Egyptian National Identity and Prospects for Democracy

Concerns that the Egyptian military will not so easily cede its control over the state are mounting after a few days of violence on the streets of Cairo. Experts have expressed alarm at the role the military plays in sustaining the Egyptian economy and fear that it can hold the country’s markets hostage. But, unlike Egypt’s regional neighbors Libya, Jordan, and Bahrain, Egyptians’ national identity insures that it stands the best chance at finding true, electoral democracy.

Throughout the Arab world, dictators with strong military connections have consistently dominated countries, taking advantage of their peoples’ underdeveloped sense of national identity. Countries such as Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories under Yassir Arafat, and Syria, among others, have all lived under the yolk of military repression. As we have already seen in Lebanon and Iraq in recent years, sectarian violence occurs without that strong leadership because the Iraqis and Lebanese were unnaturally drawn together on the world map. Unlike most of their neighbors, however, Egyptians pull from thousands of years of history directly linking their nation-state back to the age of the pharaohs.

This linkage is significant. Even before the European powers demarcated the boundaries of the contemporary Middle East during the mid-20th century, Egyptians were unique from the Bedouins migrating across the Sahara and Arabian deserts. They spoke a distinct Arabic dialect, no doubt born from the busy markets of Cairo and Alexandria. They relished their shared cultural identity that made them not just Arabs, but people of Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. They bore a sizable Coptic Christian community that had contributed to society since the pre-Islamic era. For periods throughout much of the past millennium, especially before the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Cairo was seen as the social and political capital of the Arabs. Any visitor to the great Pyramids of Giza, along the banks of the Nile River, knows that the Egyptians pride themselves in their longstanding accomplishments.

As present-day Iraq and Lebanon have shown us, diversity in Arab countries can be a strong contributing factor to civil war. As a result, many Arab countries have stagnated under repressive – yet stable – regimes. These autocracies serve as a substitute for national identity in countries whose borders were created not through centuries of history, but through the pen of European colonialists.

But, Egypt is different. The borders of the Egyptian nation have been roughly the same since the Nile River was first settled. Unlike Iraq, which never really connected its modern version with the Sumerians and Babylonians that ruled within its modern borders long ago, Egyptians continually connect themselves to their Ancient and Medieval Era ancestors. Its deep, communally-shared history should serve as the mortar between the bricks of Egypt’s diverse society, and that combination should help repel threats of a military takeover.

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