Opinion: In search of legitimacy through grandiosity, Egypt’s military rulers, led by President Sisi, have staged epic neo-pharaonic demonstrations, but this has dark roots linked to 20th century European fascism and revisionism, writes Kyle J. Anderson
Egypt’s ancient civilization is being recalled from beyond to suggest continuity with its regime [Getty]
Over the past year, the Egyptian government, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, transported the millennia-old remains of the pharaohs from the Museum of Antiquities outside Tahrir Square to the new Great Egyptian Museum outside the pyramids near Giza. The fanfare began in April when 22 mummies roamed the forcibly cleared streets of Cairo and a nationally televised celebration dubbed the “Pharaohs Golden Parade”. Things continued in August when the so-called “Solarbark” was transported through Cairo in a remote-controlled vehicle imported from Belgium. This week the Egyptian regime is planning a grandiose reopening of the Avenue of the Sphinxes (Kebash Road) in Luxor, in a ceremony attended by Sisi in person.
In the course of these events, I have followed the reactions of Egyptians on social media. Many were supportive, but some expressed criticism of the pomp and circumstance.
One of the most revealing comments came from the eminent Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy, who compared Sisi’s pompous performances with the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, organized by Adolf Hitler and immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia.
“The racialization of history may have been the result of a long tradition of racial thought in Europe, but the latest book by Elise K. Burton shows that this was also a global process.”
Many will rightly oppose a comparison between Hitler’s fascism and Sisi’s populist neo-pharaonicism. Ultimately, Hitler’s ideology postulated the mythical Aryan race as a superior race subject to genocide, while the Egyptians were the object of European racism, especially during the decades of French and British colonialism. In addition, after taking power in Germany in the 1930s, the National Socialist state enacted a whole series of laws that defined German citizenship in terms of blood and ancestry, forbade marriage between Germans and Jews, and institutionalized eugenics, including through the forced sterilization of people .
Still, I agree with Mohamed Elshahed’s recent observation about Egypt that “When a state sees its people as a burden rather than an asset, this is a red flag.“
Pharaonic nationalism shares a common history, as does what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would call deeply conceptual.Grammar,“with a European race science that culminated in Hitler’s National Socialism. The historian Ivan Hannaford connects National Socialism with”the racialization of history,“When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, human societies were re-imagined as naturally broken down into a series of discrete units that could trace their roots in racially pure communities in deep historical time. Influential thinkers such as the Prussian diplomat and historian Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831) postulated that it was the relationships between these racial and blood groups that provided the key to understanding the story.
Like a more recent volume, edited by Marius Turda and Paul Weindling, in the period from 1900 to 1940 this type of “Racial nationalism“Had spread across Central and Southern Europe.
The racialization of history may have been the result of a long tradition of racial thought in Europe, but it was Elise K. Burton’s current book shows that this was also a global process. In the 1880s, missionary schools in Beirut hosted the Austrian anthropologist Felix von Luschan when he was measuring the skulls of people in the Ottoman Levant. He observed the endogamous community of the Maronites on Mount Lebanon and claimed that they had “preserved an ancient type in an almost wonderful purity”.
The association of Maronites with the ancient Phoenicians, French colonial administrators and Francophone Lebanese nationalists linked this with what they called the “Phoenician race” (race phénicienne). In the 1920s, the American University in Beirut started a major anthropometry program that measured the skull indices of thousands of people in part in an attempt to discover the “current representatives” of the Phoenicians.
Phoenicianism gave the Maronites in Lebanon the opportunity to project an identity that preceded their adoption of the Arabic language – which was associated with the Muslim conquests. In this sense it was similar to what the Iranian historian Reza Zia-Ebrahimi “dislocative nationalism.”
From the second half of the 19th century, Iranian intellectuals began to imagine a nation that had existed for 2,500 years and was associated with the Aryan race. Since the Aryan racial essence was pre-Islamic, perceived deficiencies in Iranian society could be attributed to Islam and Arab “contamination”. This claim was incorporated into the official ideology of the Pahlavi state from 1925 until the Islamic Revolution and remains a powerful rhetorical weapon for political figures in Iran to this day.
