Written by: Amanda Jarrett
Egypt has continuously struggled with the ways in which they identify and unify. Since its independence in 1922, the political institutions fought feverishly against the remnants of its colonial taint. Three regimes—Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak—all have attempted to create and build upon an Egyptian nationality by carrying emphasis on different aspects that they thought should be its foundation. By doing so, each regime sought to find legitimacy in its own discourse. These definitions that Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak spun all influenced each other’s definitions of Egyptianness as well as by earlier political and religious thinkers. Though, these definitions impacted each regimes ability to draw in support, from both the public and other political actors, and influenced their eventual downfall.
The Regime of Gamal Nasser
Nasser’s regime and concept of Arab nationalism set the stage for the coming decades in terms of political agendas and defining Egyptianness. To begin, his involvement in politics began at a young age when he was an officer in the Egyptian army during Egypt’s intervention in the 1948 Palestinian War. After seeing the failure of the Egyptian government and its military involvement, Nasser became determined to see Egypt take more ownership over its own rule, both internally and externally from the British (Gerges, 70).
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928 and led by Hassan al-Banna, was gaining more of a political ground against the monarch. al-Banna based his ideas of pan-Islamism and adapting towards modernization without Westernizing from Sayyid Jamaluddin (Ansary, 308). The Muslim Brotherhood, also referred to as Ikhwan, called for the establishment of a Quranic state and to reject ties with colonization and its frameworks (Gerges, 62).
Within this Islamic organization, the Free Officers were created from former army officers, which included Nasser and Anwer Sadat and required them to swear faulty to al-Banna (Gerges, 73). After the 1952 coup of the British-backed monarch, Nasser and the Free Officers took power. Conflict between the Ikhwan and Nasser began to fester and grow as time went on. This conflict was not over a disagreement in ideology, but was rooted in a power struggle.
The Ikhwan did not want to be a junior partner in a coalition with Nasser (Gerges, 89). Throughout Nasser’s reign of power, Ikhwan and its members continued to prove to be a political rival. Nasser was able to reassert his power by imprisoning many of its members. Though, this did not stop one individual in particular, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb wrote his most impactful writings while he was imprisoned. He stated that “Violence is not only used as a tool of opposition to the state, it de facto becomes an identity marker that helps differentiate real Muslims from the rest” (Gerges, 136).
His writings spoke on what it meant to be a true Muslim. He also endorsed violence to combat the jahili of Muslims and non-Muslims. He wanted to get rid of the ignorance and bring back the golden age of Islam. Qutb used this terminology to combat the legitimacy of the Nasser regime, saying that he was an unbeliever and not a true Muslim (Gerges, 140). After the execution of Qutb in 1966 by the Nasserist state, his ideas still carried on through the ways in which they challenged Nasser’s regime as well as what it meant to be a true Muslim (Gerges, 144). Later, Qutbian ideology resurfaced in the regimes of Sadat and Mubarak through the Ikhwan.
Throughout the rule of Nasser, he struggled to create a base ideological framework, leaving cracks in his regime’s legitimacy. When he came into power, he said that he was against the colonialist framework that was put in place by the British-backed regime. However, when he came into power, his underground paramilitary had already accepted the paramilitary, autocratic culture of the initial framework that was already in place (Gerges, 80).
Additionally, later on in his regime, Nasser began working with the very colonizers he had originally disowned. When he signed the evacuation treaty in 1954, he had negotiated the withdrawal of British troops from the Suez Canal while also providing the British with the necessary base facilities. Nasser’s political opposition used the opportunity to demonstrate to the Egyptian people his own un-Egyptianness. Testifying in court, Adbel Latif stated that Nasser had committed an “act of treason” and had “gave away the rights of the nation” through signing the treaty, giving the control of the country back into the hands its original colonizers (Gerges, 115).
During the decline of Nasser’s rule, a trail of events nailed his coffin as well as his ideologies. Nasser failed to bring pan-Arabism to light in the 1967 Six Day War with a swift and brutal defeat of the Egyptian army. Regional powers began to question his true dedication to the Arab nationalist project through both his forfeited involvement with Palestine and war in Yemen (Gerges, 286).
