troubling signs as well. Their slogan “Bringing prosperity to Egypt” displayed a tin ear; opening them to a backlash once the promise faded, and to the accusation by their opponents of behaving as if they were an external group to the country. They seemed to conclude that they have more to fear from their religious right than anywhere else in the political spectrum, thus fostering many more political miscalculations, such as putting up two candidates for President. Epistemological closure, a euphemism for stubbornness, served the Brotherhood well in opposition, and brought them down when in power. We do not know what finally tipped the balance against Morsi. As late as April 2013, Sisi warned that Army intervention in politics would set the country back decades and might be bloody. One suspects that Morsi’s support for sending fighters to Syria panicked the military, which saw dangers on three sides; terrorism in the Sinai, chaos in Libya and a collapsed state in the Sudan. The Brotherhood could not imagine that the country that gave it its votes would stand by and witness a brutal suppression. Ironically the events have a faint echo in 1952. The Wafd party, which dominated Egyptian politics on the premise that independence would bring dignity and prosperity, saw its stalwart voters flee in the early 1950s and watch as the Army and the Brotherhood disassembled its apparatus from 1952 to 1954.

The many, perhaps the majority, of Egyptians who supported the removal of Morsi face the paradox of removing an elected President to safeguard democracy. We can ignore the most unhinged voices in Egypt, usually the loudest and most entertaining. But we should heed saner voices that see the events of July 3 as necessary, not as a road to progress but as a last ditch rescue mission.  These voices need a framework to manage the obvious contradiction. The new regime also recognizes that a return to the Mubarak formula will not work, and seeks an ideology to counter Islamism. It seems that Pharaonism 2.0 is being dusted up and offered as a possible solution to such issues. It has potential advantages. Its less attractive features  of extreme nationalism and reverence for titular authority offer a good tool kit, especially in a region with collapsing states. Its association with the brief liberal era offers hope for many Egyptians that democracy might not be so far off. Also, as Egypt seeks approval from a global audience that views July 3 with some disdain, the “old Egypt” might be an attractive product for a world grown skeptical about “moderate political Islam” and fearful of the darker manifestations of Islamism. It is no accident that Sisi’s visit to the UN featured a flurry of kitsch Pharaonic ads (the Nile flowing by the Pyramids, etc.). The only gambit left off the menu was a parade of Tutankhamen’s mask down Broadway.

To be among the few who predicted the fall of the Brotherhood as it achieved the pinnacle of power is of little satisfaction. Their fall is not a rejection of their narrow ideology for an alternative liberal attitude. And it came at a heavy price. There is the faint hope that form might create function; that the superficial trappings of a more inclusive nationalism might create such reality. It would require everyone to accept less than full vindication. This dangerous moment can cause Egyptians to pull back from the brink and accept a diverse public sphere. It can also cause them to double down and insist on a narrower definition of what constitutes acceptable national dialog, condemning the nation to decades of strife.  There is little in the current environment to inspire optimism, yet Egypt has a capacity to surprise.

 

— Maged Atiya


One Comment on “Return of the Natives – Pharaonism Redux”

  1. Dioscorus Boles says:

    Excellent piece but at think you are optimistic. Pharaonism 1.0 developed for so many reasons, including the desire to dissociate Egypt from Turkey, the excavation of Tut Ankhanon tomb, and, most impirtantly, the British rule which safeguarded the liberal exoeriment. Pharaonism 2.0 is very unlikely to develop. You have noticed in your piece that the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood does not nean that the archaic thought they carry has expired. Egypt us gripped by this same Islamic ideology that is compounded by Arabism. In a nutshell, the majority of the Muslims of Egypt identify with Arabs and Islam – and when that’s the case, Pharaonism stands no chance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s