Egypt stands in the dock for allegedly falsifying its history and identity by rejecting its African present and denying its black past.
In recent weeks, I have stumbled upon an unexpected wave of criticism that Egypt is in denial of its Africanness and its black roots. “In declaring that Egypt was an Arab republic, President Gamal Abdel Nasser was falsifying history, erasing 3,000 years of a culture neatly intertwined with black Africa,” slammed Sanou Mbaye in an opinion piece published on The Guardian website. The Senegalese economist was using this and other observations to argue that Egypt and other North African countries should be excluded from the African Union project.
What I find ironic about Mbaye's dismissal of North Africa is that he wishes to assign the ‘original' Africans to the dustbin. After all, ‘Africa' was used by the Ancient Romans to refer to Carthage (now in Tunisia) and its environs. The ‘Afri' were the Phoenician-descended Carthagians and the suffix ‘ca' meant ‘land' in Latin.
What Mbaye's glib and simplistic dismissal fails to acknowledge is that Egypt was described – both officially and unofficially – as ‘Arab' long before Nasser took over the helm in the 1950s. He also ignores the fact that Egypt's identity is not an exclusive thing – the country can be both Arab and African. By taking such a lop-sided position, Mbaye erases more than a millennium of Egypt's past during which it gradually became Arabised and Muslim. Today's Egyptians all speak Arabic and some 90% are Muslim. The modern cultural identity of the 10% who are Christian was also forged mostly around the Mediterranean basin and Southwest Asia.
Egyptians have always seen themselves, as Egyptians before everything else. The legendary Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel summed this up when he said: “If I weren't an Egyptian, I would've longed to be an Egyptian.” A sentiment which is, of course, illusionary romance. Ask most young Egyptians today and they will admit that they would rather be something else – say a European or an American.
It took the revolution and Nasser's charisma to awaken Egypt's pan-Arabist and pan-African identity. Despite Mbaye's harsh words about Nasser, Egypt was one of the founding members of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which begot today's African Union. In fact, Egypt was at the forefront of the modern movement to create a political ‘Africa'. And many African countries took their nationalist cue and African pride from Egypt, its defiant stance against the West and its leading role in forging the Non-Aligned Movement.
Even in sport, the first African Cup was played between just three nations: Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, with South Africa disqualified because of Apartheid, and Egypt was its first and second winner. In fact, this pioneering African spirit has allowed Egypt, despite its average footballing aptitude, to sit pretty and happy as the most crowned African champion!
While I fully realise that Egyptians can be condescending, aloof and down right racist towards the sub-Saharan part of the continent, few Egyptians question the fact that they are ‘African'.
In addition, it is not North African reticence that is holding back the African integration project, but the political dysfunctionality of great swaths of the continent. Besides, ‘black Africans' are not some sort of integrated brotherhood, as Mbaye's article would suggest. They can be just as racist among themselves. For instance, Ethiopians see themselves as a cut above, say, west Africans, but that hasn't stopped Addis Ababa from being the designated HQ of the African Union. Besides, if individual states in sub-Saharan Africa – most of whose borders were drawn up by Europeans – are barely holding together, what chance pan-Africanism? That does not mean we should not strive for a more cohesive, peaceful and collaborative Africa, but we should be realistic and gradual in our aspirations.
An important reason why Egypt is not playing a more active role in forging an effective African Union is the same as why it has given up on pan-Arabism – with the conflicts wracking Africa and the Middle East and the bitter differences, Egyptians have woken up to the idea that, at the moment, the vision of unity is a pipe dream.
Some are even more extreme than Mbaye in their allegations regarding the modern Egyptian's ‘falsification' of Egypt's ‘black' history – one member of an online forum even dismissed those who questioned this viewpoint as “thieves of history”, denying the “black man his heritage”. He even informed me in no uncertain terms that I was not a “real Egyptian” but an “Arab immigrant”. But he and a few others I have come across have no misgivings about robbing Egyptians of their own history. They say that all the current inhabitants of Egypt are Arabs and the original inhabitants of Kemet were all black.
I'm all for black pride – i.e. revising history to show that black Africa was not just home to primitive tribes but also advanced civilisations – but suggesting that the Ancient Egyptians were all black goes against all the historical evidence.
Certainly, Egypt was a multiracial society and all the various migrating, invading and enslaved peoples have left their mark on the population, which can be seen in the fact that there are even blonde Egyptians in a certain part of the Delta. But the vast majority of Egyptians seem to have been, ever since recorded history began, of varying degrees of olive brownness, with southern Egyptians being darker than northern. There is no conclusive evidence of Egypt's original racial makeup, but it is clear that it is a mix of African, Southwest Asian and European. But the point is that race is not civilisation. It doesn't really matter whether Egyptians were African or Asiatic migrants 15,000 years ago, before civilisation began.
Egypt's southern neighbour Kush (now in modern-day northern Sudan) has a history probably as old as Egypt's. But the claims of some African Americans that Egyptian civilisation was born in Kush goes against the historical evidence. As far as we can ascertain, Egyptian civilisation spread southwards, not northwards. Kush was a backwater until the Egyptians began colonising it around 2500 BC. The collapse of the Middle Kingdom allowed the Egyptianised Kushites to come out from under Egypt's hegemony and flower in their own right for two centuries during the Third Intermediate Period. But it was back to business as usual with the New Kingdom pharaohs who built military forts in Kush to protect the mines they were stripping bare.
In a beautiful moment of poetic justice, the Kushites got their own back and conquered the whole of Egypt, forming the 25th pharaonic dynasty in the eighth century BC.
In my view, the way to combat racism is not to muscle in on someone else's history and heritage, but to show that ‘race' means nothing and that skin colour is just that, skin deep. There are black, white, yellow and brown geniuses and scientists, just as there are black, white, yellow and brown ignoramuses. As history from Ancient Egypt to modern America and Europe shows, a person is formed by their environment and how they interact with it, not their pigmentation. Race, like rigid class structures, is a way of justifying privilege and subjugation as a birth right.