Neo-Pharaonism, Egypt’s ultra-nationalists and the hidden hand of the state
Cancelling Kevin Hart’s show last February exposed a virulent racism lurking beneath the revival of a popular movement long considered pagan.
“You are our slaves and captives”
“You are not welcome to Egypt”
“Stop blackwashing our history”
These are a few examples of the flagrantly racist posts that took Twitter by storm last February in Egypt. Many Egyptian tweeps decided to launch an online campaign to cancel Kevin Hart’s stand-up performance, slated for Cairo stadium in March 2023, over his Afrocentric inclinations. Egyptian tweeps accused Hart of falsifying ancient Egyptian history citing an alleged statement where Hart called for educating black kids in America about the time when “black people were kings in Egypt”. A year earlier, in February 2022, Egyptian ultranationalists also called for and succeeded in cancelling an Afrocentric conference that was to be held in the southern city of Aswan. More recently, proponents of neo-pharaonism have viciously attacked Netflix after the airing of “Queen Cleopatra ” trailer; a docuseries where a black actress is playing the role of Cleopatra.
Alarmed by the rising tide of populist neo-pharaonism, many left-leaning intellectuals wrote about and discussed the problematic dimensions of this emerging trend. Insightful as they are, these analyses have overlooked the role of the state in staging, articulating and promoting this discourse. The campaign against Mr. Hart is intricately connected to the 2021 Pharaohs’ Golden Parade and to a stream of state-sanctioned cultural productions riding on Egyptians’ sentiments of pride, grandiosity and their ties to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
State spectacles of power and cultural production
During the spectacular opening of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in April 2021, President Sisi sat for hours watching the transfer of 22 mummies from the Egyptian museum in Tahrir square to the new museum in Fustat. The spectacle included multiple live and recorded performances, documentaries, poetry recitation, and songs that glorified the history of ancient Egypt and the pharaohs. In addition, the event included the inauguration of a pharaonic obelisk in Tahrir square. The peculiarity of this event does not lie in its grandiosity or the precision with which it was executed, as many Egyptians commented at the time. For the first time in its history, the post-colonial Egyptian state stages a spectacle of power that showcases pharaonism.
In the Sadat and Mubarak years, these spectacles were devoted to celebrating and commemorating the military victory of 6 October, 1973. They usually included military parades, visits to the Unknown Soldier memorial and songs and performances annually produced specifically for the occasion. During the 1960s, national celebrations usually took place on 23 July to celebrate the anniversary of the 1952 revolution. Nasser chose that day to inaugurate his mega national projects, architectural schemes and media enterprises including Cairo stadium, the Egyptian television and radio building (Maspero), and the orthodox cathedral.
Instead of Nasser’s pan-Arab brand of nationalism, or Sadat’s self-proclamation as the “pious president”, Sisi, while never referring to contemporary Egyptians as the children of ancient Egyptians, has staged successive spectacles celebrating the ancients. They include the golden parade in April 2021, the Sphinx avenue ceremony in Luxor in November that same year, and the anticipated opening of the grand Egyptian museum later in 2023, all signalling a shift in the state’s brand of nationalism towards neo-pharaonism.
Musical and televisual cultural production played a complementary, yet pivotal, role in advancing this cultural and ideological shift within and beyond these spectacles. The music associated with neo-pharaonism deserves special attention; these songs are becoming the main vehicles through which artists are reviving the dead language of ancient Egypt. One of the golden parade’s most successful segments was the Amira Selim song Isis Hymn. The melancholic tune, which weaved in elements of Western classical music and oriental instruments like nai and rebab, became an instant hit. During her media appearances, Selim, who is an opera singer, spoke about the necessity of reviving the language of ancient Egypt, a mission she described as “an artistic but also [a] national” one. Since it comes hand-in-hand with advancing “fine art”, she sees it as a way to make high culture accessible to laypeople.
Two additional hymns in ancient Egyptian were also performed by other opera singers during the Sphinx Avenue ceremony. The song’s lyrics were originally prayers to pharaonic gods engraved on the walls of ancient temples in Luxor and elsewhere. The Arabic names of the songs intriguingly do not call them prayers or prefix the gods or goddesses Amun Ra and Isis.
