Mai Nguyen-Phuong-Mai
Last updated: 10 October, 2015

Can Egyptians unite around their ancient history?

A thought-provoking look at Egypt’s lost identity: from glory to decline. Can the tide be turned?

It needs no argument to conclude that ancient Egypt boasts of a glorious civilization. In modern times, when Egypt as the first Arab country began to produce Arabic-language movies during the 1920s, the country instantly became Hollywood of the Middle East, shaping the trends and influencing contemporary Arab culture. Nasser – the undisputed leader of Arab nationalism – was both an Egyptian hero and an Arab leader. His immense charisma and the ecstasy of Egypt leading united Arabs against foreign oppressors practically made everything Egyptian desirable.

But is Egypt still the lighthouse of the Middle East? 

In 1967, amidst a conflict between Syria and Israel, Nasser rushed to support Syria. The Six-Day War was such a devastating failure that it effectively dragged the whole nation through a painfully long psychological trauma. Nasser lost his shine, the Arab nationalism lost the momentum to the point of no return, and the status of Egypt crumbled down to that of a third-world country.

The 1970s continued with more bad news for Egypt’s longstanding domination of Arabic-language culture and mass media. The oil-rich Gulf realized the significance of soft power and started to pump money into movie and TV industries. Once dubbed “Paris on the Nile”, the worldly city of Cairo has lost its glamour, slowly replacing its vibrant air of creative and modern energy with suffocating crowds and impoverished slumps. Cairo’s old Opera House has been replaced by a multi-storey parking block. 

Beyond the cultural scene, in the Gulf, Egypt has changed from an emblem of national economy to a source of cheap migrant workers. It is no longer the political gravity of the region, giving that role to the Gulf, which played the powerful hands behind the Arab Spring. From a country with influential movements of Arab nationalism and Arab-Israeli conciliation, Egypt is now the birthplace of modern Islamic militancy. It is decidedly a third-world country with 33% of its women being illiterate, 40% of the population living below the poverty line, with a high unemployment rate (26% in 2015). There is a strong sense of confusion and resentment among the young population as they strongly link the reality with national defeat and loss of dignity. They lack a role model, an honest and mutually accepted narrative of the history, and a reason to be proud. An Egyptian student told me: “The past makes me proud, the present pulls me down, and the future points me into nowhere.”

So here is the question: Is it true, that Egypt was important? And that neighboring people still relate and care about Egypt not because Egypt would change anything in their life but simply because they fear they would be the next Egypt?



After the New Kingdom (around 1000 BC), as Egypt fell under every invasion, Egyptians were reduced to the status of second citizens or outright slaves in their own land. Slowly, the essence of ancient Egyptian identity faded away, with its religion, language, and ethnicity being replaced by those of foreign rulers. As a result, the country was imposed with, and then adopted different identities. But there was one that remained a profound factor to which citizens embraced in order to connect with one another and with their motherland: being Egyptian. This unifying identity was developed into a movement called Pharaonism during the colonial time in the 1920s-30s when Egypt needed an ideology as a base for the nationhood against Western colonizers. Egyptians were said to be inextricably connected by this unequalled past. Being Pharaonic is the most profound thing all Egyptians share, and thus the most significant factor to build up a foundation for unity.

Pharaonism disappeared from Egypt’s political discourse the moment Nasser became its first native leader after thousands of years being ruled by outsiders. However, the moment Egypt was born anew was also the moment it was renamed with a different identity, one that had been foreign, identified as from invaders, and even regarded as inferior to the natives: Arab. As Nasser envisioned Egypt as a leader of Arab nationalism, its official name became Arab Republic of Egypt, and its official flag suddenly has Saladin’s eagle on it as a symbol of Arab revolution. Ironically, Saladin is not an Arab. But to serve the propaganda of Arab nationalism, he was transformed from a Kurdish leader fighting the Christian crusades into an Arab leader fighting the Western invaders. Until today, Saladin’s eagle – a non-Arab icon – is the coat of arm on the flags of Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and (former) Libya as a unifying symbol. Putting the whole country under the charm of a foreign identity, for the sake of a greater future is an unbelievable feat. And only a legend like Nasser can make such a novel combination ring true: Egyptians, proud to be Arabs, loyal to a Kurd.

