“Hold your head up high, you’re Egyptian” was the spontaneous cry from mainstream Egyptians during the January 2011 Revolution.
The slogan, plain and simple as it sounds, carries significant implications. First, that loyalty and belonging to Egypt precedes any religious or ethnic affiliation. Second, that Egypt’s identity is solely ‘Egyptian’; it is neither Turkish Ottoman nor Arab, nor even Islamic as the radicals incessantly repeat, because Islam is a religion whereas peoples and nations are linked to their land. And even though ‘Egyptian’ encompasses a variety of tributary characters—Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, African, Arab, Coptic and Islamic—the unique manner in which they were all blended and grafted into the original identity of the people of the land is what finally makes up the Egyptian identity.
Proud to be Egyptian?
History has proved time and again that the advancement of modern nations is founded on two pillars: the secularisation of State institutions by separating religion and the State; and holding on to heritage as a basis and source of inspiration for the future. Consciousness of one’s heritage involves respect for the forefathers; any criticism directed at them must be based on documented, historical facts rather than ideological defamation for religious or political purposes.
While mainstream Egyptians, educated and illiterate alike, chanted slogans that took pride in their Egyptianness; the majority of the so-called prominent intellectuals in Egypt worked to destroy the sense of the core Egyptian identity by defaming our royal ancestors, the pharaohs, by depicting them as despots and their rule as tyrannical. At the same time that the call, “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian” was raised, another call of, “We do not want another pharaoh” gained momentum.
In line with the Egyptian proverb, “The calf has fallen, hurry with the knife,” many intellectuals were ready to attack Mubarak zealously once he stepped down and branding him a tyrant with comparisons to a pharaoh. Some described him as “The last pharaoh”. A lawyer who represented the victims who fell during the 18-day uprising that led Mubarak to step down recalled the Qur’anic verse in the Sura Al-Qasas: “Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their [newborn] sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corrupters.”
No sooner had the words been uttered in the courtroom than they were repeated in the media by supposedly well-informed media figures. Yet I have to presume that these figures have never studied Egyptology, otherwise they would not have made the claim that ‘Pharaoh’ was synonymous with despotism. If they knew something about Egyptian history their crime would be even more grave, because they would have known that the claim of ‘despotic pharaohs’ was untrue; they would have gone against their conscience to serve the propaganda machine of the prevailing culture.
On the day following Mubarak’s first hearing, the main headline in Al-Fagr newspaper read: “The fall of the last pharaoh”, while another independent newspaper wrote: “The pharaoh yawns” under a repulsive picture of the ousted president.
Secular politicians fell into the same trap. Osama al-Ghazali Harb, founder of the DemocraticFront Party, was reported in the Cairo daily Al-Akhbar to have said: “Egypt today is rid of Pharaoh”.
The list of writers and intellectuals who followed along the same lines has been unending. Islamist writer Fahmy Huweidi focused on ‘Pharaonic tyranny’; Tarek al-Ghazali Harb wrote: “The Age of the Pharaoh is over”, and Ammar Ali Hassan described Mubarak’s fall by saying that, “the sea has engulfed the Pharaoh” in a clear religious reference. The famous poet Abdel-Rahman al-Abnoudy addressed the revolutionary youth saying, “Search for a president of the republic rather than a pharaoh who will drag us back to the ages of humiliation.”
If the crème de la crème of our society do not honour their ancestors, how is the public expected to think?
The hardest part, however, is that the claim of pharaonic tyranny is placed in a religious light, thus catering to religious sentiment and sensitivities.
The religious approach contradicts the sciences of Egyptology and linguistics and promotes the invention that tyranny was an Egyptian creation. Yet, even if we go along with that approach, we must admit that a large piece of the story in the Bible or the Qur’an has been deliberately overlooked. Why use the pharaoh of Moses as a reference, and forget about the pharaoh of Joseph?