Even pop singers are joining the fad of employing a dead language in their songs. Superstar Medhat Saleh is currently learning to sing in ancient Egyptian as he prepares for his performance during the opening of the Grand Egyptian museum. Additionally, Abu, a successful pop singer, released his song, You’re beautiful, at the end of last year – subtitled in hieroglyphics. He decided to add hieroglyphic subtitles to the song, he explained, since the song celebrates the beauty of Egyptian women.
The subtext of all these songs, whether nationalist or romantic, is the commensurability between this dead language and Egyptian-ness. Similar to those who were active in the anti-Kevin Hart campaign, these singers use strong kinship terms to describe their relationship to the pharaohs. On a linguistic level, the referential meaning of the songs is irrelevant or at best marginal. Meanwhile, the pharaonic attire and makeup the artists wear during their performances, along with the use of classical music, act as icons and indices of grandeur and majesty.
The revival of Golden Parade is still coursing through the cultural mainstream. Last month witnessed the release of the second season of a children animation show, Yehia and Kenouz. The show follows two contemporary Egyptian siblings in their time-travel adventures where they explore the civilisation of ancient Egypt. During his press interviews, the show’s writer emphasized that one of the series’ missions is to educate children about the history of their ancient civilisation and its continuity in modern times. Another massive ancient Egypt TV drama, supposed to be released last year was suspended following audience criticism supposedly of historical inaccuracies. All this to say that people’s celebration of neo-pharaonism is in fact dialectically related to the state’s spectacles and its cultural production.
Modern Egyptians and the identity politics of neo-pharaonism
Modern Egyptians’ relation to pharaonism has always been conflicted. Even during the heyday of this cultural and political ideology – during the second and third decades of the 20th century – the popularity pharaonism enjoyed around the 1919 revolution did not prevent accusations of paganism being levelled against the design of independence leader, Saad Zagloul’s mausoleum. Some historians anticipated the political utility of neo-pharaonism as state propaganda. More subtle in its racism and pseudo-scientific claims than 1930s German eugenics, it nevertheless relies on racial purity and, therefore, entails a process of othering. For the neo-pharaonists this Other is the sub-Saharan Africans and Afrocentrists.
In the multiple anti-afrocentric campaigns, advocates of neo-pharaonism posted murals from the museum Abu Simbel depicting Pharaonic kings capturing black slaves. They also juxtaposed pharaonic iconographies with sub-Saharan ones claiming the distinctiveness of the pharaonic race, emphasising that the “reddish colour” in pharaonic murals is not black. Some even used the “N” word to attack afrocentrists, denying that Egyptians are Africans or Arab. Citing research that highlights the “purity” of the Egyptian race, people linked Afrocentrism to neo-Zionist conspiracies against Egypt. These attacks have always extended to Sudanese citizens who reside in Egypt, threatening to strip them from any right to hold properties in their host country.
Two twitter accounts often take the lead in such campaigns: Egypt’s consciousness and the national awakening. This racial nationalism is not restricted to Twitter. Al-Masry Al Youm, once a progressive newspaper, published a lengthy defence of the anti-Kevin Hart campaign. Accompanied by multiple citations of pseudo-scientific genetic and phrenological research, it claims that the genetic formation, skin tone, the shape of the skull and the limbs of the contemporary Egyptians are the same as ancient Egyptians, concluding that all Egyptians are the grandchildren of Tutankhamun.
What makes this wave of neo-pharaonism distinctive from earlier ones is the populist embrace of the ideology without the familiar critique of paganism being raised by Islamic scholars. “Pharaonism has always been a thin discourse,” observes Professor Elliott Colla, author of “Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity”. Speaking to African Arguments, Colla explained how his research, in which he traced the ebbs and flows of pharaonism throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, shows that the adoption of such an ideology always had little chance of nationwide uptake. Still, the author cautioned against the problematic facets of this ideology: “We have to be careful! Last time we saw such discourse was a century ago, with the Young Egypt movement – and it was fascism!”.
The state is tapping into neo-pharaonism as a resource for legitimacy during a moment of economic and political crisis. Some commentators, who wish to remain anonymous, believe this shift to neo-pharaonism might be related to the fact that cultural and economic hegemony is shifting towards other Arab countries, most notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Colla believes that this discourse criticises the Islamists without the need to explicitly mention them. Away from the motivations behind the state’s foregrounding of neo-pharaonism as a politico-cultural ideology, the unfolding of the quasi-fascist dimensions of this ideology will remain something to keep an eye on.