How Egyptians struggle with dignity and identity


“Was Saddam Hussein a criminal or a hero?” A question that was recently asked by a friend on Facebook. While I was shocked at questioning Saddam’s criminality, I was even more astonished to learn that a vast majority of my Facebook friend’s associates stated that Saddam was a hero, presenting absurd explanations for this claim.

To revive readers’ memories; Saddam dragged his country into a pointless war with Iran that lasted for eight years and invaded Kuwait. His regime was also responsible for the killing of at least 250,000 Iraqi citizens, according to Human Rights Watch’s reports.

Nevertheless, Saddam is still admired by a large portion of Arab citizens who perceive      him as a challenger to Western imperialism, offering a blind eye to his severe crimes. Saddam’s story symbolizes Egyptians’ affinity with dignity and identity. Dignity for Egyptians isn’t just purely an issue of honor, which is subject to compromise on practical grounds, naturally feeling more at ease when it is exercised on their opponents. Whereas, identity for Egyptians is a matter of group belonging that empowers them to justify their shameful practice, whenever it occurs.

Meanwhile, violence among the majority of Egyptians is perceived as a moral habit. Husbands routinely flex their muscles with their wives, parents discipline their children by beating them. Street fights are common practice, especially in poor neighborhoods, and the security apparatus may torture suspects to obtain confessions. The most significant example of this is the state’s iron-grip rule society and political Islamists threatening their followers with assorted punishments if they refrain from Islamic rituals.

Identity is a disoriented subject among Egyptians. Egypt is geographically located in Africa, but we aren’t black African. We are part of the Arab world, but always feel superior to other Arabs. The vast majority of our population is Muslim, but we apply our version of Islam that differs from other Islamic nations. Meanwhile, the minority Egyptian Coptic Christians are often perceived as having divided loyalties, leaning towards the West despite being among the oldest Egyptians.

Ironically, many Egyptians get their pride from ancient history that has nothing to do with the present miserable reality. We Egyptians cannot claim that there is a continuation between the distinctive achievements of Pharaohs in science, math and water irrigation, among other fields that contributed to building the Pyramids and the      Sphinx, and the current socioeconomic dysfunction that has caused Egypt to become a largely indebted developing country.

In fact, Egyptian identity is presently shaped by its political stances. Citizens who are affiliated to political groups such as Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists, identify primarily as Muslims, completely discarding their nationalism. On the other hand, cronies of the state tend to talk highly about nationalism, which they define as abiding by the ruler’s ideas and policies. Meanwhile, they do their best to make sure that their children skip military duty, for example.

Moreover, guardianship that is equally applied by the authoritarian ruling regime or its opponent, the political Islamists, is completely condemned by the Egyptian youth. The youth, who account for two-thirds of our population, value western democracy and modernization, and political liberalization. The youth who spontaneously chanted for bread, freedom and dignity in their uprising in January 2011, are often accused of betraying their country by calling for Western values.

Furthermore, in the absence of equality, freedom and justice in Egypt, identity-based discrimination is widely practiced for political purposes. The Muslim majority      traditionally discriminates against the Egyptian Coptic minority. Political identity – proximity to the state apparatus – is a source of discrimination, too, offering privileges to the elite that the poor could never dream of.     

Egypt’s most significant political influence lies in three key forces; the ruling state, political Islamists at large and the energetic disintegrated youths. The unification of two of these three political forces is needed to surpass the power of the ruling force. That has happened in the uprising of January 2011 wherein Egyptian youths, followed by Islamists rose up against late President Mubarak, and in June 2013 when the youth again, supported covertly by the “revived” authoritarian state ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

Polarization is the most successful tool used by the Egyptian state to manipulate the youth and political Islamists “divide and conquer” prevents these forces from uniting and revolting against the ruling regime. However, a large portion of the state’s affiliates have begun to condemn the government’s policies due to the present economic challenges, but the state security apparatus won’t easily accept losing their ruling privilege to other forces.

The state has tried to head off some of this discontent through artificial events such as national dialogue, youth and economic conferences that purport to address the relevant issues. The Egyptian state is aware of Egyptians’ dissatisfaction with current political and economic status, but is unwilling to make real efforts to fix these issues. The ruling regime might lose its grip on the society if it applied a genuine political or economic reform.

The application of liberal democracy or drastic economic changes aren’t likely to occur in Egypt in the near future. Thus, the outbreak of violence between political forces is likely as a result of the current state’s policies of polarization, lack of freedom, justice and true dialogue that addresses our challenges. This is an unpleasant scenario, but one we are steadily walking towards.

Mohammed Nosseir
Mohammed Nosseir
Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian liberal politician, living in Cairo and advocating for political participation, liberal values and economic freedom. He tweets @MohammedNosseir