A Brief History of Modern Egypt and the Search for National Identity

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The many transformations in Egyptian nationalist orientations over time clarifies how Egyptians perceived their own identity and how they tried to realise their nationalist beliefs.

Egypt was characterised by its conservatism and a long-established traditional social structure which formed what could be called ‘Egyptianity’. Rural communities are one of the most essential features of this Egyptianity which reflect the life style and historical conditioning of the Egyptian. The extensive foreign involvement in Egyptian affairs had brought into the country a large number of people whose way of life differed from that of the native Egyptian. This also brought to Egypt different cultures, attitudes and way of thinking, which can be perceived as inappropriate and a threat to Egypt’s culture. The many transformations in Egyptian nationalist orientations over time will clarify how Egyptians perceived their own identity and how they tried to realise their nationalist beliefs in the world around them.

Throughout history, Egypt had been affected by a series of invasions by foreign conquerors, which were underlined by three essential events. These were the Arab-Islamic conquest in the 7th century, the non-Arab-Islamic conquests from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries and the European encroachments beginning with Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. The crowning event in establishing a brilliant period of Islamic civilisation and a prosperous centre of Islamic culture was during the Fatimid dynasty that ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171. During this period the Islamic character of Egypt, especially its capital Cairo, emerged, represented still in the architecture of the houses and mosques of the Fatimid era.

Fatimid Architecture, Al-Azhar Mosque, 10th century, Cairo

Old medieval Cairo was the city which influenced the Egyptians and shaped their national identity. The emergence and development of modernity in Egypt began with Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. One of the important achievements of the French expedition (1798-1801) was the introduction of an Arabic printing press. Egypt witnessed a new era of publications such as the political journal, Courrier de L’Egypt, and the scientific and economic journal, La Décade Egyptienne, which were to have a remarkable impact upon the intellectual and political evolution of Egypt in the 19th century.

Although Napoleon’s campaign was mainly a military strike against the British, it was accompanied by scholars from different disciplines including science, archaeology, history and linguistics. Their research, which covered many aspects of the Egyptian’s life, was compiled in the 23 volume Description de L’Egypt, published between 1809 and 1828. It included a detailed analysis of the architecture of Cairo from the medieval period up to the modern world. In her seminal book “Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious” Janet Abu-Lughod believed that “any student of Cairo’s development must be eternally grateful for [Napoleon’s] military blunder” of invading Egypt. 

Napoleon Expedition to Egypt, 1798

The French occupation was ended by the Ottoman Turks in 1801 and Egypt was ruled by Muhammad Ali, from 1805 to 1848. Ali’s rule gave a massive impetus to the emergence of modern Egypt as he was the first ruler in Islamic countries to undertake tremendous economic development. Ali’s desire for modernity led him to create a European style state school system and he sent Egyptians on educational missions to Italy, France and England for academic and technical training. It is believed that this movement of modernisation led Egypt to lose its indigenous style and character. 

Mohamed Ali Basha (1769 – 1849)

Whereas Muhammad Ali believed that the establishment of his rule in Egypt depended upon a policy of European-style reform, his grandson, Khedive Ismail, wanted to make Egypt a part of Europe. “My country is no longer in Africa, it is in Europe”. During the reign of Ismail (1863-1879) Egypt was introduced to the advantages of the modern world and became a European-looking nation. The European style was obvious in the development of arts, archaeology, music, poetry, public libraries and museums and learned societies and scholarly research. In fact, the work of Khedive Ismail constituted the real socio-political and intellectual basis for modern Egypt and affected the characteristics of the Egyptian nation.

Khedive Ismail, (1830 – 1895)

The most important achievements during Ismail’s reign was the digging of the Suez Canal, which was designed and constructed by Ferdinand de Lesseps between 1859 and 1869. At the opening de Lesseps announced, “The two ends of the globe get closer to each other… Oh West! Oh, East! Get closer, look at each other, recognise each other, greet each other, embrace each other!”. From this moment, the boundaries between the East and the West, between tradition and modernity and between self and other disappeared. This in turn increased western domination and attempts to re-construct Egypt as a modern or colonial state.

Statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps , (1805 – 1894),  Suez Canal

During his 16 years reign, Ismail incurred $90-$100 million debt from Europe to finance his projects, but he soon lost control over finances. This gave European countries the opportunity to interfere extensively in Egypt’s affairs in the name of the bondholders. In 1879, political groups and societies had been formed to encourage the Khedive to withstand foreign financial control. Certain other journalists and intellectuals, such as Abdullah Al-Nadim, formed a society called Misr Al-Fatat (young Egypt), and published their periodical of the same name, in which they attacked foreign influence in Egypt. However, both England and France were not impressed by this solidarity and became more interested in the deposition of the Khedive Ismail. Consequently, they advised the khedive to abdicate in favour of his son. In 1879 the Ottoman Sultan deposed Ismail and he was succeeded by his son Tawfiq Pasha, who ruled Egypt until his death in 1892.

Tawfiq Pasha, (1852 – 1892)

From 1879 to 1882, Egypt witnessed the first native opposition movement led by the nationalist leader Ahmed Orabi, but this ended with the British occupation of Egypt on 14 September 1882. The British occupation again provoked native opposition to alien rule and fostered among Egyptians the aspiration to self-government.

Ahmed Orabi, (1841 - 1911)

In fact, Egyptians’ opposition to the concept of Westernisation was the result of the hegemony of the west on their country as well as the taken-for-granted idea that the East is inferior to the West. This nationalistic atmosphere of the early twentieth century inevitably affected peoples’ thinking and was the impetus behind their search for cultural identity. Consequently, a nationalist orientation was developed by several leaders, whose efforts extended for about 70 years and culminated with the Egyptian revolution and Egypt’s independence in 1952 under the leadership of the late president Gamal Abdel-Naser.

Gamal Abdel-Naser, (1918 – 1970)

 Sources:

1. P. J. Vatikiotis, The History of Egypt: from Muhammad Ali to Sadat. London, 1980.

2. Janet Abu-Lughod, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious. New Jersey, 1971.

3. Edward W. Said, Orientalism. London, 1978.

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