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Activists from a group called "Third Square", which promotes a middle way in the rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the army's overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, shout slogans as they gather to oppose both parties at Sphinx Square in Cairo July 30, 2013 (REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)

Activists from a group called “Third Square”, which promotes a middle way in the rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the army’s overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, shout slogans as they gather to oppose both parties at Sphinx Square in Cairo July 30, 2013 (REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)

“But what do they want?” This was the question raised the other day by an American participant at a “think tank” discussion in London of events in Egypt. The disappointment implicit in the question is shared by many Western commentators interested in Egypt. For years, they had based their analyses on the assumption that Egypt, being a Muslim-majority nation, was craving Islamic rule denied them by a military dictatorship under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. It was further assumed that, given a chance, the overwhelming majority would vote for Islamist parties.

While events of the past two years have provided partial confirmation of that assumption, they have also shaken some of its foundations. The uprisings that toppled Mubarak did not start with Islamists. Though we do not know enough about the behind-the-scenes events that forced the “Rais” to bow out, one thing is certain: Islamists played no part in it.

And in the elections that followed, the single biggest “party” consisted of those who abstained. The combined Islamist share of the votes peaked at a quarter of an estimated 60 million eligible to vote.

To answer the question “What do they want?” it is important to understand who the Egyptians are.

Egypt is not one of the 150 or so newly created nation-states that have enriched international life since the Second World War. Nor is it even comparable to “newly created” European states such as Germany and Italy, which emerged from the debris of empires. Indeed, Western terms such as “empire” and “nation-state” do not fully explain Egypt. For over a hundred years, Egyptian intellectuals have tried to discover—or, as they would say, re-discover—Egypt’s “deep identity.”

What is Egypt?

Subhi Wahida, a perceptive historian, devoted a whole book to the question The Origins of the Egyptian Problem, as did numerous other writers, among them Ibrahim Al-Mazini, author of the seminal novel Ibrahim the Writer.

In every case, the aim was to stabilize a complex and constantly evolving phenomenon. Some writers tried to transcend Egypt’s existential reality by reaching for its “essence.” It was as if one tried to transform a metaphor into a cliché. The quest for the “essence of Egyptian-ness” was not an abstract intellectual exercise. Its political and social consequences affected the lives of almost everyone in the country.

In almost every case, though romantic in cultural terms, the quest for the Egyptian “essence” inspired deeply reactionary political positions. Once a writer had discovered what he thought the “essence of the essence” was, he wanted Egypt to return to a fictionalized past.

The “Pharaohnists” claimed that Egypt was the product of its rulers and people in ancient times. Whatever came after that should be considered as a series of foreign invasions that should be detected and expurgated. Tawfiq Al-Hakim, one of Egypt’s most popular writers in the last century, partly reflected that view.

Then they were those who believed that Egypt should search for its essence in Hellenism. Close to that strand were those who saw Egypt as part of the Mediterranean civilization, at least in its “broad outline” (al-Khutut al-Kubra) as Wahida suggested.

Still others wished to define Egypt as an Islamic or Arab–Islamic nation.

So, what is Egypt? Is it Pharaohnic, Hellenic, Persian, Roman, African, Mediterranean, Islamic, Arab?

The answer is that Egypt is all of those, with all their many internal variations. Egypt took from all of those, experimented with them and ultimately transformed them. When the Pharaohs emerged as an organized ruling elite, Egypt was not a blank page on which they could doodle and design as they pleased. Rather than creators of Egypt, they were its creatures. Egypt did indeed have multifaceted cultural and commercial exchanges with the Hellenic world. But even the Ptolemaic kingdom that lasted more than two centuries was only partially Hellenic. To start with, the new ruling elite were mostly of Macedonian origin and thus on the margins of Hellenism. And very quickly, they described themselves as Pharaohs and adopted native Egyptian customs.

Under Roman rule, too, Egypt maintained its special status. It never became a province, being classed as a special domain of the emperor. Even when Emperor Caracalla declared all Egyptians to be Roman citizens, little changed in reality apart from an increase in taxes.

