In July 2007 I was commissioned by CNN to produce a feature story on Egyptian identity. The four-minute piece was to air on CNN’s Inside Africa, a weekly show that takes pride in showing viewers the ‘real’ Africa in all its diversity, rich heritage, and culture. Unlike other programmes that often focus on poverty and disease when covering the dark continent , this is a show that looks at the success stories of Africans. My producer in Atlanta , Georgia , at the time was Cynthia Nelson, an African-American . She asked me to devote my four- minute piece to whether Egyptians really consider themselves Africans.
I hired a camera crew and set out on my mission, thinking I would only prove the obvious: Wasn’t Egypt in North Africa? Therefore, Egyptians are Africans. But it wasn’t simply a matter of geographical location-the issue turned out to be much more complex than that. I did not know it at the time but I was to be most astonished at what I would soon discover.
I spent the next couple of days interviewing hundreds of Egyptians– not just academics and researchers but also laymen and women in different districts in Cairo — asking how they view themselves. My question raised a few eyebrows among people on the streets, the majority of whom replied ” I’m a Muslim Arab, of course ” or “an Arab Muslim .” They shrugged their shoulders and looked perplexed as they responded for wasn’t it an already-known fact that Egyptians are Arabs and that Egypt has a majority Muslim population ?
A few of the interviewees said that they “were descendants of the Pharoahs” but surprisingly, none in the sample interviewed thought of themselves as Africans.
Their responses led me to contemplate the conceptual Sahara divide. For centuries, the Sahara Desert has been viewed as a vast impenetrable barrier dividing our continent into two distinct areas : Northern “white” and sub-Saharan “black” Africa. The countries south of the Sahara have long been considered authentically “African” while those to the north have been perceived as Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Islamic. While most anthropologists refute this perception of Africa as “inaccurate”, it has nevertheless, influenced the way people think about the continent and our region in particular. Apparently, it has also impacted the way Egyptians view themselves. Many Egyptians are oblivious to their “African-ness “, failing to identify themselves as Africans. When confronted with the reality of their African roots, some Egyptians are stunned, others reluctant to acknowledge the fact. Though I hate to admit it, we are a racist people. African refugees living in Egypt often complain of discrimination and verbal and physical harassment on the streets. Egyptians look down on darker-skinned sub-Saharans as their “inferiors,” they claim. Historian Jill Kamel confirms this, explaining that it may be attributed to the fact that across generations, Egypt’s elite community was made up mostly of lighter-skinned Egyptians whereas the underprivileged Egyptians were those toiling under the hot sun to earn their bread. “Egyptians have thus come to associate fair skin with elitism,” she said.
The nationalist pan-Arabism ideology promoted by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the fifties and sixties led his supporters (the Nasserists) to take pride in their Arab identity. The notion of pan- Arabism gained wider acceptance in the seventies when, in the wake of the Gulf oil boom, millions of Egyptians traveled to oil-rich Gulf states to earn their livelihoods. They adopted many of the habits of the host countries, bringing home a new conservatism which was reflected in their style of dress and mannerisms. Author and writer Galal Amin discusses the impact of Wahhabism, a rigid form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, on Egyptian culture at length in his book “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians” a two-part series that chronicles the changes brought about by the mass exodus to the Gulf in the seventies.
President Hosni Mubarak (who was toppled by a mass uprising early last year) had adopted anti-Islamist policies and tried to impose more ‘liberal’ values on the society. His attempts however, were largely futile and many Egyptians became more conservative as a result of their opposition to what they believed were “Western-imposed values.” Some skeptics doubt Mubarak’s true intentions, claiming that he “was more of an Islamist than the Islamists.” They argue that “he allowed our satellite space to be infiltrated by a host of Saudi-financed TV channels that dictate the way people behave.” Others tend to believe that Egyptians turned to religion as a result of Mubarak’s repressive policies. Mubarak may also have encouraged the trend of Islamism to keep Egyptians occupied with religion and away from politics. Indeed, the political repression and economic hardships that marked the era of the ousted authoritarian leader were contributing factors to the growing religiosity in recent decades. Meanwhile, the then-outlawed but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood had stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the government, extending badly-needed charity services to society’s downtrodden and poor. In so doing, the group won many converts to its cause.
The result of all of the above is today’s Egypt-a polarised country divided along ideological lines: Islamists on the one hand and liberals and Christians on the other. The ‘new ‘ Egypt has witnessed a rise in Islamism but roughly half the population continues to resist the change and is desperately clinging on to the fast-fading ‘secular’ image. Emad Gad, researcher and political analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political Studies told me in the days after the January 25 Revolution that “We have claimed Egypt back from the grip of the Saudis” and that the revolution was about “Egyptianising ‘Egypt once again after years of “attempts to Saudise it.” A year and a half later, his statements couldn’t be further from the truth as the reality on the ground proves the country has taken a different course.
Moreover, Egyptians have increasingly used religious symbols like the hijab or Muslim headscarf for women and men growing their beards to assert their Islamic identity. Such symbols do not necessarily mean greater piety -Egyptians have simply become “more visibly pious.” Teenage girls often take on the veil as a result of peer pressure , said Dr.Madiha El Safty, Professor of Sociology at the American University in Cairo.
While the signs of increasing piety may indeed be the result of peer pressure, a political statement against the West’s policies vis-a-vis the Middle East or even economic (with a large segment of the population unable to afford to keep up with fashion trends or visit the hairdressers on a regular basis), the fact remains that the signs of ‘Islamisation’ of the society are increasing. The lifting of the ban on hijab for Egyptian State TV anchors this week is another step in that direction.
It’s important not to forget that while a portion of the society is increasingly “Islamising,” there’s another portion that is showing fierce resistance to the trend. In any free, democratic society the people have a right to make their own personal choices. If we hope to revive our glorious past and re-create the Egypt that was once a melting pot of cultures and a crossroad of civilisations, we must celebrate our diversity and take pride in our roots: African, Mediterranean or Arab. It is this mix that makes us who we are: Egyptians.