The story in both religious books goes that Pharaoh exalted Joseph and allowed him to bring his people from the land of Canaan into Egypt. The Jews were permitted to build a colony in Egypt; the book of Genesis says that Pharaoh said to Joseph: “Your father and your brothers have come to you, and the land of Egypt is before you; settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land.” (Genesis 47:5-6). When, some 400 years later, they are oppressed and manage to leave Egypt and go into the desert on their way to the Promised Land, they complain: “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted.”(Exodus 16:3).
Tyranny is no Egyptian creation
The word ‘pharaoh’ is derived from the hieroglyphics per-‘a, meaning ‘the big house’, which could be the mayor’s house in Egyptian villages, the house which hosts locals and strangers alike and offers protection to the down-trodden. It was the symbol of the ruling authority, in this case a benign authority.
Implying that pharaohs ruled tyrannically is far from objective. Greeks, Romans and Persians were the symbols of tyranny in ancient times, Hulaku and Genghis Khan in the middle ages, and Mussolini, Hitler, Idi Amin and Ja##far al-Numairi in the modern age.
At its height, the number of slaves in ancient Athens reached 200,000—tenfold the number of free citizens in the city. In Rome, the number of slaves in 24BC was some 20 million against 214,000 free citizens, and they were treated abominably. The notorious crucifixion of 6,000 slaves in 73BC along the road from Capua to Rome to punish them for their revolt against slavery was an act of hideous atrocity. Examples of rulers’ tyranny since the dawn of civilisation are numerous and well-known, yet they have never come under attack by our intellectuals who appear to be happy enough with criticising their forefathers for sins they never committed.
Truth and justice
Egyptologists have proved that after a king was dead, his body would be laid out for three days so that the people had an opportunity to say whether he had abided by the laws of Maat, goddess of Justice and Truth. If they decided that he had not, he would be banished from entering heaven; therefore, all the kings of ancient Egypt were keen to apply justice.
Prisoners of war in ancient Egypt were subject to Egyptian laws and were equal to Egyptians in rights and duties.
Egyptologists agree that equality among all citizens in ancient civilisations existed only in Egypt, and that Egyptian women were the only women in the region who enjoyed full rights at the time.
I must admit that we do not live in a perfect Utopia, but I cannot help wondering why Egyptians insist on defaming our national symbols. Is it because of poor knowledge, or is it due to ideological bias? Can they not draw the line between religious and historical reference?
Was pharaoh a despot?
Erian Labib Hanna
The pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt followed the lessons given them by their god Ra, who taught them the discipline needed to be good rulers. It was believed that lack of discipline would give way to chaos. Maat, the goddess of justice, truth and righteousness, was the symbol of good rule. After the usual prayer the priest would lift the statue of Maat to signify the importance of social justice and peace.
Morality was preserved, and the ancient Egyptians enjoyed an advanced level of science, medicine, irrigation, agriculture, education, sculpture, art, chemistry and architecture. The king was just and wise.
Equal before Maat
In the years when I worked as a tourist guide I found it was a common idea among tourists that the pharaohs were tyrants. I used to explain the misunderstanding, but they would cite the story of Moses and the haughty pharaoh of the Exodus. That pharaoh was only a single example, but not the rule. And even if he treated the Jews harshly, it is written in Exodus 5: 15: “Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto pharaoh saying, Why do you do treat your servants this way? …Your servants are beaten, but the fault is with your own people.” In the Arabic translation it is written: “You are unjust to your servants.”
The eloquent peasant in the story of the same name, who took his case to pharaoh and presented it so eloquently that the king ruled directly in his favour, is a good example of the application of justice.
The mere idea that people could have an audience with the ruler to question his harshness towards them does not bear the least resemblance to tyranny. Equally, the Negative Confession that every person—including the ruler—was required to testify in the ‘Trial’ of the afterlife as they stood before the Balance of Justice was a deterrent to any tyranny, to say nothing, of course, of the fact that here the pharaoh was equal to the least of his subjects—all were the same before Maat and her famous scales of justice. The kings and all other dead people had the same ‘trial’ after death, and they all feared the Creator who was the ultimate judge.
30 December 2012
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