The assumption of an exclusively Islamic essence for Egypt is slightly more complicated. It is generally assumed that two centuries after the Arab conquest, a majority of Egyptians had converted to Islam. However, Islam in Egypt has evolved along many different axes. The Islam of the Fatimids was not the same as Islam under the Umayyad. Even Fatimid Islam assumed many different, and at times even heretical, expressions. The synthesis that has emerged after centuries of evolution is an Egyptian Islam, making Egypt one of the few Muslim-majority countries with no major sectarian divisions. Christianity in Egypt has had a similar experience, culminating in the consolidation of the Coptic (Egyptian) Church.

Although both Christianity and Islam, because of their global ambitions, do not recognize the concept of nationhood, in the case of Egypt both have had to accommodate it, even though with a degree of reticence. Egyptian Islam has its theological center at Al-Azhar, a quintessentially Egyptian institution, and does not defer to any authority outside the country. Similarly, the Coptic Church has avoided attempts at drawing it into an international network in the name of Christian unity. It has its own leadership structures, rituals and even language and recognizes no religious authority outside Egypt.

Attempts at reducing Egypt’s complex identity to just one of its many ingredients have often led to tension, conflict and violence, ending with failure. This is especially true of the advocates of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.

Contrary to common belief, pan-Arabism did not start with Nasser. It first appeared on the cultural scene in the 1920s when some intellectuals, inspired by Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy, started talking about the revival of a mythical Arab empire led by Egypt. Their main point of gathering was the Eastern Alliance (Rabita al-Sharqiyah), and among its principal advocates were Mansour Fahmi, Dasuqi Abaza and Salih Jowdat.

In 1938, the Society for Arab Unity was founded by the writer Mahmoud-Ali Al-Luba with his book On Egyptian Politics, a kind of manifesto that developed the concept of uruba (Arabness). The student union known as the Association for Arabness and led by As’ad Dagher achieved some influence in the 1930s. The concept of uruba was also popularized through the works of Abdul-Rahman Al-Kawakibi, born in the Ottoman province of Aleppo.

The Rise of Pan-Islamism

Nor was pan-Islamism invented by the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). Egyptian delegates were present in the first pan-Islamic congress in Ufa, in Tsarist Russia, in 1856. Another advocate of pan-Islamism was the Iranian activist Jamaleddin Asadabadi, also known as Al-Afghani, who spent nine years in Egypt. He and his disciples, notably Muhammad Abduh, echoed the idea of reforming Islam that had already found advocates among Muslims in India, the Russian Empire and Iran. (Al-Afghani later distanced himself from pan-Islamism and campaigned for the creation of Western-style states in Muslim lands.)

In the 1890s, the magazine Al-Moayyad (Divinely Endorsed), edited by Sheikh Ali Yussef, followed by Mustafa Kamil and his Al-Liwa (The Standard) magazine, propagated pan-Islamist ideas.

Various khedives, Egypt’s suzerains under nominal Ottoman domination, occasionally encouraged pan-Islamism to justify empire-building sorties such as the annexation of Nubia and Sudan and the invasion of Hijaz and Syria. For a while, King Fuad even toyed with the idea of declaring himself caliph, filling the gap left by the abolition of the caliphate in Istanbul in 1928.

The pan-Islamists themselves were divided on the need for reform. While Afghani and Abduh tried to promote a pragmatic Islam, Muhammad Rashid Rada and his magazine Al-Minar (The Lighthouse) preached the return to the golden age of early Islam. They argued that reform would inevitably mean abandoning parts of Islamic dogma and Shari’a, thus running the risk of harming the faith as a whole.

However, pan-Islamism failed to persuade a majority of Egyptians and by the early 20th century, it had run out of steam, its standard left to gather dust.

In 1927, a group known as the Young Muslim Men’s Association led by Abdul-Hamid Saeed tried to raise the fallen standard, but failed. That task was left to another movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928. That was a propitious moment for re-launching pan-Islamism to counter nascent nationalism and a growing labor movement inspired by Socialist and Communist ideologies.

The Brotherhood was the first Egyptian pan-Islamist movement to succeed in creating an international network. It had branches in several Arab countries. Its branch among Indian Muslims under British rule was known as Jamaat Islami. It even found a franchise in Shi’ite Iran, where it was known as Fadayan Islam and led by Mujtaba Mirlowhi. The founder of the future Islamic Republic in Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, was a member. Iran’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was also attracted to the Ikhwanist ideology and translated two books by the Ikhwan’s chief ideologue, Sayyed Qutb. Last June in a speech in Tehran, Khamenei eulogized Qutb as one of the “three greatest Islamic thinkers of all time”—the other two being Khomeini and the Pakistani journalist Abul-Ala Maudoodi.

