Myth of Egyptian Nationalism in the Arab Spring

In some ways the dominant legacy of colonialism is that the nation states formed since the withdrawal of the military and political attention of the colonial powers [1] are usually artificial constructions that more closely align to treaty boundaries between western powers than they do to any sort of natural boundary, be it geographic, ethnic, or otherwise. Despite ideological claims that democracy will create a peaceful and stable world, repressive military regimes in the Middle East actually created a more stable international scene. So the democratic revolutions in the Arab Spring were welcomed as the birth of democracy, particularly when it meant the overthrow of an anti-Western leader like Qaddafi.[2] Where the protests were against more stable (from the American point of view) leaders, the protests were more hesitantly supported.

In early 2011 the Arab Spring reached Egypt and interested peoples watched the demonstrations in Tahrir Square from streaming web cam. The protests ended with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and, eventually, Muhammed Morsi became the first civilian President of Egypt. Since that time a military coup has deposed Morsi, protests resumed, and violence escalated.

There have been some touching stories from the tragedies in Egypt, including neighbors of different religions helping each other out and the protection of Egyptian museums. I recall reading at the time that these stories and the reluctance of the military to fire upon protesters were indicative of Egypt’s uniqueness in the Arab world. Egypt was said to have a long tradition of “nationalism,” a national ride in Egyptian Heritage, and a geography that nullified many of the problems of tribalism possessed by other Arab states.

Of course this narrative could be exposed merely by pointing out that much of the Sinai is governed by Bedouin tribes and there is little to no government oversight of the peninsula. But that exception not withstanding, one need only point out that the Nile, even with its annual floods curtailed by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, is the constant thread between today, Napoleon trying to conquer the Orient, Crusaders facing ignominious defeat, Julius Caesar cavorting with Cleopatra, Alexander laying out the design for a massive city, the construction of the pyramids, and the settlement of a tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists from the Levant at the behest of one mythical Joseph. With the Nile as a foundation, the long national unity of Egypt is a seductive notion. The problem is that it is another myth of national unity, a fiction of uniqueness that obscures another country dominated by a military establishment.

The story in Turkey is that the military would overthrow elected officials who threatened the secular republican legacy of Ataturk, although their opposition to Erdogan has been limited. The stated motivations for coups in Egypt are not nearly so Romantic. The Wikipedia page for Tahrir Square says that the protests went on long enough that the military (presumably the establishment, people such as al-Sisi) an opportunity to remove Mubarak. There was a brief experiment with democracy, but for this second round of protests the army has not been as reluctant to use violence. It seems that the Wikipedia page is on to something. Perhaps the reason that Egypt under Mubarak did not more resemble Syria under Assad is that individuals in the Egyptian military wanted to remove Mubarak themselves.


[1] This is not to say a complete removal of imperialism since former colonial powers frequently maintain an economic presence and interest in the former colonies. This economic imperialism can quickly turn into military force, particularly if the internationally recognized government requests assistance, as was the case in Mali last year.
[2] One of my favorite moments in the pilot of “The West Wing” is when Leo McGary calls the editor of the New York Times crossword to yell at him about using Qaddafi as one of the answers. This is one of the ways in which the pilot, in particular, dates itself. For another, there are also multiple jokes and appearances of pagers.

Assorted Links

  1. Panel Recommends Varying University Tuition Based on Degrees, Job Prospects– In Florida there is a proposition to vary how much university tuition is by further subsidizing STEM degrees over humanities degrees. According to the panel chair there would not be any elimination of programs because “There will always be a need for them, but you better really want to do it, because you may have to pay more.” On one hand, I am sympathetic to their attempts to draw people to those degrees since there is a sense that the future is coming from them. On the other, doesn’t offering people money to take those degrees lead more people to them for the wrong reasons (particularly because many of those jobs already pay more)? I also disagree with the premise that this will not discourage students from going into the humanities since many students already receive pressure from their family to study something that will get them a job out of college and some hiring decisions for college departments are made on the basis of enrollment. If the cost of a humanities degree is higher than sciences then enrollment will likely dip, thus stagnating the department if not killing it outright.
  2. Ethnic Cleansing in Myanmar– A report in the economist of yet another part of the world that is experiencing ethnic cleansing over religious/cultural/immigration issues. The violence is being carried out against against the Rohingya, an ethnic group considered illegal immigrants by the Myanmarese government after being deprived of citizenship in 1982.
  3. The Problem with Rape Exemptions– An article in the Atlantic about how the extreme debate over whether candidates support the right to an abortion when a woman has been raped and the subsequent adoption of “rape exemptions” as a liberal marker misses the point. The article focuses on the onus of proving rape, but briefly notes the more insidious problem that desperately fighting for just this one acceptable version of an abortion starts out by limiting the woman’s right to choose in any situation and comes in asking for this one concession, rather than requiring lawmakers to have a good reason for each and every limit they place.
  4. Yemen: Journey to a land in limbo– A profile in the London Financial Times about Yemen since the Arab spring. The tagline from an activist is that the government is not strong, but neither are the people free.
  5. Nobs and Natives– A review of the book Prairie Fever about British Aristocrats who journeyed into the American west during the 19th century and their efforts to buy or steal land and reaffirm their racial superiority over the indigenous Americans.
  6. The Middle East’s Belly Dancing Recession– A story in the Atlantic with the tag line “how the Arab Spring has hobbled one of the world’s oldest dance forms.” Of course, the article actually examines the economic fallout from reduced tourism after the Arab Spring. Belly dancers, particularly those who moved to the middle east because of heightened job prospects as part of the tourism industry, have been hit hard and are considering leaving the area.