The rise of pharaonicism in Egypt signaled a similar shift toward conceptualizing the deep past as a purely national essence that predated the Arab-Islamic conquests. According to Elliot Colla, the chronicler ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti used around the turn of the 19th century.Idols“.
But a generation later, the first museum for the storage and exhibition of antiquities was founded in Egypt under the direction of Rifa’a Rafi ‘al-Tahtawi, who had studied with one of Bonaparte’s scholars in France. In Tahtawi’s numerous writings in the mid-19th century, Eliott Colla documents “a new connection between the ancient Egyptian past and the Egyptian present”.
Although this first attempt at building an Egyptian museum stalled, in 1858 a French Egyptologist was appointed director of the new government agency, the Antiquities Service.
Like Omnia El Shakry did shown, another longtime European resident in Egypt – the Italian doctor Onofrio Abbate – conducted a series of experiments around this time in which the mummified remains of skeletons from the ancient necropolis of Kawamil were taken with bodies at the Qasr al-‘Ayni hospital in Cairo were compared. By observing bodies in Egypt from 1845 to 1915, Abbate built a complex and influential theory of Egyptian racial differences that relied heavily on European racial science.
The heyday of Egyptian Pharaonic nationalism came in the 1920s and 30s – just as fascist movements swept through Europe. It was given wings by the discovery of the tomb of Tut Aknh Amun in 1922. When the leader of the anti-British revolution, Sa’d Zaghlul, died in 1926, his pharaonic-style mausoleum became the center of Cairo’s posh Garden City district.
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As Hussein Omara pointed out Immediately after the Pharaohs Golden Parade, it was in 1931 that dictatorial politician Ismail Sidqi set a precedent that would reverberate for nine decades by relocating 24 mummies from the Egyptian Museum to Zaghlul’s tomb.
In postulating a link between the ancient pharaohs millennia ago and people living in Egypt today, Sisi’s neo-pharaohism draws on this legacy of racial nationalism while throwing overboard some of the pseudoscientific rhetoric that has gone out of style.
We saw it with his supporters when he first came to power, like the Minister of Antiquities and the famous Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who compared Sisi to Pharaoh Mentuhotep II. It appeared at the Inauguration of the new Suez Canal in 2015, when Sisi declared, “Egypt is a great country and has a civilization of 7,000 years” and special coins with pharaonic lotus motifs were minted. During the Golden Parade of the Pharaohs, First Lady Intisar el-Sisi expressed their pride in “belonging to an ancient civilization”.
And in the heart of Tahrir Square, where a series of revolutionary demonstrations that began ten years ago finally brought him to power, has Sisi’s government erect a 90 ton obelisk depicting Pharaoh Ramses II.
“We no longer talk about race today as we did in the 1920s and 30s, but its basic premises are still there: that humans are naturally organized into social groups that reproduce biologically through the depths of time.”
Khaled Fahmy was right to compare Sisi’s Golden Parade to Hitler’s Olympic ceremonies, but he forgot one important aspect in making the comparison: the important role popular racial ideas played in fascism.
The idea that “the people” are a homogeneous mass is an appealing rhetorical tool for any strong leader who could claim to embody their essence in their unique personality. We don’t talk about race as much today as we did in the 1920s and 30s, but the basic premises of that antiquated thinking are still there: that humans are naturally organized into social groups that reproduce biologically through the depths of time.
The racial concept is a powerful idea for modern nationalist mobilizations, and Sisi in Egypt is just one of the authoritarian governments manipulate archaeological remains to politically benefit from its 21st century revitalization.
Kyle J. Anderson is Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Philosophy at SUNY Old Westbury.
Follow him on Twitter: @kylejanderson
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The opinions expressed here are the author’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or of The New Arab and its editorial staff or employees.