In my recent “roundup” of bloggers tackling history, I missed one who shouldn’t be missed. He’s one of my keenest and ablest students, “SB”, over at One Reality.
His recent post Digging for Artifacts relates to Egypt’s backward looking culture and a theme I discussed in my fourth lecture of the Islamist Entanglement: Egypt’s “sense of nationhood.”
Ayn Rand coined the term “sense of life.” By that term she meant “a pre-conceptual equivalent to a metaphysics,” or an implicit sense of one’s place in reality. In my research on Egypt I’ve become convinced that Egypt exhibits a cultural-historical analog: a “sense of nationhood.”
Simply put, this sense of nationhood is the view that Egyptians are a great historical nation. It is an implicit premise embedded in Egyptian thinking that extends back to its “glorious” pharaonic past, of which the ever present pyramids and temples provide a constant reminder. This self-identification also involves a 2400 year history of foreign occupation that began with an invasion by the Persians c.600 BC , and lasted through to Ottoman Rule, which ended in 1798. Egypt’s sense of nationhood is a kind of subconscious estimate of the value of the people and their past which has been a major factor directing them to where they are today.
Mahmoud Moktar’s sculpture “Egypt’s Awakening” is an allegory of its sense of nationhood.
Interestingly, there is no real philosophy of nationalism in Egypt. In his essay, “Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution,” Nasser explains and exemplifies this fact. Nationalism — a European ideology — did find a receptive audience among Egypt’s intellectuals starting in the 1870s. This movement, common to many Middle Eastern countries, culminated in the formation of the Wafd party, which tried to have Egypt’s case for nationhood heard at the peace confereences of Paris in 1919. But Egypt’s sense of nationhood never took off as an ideology. The basic reason is that Egypt’s nationalists failed to achieve independence. They were stymied by a combination of British meddling and monarchical intrigue, and were politically discredited.
In the wake of that failure, Egypt faced a desparate choice between two alternatives: Islamism and Nasserist military dictatorship. Although it is true to say that Nasser was more politically astute then the Muslim Brethren of the time, and connived his way into power, I think it’s fair to say that if Egyptians hadn’t felt that he was the great upholder of their “sense of nationhood,” he would not have held on to power. It was because of Egypt’s emotional baggage about its past that Nasser was able to develop himself as a cultural hero for Egyptians, and why, even after his terrible defeat to Israel in 1967, he had overwhelming popular support. (Of course, Eisenhower gave Nasser an incalculable boost, by spanking the British over their Suez Crisis response.)
What is interesting about Egypt’s current position is the interplay between its sense of nationhood and Islam, the only explicit metaphysics and code of values its people widely accept.
The two are incompatible and have been in constant tension since Nasser came to power. Because the latter is an all-encompassing and explicit system of ideas, and it has no ideological rivals, it’s only a matter of time before it takes over. In fact, I predict an Islamist takeover within a generation. That does not mean, however, that Egypt will necessarily succumb to participating in some kind of new Caliphate, even though Islamism is on the rise throughout the Middle East. Egypt’s sense of nationhood should continue to act on an emotional level to keep Egyptians apart from their fellow Muslims.
Learn more about this topic in my lecture on the emergence of modern Egypt.