There are even fewer edges than there were before

It is the price of civilization and, perhaps, safety. Some people would even characterize this as “good.” I would rather get lost in a strange place where I do not speak the language. Provided, anyway that I see a very small number of guns and those that I do see are being responsibly handled and not pointed at me.1 Sure, getting dropped off at a stoplight in the middle of nowhere in August in Greece is a little bit nerve-wracking (particularly if you had already spent hours lost and aren’t sure how to get back onto a bus), but there is also something exhilarating about it. The same goes for sitting in a rural town square surrounded by children on bicycles, or sleeping beneath the Blue Mosque, or on a bench in Delphi where you learn about the multiple uses for your towel. Wandering in forests holds much of the same thrill, but city parks where the nature is “tamed” hardly counts.

According to Stephen Pinker organized violence is at an all-time low (based on percentages), though individual homicide may be up. I would hope, anyway, that the latter is largely preventable. I have not read Pinker’s latest book, but I do understand the logic behind his argument.2 The idea is the civilization limits people. In theory the government will regulate businesses so that the rich and powerful do not prey upon the weak. The rule of law, and the law for the people seems to be spreading around the world as technology brings people closer together and brings people closer together than ever before. Imagine. Anne Frank’s diary run through multiple routers to mask her location and the tribulations of being a Jew in Europe during world broadcast daily via a blog or twitter. Photos posted to Facebook, and a series of innocuous cameras broadcasting Nazi activity from Paris, Brussels, and Munich around the clock. A contraband cellphone into Auschwitz. It is likely a false hope, but I would hope this would stir the world to outrage.

In no way do I want a repeat of World War Two. I reflect on it now in large part because of the historians (in particular) who fought and died during the war. Marc Bloch fought in both World Wars and after joining the French Resistance was caught, tortured, and killed. Nicholas Hammond served as a commando in Greece. War is terrible and it certainly cannot make someone into something he is not. Nonetheless there is no motivation like necessity. People have phenomenal capacity, but I feel that many are not tested. When they are, the tests are muted.

I do not mean to insult anyone with this statement. People need to find their own way in life and do what is fulfilling for them. Raising children is a monumental task and one that (at the moment) I do not wish to undertake. That is because I can and want to do more. Yet we are trained to be interchangeable parts in a factory or business setting. Slaves to the clock, move with the bell, travel in a pack largely passive to the leadership figure at the front. Sometimes this is for the best. In a factory, or a business meeting, or the military. Survival in many instances requires knowing how to follow the leader. It also requires knowing how and when to take control and that is not something that schools teach. In fairness to the schools, though, leadership is not something that can be taught–only encouraged. Certain aspects, techniques, and ideas can be taught, but when it comes to actual leadership, the only way to teach it is to experience it. The opportunities to lead need to be provided, the same way as opportunities to think, problem solve, and, yes, memorize. The validity of the sole authority figure does need to be challenged to some extent, at least. I don’t think revolution is the answer, but placing more responsibility on the pack is a must.

Of course the problem with this demand is that the institution is designed to turn out a particular model of human being–a trained, if not entirely mindless, automaton. And by making it a requirement for people to attend school, there is an institutional imperative to make sure that people will not, ultimately, fail. Nor do I want them to. Not truly. The problem with edges is that sometimes you fall off. You may not ever reach your full potential without them, without the push, the adrenaline, the challenge. Edges still exist, they are just harder to find. So go, find one. Look down.

There is always that danger, the chance of falling. Depending on translation for both Suleiman and Ivan, their honorific may mean “terrible” or “great.” Awesome and Awful may as well mean the same thing. Mr. Kurz did not reach his full ability until he was loosed of the bounds of civilization, but simultaneously lost everything. Civilization is supposed to be safety, and perhaps it is. But there is a price.3


1 When I was in Istanbul and lost in a neighborhood I did see a kid with a gun, but he was using it for target practice under the supervision, it seemed, of adult relatives.
2 My only logical quibble is that if the percentage overall is down, the population has risen exponentially in the last century, while the crowded nature of the world makes it easier to kill the same total number of people. Furthermore, technology makes genocide ever more possible in limited situations. I suppose I could add to this that it may be the calm before the storm as we are beginning to see more and more unrest with governments around the world and more people scrambling for dwindling resources. If people are willing to literally fight for an x-box on special, what will they do for the last bag of flour? But it has not come to that yet. Not here, anyway.
3 This post serves no real purpose. It is collected thoughts about an issue that is very, very old. For my part, I find myself needing to find some more edges. I can do more, I know it, but only by breaking free of the institutional restraints, even just a little and for a little while. Periodically I made a few unnamed references. They include: Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and one episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.