The visit that two of Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi’s senior advisors paid last week to Tehran was a surprise to many. The two advisors met with a number of prominent Iranian leaders, and most importantly with the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This step is not far removed from the new modus operandus of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which day by day confirms its political ties to the authority in Iran. Whether this can be justified on the basis of Egypt’s loyalty to an old friendship against a former common enemy or out of its belief in Tehran’s work to “unite Muslims in the face of Zionism and the US,” some blame Mursi and his companions for their move towards urgent normalization of relations with Tehran. Even worse, this comes at a time when Syria is bleeding and Iraq and Lebanon are sliding into the unknown. We all know that Iran is deeply involved in Syria, but in Iraq and Lebanon, too, Tehran is never absent from the scene.
I remember well how one of my university professors described Egypt as the only nation-state in the Arab world. They said that he who studies the history of Egypt discovers that a sense of a unified central government has been forming ever since the unification of the Upper Kingdom and the Lower Kingdom took place. This sense was strengthened by the geography of Egypt.
It is true that throughout history, Egypt suffered from different forms of invasion, both before and after the Muslim conquest; however, it absorbed them all, retaining a cultural uniqueness that is absent from other, neighboring entities.
Pan-Arabism in Egypt
Islam in Egypt also has its own special character. Although the strongest Islamic dynasty to govern Egypt was the Isma’ili Shi’ite Fatimid Caliphate, the country remained firmly a Sunni country, with its Al-Azhar Mosque and university—founded by the Fatimid—as a global Sunni theological bastion.
Pan-Arabism in Egypt has always had its own special Egyptian character as well. Although they controlled the country, the Hyksos rulers who came from the Arab Mashriq (the Levant) melted into Egypt. Further waves of migration from both the Maghreb and the Mashriq melted into Egypt as well, and Egypt remained Egypt.
On the level of political independence, Egypt was a vassal state—both a protectorate and an independent nation—from the beginning of the 19th century to the first part of the 20th century. Under Ottoman rule, the Muhammad Ali dynasty emerged. The vigorous vassal Muhammad Ali soon became more powerful than his master, the Ottoman sultan. Had it not been for foreign intervention—namely the British intervention—in the wake of the Battle of Nezib in 1839, the vassal would have indeed become the master in the Middle East. In short, Egypt was a major nation in the region, getting own independent constitution in 1882 and opening embassies abroad—but it was still not completely independent.
Given the country’s background, it was difficult for the rulers of Egypt to understand the structural complexity of the political entities surrounding their nation-state. This is quite natural in a country that has an extraordinary ability to absorb diversity. Thus, the mistakes committed by the rulers of Egypt in dealing with their Arab environment—at least since the Muhammad Ali dynasty—are not surprising.
Unlike the solidly Sunni Egypt, many countries in the Mashriq are populated by several Muslim sects. Christians in Egypt are mostly Coptic Orthodox. In fact, the Catholic Copts only appeared in the last decades of the 17th century, and they did not have a patriarch until the end of the 19th century. Protestantism and other Christian sects are more recent additions to Egypt’s social fabric; among other sects only the Greek Orthodox tradition dates back to ancient times, with the famous Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. Social divisions in Egypt are also limited. There are three categories: city dwellers, farmers (fellahin) and villagers, and the Hawara Bedouins. These three categories populate a narrow, flat land that is connected and unified by the Nile without being separated by natural obstacles.
With this geopolitical and socio-environmental reality, it seems self-evident that Egypt would have a special political culture that is quite different from the cultures of other Arab political entities, such as the ones in Iraq and the Levant.
The cultural homogeneity in Egypt is different from the diversity or multiculturalism we see in Iraq and the Levant. However, Egypt has succeeded in imposing its culture of homogeneity on the countries it once subjugated in Mashriq; neither has the diversity and multiculturalism of these countries prompted the leaders of Egypt to deal with their issues with care and understanding. To the contrary, this state of homogeneity—in addition to Egypt’s large population—gave rise to a sense of superiority in Egypt’s leaders, further nourished by dreams of hegemony.
The hegemonic adventures of Muhammad Ali’s dynasty had very negative consequences in several places. For example, the Egyptian campaign led by Ibrahim Pasha (Mohammad Ali’s son) disrupted the fine balance and sparked conflicts between various sects and religions, precipitating several sectarian massacres that took place in Syria and Mount Lebanon in the mid-19th century.
With the emergence of Pan-Arabism in late 19th and early 20th centuries, its concepts seemed both alien and incidental to the ruling elites of Egypt. In fact, Pan-Arabism remained inimical to Egypt in spite of nearly two decades of Nasserism and all its slogans that promoted Pan-Arabism. On the other hand, Islamism—both before and after Nasserism—managed to firmly establish itself among Egyptians.
The current Egyptian leadership’s disregard for the suffering of millions of Syrians today can be partially explained by its ignorance of the risks entailed by Iran’s tampering with the Arab mosaic of the Mashriq. Even if any anti-Iran reaction is to take place in the near future, it will most likely be triggered by and for sectarian reasons, rather than protecting Pan-Arab security and the unity of Arab societies, which have been made fragile by Tehran’s aspirations for a major regional bargaining.
There is a serious misunderstanding for which the entire Arab world may pay dearly before the Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo realize their fatal and strategic mistake.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 1, 2013.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.