In 1978, Unesco published The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of Meroitic Script, which were the proceedings of a symposium which took place in Cairo, Egypt in 1974. One of the issues that was debated was the racial identity of the people of Kemet or ancient Egypt. One of the papers submitted was by Jean Vercoutter, who made a very interesting argument. Vercoutter explained that “even those Egyptologists who are convinced of the essentially African nature of Egyptian civilization stress the fact that the population which founded this civilization was not ‘Negro’”. In other words, even those who were skeptical of the notion that Egyptian civilization was founded by black people (Negroes), the fundamental African nature of that civilization was beyond dispute. This is why Vercoutter wrote:
A distinction should be drawn between race and culture. In its language, writing and mentality, there is no doubt that Egyptian civilization is first and foremost African, even if, over the millenniums, it borrowed certain cultural elements from its eastern neighbours.
I mention this because Vercoutter’s position was contrary to the position which was taken up by Théophile Obenga. Building on the work of Cheikh Anta Diop, Obenga argued that “the Egypt of the Pharaohs, by virtue of the ethnic character and language of its inhabitants, belongs wholly, from its neolithic infancy to the end of the native dynasties, to the human past of the black peoples of Africa”. Even those who opposed the notion of Egypt being a fundamentally black society still were forced to concede the African nature of ancient Egyptian society, so for the purpose of this article I will focus more on culture as opposed to race because of the process of Arabization in Egypt was largely a cultural process.
In Africa-Man there is a chapter on Arab imperialism in Africa. In that chapter I discuss the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 600s and the subsequent conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman Empire, which was an Islamic empire. Turkish rule of Egypt came to an end after the revolution of 1952, which brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in Egypt. According Raymond Ibrahim, this is where Egypt’s “identity crisis” began. Ibrahim wrote:
The revolution significantly Arabized Egypt. That Egypt’s official name became the Arab Republic of Egypt — as opposed to simply the Republic of Egypt — speaks for itself. Whereas before 1952, one could have spoken of a distinctly “Egyptian” character and identity, after it, this identity gave way to an Arab identity. From there, it was a short push to an Islamic identity.
Not only did Egypt become an Arab republic, but after a brief period of time Egypt formed the “United Arab Republic” with Syria. Nasser was committed to Pan-Arabism, although he found little success with this ideology. Nasser was also a Pan-Africanists as well and one of the key figures in the formation of the Ogranisation of African Unity (OAU).
The question some Pan-Africanists began to ask of the Arab population in North Africa is whether or not these Arabs truly regarded themselves as Africans. This was a question Robert Sobukwe pondered. He asked: “Are they Arab or African?” The fact that Egypt proclaimed itself to be an Arab republic settled this question so far as Egypt was concerned, yet the question of Arab identity in Egypt has remained a contested issue. Ibrahim writes:
In short, Egyptians saw themselves first and foremost as Egyptians. Certainly no Egyptians would have referred to themselves as “Arabs” — a word back then that connoted “lowly bedouins” to Egyptian ears. (After all, for Egyptians to think of themselves as “Arabs,” because their first language is Arabic, is as logical as American blacks thinking of themselves as “English,” because their first language [is] English.)
At one point in Egypt there was the “Pharaonist movement” in the 1920s and 1930s which emphasized Egypt’s pre-Islamic history. The most prominent scholar of this movement was Taha Hussein. Ibrahim echoes some of Hussein’s ideas by arguing that “the Egyptian identity needs to be resurrected, thereby allowing all of the nation’s sons and daughters to work together for a better future — without the dead weight of foreign encumberments, namely Arabism or, worse, Islamism.”
One of the problems with Hussein’s approach was that he saw Egypt as being a Mediterranean civilization. Hussein read a great deal of European literature and sought to establish some form of a cultural bond between the Egyptian people and Europe. Hussein wrote that Egypt “has always been a part of Europe as far as intellectual and cultural life is concerned, in all its forms and branches.” He envisioned a shared Mediterranean culture that encompassed Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Arabs as well. In doing so, Hussein ignored the African cultural element of Egypt.
