With Egypt's "July Revolution" of 1952, for the first time in millennia, Egyptians were able to boast that a native-born Egyptian, Gamal Abdel Nasser, would govern their nation: Ever since the overthrow of its last native pharaoh nearly 2,500 years ago, Egypt had been ruled by a host of foreign invaders—Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and Brits, to name a few. After 1952, however, Egypt, it was believed, would finally be Egyptian.
Yet, though Nasser was Egyptian, the spirit of the times that brought him to power was Arab—Arab nationalism, or "pan-Arabism"—the theory that all Arabic-speaking peoples, from Morocco to Iraq, should unify. (Along with Nasser, the tide of pan-Arabism also brought to power Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Syria's Hafez Assad, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein.)
The revolution significantly Arabized Egypt. That Egypt's official name became the Arab Republic of Egypt—as opposed to simply the Republic of Egypt—speaks for itself. Whereas before 1952, one could have spoken of a distinctly "Egyptian" character and identity, after it, this identity gave way to an Arab identity. From there, it was a short push to an Islamic identity. Or, as Egyptologist Wassim al-Sissy recently put it, the revolution "erased the Egyptian character, which had been known for its tolerance, love, freedom, and so on. The revolution created a nation of slaves."
Students in 1948 Alexandria
My Egyptian-born parents, who personally lived through the 1952 revolution before immigrating to America, often reminisced on this change. Growing up I used to hear how pre-revolution Egypt was absolutely nothing like it is now. According to them, because it was under British rule, it was freer and more secular; hardly any women wore the hijab; Alexandria was something of a "mini-Europe." Indeed, if you look at pictures taken in 1940s Egypt and compare them to pictures from today, you might think the former were taken in Europe, the latter in Arabia.
In short, Egyptians saw themselves first and foremost as Egyptians. Certainly no Egyptians would have referred to themselves as "Arabs"—a word back then that connoted "lowly bedouins" to Egyptian ears. (After all, for Egyptians to think of themselves as "Arabs," because their first language is Arabic, is as logical as American blacks thinking of themselves as "English," because their first language in English.) In the decades preceding the revolution, there was even a strong Pharaonist Movement, led by influential thinkers like Taha Hussein, which sought to define and promote a distinctly Egyptian character.
Today, as Egypt rocks with revolution, it is poised to assume an even more alien identity. Enter the Muslim Brotherhood: if the 1952 revolution Arabized Egypt, a Brotherhood takeover will thoroughly Islamicize it, thereby taking it even further away from its roots. Whereas the Arab nationalists of Egypt maintained remnants of the Egyptian character—their Islam was notoriously lax—the salafist brand of Islam promoted by Egypt's Brotherhood since its founding in 1928 is thoroughly alien to Egypt.
For example, as opposed to the Egyptian Arab nationalist, who takes great pride in his nation's ancient heritage, today's Egyptian Islamist exults in rejecting and condemning it, calling the pharaohs "infidels" and "tyrants" (according to the terminology of the distinctly Arab Koran), and even trying to destroy Egypt's proudest treasures—as we have seen with the recent attacks on Egypt's museums—hardly the behavior of someone who thinks of himself as an "Egyptian."
Born in America, I often returned to Egypt, beginning in 1974, when I was a year-old. My experience of Egypt's evolving identity differs from my parents': whereas they watched the Arabization of Egypt, I have been observing its Islamization. Yet, from personal experience, I also know that hardly all Egyptians share the Brotherhood's ideology: for starters, there is a significant Christian minority, the Copts, who clearly have the most to lose should the Brotherhood come to power; then there are the many secularists. Put differently, a great many revolting in the streets of Cairo are doing so for mundane reasons—food and jobs—rather than to implement sharia law (which, incidentally, is already a "principal source of legislation" in Egypt's Constitution).
The problem, however, is that, along with having a strong base of direct support, the Muslim Brotherhood is especially poised to assume leadership simply because many Muslims, while indifferent to the Brotherhood's ideological vision, have come to trust them. After all, Hamas' famous strategy of endearing the people to it by providing for their basic needs was learned directly from its parent organization: Egypt's Brotherhood.
Thus, as turmoil engulfs Egypt, it is well to remember that, fundamentally, who the Egyptians see themselves as will determine who they will be. Egypt's future begins when Egyptians see themselves as Egyptians—not Arabs, and certainly not Islamists. This is not to say that Egyptians should resurrect the pharaonic language, dress like Imhotep, and worship cats. Rather, as Taha Hussein and others till this day maintain, the Egyptian identity needs to be resurrected, thereby allowing all of the nation's sons and daughters to work together for a better future—without the dead weight of foreign encumberments, namely Arabism or, worse, Islamism.
Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum