As I sipped my coffee at a sidewalk café in Beirut’s famed Hamra Street, I was approached by a man asking if I would like my shoes shined. “No thank you,” I replied, but he was insistent. As we spoke, hearing my accent, he asked if I was Egyptian, to which I said yes. As he walked away, he yelled back at me, “Um al-Dunya!”
Um al-Dunya, literally translated as ‘Mother of the World,’ is an Arabic expression, which Egyptians, and others, have used throughout history in reference to the country’s achievements. It encompasses everything from the country’s ancient civilization, to a long list of Egyptian superlatives and achievements in religion, culture, science, and more. With respect to religion, Egypt is mentioned on several occasions in the Holy Quran, while Cairo’s 1,000 year old Al-Azhar University is one of the most prestigious and oldest Islamic institutions of learning in the world; the Bible also sanctifies Egypt when it states “Blessed be Egypt, my people.” Culturally, the North African state is home to many a legendary singer and songwriter, most notably Uum Kulthum, otherwise known as Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East). The Egyptian dialect of Arabic is the most widely understood dialect in the Arab world. Egypt’s strategic importance to a wide range of empires and global hegemons throughout history such as the Romans, the British, and more recently the Americans is a testament to its political significance. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt was the “undisputed political center of the Arab world,” leading the rest of the region in resisting Western Imperialism and promoting Pan-Arabism.
Blinded by pride and Its patriarchal protector
Egyptians are understandably proud of these achievements. The government has traditionally exploited this pride in the interest of keeping the masses detached from a laundry list of ailments that have led to the country’s economic, political, and social deterioration. The interim military-backed government has purported itself to be the protector of this pride, while overseeing its evolution into blinding hypernationalism. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s speech on July 3 made a point to state that the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi was in the interest of Egypt’s great people. Since then, the military has enlisted the media as its partner in drawing the connection between Egypt’s greatness and the military’s protection. Television stations have played popular anthems of national pride dating back to the 1950s as a backdrop to video footage of serene images of Egypt’s natural wonders and the achievements of its Armed Forces. Over the summer, titans of the Egyptian music industry banded together to produce the popular hit, “Teslam al-Ayady” a song lauding the nation’s legendary people and accomplishments while paying homage to the military’s ability to protect it. During the violent dispersal of sit-ins calling for Morsi’s reinstatement this past August, triumphant instrumentals sampled from the scores of films such as Pirates of the Caribbean played as news channels aired footage of wounded soldiers carried on stretchers.
The result, as far as the interim-government is concerned, has been favorable. On July 26, millions poured into the streets at the request of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi providing the minster of defense with the informal mandate he requested, in order to fight terrorism. More recently, pro-military celebrations taking place on the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution dwarfed revolutionary demonstrations by activists who continue to advocate for bread, freedom, social justice, and dignity. “Sisi-mania” has engulfed the masses as cupcakes, chocolates and t-shirts bearing Sisi’s likeness litter Cairo’s street corners, alongside soldier costumes for children.
Hypernationalism has manifested itself in support for the military the same way it has opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group believed to place national interests second to those of a regional Islamic agenda. Popular support for banning the Brotherhood’s activities and later labeling it a terrorist organization stems from the belief that the Brotherhood is subject to the command of the organization’s leader, or Supreme Guide, rather than the Egyptian people. This explains the popular mandate for the interim government’s accusations and excessive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Minors have been imprisoned for using rulers bearing the Raba’a logo, associated with the August 14 violent dispersal of a pro-Morsi sit-in, while international journalists risk being labeled terrorists for interviewing Brotherhood members. The group has been accused of conspiring with Hamas, passing secrets to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and plotting with foreign terrorists to kill Egyptian security forces. Each of these accusations have one thing in common: they are treasonous. This allows a military that’s stated priority is to serve the great people of Egypt to exploit hypernationalism to efface the Muslim Brotherhood from Egyptian life.
The mother of what then?
Today, Egypt is much less the Mother of the World than it is the mother of a slew of domestic issues and increasingly flagrant violations of human rights and civil liberties. A hypernationalist sentiment has blinded people to the realities of the country. Millions of Egyptians in rural areas and urban neighborhoods live without running water, electricity, and sewage systems. Unemployment among youth age 15 to 29 has soared to seventy five percent. Fourteen million citizens suffering from Hepatitis C are treated in ill-equipped public hospitals. Twenty three million Egyptians are illiterate as its public schools ranked last out of a list of 148 countries. The country, recently designated “the worst Arab state for women,” is also home to harrowing allegations of human trafficking and a resurgence in police brutality.
Despite a newly ratified constitution that states Egypt is committed to the international treaties, to which Egypt is a signatory, the country’s recent human rights status is deteriorating. Reputable journalists are detained on bogus terrorist charges, activists are arrested on charges of “opposing the constitution,” while others are detained for organizing peaceful protests, a move sanctioned by a repressive protest law passed late last year. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that liberal academics and politicians with both domestic and international credibility face charges of espionage and insulting the judiciary, and are banned from travel for criticizing the current government.
“If you don’t think you’re sick, you will never go to the doctor”
Omar Salem, an Egyptian filmmaker, recently uploaded a YouTube video entitled “Egypt is not the Mother of the World,” a ‘public service announcement’ to Egyptians addressing hypernationalism and its barriers to progress. In the three minute video, Salem juxtaposes aggressive hypernationalist comments about Egypt, alongside the country’s growing number of grave issues. He goes on to remind fellow Egyptians, “If you don’t think you’re sick, you will never go to the doctor.”
Salem’s point is well-taken. Nationalism is a force of stagnation and at its very essence, deters reform. As long as citizens feel their country is the mother of the world, there is little motivation for them to challenge the status quo. Egypt’s recent brand of hypernationalism represents the antithesis to society’s dynamism, pushing citizens to selectively call upon its glory days, the same way it pushes them to selectively disregard its problems.
As an Egyptian-American, I write this not out of criticism but out of my aspirations for Egypt to live up to the label of the Mother of the World it claims to be. This however is not possible as long as its citizens prefer to applaud 7,000 years of civilization rather than face harsh truths. Until Egyptians are able to spend time in a mirror that displays their reflection instead of a collage of General Sisi, the pyramids, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the chance it seeks medical attention for its ailments remains slim.
Amrou Kotb is a freelance writer currently based in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter @amrqotb.