Furthermore, with the attempt to move away from the oppression of the colonizers, Nasser tried to build the Egyptian identity as pitting itself against anything to do with colonization. “National identity in Egypt became gradually grounded in a dialectical process of total oppression to the Other (the occupiers), while the national rhetoric projected the Egyptian people as forming a united and a homogenous bloc” (Gerges, 123-124).
Egyptianness came to be defined as being completely independent from the British occupation and foreign influencers (Gerges, 124). In the very attempt to differentiate themselves from their colonialist past, Nasser was rooting their identity in anti-colonialist rhetoric. By doing so, he inherently linked the formation of Egyptian nationalism with colonialism, further enhancing their identity’s connection to their colonial past. This created an internal struggle within society and its citizens with the ways in which they identify and how society defines them. Nasser’s regime demonstrated the fragmentation in the Egyptian identity through the tensions between political parties and the unrepresented marginalized groups of society.
Unfortunately, with Nasser utilizing religion, Arab nationalism, and Egyptian nationalism as a means to an end, Nasser was unable to break free from the influence and involvement of the West. Additionally, he failed to create a solid ideological framework as a base to his regime, preventing him from ever gaining full legitimacy, which lead to the eventual exposure of the cracks in his regime and its ultimate demise.
The Administration of Anwar Sadat
As previously mentioned, Sadat was a follower of al-Banna and the Ikhwan. Throughout Nasser’s regime, Sadat can be seen at the side of Nasser. One of his positions under the regime was the newspaper editor for al-Gumhouria. As a part of the “Senior Officers Caste,” he helped with Nasser’s agenda in ensuring ‘internal security’ of the state through helping to control publications and propaganda (Gerges, 129). Even though Sadat can be seen as supporting Nasser during his regime, after Nasser’s death and Sadat’s rise to power, he worked extremely hard to dismantle Nasser’s legacy.
Nasser’s regime had temporarily silenced the growing Islamist movement that had been on the rise for several decades. However, once in power, Sadat unleashed the Ikhwan from their prisons and the Islamist movement with them. In the 1970s, Sadat gave them new life by allowing them to move openly, organize, and publish and distribute their publications (Gerges, 321). He also played a key role in empowering Islamic-oriented students on campuses, furthering the elimination of nationalists (Gerges, 324).
During this time frame, Sadat was using Islamism to consolidate his rule. He did this by completely removing any Nasserist from power and by spreading patience and faith to accommodate the humiliating defeat of the 1967 Six Day War. Egyptian pride and sense of nationalism took a deep blow from that loss and Sadat sought to heal that wound with religion. Military successes from the 1973 October War were attributed to religion (Gerges, 326).
Sadat propagated how Allah helped them triumph, insinuating that Allah is back on the side of Egypt after the shame Nasser had brought to the country. Thus, hinting that Sadat’s legitimacy came from Allah himself. Political thinkers, such as Afghani and Rida, validate Sadat’s divine perspective through “their conceptualization of Islam as a motor for cultural renewal and modernization” (Gerges, 63).
Throughout Sadat’s rule, he attempted to distance himself from the legacy of Nasserism—Arab nationalism and socialism. He used foreign influencers to achieve his political objectives, which deepened the country’s economic crisis (Gerges, 318). Ideologically, Sadat vastly differed from Nasser, but his tactics were similar. His dependence on foreign influencers contradicted the constructed narrative the Egypt was fully independent and instead continued the reality of false autonomy.
Additionally, with his mission to pivot Egypt from left to right on the political spectrum, there were many unintended consequences. Sadat’s administration fueled religious extremism without placing limitations on it (Gerges, 317). Lastly, his push for Islamism had lasting impacts on Egypt’s constitution. In the 1971 constitution, in article two, it stated that “the principles of Shari’a are the main source of legislation” (Gerges, 323). This article shows that Sadat may have been influenced by Wahhabism, which “told Muslims that the Law was Islam and Islam was the Law” (Ansary, 255).
