Identity politics: Egypt's strong sense of nationalism, and why one day it may rule east Africa's seas

“Before the Turks, we [Egyptians] were here. Before Islam, we were here; before the Romans, Greeks and everyone, there was a country called Egypt.”

EGYPT is located at the confluence of Africa and the Middle East, and is the most populous country in the Arab world. It’s probably in the top tier of the world’s melting pots, with a civilisation dating back 7,000 years; everyone from the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks having scrambled for the prize of the Nile.

Last weekend, Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi hosted a two-day conference at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, intended to play up Egypt’s African position. The “Business for Africa, Egypt and the World” brought together more than 1,000 delegates from the continent to promote private sector business and intra-African trade.

But the question that arises often is one of identity: considering the geography of their neighbourhood, do Egyptians think of themselves as Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or African?

I posed this question to Abdel Aziz Zaki, an Egyptian lawyer I met at the Sharm conference. Zaki, 39, was born and raised in Alexandria, and is now a partner in one of the leading law firms in Cairo.

His answer: “We are none of those. We are Egyptian.”

On a continent whose national borders are regularly denounced as artificial, arbitrary, and a construct of colonialism, Zaki explains that Egypt is one of the few exceptions. In his view, the nationalist identity as Egyptian is the primary one.

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“Before the Turks, we [Egyptians] were here. Before Islam, we were here; before the Romans, Greeks and everyone, there was a country called Egypt,” he says, as we sit down to dinner, a gala event organised as part of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference.

Zaki is as sophisticated and middle class as they come, and he tells me that although he wasn’t among the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrators in Tahrir Square that called for Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, he was very much a part of the 2013 wave that protested Mohamed Morsi’s administration.

“I spent two weeks in the streets in 2013. I’d go to the office in the morning, and then in the afternoon camp in Tahrir Square till late night. I’d go back home to change and sleep for a couple of hours, then do it over the following day.”

The main grievance that Zaki had against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood administration was that in promoting an Islamist ideology, the Muslim Brotherhood was subsuming the Egyptian nationalist identity into the greater Muslim umma (the broader, global Muslim community), and that was unacceptable to the majority of Egyptians.

Little sympathy

It explains why there seems to be little sympathy from many Egyptians for the heavy-handed way the Muslim Brotherhood is now being handled by Sisi’s administration.

There have been excesses, Zaki admits, such as mass trials and harsh sentences – a few days ago it reached absurd proportions when a four-year-old was sentenced to life in prison, along with 115 other people found guilty of killing three people and sabotaging public and private property during a political demonstration in January 2014.

The boy, Ahmed Mansour Qorany Sharara, was one-and-a-half years old at the time of the alleged crime.

The conviction has caused a global media uproar, and authorities have now admitted it was a case of mistaken identity – they meant to arrest a teenager with the same name.

Attorneys argued that court officials had not passed his birth certificate to the judge to prove his age at the time of the offence, and the boy was subsequently convicted of four counts of murder, eight counts of attempted murder and vandalising government property.

The case highlights the broad – and often shoddy – crackdown on dissenters; in 2014, the UN warned that Egypt had “a judicial system where international fair trial guarantees appear to be increasingly trampled upon” after more than 1,200 people were sentenced to death in two mass trials “rife with procedural irregularities”.

Still, more than anything else, the Egyptian military personifies this sense of national identity, Zaki tells me.

“Egyptians are very proud of their military,” he says, as the drone of Apache helicopters circling low overhead drowns out our conversation every few minutes.

According to data from one ranking, the Global Fire Power Index, Egypt is currently Africa’s most formidable military power.

Sheer strength

The country’s sheer strength of nearly half a million active frontline personnel and 800,000 trained reserve troops gives it an edge in simply out-manning the rest of Africa. It also has nearly 14,000 armoured fighting vehicles, 4,624 tanks, 1,107 aircraft and 245 naval vessels, the largest fleets in Africa, according to the GFP data. 

In the coming decades, two trends will likely shift Egypt’s focus to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and entrench it as Africa’s military superpower.

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Last year, Egypt opened a new Suez Canal, the first major expansion of the crucial waterway in its 145-year history, a hugely important link that shortens Europe-Asia trade route by 9,600 kilometres. Around 3.8 million barrels of oil pass through the canal each day, which comes to 5.5% of global oil output, along with 8% of global sea-borne trade. 

Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean is likely to become the new stage of global geopolitics – already, India and China are jostling for supremacy of the seas.

With the Suez expansion expected to boost sea trade in the Indian Ocean, along with the planned oil and gas exports from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique in the next few years, sea power will become increasingly important for African countries.

With sheer firepower, and a strong sense of national identity and public support for the military, Egypt could entrench itself the military power of the eastern African seaboard, with an increasingly visible role in the Indian Ocean.

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