Social utopia on the Nile?

Sisiʹs new breed of Egyptians

According to the Egyptian government, Egypt is once again experiencing a great civilizational awakening. A campaign aimed at producing a new multicultural identity has been launched, but the progressive slogans mask a more sinister agenda. By Joseph Croitoru

An ideological general mobilisation is taking place in Egypt. It is focussed on nothing less than the "development of the new Egyptian" – the headline of a campaign promoted incessantly in recent months by both the government and President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in person.

This major civilizational project is being specifically aimed at the younger generation – their parents and grandparents could, however, be forgiven for regarding it with a certain amount of scepticism. After all, this is not the first time that rulers on the Nile have attempted to cultivate the ideal "new Egyptian" – and all previous attempts failed.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, for instance deployed propaganda typifying the model citizen in a bid to realise the pan-Arab vision of the unification of all Arabs – a vision that was ultimately shattered by Egypt's devastating military defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Initially the Islam-friendly course of Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat, indirectly fostered the Islamism nascent at the time; later however, he tried to counter this trend by encouraging citizens to focus solely on the Egyptian legacy, promoting a national pride also fuelled by the achievements of the pre-Islamic Pharaonic era. But the experiment failed and when Sadat was shot dead by Islamist assassins in 1981, his killers believed the Islamic nation had been liberated from a new "Pharaoh".

Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat in office, responded with an even stronger emphasis on Pharaonism as the fount of Egyptian identity. This served primarily to legitimise his authoritarian leadership style and prop up his image as a relentless fighter against Islamist terrorism.

Photo montage of Egyptian presidents Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and Gamal Abdel Nasser (photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images)
In the footsteps of his idol: Gamal Abdel Nasser promoted the "ideal being" in an attempt to realise his pan-Arab ambitions. Unlike Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, however, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has made it abundantly clear that he has learned from the mistakes of his secular predecessors when it comes to shaping national identity policy

The heart of the world

During their short-lived term in office, the Muslim Brothers set out to do away with this predominantly secular identity image. As we know, they didn't have time to realise their plans to re-Islamise Egyptian culture and society. It was obvious from the outset that their arch enemy Sisi, who like Nasser before him mercilessly persecuted the movement, had learned from the mistakes of his secular predecessors when it came to shaping national identity policy.

To this end, the Egyptian constitution adopted in early 2014 evoked – in almost pan-Arabian fashion – "Arabian Egypt" as the "heart of the entire world", at the same time extolling the nation as the "hub of civilisation and culture" and even as the cradle of the three monotheistic religions. Article 50, concerned with the maintenance of national heritage, also explicitly emphasises that this includes the legacy of the Pharaonic, as well as that of the Coptic and Islamic eras.

Blind spots

In the course of the current campaign to foster the "new Egyptian", an already far-reaching civilizational foundation is seeking to acquire more territory. The campaign draws on a political-philosophical work – "The Seven Pillars of Egyptian Identity" – which was first published in 1989 and has been frequently re-published since.

Penned by Coptic civil engineer and writer Milad Hanna (1924–2012), according to whom Egyptian identity originates from virtually all phases of Egyptian history: the Pharaonic, the Greek-Roman-Byzantine, the Arab and the Islamic.

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