How Egypt's grandiose neo-Pharaonism lends legitimacy to its strongman

How Egypt's grandiose neo-Pharaonism lends legitimacy to its strongman
Opinion: Seeking legitimacy through grandiosity, Egypt's military rulers led by President Sisi have been staging epic neo-Pharaonic displays, but this has dark roots linked to European fascism and 20th-century revisionism, writes Kyle J. Anderson
7 min read
23 Nov, 2021
Egypt's ancient civilisation is being summoned back from the beyond to suggest continuity with its regime [Getty]

Over the course of the past year, the Egyptian government, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been transporting the millennia-old remains of the Pharaohs from the Museum of Antiquities outside Tahrir Square to the new Grand Egyptian Museum outside of the pyramids at Giza. The fanfare started in April, with 22 mummies making their way through the forcibly-cleared streets of Cairo and a nationally-televised celebration dubbed the "Pharaohs' Golden Parade." It continued in August, with the so-called "solar barque" transported through Cairo in a remote-controlled vehicle imported from Belgium. This week, the Egyptian regime is planning a grandiose reopening of the Avenue of Sphinxes (Kebash Road) in Luxor, in a ceremony to be attended by Sisi himself.

As these events have unfolded, I followed the reactions of Egyptians watching on social media. Many were supportive, but some expressed criticism at the pomp and circumstance.

One of the most insightful comments came from the eminent Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy, who compared Sisi's ostentatious displays with the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, hosted by Adolf Hitler and immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia.

"The racialization of history may have been the result of a long tradition of race-thinking in Europe, but Elise K. Burton's recent book shows how this was also a global process"

Many will rightly object to a comparison between Hitler's fascism and Sisi's populist brand of neo-Pharaonism. After all, Hitler's ideology posited the mythical Aryan race as a superior racial subject to genocidal effect, while Egyptians have been the object of European racism, especially during decades of French and British colonialism. Moreover, after coming to power in the 1930s, the National Socialist state in Germany established a whole body of laws that defined German citizenship in terms of blood and descent, prohibited marriage between Germans and Jews, and institutionalised eugenics including by forcibly sterilising people.

Yet I agree with Mohamed Elshahed's recent observation about Egypt that, "if a state views its population as a burden not an asset, that's a red flag to notice."

Pharaonic nationalism shares a common history, as well as what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would call a deep conceptual "grammar," with the kind of European race science that culminated in Hitler's National Socialism. Historian Ivan Hannaford links National Socialism with "the racialization of history," when, beginning in the nineteenth century, human societies were reimagined as being naturally divided into a set of discrete units that could trace their roots back to racially-pure communities in deep historical time. Influential thinkers like the Prussian diplomat and historian Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831) posited that it was relations between these groups of race and blood that provided the key to understanding history.

As a recent volume edited by Marius Turda and Paul Weindling demonstrates, by the period from 1900 to 1940, this type of "racial nationalism" had spread throughout central and southern Europe.


The racialization of history may have been the result of a long tradition of race-thinking in Europe, but Elise K. Burton's recent book shows how this was also a global process. In the 1880s, missionary schools in Beirut hosted the Austrian anthropologist Felix von Luschan as he measured the skulls of people in the Ottoman Levant. Observing the endogamous community of Maronites in Mount Lebanon, he asserted that they had "preserved an old type in an almost marvellous purity." 

Connecting Maronites with the ancient Phoenicians, French colonial administrators and Francophone Lebanese nationalists associated this with what they called the "Phoenician race" (race phénicienne). In the 1920s, the American University in Beirut launched a major anthropometry program that measured the cranial indices of thousands of people, which was partly an effort to discover the "present representatives" of the Phoenicians.

Phoenicianism gave Maronites in Lebanon the opportunity to project an identity that pre-dates their adoption of the Arabic language—associated as it was with the Muslim conquests. In this sense, it was similar to what Iranian historian Reza Zia-Ebrahimi has called "dislocative nationalism.