The Ikhwan also aimed at seizing control of the army through infiltration. It created a secret military cell led by Colonel Abdul-Mon’em Abdul-Raouf. The cell plotted the assassination of President Nasser in 1954.

Right from the start, the Ikhwan suffered from ideological contradictions that have continued to this day and, at least in part, caused the strategic setback it has just suffered. It could not abandon its Egyptian-ness to the degree required to transform it into a transnational ideological movement. In that, the Ikhwan shared the predicament of Communism in the Soviet Union, a parochial movement with global ideological ambitions.

Pan-Islamism has been one of the two principal weaknesses of the Ikhwan movement, the other being resorting to violence and terrorism.

For a while, the Ikhwan was attracted to radical European nationalist movements such as Fascism and Nazism. Banna made no secret of his admiration for Mussolini and Hitler, although Nazism and Fascism were hostile to religion. An Ikhwan delegation attended the Nuremberg Rally in 1936, where Hitler exposed his ideological aims.

Meanwhile, Egyptian rulers made occasional use of Islam as a means of buttressing their own position. Salaheddin Ayoubi donned the mantle of a Jihadi commander while his love of wine and his flirtations with the Crusaders were no secret. Even Nasser, a chameleon who changed ideological colors to suit the occasion, was Egyptian nationalist, pan-Arab and, for a while, even socialist, but he had limited secular tendencies. In 1954 he convened an Islamic Conference in the hope of seizing control of the religious agenda. He also tightened government control over Al-Azhar.

Although Egypt has been the most active center of Islamism and the exploitation of religion for political purposes in its various guises, it has also produced some of the most intelligent criticism of political Islam, by scholars such as Muhammad Sa’id Al-Ashmawi and Husseyn Ahmad Amin.

Partly in opposition to pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, some intellectuals promoted nationalist and secularist ideas. The idea of Egyptian nationalism had been gestating since the 19th century. It found oblique expression in Colonel Ahmad Orabi Pasha’s rebellions in 1879 and 1882. However, the movement was torn by its inner contradictions, including the designation of the colonel as a kind of “Mahdi” with implicit pan-Islamist ambitions. The National Party (Al-Hizb al- Watani al-Ahli) seemed to be more focused, promoting the use of the word watan (motherland or nation) instead of Umma, the term for the Islamic community throughout the world.

Ahmad Lutfi Sayyed and the group formed around the journal Al-Jaridah (The Frond) tried to define Egyptian identity in terms beyond Islam and/or Arab-ness. “Egypt was part of the Hellenic and Roman cultural and political sphere for over 1000 years,” Sayyed wrote. “How could she ignore that part of her heritage?”

Developed as an alternative to the concepts of Islamic or Arabic Umma, the idea of “Egyptian-ness” (Misriyah) found important advocates, notably Aziz Fahmi, Taha Husseyn, Husseyn Heykal and Hassan Al-Zayyat. Abbas Mahmoud Al-Aqqad further developed the idea in a biography of Sa’ad Zaghlul, a hero of the movement for independence against the British. At times, Egyptian nationalism overlapped with secularism. Masonic lodges created in the 1880s were also active in spreading secular ideas. Interestingly, some pan-Islamist figures, such as Afghani and Abduh, became Masons, as did the writer Abd Al-Salam Al-Muwailihi. Military figures such as Muhammad Sami Al-Baroudi and Latif Bey Salim also joined the Freemasons.

Alongside the burgeoning national movement voices were those raised in support of Westernization. The idea had already been launched by Khediv Ismail, who saw Egypt as part of the European space, only to lead it into bankruptcy and British domination. Egyptian-ness also found passionate advocates in Salama Mousa, Ismail Mazhar and Hussein Fawzi. Tawfiq Al-Hakim started wearing a French-style beret in opposition to the tarboush that symbolized the ruling elite.

Just as they had influenced Egyptian Islamist movements, Fascism and Nazism also attracted some on the fringes of Egyptian nationalism. The movement Misr Al-Fatat (Young Egyptians) set up a militia known as Al-Qamsan Al-Khadra (Green Shirts) modelled on the German SS. Ahmad Husseyn preached the rejection of constitutional rule and elections and advocated the creation of an Egyptian empire. In 1940, the Green Shirts changed tack and re-named themselves the Islamic Party of Egypt.

