In Egypt, Nationalism and Autocracy Don’t Much Care for Cultural History

Egypt, the world’s largest Arab country, is also its most unique. Unlike post-colonial constructs like Iraq and Syria, or modern kingdoms like Saudi Arabia, the people of Egypt descend from one of the world’s great ancient civilizations of antiquity, whose wonders have long captured the imagination of foreign monarchs and traders. For millennia, Egypt’s Mediterranean culture and economy has been tied to Europe unlike other Arab nations’: Egypt’s lush Nile River Valley led its people to develop a civilization rooted in sedentary agriculture rather than nomadism. But today, the autocratic Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is hardly distinguishable from his Arab neighbors – like Mohammed bin Salman, whose oil-rich family were Bedouin nomads little more than a century ago. Sisi, like his autocratic contemporaries around the globe, has used the restoration of Egyptian patriotism to cloak his regime’s brutal ascension. 

Sisi came to power in a 2013 coup d’état that ended two years of unrest and sporadic violence in Egypt that had seen the government control change hands from the nation’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to the Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi. Morsi came from the Muslim Brotherhood, a political faction that aiming to spread Islamic law and values in Egypt. Upon receiving the office of president, Morsi’s attempts to derail his country’s new constitution and pursue the full extent of his party’s Islamist agenda proved immediately unpopular, especially with the military establishment, led by General Sisi. Sisi’s coup months later heralded a return to domestic stability and preached a doctrine of Egyptian nationalism to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood’s radical Islamism. The military is often any nation’s strongest point of national pride, and in Egypt, where disrespecting the long-standing military has been unthinkable for decades, this was certainly the case. For many Egyptians, Sisi was (and remains) a true patriot: a former general who restored order to a country plagued by civil unrest. With billions spent on showy military and infrastructure projects, many suggest that Sisi now aims to depict himself as the ideological descendant of President Nasser, the Egyptian nationalist who overthrew Egypt’s monarchy in 1952.

While other nationalists around the world and throughout history have praised their nations’ cultures and histories, Sisi’s nationalism has little to do with cultural pride and everything to do with political solidarity. He has no genuine interest in Egypt’s ethnic or cultural history, only in wrapping his corrupt regime in the cloak of nationalism. Take Pharaonism, a nationalist movement in post-colonial 20th century Egypt. Pharaonists were anti-colonials who believed that post-war Egypt should be founded as a secular ethnic nation of Egyptians, not Arabs, reviving the region’s ancient history, language, and culture to distinguish Egypt from the rest of the Arab world. But in contrast, Sisi has met international rebuke for his careless treatment of Egyptian antiquities and monuments. Pharaonism or anything like it is entirely absent from Sisi’s regime. During his seven years in office, Sisi has cozied himself up to other regional autocrats and stolen from their playbooks, turning his people against foreign “subversives” and domestic “insurgents.” His regime has persecuted domestic opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign journalists and aid workers. Human Rights Watch says that, “Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, Egypt has been experiencing its worst human rights crisis” in decades. From 2011-2013, el-Sisi’s soldiers massacred anti-military protestors and carried out attacks on Egypt’s most prominent minority group, Coptic Christians. As recently as 2020, el-Sisi was thrust prominently into the global spotlight after his regime detained humanitarian workers, and the Italian government officially accused Sisi’s security forces of involvement in the 2015 murder of an Italian researcher in Cairo.

To hear it from Sisi, these flagrant exploits in self-preservation are acts of patriotism that will ensure the stability and security of the Egyptian nation. To question that truth is unthinkable. This brand of nationalism is weak; it carries little ideological weight. Even if Egyptians reject Pharaonism’s romantic musings, the Muslim Brotherhood once offered a model for Egyptian nationalism with a practical, yet still ideological, approach, before the organization was forced underground. Instead of seizing on ancient Egyptian culture, the people of Egypt could acknowledge the current reality, that Egypt is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and build a just, Muslim nation from the ground-up in complete defiance of the corrupt gulf monarchies. Of course, we’ll never know if this ideology would have panned out without 2013’s coup d’état: Would Morsi have proven a just leader? Perhaps a benevolent dictator? What’s certain is that Sisi has rejected both the Pharaonistic and Islamic approach to Egyptian nationalism and hopes that if he continues to present himself as the Egyptian saviour, no one will question his rule. Lest they be unpatriotic. 

Beyond his military power, perhaps the reason Sisi could so easily grab power was that in 2013 there was no shared picture of what post-Mubarak Egypt would, should, or could look like. Pro-democracy reformers were at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood who were at odds with the military. There wasn’t a clear national image, and the man with the biggest stick – in this case, the man with the most American-made missiles and assault rifles – assumed power. Today, Sisi champions nationalism from Cairo. In his words, he defends Egypt against nefarious insurgents and subversives. But he fails to foster a state of true national pride, something no doubt felt by those under the bootheel of his brutal regime.

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