Hanna also believed that Egypt's association with Arab, Mediterranean and African regions played a part in forming its identity. The Egyptian Copt viewed this diversity as a bulwark against fanaticism and terrorism – an interpretation that is more than welcome to the Sisi regime, which is at pains to present Egypt as a haven of peace and tolerance, in order to distract from the brutal persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Pro-government media not only highlight the exemplary character of Hanna's recently re-published book, but also interweave it with the national project to create a new Egyptian. The daily newspaper "Al-Ahram", for example, recently devoted an entire series of articles to the subject.  

One contributor Hatem Abdel Munam, a prominent commentator and environmental sociologist, repeatedly drew on Hanna's ideas concerning the openness and pronounced cultural adaptability of Egyptians, presenting state actors and institutions such as Al-Azhar University – making its contribution to the current public campaign through calls for religious tolerance – as representatives of this ideological drive to influence the nation's way of thinking.

No one appears to be troubled by the fact that, in the process, certain problematic chapters of history such as the brutal Islamist conquest of Egypt by Mohammed's contemporary Amr ibn al-As are being glossed over. This is because the true goal of the state identity campaign – one that cannot be expressed in public – is education towards societal harmony, the ability to achieve consensus and subordination within the collective, which must itself be subject to the dictates of state leadership.

Thus, in his public speeches on the "development of the new Egyptian", President al-Sisi is trying to sell the idea that this is a project for Egyptian society as a whole – and not just for the state.

Poster calling people to vote for a change to the Egyptian constitution on 16 April 2019 (photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
All power to the President: with the amendment of the constitution at the end of April 2019, Sisi's current four-year term of office was extended to six. In addition, from 2024, the president is allowed to serve a further term of six years. "When Sisi, in the same breath, explicitly calls on Egyptians to demonstrate a readiness to accept reforms and a willingness to make sacrifices, the suspicion inevitably arises that in truth, it is all about adapting to his own conservative world view and unconditional subjugation," writes Croitoru

But when he, in the same breath, explicitly calls on Egyptians to demonstrate a readiness to accept reforms and a willingness to make sacrifices, the suspicion inevitably arises that in truth, it is all about adapting to his own conservative world view and unconditional subjugation.

It is for the benefit of rulers then, that the much vaunted multi-faceted Egyptian identity is being exploited. Attempts to make the government's new mammoth urban development projects more palatable by referring to the architectural achievements of the Pharaohs are just one blatant example.

A commitment to the Mediterranean region, which became fashionable two decades ago and was quickly forgotten again thereafter, has been re-articulated recently to foster public acceptance of economic co-operation with currently unpopular neighbours such as Israel.

At the behest of the President, we are even seeing the restoration of surviving Jewish monuments in a country where very few Jews still remain – a move that is probably aimed first and foremost at encouraging tourism, but that can also easily be justified within the context of the new Egyptian multiculturalism campaign.

Little popular enthusiasm

But the state-ordered enthusiasm for civilizational renewal on the Nile, which the weekly magazine "Ruz al-Yusuf" even went as far as describing as an "all-round revolution", appears not to have properly taken hold among the populace.

Education Minister Tareq Shauqi, who like President Sisi declared the campaign to be a "matter for the people", recently complained about opposition to the planned expansion of school timetables to include topics from art and culture as well as sporting activities from – of all people – parents.

In government circles and pro-government media, there is a readiness to claim that such reservations are due to a lack of information within the citizenry. This glosses over the fact that it is public servants who are the very people contributing to the general sense of unease: Culture Minister Ines Abdel Dayem has taken to presenting the opening of many new cultural institutions in the country as a by-product of the new identity campaign, although the initiative to rejuvenate and found such establishments pre-dates it.

Meanwhile, public criticism of the New Egyptian project is becoming unusually loud. The Egyptian prose writer and columnist Saad al-Qarsh may have allowed himself to criticise the contradiction between official slogans promoting pluralism and tolerance and the current lack of freedom that dominates everyday life in Egypt; but significantly, he did this writing in the newspaper "Al-Arab" which is published in London.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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