The fact is that Egyptian civilization maintained much closer ties with other African civilizations than it did with Mediterranean civilizations. As I explained in the first chapter of I Like What I Write, the epicenter of dynastic Egyptian civilization was in the south in Upper Egypt and Nubia. Egypt was unified by a ruler from Upper Egypt and most of Egypt’s most significant dynasties came from the south or from Nubia. In that chapter I give particular attention to the 12th, 18th, and 25th dynasties. This is why even those who are skeptical of the idea that Egypt was a black civilization have been forced to concede that Egypt was culturally African because of the dominant role that Upper Egypt (and at times Nubia) played in the formation of dynastic Egyptian civilization.
Hussein’s writings ignited a serious debate over Arabism in Egypt. Hussein wrote that Arabs were among the various invaders who inflicted “injustice” and “aggression” on Egypt. Hussein’s writings prompted a response from those who defended Arab rule. This included Hassan al-Banna, who was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Banna argued that Arab rule was a “spiritual, enlightening cultural imperialism” in Egypt. In Banna’s view, Islam rescued Egypt from “the filth of paganism, the rubbish of polytheism, and the habits of the Jahiliyya.”
Whereas Nasser’s Arab Nationalism was secular, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations seek to Islamize Egypt. Such a position also has little use or concern for Egypt’s pre-Islamic history or customs. In fact, many Muslims have come to despise Egypt’s history because it reminds them of “Jahiliyya” or the period in Egypt’s history before the spread of Islam. This is something that Wassim Al-Sissy lamented when he explained: “Things are different for Egyptians, for they have the most magnificent history, but people ‘despise it’”. Al-Sissy also lamented that the 1952 revolution “erased the Egyptian character, which had been known for its tolerance, love, freedom, and so on. The revolution created a nation of slaves.”
Rather than seeking to reconnect with Egypt’s African roots, the end of Turkish rule in Egypt simply helped to further Arabize and Islamize Egyptian society. As Sunni Khalid pointed out, one consequence of this is racial discrimination against black people in Egypt. Sunni explains: “Of course, many African Americans look like Egyptians, right across the color spectrum. I would often scan a crowded street in Cairo and pick out the faces of Egyptians whose visages reminded me of family or friends.” Malcolm X made the same observation when he was in Egypt. He explained:
More so than any other city on the African continent, the people of Cairo look like the American Negroes in the sense that we have all complexions, we range in America from the darkest black to the lightest light, and here in Cairo it is the same thing; throughout Egypt, it is the same thing.
Despite the obvious African appearance of a significant portion of the Egyptian population, Sunni notes that: “Over the years, Egypt has had a particularly difficult time coming to grips with its African identity. Many Egyptians do not consider themselves Africans. Some take offense even to being identified with Africa at all.” Mona Eltahawy wrote an article in the New York Times which exposed how deep-seated racism in Egypt is:
We are a racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial about it. On my Facebook page, I blamed racism for my argument and an Egyptian man wrote to deny that we are racists and used as his proof a program on Egyptian Radio featuring Sudanese songs and poetry!
Our silence over racism not only destroys the warmth and hospitality we are proud of as Egyptians, it has deadly consequences.
What else but racism on Dec. 30, 2005, allowed hundreds of riot policemen to storm through a makeshift camp in central Cairo to clear it of 2,500 Sudanese refugees, trampling or beating to death 28 people, among them women and children?
I began by discussing culture rather than race because the racism in Egypt is a logical outgrowth of a society that has rejected Africa and has opted to integrate itself into the Arab world, which, as Eltahawy explains, is racist against Africa people. Arabs were one of the many groups that invaded Egypt — such invasions were so commonplace that during the 12th dynasty, the rulers built a wall to keep the invading Asiatics out of Egypt. But the Arabization of Egypt was not simply something that happened as the result of the Arab invasion. Prior to the 1952 revolution, there were serious intellectual arguments in Egypt about the national identity of Egypt. As I noted before, even Egyptian intellectuals who opposed Arabism did not want to connect Egypt’s history with Africa, but the point is that the view of Egypt being an Arab society is something that was seriously debated prior to the 1952 revolution, but since then the Arab identity has been firmly entrenched in Egyptian culture and politics, and as such black people in Egypt have been marginalized in the “Arab Republic of Egypt.”
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.