The national movement also inspired the emergence of parties on the Left. The Egyptian Democratic Party was set up in 1919. A year later, the Socialist Party came into being in Alexandria. The Communist Party was founded in 1922 after a split with Socialists. Dominated by the Left, the Confederation of Egyptian Workers flexed its muscle with a series of strikes in 1924.

Before Facebook

Egypt’s pro-democracy movement did not start with the Facebook and Twitter generation, as some suppose. From the 1880s, Shibli Shumayyil and Farah Antoun, despite their failure to totally dispel the patriarchal tradition, advocated the will of the people as the chief source of political legitimacy. Ahmad Lutfi and his People’s Party went even further, as did Salam Mousa. Ali Yussef and his Constitutional Party claimed that Egypt’s Greco-Roman heritage should lead it to democratic rule.

Tentative moves towards Westernization started under the first khedive, Muhammad-Ali Pasha, who won the admiration of some European intellectuals. The Pasha created the Majlis Al-Mashwarah (Consultation Council) in 1829, the first of its kind in the Muslim world, and adopted a constitution. Egypt set up its first parliament in 1866, ten years before the Ottomans and forty years before the Iranians, thus becoming the first Muslim-majority country to have a legislature.

The quest for Egyptian-ness inspired a cultural renaissance. This started with the translation of over four hundred major texts of Western literature, especially from French. The theme of equality for women was launched by Qassem Amin in his book Tahrir Al-Mer’a (Liberation of Woman) in 1899. “The veil should not be used as an excuse to oppress women,” he wrote. Women’s libbers enjoyed implicit support from some of the khedives. In 1874, Egypt created the first state schools for girls in the Muslim world, half a century before Iran.

Long before Facebook and mobile phones, Egyptians tried to use the latest technology to demand freedom and respect for human rights. The first printing press in the Muslim world was set up in Alexandria in 1805, almost forty years before the Ottomans and Iranians. Egyptians were also the first in the Muslim world to publish newspapers on a regular basis. Al Waqya Al-Masrieyh (Egyptian Events) began publishing in 1827, ten years before newspapers in the Ottoman Empire and Iran.

In an astonishingly short period in historical terms, Egyptians developed a distinct culture based on their diverse heritage. Muhammad Murtada Al-Zubaydi compiled the first modern dictionary of the Arabic language published in 1870. Hassan Al-Badri Al-Hejazi and Ismail Zohuri, who dared criticize religion, were trail-blazers for the renewal of classical Arabic poetry. Their heritage was enriched by people like Hafiz Ibrahim and Ismail Sabri. The push away from traditional poetry started with the neoclassical works of Ahmad Showqi and Sami Al-Baroudi. In 1910, Hussein Heykal published Zaynab, the first modern novel in Arabic.

Between the 1830s and 1880s, regarded by some as a golden age, Egyptians developed a distinct music of their own, inspired by Indian, Persian, Ottoman and European traditions without artless imitation. Mahmoud Hassan Ismail revived and enriched Egypt’s folk music. Opera, theater and, later, cinema and art became part of Egyptian life, at least in the urban areas. Egyptians also developed a popular poetry of their own known as shi’r al-amiyah (colloquial poetry). They also had their version of stand-up comedy long before Europeans and created a rich treasury of jokes. James Samua, a Jewish writer from Alexandria, was a major producer of satire under the pen-name of Sheikh Abu Naddara, criticizing aspects of the patriarchal and despotic society. A friend of Afghani, Abduh and Orabi Pasha, Abu Naddara was an early advocate of Egyptian nationalism.

The concept of Egyptian-ness owed part of its attraction to its ability to reflect the country’s ancient tradition of openness. Being Egyptian did not depend on race, ethnicity, religion, language or ideology. This was an open house; any stranger could enter. But once he entered he would become part of the family, never again to leave it. You could take the Egyptian out of Egypt but you could not take Egypt out of the Egyptian. It is a cliché that Egypt had no Egyptian ruler until Nasser. This is nonsense. All those who ruled Egypt, including the often-obnoxious Mamelukes, ended up becoming Egyptians. Could anyone think of Cleopatra as anything but Egyptian? Despite their Tunisian origin and pan-Islamist networks, the Fatimids were a quintessentially Egyptian dynasty. And what about Muhammad-Ali Pasha, the Albanian–Macedonian–Ottoman warrior, who had difficulty speaking “proper” Arabic? Even the banker Evelyn Baring, the British Consul General and effective ruler of Egypt for two decades, ended up as Cromer Pasha or Lord Cromer of Egypt.