Before this time, Shari’a was never in the Egyptian constitution. Groups within civil society fought against this article due to its exclusivity and discrimination towards non-Islamist groups of society (Gerges, 323). Even with his administration’s flaws and mistakes, the article is a “testament to the durability of the Sadat legacy on Egyptian life,” encoding Islam into the framework of Egyptian identity (Gerges, 323).
The Era of Hosni Mubarak
As witnessed through Nasser’s regime and Sadat’s administration, the Ikhwan have been a consistent actor in Egyptian politics. Throughout the era of Mubarak, the Ikhwan struggle with their political authority and internal conflicts. During Sadat’s period, Mubarak was one of the political prisoners that were released. Being a disciple of Qutb led Mubarak’s traditional beliefs reflected his predecessor.
As the Ikhwan moved through an assortment of leaders, such as Telmessany and Nasr, the organization became more strict and conservative (Gerges, 347). Additionally, with the separation between Sadat and Telmessany, the old guard became much more autocratic and reactionary (Gerges, 345). These changes in attitude and structure is what inspired the rift within the Islamic organization between the younger reformists and the old guard.
The younger reformists believe that the elders in the group only work for recognition and to seek approval from their ruler, losing their sense of morality and attachment to civil society (Gerges, 363). Additionally, the added traditions of clientelism and nepotism within the state spurred secrecy and lack of accountability which is furthered by the practice of favoritism within the ranks (Gerges, 358). Lastly, the culture within the group inspires social isolation of the younger members from the broader social environment, which perpetuates the organizations inability to connect to the climate of civil society overall (Gerges, 356).
The internal conflict between the younger reformists and the old guard disallowed for the institutional development of the organization to evolve in the ways that they needed to. This inevitably weakened their ability to handle the 2011 January revolution (Gerges, 349). Also, there have been many failed attempts of internal reforms. The methods of the Mubarak regime perpetuated a cliental relationship between Egypt and foreign actors, which reinforced the country’s colonialist past and structure, and attempted to reiterate Islam into the Egyptian identity. All these factors intensified the Ikhwan disconnection with the public and society, leading to their overthrow after the 2011 elections (Gerges, 249).
The similarities between the regimes are rooted in their failed attempt to connect the government with society. The Nasser and Sadat, and arguably Mubarak, regimes all ended up using Islam as a tool to gain more power and legitimacy and failed to separate Egyptianness from colonialism. Though, each regime did have their own interpretation of how Islam would play a role in Egyptian law, Nasser was more on the secular side while Sadat was on the side of Islamism. Both Nasser and Sadat failed to shed the institutional remnants of colonialism. However, Mubarak, especially after the 2011 January revolution, had been making greater attempts at implementing democracy than Nasser and Sadat ever did.
With each attempt at defining Egyptian identity, no regime had been able to create a solidified sense of nationalism. This was especially due to the continuous disconnect between the government and the Egyptian people. Additionally, colonialist rhetoric is still influences the Egyptian identity due to Nasser and Sadat’s attempts at distancing themselves from colonialism by defining themselves in relation to the West. The very concept of nationalism came from Europe, which makes it inherently Western (Ansary, 285). Finally, Egypt has been trapped in the ideological and conceptual framework of colonialism, which has limited their own ability to find a proper collective identity that can be represented by both the people and its government. Until this occurs, the Egyptian identity and sense of nationalism will continue to be in crisis.
Ansary, Tamim. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. PublicAffairs, 2009.
Gerges, Fawaz A. Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East. Princeton University Press, 2018.
 “Yemen became an inter-Arab killing field, showing the limits of Egyptian power and undermining the Egyptian state. The Yemen war also exposed deep cracks in the Arab nationalist project and demonstrated why Nasser and other Arab leaders failed to move towards Arab Unity in practice” (Gerges, 286).
 “The development of the conception of ‘Egyptianness’ as sameness and unity against the occupier meant that the junta increasingly came to think of itself as the only representative of the Egyptian nation and its authentic core as well. The Free Officers had become the People and Egypt could not be Egypt without them” (Gerges, 129-130).