Not everyone was happy of course. Egyptologist Wassim Al-Sissy once moaned that Nasser’s revolution “erased the Egyptian character” and “created a nation of slaves”. Nevertheless, this identity was successfully promoted. The only condition was that it must revolve around the immense charisma of Nasser as the custodian of the Arab dream against Western colonizers and Middle Eastern monarchies. Since this Egyptian identity relied on the image of a mortal man, the moment Nasser failed was also the moment this identity was shattered to pieces.  

And then came the Islamism, an identity which was born in the same time as Pharaonism but only emerged strongly much later when the state failed miserably on domestic policies. This Islamist momentum became irresistible after September 11 when Muslims perceived themselves to be demonized by the West, when Islam appeared to be under attack, and the Middle East’s ruthless dictators were seen as the West’s puppets. Where the state failed to provide its citizens with decent life, failed to protect them from external assaults, and failed to give them an identity to be proud, Islamist organizations found a fruitful space, and religion became a means to shape one’s image, pride and dignity. “You are what you have to defend”, wrote author Shibley Telhami. For many Egyptians, claiming Islamic identity is not about faith but about asserting the right to not become a carbon copy of the West, a challenging and defiant act in the face of what they perceive as Western assaults on their religion. In such a context, it is “especially difficult to separate religious identity from popular defiance”.


Advancing on that emotion, Egyptian Islamism brewed an Egyptian identity that is not only a radicalized version taken from the country’s previous invaders (the Muslims) but one that shamelessly rejects and condemns the country’s history, by calling the pharaohs “infidels”. When radical Salafi party Al-Noor won 20% of the votes in 2011, Egyptian Islamists campaigned to erase pre-Islamic history, even wanting to cover the pyramids with wax or destroying them outright, for they are considered idol worshiping. When pressed to talk more about Egypt and less about Islam, the former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Akef, openly declared: “Tuz fi Misr” (to hell with Egypt), indicating that the interests of his country are secondary to Islam. Vandals placed an Islamic veil on the statue of Umm Kulthum and decapitated the statue of Taha Hussein – both are Egypt’s most significant cultural icons. In 2013 when Morsi was overthrown, a gang of his supporters retaliated by attacking the Malawi National museum, destroying and looting Egypt’s proudest treasures. All in all, the identity that Egyptian Islamists present is not only anti-Egyptian but also one that is devoid of any national context and heritage.

Moving from being predominantly a Pharaonic, an Arab, a Muslim, or an Islamist, this “Egypt’s identity crisis” has been addressed by Shibley Telhami as a choice of the “vehicle most able to deliver their key aspirations. They are at once Arab, Muslim, and (…) Egyptian (…). They will rally behind any of these identities when it is assaulted”.

In a social gathering, an Australian businesswoman shared her feeling: “I come from a country so young that we even have to preserve ugly 40-year-old buildings because they are ‘history’. If we had a man-made structure of 400 years old, we would go banana and name our country after it. If we had something as majestic as a 4000-year-old pyramid, we would make it a religion, put the thing on the flag, and force all babies to have ‘Pyramid’ as their middle name”. We all laughed, and one Egyptian later added: “Of course we are proud to have Pharaonic ancestors. But our corrupted despots do not make us ashamed in the name of Pharaonic descendants. They make us ashamed in the name of Muslims. And so Muslims have we become”.

So Shibley Telhami is right, that Egyptians take a certain identity because their dictators have represented themselves in the way that “looked nothing like who they (actually) are”. 


However, it is baffling to see how the Pharaonic identity lost the “game” so easily. The pyramids still stand high, the Sphinx still guards the city, and the West’s obsession with ancient Egypt never fades away, but it is all a disconnected past. I often wonder why ancient Egypt is studied mostly by non-Egyptians. Egyptologist Wassim Al-Sissy told an interesting anecdote: “The English philosopher Francis Bacon, when asked how a backward Europe in the 16th century could progress, said that it needed to have a history, and since Europe didn’t quite seem to have one, they would need to borrow it from the Greco-Roman history. Shakespeare obviously did it, so 12 out of his 37 works are based on the Greco-Roman context. Things are different for Egyptians, for they have the most magnificent history, but people ‘despise it’”.

