Are Egyptians Africans?
I received a commission from CNN to do a feature piece on Egyptian identity in July 2007.
The four-minute segment was scheduled to appear on CNN’s Inside Africa, a weekly program that prides itself on showcasing the “genuine” Africa, complete with all of its variety, illustrious history, and vibrant culture.
This program examines Africans’ achievements, in contrast to other programs that frequently highlight poverty and sickness while covering the continent.
Cynthia Nelson, an African-American, was my producer at the time in Atlanta, Georgia. She requested that I focus my four-minute segment on whether Egyptians actually identify as Africans.
I headed out on my quest after hiring a video team, convinced that I would simply need to demonstrate that Egypt was indeed a country in North Africa.
Egyptians are hence Africans. However, the problem turned out to be considerably more complicated than just a matter of geography. Though I was unaware of it at the time, I would soon learn something that would astound me much.
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Over the course of the following few days, I conducted interviews with hundreds of Egyptians in various Cairo neighborhoods, including laypeople and academics as well as researchers and academics.
People on the street looked at me strangely when I asked them, but the majority of them said, “I’m a Muslim Arab, of course,” or “an Arab Muslim.”
Did they react with a shrug and a bewildered expression since, after all, weren’t Arabs and Muslims the majority in Egypt already well-known facts?
A couple of the interviewees claimed to be “Pharoah ancestors,” but interestingly, none of the sample believed they were Africans.
Their comments got me thinking about the idea of the Sahara divide. The Sahara Desert has long been thought of as a massive, impenetrable wall separating Northern (or “white”) Africa from Sub-Saharan (or “black”) Africa.
In contrast to those to the north, which are seen as Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or Islamic, the nations south of the Sahara have long been seen as really “African.”
Although the majority of anthropologists dispute this notion of Africa as “inaccurate,” it has still had an impact on how people view the continent un general and our area in particular.
Evidently, it has affected how Egyptians see themselves as well. Many Egyptians fail to recognize their African identity because they are unaware of their “African-ness.”
Some Egyptians are shocked to learn of their African ancestry, while others are hesitant to admit it. I detest to say it, but we are a racist people.
African migrants in Egypt frequently lament the prejudice and verbal and physical mistreatment they encounter there.
Saharians with darker complexion are seen as inferior by Egyptians. This is confirmed by historian Jill Kamel, who adds that it may be explained by the fact that over generations, Egypt’s wealthy class was mostly composed of lighter-skinned Egyptians.
While the impoverished Egyptians were those who had to work in the harsh heat to make ends meet. Thus, she explained, “Egyptians have learned to connect light skin with aristocracy.”
The late President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s (also known as the Nasserist) nationalist pan-Arabism philosophy encouraged his adherents (the Nasserists) to be proud of their Arab ethnicity.
In the 1970s, due to the Gulf oil boom, millions of Egyptians relocated to the Gulf states that were wealthy in oil to support their families.
They took on many of the customs of the hosts, bringing with them a new conservatism that was reflected in their mannerisms and clothing.
In his two-part series “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians,” author and writer Galal Amin extensively explores the effects of Wahhabism, a strict type of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, on Egyptian culture.
The book details the changes brought on by the enormous flight to the Gulf in the 1970s.
Hosni Mubarak, the president who was overthrown by a popular revolt at the beginning of last year, had anti-Islamist policies and attempted to impose more “liberal” norms on society.
However, his efforts were generally ineffective, and as a result of Egyptians’ rejection to what they saw as “Western-imposed principles,” many Egyptians become more conservative.
Mubarak’s genuine motivations are questioned by some doubters, who assert that he “was more of an Islamist than the Islamists.”
They claim that “he permitted a number of Saudi-funded TV stations to penetrate our satellite space and prescribe how people should behave.”
Others prefer to think that Egyptians’ inclination for religion was brought on by Mubarak’s oppressive regime. Mubarak could possibly have supported the rise of Islamism as a strategy to divert Egyptians’ attention from politics and into the realm of religion.
In reality, the political persecution and economic difficulties that characterized the rule of the deposed authoritarian leader contributed to the current rise in religiosity.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which was formerly banned but is now permitted, moved in to fill the void created by the government by providing desperately needed charitable services to the underprivileged and needy in society.
The organization gained a lot of supporters for its cause as a result.
As a result of everything said above, Egypt is a split nation along ideological lines, with Islamists on the one side and liberals and Christians on the other.
The New Egypt
The rise of Islamism has been observed in the “new” Egypt, yet around half of the populace continues to oppose the shift and desperately clings to the rapidly vanishing “secular” image.
In the days following the January 25 Revolution, Emad Gad, a researcher and political analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political Studies, told me that “We have claimed Egypt back from the grip of the Saudis” and that the revolution was about “Egyptianising ‘Egypt once again after years of “attempts to Saudise it.”
His claims are wholly untrue now, a year and a half later, as the reality on the ground shows that the nation has chosen a different path.
In addition, Egyptians are increasingly using religious symbols to express their Islamic identity, like as the hijab, a Muslim headscarf worn by women, and beards grown by males.
These signs don’t always indicate increasing religiosity; rather, Egyptians have only grown “more outwardly religious.”
According to Dr. Madiha El Safty, a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, peer pressure is a major factor in why teenage females choose to wear the veil.
Even though the signs of rising piety may be due to peer pressure, a political protest against Western policies toward the Middle East, the fact remains that the society is becoming more and more “Islamized.”
Another move in that direction was this week’s repeal of the hijab restriction for Egyptian State TV anchors.
It’s critical to remember that, although certain aspects of society “Islamizing” rapidly, other aspects are fiercely resisting the tendency.
People have the freedom to make their own private decisions in any free and democratic society.
We must embrace our variety and be proud of our African, Mediterranean, or Arab heritage if we are to restore our beautiful history and recreate the Egypt that once served as a nexus of cultures and civilizations.
This mixture gives us our unique identity as Egyptians.