Talking of identity…

15-03-2014 10:54 AM

Ekhlass Attallah

The one-year rule of political Islam Egypt underwent from June 2012 to June 2013
shook Egyptians to the core and woke them up to the reality of how much their very identity and culture may be threatened under the pretext that they did not conform with fundamental Islamic teachings.

 Egyptians utterly rejected the idea that there was any conflict between their age-old concepts and way of life on one hand, and their religious principles on the other. They went out in their huge masses on 30 June 2013 and overthrew the Islamist president Muhammad Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime. This practically put an end to Islamist politics, but it also alerted Egyptians to how close they had come to being squeezed out of their identity; the issue of identity gained special impact on both the public and private scenes.
Identity: the soul
“Identity and Culture” was the topic of a recent seminar where the chief speaker was the Egyptian intellectual Ahmed Abdel-Moati Hegazi, whose poems in classical Arabic have made him one of the leading poets in the Arab world. 
Mr Hegazi earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1979. By then readers had been enjoying his poems for 20 years. “City Without a Heart and “Uras” were published in 1959, followed by “Nothing Remains but Confession” in 1965 and “Elegy of the Beautiful Life” in 1972. Major poems after that were “Trees of Cement”, published in 1989, and “Ruins of Time” in 2011.
Culture and identity, according to Mr Hegazi, are among today’s most thorny issues. “Identity is the soul of Egypt,” he said. 
“Identity means the national awareness and character formed by various elements, including the ‘place’,” Mr Hegazi added. “This reminds me of The Personality of Egypt: A study in the genius of place by Gamal Hemdan (1928 – 1993). Hemdan was an eminent geographer and a dedicated academic and scholar, and he saw the collective character traits of Egyptians to be the outcome of the nature of their land, river, and climate.
“How can I discuss Egyptian identity without talking about culture?” he asked. “The issue of identity was mostly tackled by Syrian and Lebanese scholars who were—on account of the French occupation of their countries—totally absorbed in French culture. Egyptians, however, contacted with French culture through scholarships to Paris for education and research, thus conveying the French civilisation and culture without tampering with the original Egyptian.
In mediaeval Latin, Mr Hegazi said, culturare, which gave birth to ‘culture’, denoted cultivation. Originally concerned with agriculture and the idea of working the land to yield produce, it embodied the idea of work and ‘education’.
“ ‘Egypt’ was rejected in the MB Constitution of 2012, which they tailored at their own hands. This came as no surprise; when Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the MB, talked about ‘patriotism’ he said, ‘the borders of patriotism are not in the ‘land’, but in the ‘[religious] belief’.”
Apparently, Banna meant that Egyptians saw themselves as belonging to the land geographically, while the MB considered every spot of land a Muslim lives in as a Muslim homeland. “This is MB thought,” Hegazi said. 
Loyal to democracy
In reply to a question on whether MB thought succeeded in influencing the Egyptian identity during the year of Islamist rule, Mr Hegazi explained that identity was the fruit of long ages of history; some of which we may be aware of, but we do not know about. Patriotism is an absolute, vital distinctiveness, which is so deep-rooted that a one-year rule cannot affect. 
 “We should be loyal to democracy and the Constitution,” he said. “The nation should be our sacred entity. We ought with all our strength to hold on to our Constitution because it is the lifeline. The Constitution is the base of the State of institutions; I mean parliament, government, and judiciary. And we should get rid of the idea of the ‘one-man-show’ by depending on a person not an institution.” 
Watani International
16 March 2014
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