Beginning the second half of the nineteenth century, Iranian intellectuals began to imagine a primordial nation that had existed for 2,500 years and was connected to the Aryan race. Since the Aryan racial essence was pre-Islamic, perceived shortcomings in Iranian society could be blamed on Islam and Arab 'contamination'. This claim was integrated into the official ideology of the Pahlavi state from 1925 until the Islamic revolution, and remains a powerful rhetorical weapon for political figures in Iran today.

The emergence of Pharaonism in Egypt signaled a similar shift towards conceptualizing the deep past as a pure national essence that pre-dates the Arab-Islamic conquests. According to Elliot Colla, when chronicler 'Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti watched the Napoleonic expedition in the grips of Egyptomania at the turn of the nineteenth century, he used a pejorative term for pagan worship by describing Pharaonic antiquities as "idols".

But a generation later, the first museum for the storage and exhibition of antiquities was established in Egypt under the directorship of Rifa‘a Rafi' al-Tahtawi, who had studied under one of Bonaparte's savants in France. Eliott Colla documents "a new connection between the ancient Egyptian past and the Egyptian present" across Tahtawi's numerous writings in the middle of the 19th century.

Although this initial attempt to build an Egyptian museum stalled out, by 1858, a French Egyptologist was appointed director of the new state agency known as the Antiquities Service.

As Omnia El Shakry has shown, another longtime European resident in Egypt—the Italian physician Onofrio Abbate—conducted a series of experiments around this time comparing the mummified remains of skeletons from the ancient necropolis of Kawamil with cadavers at the Qasr al-'Ayni hospital in Cairo. Through the observation of bodies in Egypt from 1845 to 1915, Abbate built up a complex and influential theory of Egyptian racial distinctiveness that drew heavily on European race science.

The heyday of Egyptian Pharaonic nationalism came in the 1920s and 30s—just as fascist movements were sweeping through Europe. It was spurred on by the discovery of the tomb of Tut Aknh Amun in 1922. When the leader of the anti-British revolution, Sa'd Zaghlul, passed away in 1926, his mausoleum was erected in grand Pharaonic style in the middle of Cairo's posh Garden City neighbourhood.

As Hussein Omar pointed out immediately in the wake of the Pharaohs' Golden Parade, it was 1931 when the dictatorial politician Ismail Sidqi set a precedent that would echo for nine decades by relocating 24 mummies from the Egyptian museum to Zaghlul's tomb.

By positing a link between the ancient Pharaohs from millennia ago and people living in Egypt today, Sisi's brand of neo-Pharaonism draws on this legacy of racial nationalism, even while jettisoning some of the pseudoscientific rhetoric that has fallen out of fashion.

We saw it among his supporters when he first took power, like the Antiquities Minister and famous Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who likened Sisi to the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II. It cropped up at the inauguration of the New Suez Canal in 2015, when Sisi declared: "Egypt is a great country and has a civilization of 7,000 years," and special coins were minted with Pharaonic lotus designs. During the Pharaohs' Golden parade, First Lady Intisar el-Sisi expressed her pride in "belonging to an ancient civilization." 

And in the heart of Tahrir Square, where a series of revolutionary demonstrations that began ten years ago ultimately swept him into power, Sisi's government has erected a 90-ton obelisk depicting the Pharaoh Ramses II.

"We do not talk about race today the same way we did in the 1920s and 30s, but its basic premises are still there: that people are naturally organized into social groups that reproduce biologically through deep time" 

Khaled Fahmy was right to compare Sisi's Golden Parade with Hitler's Olympic ceremonies, but he forgot one important aspect in his comparison: the important role played by popular notions of race in fascism.

The idea that "the people" constitute a homogenous mass is an appealing rhetorical device for any strongman leader who could claim to embody their essence in his singular persona. We do not talk about race today the same way we did in the 1920s and 30s, but the basic premises of that antiquated thinking are still there: that people are naturally organized into social groups that reproduce biologically through deep time.

The race concept is a powerful idea for modern nationalist mobilizations, and Sisi in Egypt is just one of the authoritarian governments manipulating archaeological remains to benefit politically from its resuscitation in the twenty-first century.

Kyle J. Anderson is an assistant professor in the Department of History & Philosophy at SUNY Old Westbury.

Follow him on Twitter: @kylejanderson

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