So can the shaky Egypt we are witnessing benefit from more genuine attachment with its undisputedly glorious and solid past? For example, to fight against the horrendous sexual assaults, what if instead of looking to the liberal West, Egyptians would search right inside their own history for a powerful inspiration? What if we point out that Egypt upheld the notion of gender equality thousands of years ago, before a single word was ever written in the Bible or Quran? Here is some stark contrast for comparison. While ancient Egypt didn’t even have a word that means “virgin”, the dignity of modern Egyptian women is based on a virginity test. While women of ancient Egypt could inherit, trade properties and run businesses, 82% of non-student female Egyptian youth nowadays are out the labor force, compared with only 13% of the males. While women of ancient Egypt enjoy monogamy marriage, 25% of modern Egyptian men take on a second wife within three years after their wedding. While many ordinary women in ancient Egypt could read and write, and while the Goddess of writing is the female scribe Seshat, 33.6% of modern Egyptian women now are illiterate. While there were female pharaohs and powerful vizier – the right hand of the king, in modern Egypt, the country welcomed its first female political leader in as late as 2014. The historian Herodotus (5th century BC) described that much of the manners and customs in ancient Egyptwas exactly the reverse of the common practices: “women frequent the markets and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave”, even “women make water (i.e. urinate) standing up and men sitting down”. In modern Egypt, 99% of the women have been sexually harassed, or 7 times every 200 meters.


If Islam is considered very progressive at the time it was born in the 7th century, in the sense that it allows women to inherit, divorce, run their own business and be equal with other three co-wives, then I would point feminist Egyptians to their own history and see for themselves that their Pharaonic civilization allowed all that and even more to happen 1,100 years before the concept of Islam even exist. 

Similar messages could be sent to the liberals. By calling Mubarak and Morsi “pharaoh”, and matching along protest banners of “kill the pharaoh” or “chase the pharaoh down to hell”, they unwittingly make this ancient title equivalent of “dictator”, and therefore must be overthrown. Morsi was called “pharaoh” when he granted himself unlimited power. When Mubarak and then Morsi appeared before court in iron enclosures, the press exploded: “Pharaoh in the cage”.

“It is baffling to see how the Pharaonic identity lost the ‘game’ so easily”

For a civilization of the antiquity, Egypt was “far more liberal than others” because it recognized merit and social mobility was strong. Liberal elements made the kingdom a powerhouse of ideas, science and arts. “Pre-dynastic chiefly elites operated in a politically liberal and consultative environment, where they redistributed surpluses to maintain social advantage and power within their communities”. Ancient Egypt law was codified through the concept of ma’at, allowing everyone, except slaves, to be equal under the law. The sense of identity in ancient Egypt was not based on ethnicity but culture, protecting foreigners from discrimination so long as they conformed to the Egyptian way of life. It is fair to say that ancient Egypt had its own liberal democratic and capitalist traditions, as these values are neither solely created by the West, nor a monopoly of the West.

However, ancient Egypt has now been dressed up as a period of despotism with the kings being symbols of oppression and dictatorship. The fact is, bad rulers were not tolerated and there were uprisings against unjust pharaohs. Even the pyramid itself is not a symbol of power but, as Rifaat Lakkousha wrote, “an oral social contract between the Pharaoh and the people, (…) based on a religious conviction (…) where obligations are shared: the Egyptians committed themselves to build the pyramid to help him go to Heaven, in return the Pharaoh is committed to open the gates of Heaven before all Egyptians”.

During the liberal period of Egypt in the 1920s–40s, Pharaoh was a symbol of the nation while oppression was associated with foreign influences. However, Egyptian liberalism dropped this narrative and adopted the Islamist discourse of Pharaonic despotism. Since they equalize Pharaohs with oppression, Egyptian liberals have to turn their back to ancient Egypt. This also means abandoning a great well of inspiration, pride and an authentic national identity. It’s a shame, since Egypt’s own history can unite all Egyptians without the dire need for a common enemy, or worse, a foreign populist ideology.

Egyptians need not to look anywhere else but inside themselves. The pyramids shouldn’t be just quaint but irrelevant relics, remnants of the ancient despots, or a source of national incomes. Author Raymond Ibrahim puts it frankly: “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, (…) 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”.


Tarek Osman, Egypt on the brink: From Nasser to Mubarak, (Yale University Press, 2013)
Shibley Telhami, The world through Arab eyes, (Basic Books, 2013)
Janet H Johnson, “Sex and marriage in ancient Egypt”, in Hommages a Fayza Haikal. ed. Nicolas Grimal, Amr Kamal, Cynthia May-Sheikholeslami (Institut Français D’Archeologie Orientale, Bibliotheque D’etude, 138, 2003)
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, (British Museum Press, 1995)