March 20, 2011
Mohamed ElBaradei and Egyptian IdentityBy Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Egypt's state-run newspaper Al-Ahram recently reported that Mohamed ElBaradei, widely viewed as a liberal and secular reformist, has declared his support for Article 2 of Egypt's present constitution. This part of the constitution affirms: "Islam is the religion of the State. Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Shari'a)." ElBaradei apparently explained that Article 2 is "representative of the identity of the Egyptian people," adding that his daughter had married a Christian man only after the latter converted to Islam.
The final clause regarding the relationship between legislation and Shari'a was introduced in 1971 by Anwar Sadat and further implemented by Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, contrary to what some might imagine, Mubarak actually adopted a policy of repression and appeasement of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). For example, when a Brotherhood-sympathizer took the liberal theologian Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd to court, Mubarak gave consent for Abu Zayd to be declared an apostate and thereby be forcibly divorced from his wife, as Egyptian law forbids marriage between a non-Muslim man and Muslim woman.
ElBaradei's remarks come in the context of several incidents of attacks by Muslim mobs on Coptic Christians. For instance, some 4000 Muslims recently torched a church and destroyed numerous Coptic homes in the village of Soul in Helwan Governorate, because of the fact that a Coptic man, Ashraf Iskander, was having a relationship with a Muslim woman. In addition, some Muslims with the support of soldiers from the Egyptian army launched an assault on Copts in the outskirts of Cairo, leaving nine Christians dead as 500 Coptic demonstrators from Manshier Nasr (also known as ‘Garbage City') were on their way to join protestors at the Egyptian TV building, intending to show solidarity with the Copts of Soul.
All this illustrates that optimists who do not wish to consider any of the dangers in Egypt's political future are simply not facing reality. It appears that there is still a worrying sectarian and Islamist trend, despite the unity between many Christians and Muslims brought about by calls for Mubarak's resignation. However, it does not follow that we should revert to the old question of secular tyrants versus Islamists. In fact, Mubarak, in pursuing a contradictory policy of repressing and appeasing the Brotherhood, is precisely the example that Egyptian secularists should not aim to emulate. Nor is it necessary that the military regime, which has held power in Egypt since overthrowing the constitutional monarchy in 1952, retain power indefinitely.
Instead, the lesson to be drawn here is that the question of how Egyptians view their identity will be of key importance in determining the country's future. Currently, there are three competing strands of Egyptian identity. First, we have the familiar pan-Arab identity that is associated with past leaders such as Gamel Abdel Nasser, and reflected in the nation's official name: "Arab Republic of Egypt." Second, there is the emphasis on Islamic religious identity as articulated by the Brotherhood, and finally we can point to the "Pharaonic" identity championed by early 20th century Egyptian intellectuals such as Taha Hussein. Pharaonism stresses that Egyptians should view themselves as Egyptians first, reject Arab nationalism, and place Egyptian national identity above any form of religious affiliation.
What are the practical implications here? Above all, it needs to be recognized that democracy does not simply entail holding elections and majoritarianism. A democratic government is also defined by what it cannot do, besides the powers it is granted by being elected. Thus, the Brotherhood should not be banned, but rather new constitutional checks, ensuring the protection of human rights for women, minorities, detainees etc. and enforced by the military, must be introduced. This should be accompanied by reforming the education system in emulation of the example of Habib Bourghuiba of Tunisia to promote liberal, democratic and secular values. The Brotherhood needs to be challenged openly in the environment of a free and democratic society, not pushed underground.
Yet how can the Ikhwan be countered if allowed to operate freely? Given that the failure of Arab nationalism was one of the factors behind the ignition of the Islamist movement in the 1970s, and that Islamism is a problem rooted very much in questions of identity and circumstance, it would seem that Pharaonism is the best way for Egyptian liberals to counter reactionary strands in future Egyptian politics. Of course, the question arises of what promoting Egyptian identity means. It should not translate to abandoning Islam and reviving the worship of Ra and Anubis. Instead, Egyptian identity can quite easily be promoted through pointing out the uniqueness of colloquial Egyptian Arabic, which, like other Arabic dialects, reflects distinct local influences, and differs from Classical Arabic in such a way that a case can be made for positing a relationship similar to that which exists between, say, Homeric and Modern Greek.
That is, we can argue for classifying Egyptian Arabic as a separate language in its own right, distinct from Classical Arabic that is almost identical with Modern Standard Arabic. The same applies for other colloquial forms of Arabic such as the variety spoken in Morocco. It is a controversial thesis, but has support from the Egyptian Muslim academic Niloofar Haeri in her book Sacred language, ordinary people: dilemmas of culture and politics in Egypt, which I feel makes a convincing argument for viewing Egyptian Arabic as a real lugha (language) and not a lagha (dialect). She posits a relationship with Classical Arabic similar to the one that exists between Italian and Latin.
Consider, for instance, a simple question such as "Why do you go to Cairo?":
Egyptian Arabic: ‘inta rayeh al-Qahira leyh?'
Classical Arabic: ‘limadha satadhhab ila al-Qahira?'
Note the differences in word order and vocabulary. In particular, Egyptian Arabic places the interrogative adverb last in the question (literally translating as ‘you go to Cairo why?'), whereas Classical Arabic places it first, and can drop the subject pronoun like Latin and Classical Greek. In fact, in a simple sentence Egyptian Arabic adopts the word order ‘SVO' (‘Subject-Verb-Object', as used in Modern English), as opposed to the older Semitic order of ‘VSO' (‘Verb-Subject-Object'), as reflected in Classical Arabic. A basic sentence should demonstrate make this manifest:-
Egyptian Arabic: el-wad kal el-akl (lit. ‘the boy ate the food').
Classical Arabic: akala al-walad al-ta3am (lit. ‘ate the boy the food').
Influences of the Egyptian language, whose most recent manifestation is Coptic, can be detected in the phonetics of Egyptian Arabic, which uses a voiced guttural ‘g' for the palatal ‘jeem' sound in Classical Arabic and many dialects. In addition, words employed for certain fruits derive from Egyptian, and other loan words have been noted by Ahmad Abdel Hamid Youssef in his brief work From Pharaoh's lips: Ancient Egyptian language in the Arabic of today.
Even if one does not accept the idea of Egyptian Arabic as a separate language, it can be seen that a strong case can be made for rightly positing that Egyptians are just culturally Arabized descendants of the same people from the time of the Pharaohs. This is especially evident if one also takes into account genetic studies that illustrate a closer affinity with the populations of North Africa rather than the Middle East.
Keep in mind that I do not wish to impose an identity on Egyptians, but only intend to offer advice to liberal secularists on how to challenge the Brotherhood in the war of open exchange of ideas and combat sectarianism. Indeed, if Copts and Muslims are regarded as sharing a common ancestry, the former will no longer be looked upon as fundamentally different people.
As an Iraqi, I likewise believe that the promotion of a unified Iraqi national identity, free of Islamism, pan-Arabism and ethno-religious sectarianism, is vital to resolving political tensions between various factions in the country and hence beginning in earnest the urgently needed, large-scale project of rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure.
In short, the best future for Egypt will arise when Egyptians see themselves first and foremost as Egyptians, and not part of a greater Arab or Muslim collective.