The Mummy returns: Egypt is looking to the past to rebuild its national identity

Despite being an important voice in the Arab world, Egypt has not always had an easy relationship with its people

June 05, 2021 04:15 pm | Updated 04:15 pm IST

Performers dressed in ancient Egyptian costume march at the start of the parade held in Cairo in April.

Performers dressed in ancient Egyptian costume march at the start of the parade held in Cairo in April.

Not so long ago, the world witnessed an extraordinary coming alive of Egypt’s Pharaonic past in the streets of Cairo, when 22 mummies were moved from the Egyptian Museum to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

The fanfare was absolute. Hundreds of men and women dressed in ancient fashion paraded the entire route. The dead, encased in their environment controlled specially designed vehicles, received a 21-gun salute, befitting their royal status, as they arrived in their new ‘palace’ and were welcomed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The majestic event was streamed online for Ancient Egypt enthusiasts across the globe.

One might ask, what is the idea behind such a global spectacle. The answer is that Egypt today stands at the cusp of history, where it needs to redefine itself as a nation. Historian Eric Hobsbawm says that an element of social engineering goes into the making of nations; and in most cases, it is not nations and nationalisms that make the state but the state that makes nations and nationalisms.

But what has driven Egypt to this point, where it has had to invoke the Pharaohs to redefine itself? Sometimes, looking carefully into the past can shine a light upon the future.

The Nile Basin and Northern African lands have the longest known history in the world and have been contiguous with great empires and smaller dynasties. Beyond the ancient period, it became part of the larger Greco-Roman universe and an important centre of Christianity. Egypt today has the largest Christian population in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region and, at about 15% of the population, it constitutes the largest minority in the country.

From the 7th century onwards, a number of Muslim dynasties rose and fell here, followed by the Ottoman conquest in 1517. During this period, Egypt emerged as a significant seat of Islamic learning. Al-Azhar University, which opened in 972 CE, is the second oldest continuously operating university in the world, and an influential voice in global Sunni Islam. The majority of the population of WANA was gradually Islamised during this period, and Egypt’s Muslim population today is the largest in the Arab world.

Artists perform while transporting mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

Artists perform while transporting mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

In modern times, Egypt has retained its sovereignty under different kingdoms, except twice when it was colonised by the French (1798 and 1801) and the British (1882-1922) empires. The last Kingdom of Egypt was toppled in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, giving way to the Republican era.

Under the new leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt became a strong voice among the new states. It played an important role in the geopolitics of the Arab world, particularly with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nasser was also instrumental in the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement. His 18-year reign was followed by 11 years of Anwar Sadat who buried the hatchet with Israel by signing the Camp David Accord in 1978. Sadat began the process of the liberalisation of the economy but multiple discontents were brewing in the state leading to his assassination in 1981 by Islamic extremists.

Hosni Mubarak, vice-president since 1975, was elected the new president after Sadat. His era spans 29 years, wherein he kept getting himself re-elected through referendum. Egypt underwent widespread economic changes during this time, but Mubarak was an autocrat and the rights and freedoms of the people were curtailed. There was gradual degeneration of the state and society with widespread corruption, arbitrary arrests, extreme income inequality, poverty and unemployment.

A number of Arab states that have shared history with Egypt were also under similar conditions. In 2011, the people in many of these countries took to the streets in a historical uprising, which came to be known as the Arab Spring. Following the overthrow of their long-term authoritarian leaders, these countries have been reeling under instability.

In 2012, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood became the president of Egypt but people rejected him within a year. It took three years after the revolution for Egypt to have its first stable government. The current government has been in power since 2014.

Apart from its role in politics, Egypt has been a religious and cultural centre for centuries. In modern times too, its film and music industries have been pioneers of entertainment in the Arab world, but its prominence is gradually waning. Having come out of decades of authoritarian rule, the country needs a new self-understanding. In its quest for a national identity now, Egypt has turned to its ancient past.

A large display of mummies at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.

A large display of mummies at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.

Ever since the discovery of mummies a little over 100 years ago, Ancient Egypt has captured popular imagination. Tourism is a large contributor to the country’s GDP as well as a major source of employment. Currently, there is a global trend of looking back at the past — real or imagined — to build a nationalist narrative, but national identity can be flexible and adapted to changing scenarios. Hobsbawm said that attempts to establish objective criteria for nationhood have failed because they try to fit historically novel, emerging, changing, and far from universal, entities into a framework of permanence and universality. In Egypt too, employing the ancient past to define its present is not straightforward.

The relationship between Islam and ancient Egypt is complicated. Pharaohs feature in the Koran , representing all the vices of the material world. It has become a terminology for excessive rulers. Almost all the presidents of Egypt have been called Pharaohs at some point. There are other aspects as well. Tombs are sacrosanct in Islam and many believe that the dead must be allowed to rest undisturbed rather than be exhibited in a museum. A more orthodox view likens mummies to idols that must be destroyed. Since the 90s, there have been several terrorist attacks on tourists who come to visit the ancient sites.

What we saw on the streets of Cairo was an attempt at redefining the nation-state of Egypt. This event and the comments by the president and his wife, stating that the parade signifies the greatness of the people and is a symbol of the country’s rich history and diversity, are indicative of the government’s attempts at inclusivity. However, national identity formation is terribly hard and requires more than an event and mere words.

Writer Amro Ali tweeted that “Egypt will condemn the cruelty of the pharaohs from the pulpit of the mosques and churches, then rush out to the streets to celebrate the greatness of the pharaohs” and that “Contemporary Egypt in its quest for identity, modernity, and nation building has yet to reconcile the contradictions of employing pharaoh on both the religious and nationalist spectrum.”

In this situation, it is worthwhile to notice that the pharaohs and their gold have been torn away from what was intended to be their final resting place and are exhibited in faraway museums. What remains are monuments like the pyramids that came about as a result of the blood and sweat of countless nameless people. These have withstood the test of time as the only remaining wonder of the ancient world. One hopes the new Egypt will usher in inclusiveness and bring prosperity to the long-suffering people whose legacy is essentially being used to define the present.

The writer works as a policy analyst at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability. Twitter @VijaytaMahendru

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