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Nation State

Nationalism plays a vital role in Egyptian life, and its influence—despite Arab nationalism’s frequent association with dictatorial regimes—could be a key bulwark against religious extremism there

Yoav Fromer
February 23, 2011
A protester in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Feburary 9.(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
A protester in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Feburary 9.(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

While thousands of angry Egyptians swarmed into Cario’s Tahrir Square late last month and began the 18-day standoff that would eventually force the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, several dozen of their countrymen had other things on their mind. Instead of protesting for their freedoms, these Egyptians were protecting something of equal if not even more value to them: their heritage. After looters attempted to take advantage of the ongoing pandemonium and break into the Egyptian Museum, which houses many of the country’s priceless artifacts from its ancient past, a group of concerned Cairo citizens mobilized to secure the premises and formed a human ring around the museum. “Egyptians love their history,” explained Egypt’s minister of antiquities, Zahi Hawass. “It’s the one thing that unites the country.”

This improvised civic initiative was quite symbolic of the latent—though still vital—role that nationalism continues to play in Egyptian life. When a 23-year-old protester named Sabrin admitted in an interview in the Jerusalem Post that the recent demonstrations made her “feel like an Egyptian for the first time in my life,” and exclaimed, “I’m so proud to be an Egyptian—I hope today will be a great day in our history,” she may very well have been speaking for millions of Egyptians who interpreted the recent demonstrations as an opportunity to not only secure a better future for their country but also to reconnect with its sacred past.

Although we tend to associate Arab nationalism with some of the worst dictatorial regimes of the 20th century (Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party being the most notorious), in an ironic twist of fate so characteristic of the unpredictable Middle East, it appears that what had once been thought of as part of the problem has now become part of the solution: With the forces of radical Islam lurking in the background and potentially threatening to hijack the revolution, Egyptian nationalism may very well be the primary bulwark that could prevent that from happening.


Long before nationalism in its modern 19th-century European guise was introduced into the Middle East, Egyptians already held a pretty good idea of what the term meant. As proud descendants of the ancient lineages of Tutankhamen and Cleopatra, they were able to coalesce around a shared set of myths, traditions, and symbols that have continually supplied them with a basic collective identity—one that miraculously persevered despite recurring foreign conquests by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, and Europeans. United by their primordial attachments to the shared climate, geography, archeology, culture, and history of the Nile river valley, Egyptians were able to establish a palpable though inchoate sense of nationality that no neighboring peoples, with the possible exception of the Jews, were able to sustain over such a long period of time. As the historian Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot wrote in her seminal account of Egypt: “The native Egyptian, while coping with alien rulers, also clung to the fixed piece of territory that he identified and knew as Egypt. Even before the age of nationalism made people conscious of national affinities Egyptians were conscious of living in a land called Egypt.”

When modernity began to permeate the land of the pharaohs with the arrival of French and British armies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, modern ideas of nationalism quickly followed suit. They found in Egypt fertile ground in which to take root. While still under Ottoman and then de-facto British rule, Egyptians defiantly mobilized and revolted (in 1881 and 1919) in pursuit of national self-determination. Although these nationalist uprisings eventually succeeded in expelling the British and creating an independent state, it was only after the 1952 free officers’ coup put an end to the last Ottoman dynasty in Egypt, which had been founded by the ethnically Albanian general Muhammad Ali, that Egyptians finally had the opportunity to rule themselves.

It was no coincidence that once this happened, the collected identity that Egyptians had gradually constructed since ancient times blossomed into a radical nationalist ideology. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the coup and would eventually also ascend to the presidency, was an astute student of modern European nationalism—a fact accentuated by his ambitious efforts to apply a European-style model to Egypt in the hope that this would allow it to reclaim its long-lost place of honor. Nasser’s own magnum opus, The Philosophy of the Revolution, reads like a standard nationalist manifesto infused with romantic paeans to the beloved motherland. In it, he calls upon Egyptians to take up what Nasser referred to as the “role of the hero” and embrace their destiny to lead the Arab world. “This role, exhausted by its wanderings, has at last settled down, tired and weary, near the borders of our country and is beckoning us to move,” Nasser wrote.

His nearly 15-year presidency and the proceeding four decades of rule by his successors Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were in many ways an attempt to live up to and accomplish Nasser’s grand aspirations for securing Egypt’s place in the world and regenerating its national spirit. With the help of monumental state-sponsored projects like the construction of the Aswan Dam, the creation of the short-lived Egyptian-led United Arab Republic, Egypt’s vocal leadership role in the non-aligned movement during the Cold War (and its outward defiance before both superpowers), and especially its frequent military conflicts with Israel, Nasser and his successors were able to revive and solidify a coherent sense of Egyptian nationalism that proudly took upon itself that exceptional, heroic role Nasser envisioned for it decades earlier. (Egyptians’ conviction in their chosen nation status was reinforced by the international success of Egyptian cultural icons like the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and the world-famous singer Umm Kulthum.)


One thing conspicuously missing from Egypt’s potent nationalism was a role for Islam. Despite being outwardly pious, Nasser and his successors did not hesitate to subject Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood to the exclusive authority and institutions of the burgeoning Egyptian nation-state. In the Philosophy of the Revolution Nasser separated Egypt into three hierarchical circles of operation—Arab, African, and Islamic, in that order. The result was that the more nationalist Egypt became, the less tolerant it was toward political Islam (not to be confused with the religion itself). As the modern Egyptian nation-state consolidated in the 1950s and ’60s, its power struggles with the Muslim Brotherhood only intensified (leading to the arrests of thousands of members and to the execution of many, including the radical theologian Sayyid Qutb). “Nasser’s success was in motivating the masses through secular ideology, and it was exactly this very nationalism that was so effective in pushing the Muslim Brotherhood aside by subjugating religion to it and by also harnessing its power for nationalism’s own advantage,” says Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo and an Egyptian historian at Tel Aviv University. “You cannot foresee the rise of Islam in Egypt without a commensurate decline in nationalism.”