Jurji Zeydan was both Syrian and Christian. But is there a writer more Egyptian than he? And what about another Christian Syrian, the journalist Farah Antoun or the Syrian Christian Tqla brothers who founded the Al-Hilal publishing house, at the time the largest empire of its kind in the region? Al-Baroudi was of Circassian origin, but none would question his status as a great Egyptian poet. Showqi was an even more complex figure. He was Kurdish, Greek and Circassian by descent and made fun of himself by saying that he had not a drop of Egyptian blood, though for all of his existence he was Egyptian. Could anybody doubt the Egyptian-ness of the Lebanese Druze star Farid Al-Atrash or the master of Egyptian cinema the Christian Youssef Shahin? We have already mentioned the Iranian Shi’ite Afghani, adopted by Egyptians as one of their own. But one of his later critics, Rashid Rada, was also a “foreigner” being of Syrian origin. Egyptian family names indicate a rare degree of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Egyptians’ interest in citizen initiatives did not start with non-governmental groups (NGOs), often set up with help from international bodies and foreign governments. Muhammad Sharif Pasha’s Helwan Society was a focus for new political and cultural ideas. The 19th century witnessed the spread of clubs known as Mahfil al-Taqqadum (Progressive Circle) and Mahfil al-Muhebbin al-Ilm (Circle of Friends of Science).

Even in the worst days of Nasser’s dictatorship, Egyptians managed to maintain a civil society through non-governmental cultural, religious, literary and social activity. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood’s survival was partly due to its ability to transform itself into a string of NGOs in contact with the population and offering some of the services that the government did not or could not provide.

The military tradition

The army’s move to topple President Mohamed Mursi against a background of popular disenchantment with the Ikhwan government is not a new phenomenon. The tradition of military coups did not start with General Muhammad Naguib and Colonel Nasser in 1952. In a sense, Muhammad-Ali Pasha himself came to power with a military coup. After that, Egypt witnessed an abortive coup in February 1879. There was another abortive coup attempt in 1954, when 250 officers were arrested and put on trial. In 1955, Colonel Khalid Muheyeddin plotted a coup in support of Naguib, who had been sidelined by Nasser. Nasser took the message and did a tactical retreat in his power grab against Naguib. Another coup plot was uncovered in 1968.

The Egyptian military’s links with the outside world are nothing new, either. Initially, the khedive’s army consisted almost exclusively of foreign, mostly Turkish, Kurdish, Albanian and Circassian, recruits. But they were also many recruits of Greek, Bulgarian and Italian origin. Sometimes the net was cast even wider. A British general, Samuel Baker Pasha, led the Egyptian army in its war of conquest against the Sudan. In 1877, the American General Stone became chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces. Throughout the 19th century, hundreds of French and British NCOs and officers helped train and organize the Egyptian army. In the 1870s, many American veterans of the Civil War, mostly from the defeated Confederacy, were enlisted to help train the Egyptian military.

The so-called Arab Spring created the hope that Egypt might be creating a new method of changing governments. That hope has suffered a setback, but it is not dead. It is hard to imagine the military trying successfully to re-install their political control of the country.

Will Egypt become another Algeria? My answer is: no. The reason is that Egyptians are not Algerians and have an almost unique capacity for resilience, patience and forbearance. As a land, Egypt is a creature of the Nile which, in the diversity of its sources, perhaps reflects the Egyptian reality. It is easy to call the Nile a river. But it is much more than that; it is a metaphor for Egypt. To start with, the Nile is in fact two rivers that came together on their way to form the valley that became Egypt.

But the Nile is even more than the marriage of two big rivers. Its many sources are spread across 11 countries with more than a hundred direct or indirect tributaries. And, yet, the Nile has not yet been fully understood and explained; some of its sources remain undetected. It is a symbol of the many becoming one. And that is what Egypt, too, has been for thousands of years. Anyone who tries to reduce that complex reality into a simple ideal is bound to fail.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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