By Mohammed Nosseir
Egyptian rulers gamble when they think that they can manipulate the national identity to serve their political goals. Each ruler has his own perception of the Egyptian identity that he wants to impose on society either through expressing love or by applying harsh laws that aim at fine-tuning citizens to fit into a specific identity. Such efforts will certainly never succeed, because rulers cannot formulate identity.
Identity is a term that can have different meanings. This piece, however, refers to the modern formulation of identity that is made up of dignity, pride and honor; and I am attempting to address the question: do Egyptians, generally, acknowledge their identity on the basis of these qualities?
Prior to thinking about identity, let’s identify the Egyptian cultural values that formulate our identity. I personally found it difficult to identify those values! Individual Egyptians will most likely give different answers to the question; who are we? What kinds of values distinguish us from the rest of the world? Through my observations, I personally notice that Egyptians highly respect the role of family that religion is an essential part of their lives, and that privacy is a very important Egyptian trait.
Nevertheless, a number of contradictions do exist that raise various question marks! Can Egypt continue to claim to be a conservative and religious society, when sexual harassment and general violence have become so widespread? Can we claim to be a united society when most of citizens are individually driven and have become less tolerant and less accountable to their country? Can we claim to respect confidentiality when TV programs that impinge upon privacy enjoy such a high viewing rate? By noting the above deterioration of values, we can easily conclude that Egypt has experienced a major setback in some of the moral values that used to constitute an integral part of society, such as honour, dignity, trust and respect. Should these values be lost, our identity will become blurred and indistinct.
There is no doubt that Egypt has a very rich culture and history and that Egyptians, as a result, are proud of themselves. But do Egyptians want to live their entire life talking about their ancient history and events that occurred thousands of years ago, or do they want to successfully fulfil vital material needs, which would enable them to live happier, healthier, more decent lives, thereby strengthening their love for, and attachment to, their country.
Citizens often need to feel a sense of recognition and belonging; it is what makes citizens proud of saying that they belong to their respective countries. This attachment doesn’t come naturally; it isn’t a blood relationship that citizens inherit – regardless of how much the State may try to advocate the opposite. The sense of attachment to a country is formed by the accumulated efforts that a State presents to its citizens; in return, citizens offer not only their love, but also their life.
The vast majority of Egyptians are working hard simply to survive; earning very low incomes; they have no access to decent education or health services. Meanwhile, the tiny minority of wealthy Egyptian that is living under far better circumstances is still living far below the living standards in advanced countries. Moreover, the entire population suffers daily from traffic violations, pollution, dirt, insecurity and lack of basic human rights. These attributes are more than sufficient to weaken the relationship between the State and its citizens, which is continuously deteriorating.
Various Egyptian governments, starting with the Mubarak Presidency to the present, are aware of this dilemma. However, rather than working on fixing and improving their governments’ performances, they try to compensate this gap by strengthening the emotional relationship between the State and its citizens. This is done by exaggerating a few, irrelevant, successes (such as winning a football game), attempting to unite citizens by warning of internal or external threats, or by developing a mega project that promises a better future for all Egyptians – in addition, of course, to using patriotic songs as a mobilization tool since Egyptians tend to be more emotional than rational.
Capitalizing on the above tactics won’t make citizens love their country more; on the contrary, they will discover the fragility of these techniques sooner rather than later. Unfortunately however, most Egyptians rulers work hard to change Egypt’s identity, both in order to serve their political goals and to give them room to manipulate ordinary citizens. The two main Egyptian political forces (the Deep State and the Islamists) typically use this philosophical principle – combined with a number of expediencies – to gain more ground.
Both of these political forces put considerable effort into developing a constitution that would serve their goals. However, no nation’s identity will be changed by the introduction of specific articles into a document. The Egyptian identity already exists; it only needs to be well defined in the nation’s constitution (and eventually enforced by implementing the law), thus enabling us to reclaim our missing values.
The deterioration and abandonment of values provided a propitious opportunity for various Islamic political forces to advocate for Islamic values, placing them above the values advocated by the State. Evidently, the motivation behind this is not love of country or religion, but the achievement of political ends. Nevertheless, with the deterioration of the State values, this approach managed to give Islamic forces a wider base and increased popularity. For millions of citizens, claiming to belong to the Islamic state rather than to the Egyptian one has managed to become a very appealing argument. This phenomenon was eventually imitated and reproduced in other Arab countries.
As a sign of disaffiliating themselves from the State and to magnify their own status, some of the Islamic political entities recently decided not to salute the Egyptian flag. As a reflection of this behaviour, the former interim liberal government decided to overcome this weak sense of national belonging by formulating a law that allows the State to bring criminal charges against citizens who don’t salute the Egyptian flag. In my opinion, it would be much more effective to first identify those who disrespect the State by not saluting the flag, and then to work on correcting this behaviour by providing appropriate tutoring – rather than by threatening to imprison.
The Egyptian government is under the impression that imprisoning citizens who are indifferent to the ruler and continuing to sing and broadcast patriotic songs will strengthen the relationship between Egyptian citizens and their country. Meanwhile, anyone who gives voice to constructive criticism is being accused of not being loyal enough to the country and in some cases, of working on behalf of the enemy.
In my opinion, citizens have obligations towards their country, and one of these obligations is to help to put the country on the right track. Love for your country should be expressed by action, not words – even if you tune your words into a song! Saluting the flag in public is not proof of love or loyalty. Egypt will not be changed by the number of people who are singing for the country; but by those people who are keen to improve its performance on the ground. This could be done by rejecting and criticizing the current status, as well as by providing ideas for change aimed at improving the country’s performance.
The relationship between the State and its citizens should be formulated from an extremely well balanced combination of love and law enforcement. There must be a well-demarcated line indicating when laws must be applied and when love should be conveyed. This is comparable to the founding of a new family; it should be within a legal framework – but only love strengthens the day-to-day relationships among its members.
President Al Sisi often expresses his love for Egypt and encourages Egyptians to imitate his loving behaviour. Nevertheless, this is not the most essential trait of a President who is supposed to work on improving the country’s performance by providing fair and equal opportunities to each citizen, which will eventually strengthen the loving relationship. The manner in which love of country is expressed may vary from one citizen to another, but laws and the legal system constitute the common factor providing the structure of the relationship.
Identity should reflect the behaviour of mainstream Egyptians, habits and traditions that they have been practicing for centuries and that will serve to unite society, instead of discriminating among its members or polarizing them. Harming citizens’ pride, dignity, or self-esteem will eventually damage the relationship between the State and its citizens, and serve to alienate the latter from the country. In my view, large portions of Egyptians feel alienated in their own country due to the above-mentioned missing elements that the State has not supplied sufficiently. Egyptians, in general, tend to settle their conflicts peacefully. Thus, identity should not be forced on people, nor should it be used as a tool to mobilize them.
Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian Liberal Politician working on reforming Egypt on true liberal values, proper application of democracy and free market economy. Mohammed was member of the Higher Committee, Headed the International Relations of the Democratic Front Party from 2008 to 2012