That the two competing ideologies—political Islam and nationalism—remain in opposition is no surprise. Despite the recent attempts by conspicuously moderate spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood to gloss over the organization’s deep internal divisions and present a unified front that suggests it has reoriented its goals solely toward improving the welfare of Egyptians, the Brotherhood’s ambitions have not always been so modest. On the contrary: Since its founding by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has persistently displayed aims that often transcended the territorial boundaries of Egypt and sought to engage and unite not only Egyptians or even Arabs but the entire Muslim ummah.

Although al-Banna may have been a loyal Egyptian patriot, he was also a devout believer in the universal brotherhood of all Muslims who considered secular nationalism as just another corrupting Western invention. In accordance, many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s early operations and institutions were oriented toward accomplishing both national and international goals. (The organization had a foreign-liaison section, meant to serve as headquarters for a global Islamic movement.) R.P. Mitchell’s classic account of the organization, The Society of the Muslim Brotherhood, aptly described the problematic nature of holding such dual loyalties:

The final and only enduring loyalty possible to a Muslim is to the Islamic nation—every bit of land on which there is a Muslim who says ‘There is only One God and Muhammad is his Prophet.’ … Islamic nationalism transcends geographic boundaries, political division, and the varieties of colors, races, and languages because it is founded on the notion of ‘the unity of humankind.’ Unlike ‘limited nationalism,’ Islamic nationalism is divinely inspired by the triple principles of godliness, humanitarianism, and internationalism. Thus Islamic nationalism is in the service of all humanity.

Although Mitchell’s monumental study was published in 1969, al-Banna’s more recent disciples clearly prove that the Muslim Brotherhood’s universal inclinations are still alive and well. In an interview with the London-based daily newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat in 2005, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood at the time, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, proclaimed that his movement was “the largest organization in the world,” explaining that “a [Muslim] person who is in the global arena and believes in the Muslim Brotherhood’s path is considered part of us and we are part of him.” In 2007, Mohammed Shaker Sanar, at the time one of the handful of Muslim Brotherhood members in the Egyptian parliament, publicly admitted that “the organization was founded in 1928 to reestablish the Caliphate destroyed by Ataturk.” More recently, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief spiritual adviser, the Qatar-based Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi (who was offered the organization’s helm in 2002) advocated the constitution of a “United Muslim Nations” as a modern reincarnation of the original caliphate.

Such persistent transnational aspirations continuously voiced by leading figures within the movement appear to be not only at odds with but completely inimical to Egypt’s national interests. How would a politically integrated Muslim Brotherhood react in the not unlikely scenario that another conflict between Israel and Hamas erupts in Gaza? In the past, Egypt had maintained ostensible neutrality while secretly continuing to cooperate with Israel against Hamas. If, however, the Muslim Brotherhood achieves some measure of political power, it is not too much of a stretch to envision the group as advocating indirect intervention to aid their brothers in Gaza—Hamas is after all the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—or, even worse, actively assisting them militarily. In both cases, the results would indubitably cost Egypt dearly: Not only would it imperil Cairo’s critical strategic relationship with the United States, but it would also risk a devastating all-out war with Israel.

The point of such hypothetical reasoning is not simply to illustrate how incompatible Egypt’s national interests may become with the Muslim Brotherhood’s transnational agenda but more broadly to suggest that the two institutions most devoted to preserving Egyptian national interests—the military and state bureaucracy—not to mention most Egyptians themselves, are far too devoted to Egypt to compromise its national security and welfare for the sake of anyone else.


The recent collapse of the Mubarak regime has already led some commentators to determine that Egyptian (and Arab) nationalism has entered its last throes. Barry Rubin, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood who has written myriad books about the Middle East, suggests that the recent demise of what he calls the “Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak regime” could be the coup de grace for Arab nationalism. Nevertheless, he still foresees a situation in which Egyptian nationalism perseveres and prevents the radicals from ascending. “The question that needs to be asked is if free elections are eventually held in Egypt, which parties will run against an elBaradei-led presidential campaign backed by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Rubin tells me. “One could be a nationalist party, possibly led by Amr Moussa. If this does happen, then the prospects are for a president who would counter Islamist elements.” But even then, he warns, the Brotherhood could still remain a force to be reckoned with in Parliament.

While many of the projections regarding the future of Egyptian nationalism are dire, it may very well be that they are too preoccupied with a certain type of nationalism to see the larger—and more promising—picture. Long before culture, ethnicity, and especially language helped construct the “imagined communities” of modern nationalism about which Benedict Anderson has so famously written, there was a short-lived liberal nationalism (also known as civic nationalism) that captivated Europe. More in tune with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s inclusive Social Contract than with the cultural, and eventually racial, exclusivity of German Romantics, it afforded free entry into the national body politic for anyone willing to embrace its democratic values and adhere to the laws that they themselves were required to help legislate.

Since demonstrations in Tahrir Square first erupted, Egyptians have not been able to stop talking about their regenerated national pride. If they can indeed bridge the gap between the traditional nationalism of Nasser and the liberal one of Rousseau and create a pluralist and democratic Egypt, then not only will they be able to restrain the radical Islamists, but they will truly have something to be proud of.

Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.

Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.

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