Summary: Egyptology is the gift that keeps on giving for Sisi’s regime both politically and economically.
Last Friday, 26 November, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi presided over a pharaonic ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the Avenue of Sphinxes (Kebash Road) in Luxor, the 1.7-mile (2.7km) road connecting two ancient Egyptian temple complexes in Karnak and Luxor. The parade featured Pharaonic chariots and more than 400 young performers dressed in costumes performing a re-enactment of the ancient Opet festival, in which statues of Theban deities were paraded annually during the New Kingdom era in celebration of fertility and the flooding of the Nile.
The event was just the latest in a string of grandiose pharaonic-themed events. In April 22 mummies were transported through Cairo in a nationally-televised celebration dubbed the “Pharaohs’ Golden Parade.” In August the so-called “solar barque” was transported through Cairo in a remote-controlled vehicle imported from Belgium. Next year the Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza Plateau next door to the Pyramids is scheduled to open and with around 100,000 ancient artefacts it is expected to be the jewel in the crown for Egyptology and one of the world’s biggest and most visited museums.
Egypt never runs out of tombs to be discovered, mummies to be unwrapped, or sarcophagi needing to be scanned using the latest technology. In part, of course, this is driven by the tourism industry, which, battered as it is by coronavirus, remains a pillar of the Egyptian economy and an important source of much-needed hard currency. Egyptology still casts a magical spell on western audiences and the regime tries to maximise this to the fullest extent in order to attract as many tourists as possible. As under Mubarak, one tactic the regime uses to achieve this is releasing exciting new information about new Egyptological finds at strategic times of year when westerners are thought to be making their holiday bookings.
Besides the economic benefits, Egyptology also serves as a very powerful political tool that can be deployed to influence two quite different audiences, one domestic, the other foreign.
From the regime’s point of view the most important audience is the foreign one. All Arab autocrats care more about Western public opinion than that of their own people because they depend so heavily on western democratic governments for support, so influencing western public opinion is seen as fundamental to their long-term survival. Festivities like the ones last Friday at Luxor are intended not just to show Egypt is a safe and friendly place to visit, but at a deeper level to convey the message that this is a regime that appreciates antiquities and heritage – just like civilized westerners do – which makes it one worth supporting in this barbarous part of the world beset with so much war and terrorism.
It is important to recognise that what has been conspicuously written out of all these pharaonic shenanigans is more than 1000 years of Egyptian Islamic history because celebrating that would look like support for Islamism and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and it would send completely the wrong message to the West that “their man” was less than fully committed to defeating Islamism in all its guises. Cairo as “the city of a thousand minarets”, the seat of both Fatimid and Abbasid Caliphates and the centre of Islamic scholarship throughout the Middle Ages has effectively been airbrushed out of the national discourse, along with many other more recent historical events concerning Sisi’s ascent to power.
Militant Islamists have long denounced the celebration of Egyptology as idol worship and equated the violence of the pharaonic tyranny with contemporary secular regimes in Muslim society. In his book In the Shade of the Koran the revolutionary Islamist theorist and Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb wrote:
False idols are set up, such as the motherland, nation, race, class, production, etc. Their honour is celebrated in spectacular forms, and people are urged to come forward with their offerings. Anyone who shows a reluctance to come forward is accused of treason and made to endure humiliation. If personal honour runs against the requirements of submission to such false deities, honour is slain and the media never tires of describing such a travesty in superlative terms of praise.
In fact serious newspapers like the Guardian, NYT, or WSJ normally only have an appetite to publish around 5 – 8 stories on Egypt each month – quite a lot compared to other countries around the world and a reflection of the Western public’s enormous, enduring interest in the country. Broadly speaking though there are only three different types of stories: political ones, which are often linked to systematic human rights abuses and war crimes; holidays from hell; and Egyptology. Egyptology therefore serves a crucial role in occupying a large chunk of the western media spectrum that would otherwise be taken up by more important stories about politics and human rights, as well as a fair few about babies accidentally drowning in hotel swimming pools and holiday makers being bitten by sharks.
“Sisi’s spectacle of military futurism in pharaonic drag is merely the most recent iteration of an old propaganda stratagem, aimed at foreign audiences” wrote Hussein Omar in the LRB in April. And he continued:
Evoking Egypt’s ancient past at the expense of its more recent political history has long been a favourite tactic of the country’s despots. Ismail Pasha’s Aida, a tale of interracial romance commissioned in 1871, was compulsively performed to whitewash the Ottoman governor’s catastrophic attempt to colonise Ethiopia in 1876. Nasser approved the loan of the Tutankhamen mask to France in 1967 after the disasters of the Six Day War. In 1976, when the mummy of Ramses II was flown to Paris for restoration, it was given an Egyptian passport that listed its occupation as ‘king (deceased)’. Sadat may have grumbled about the indignities of having corpses on show in the vitrines of a museum, but he had no compunction about using Tutankhamen’s 1976-79 world tour as propaganda for the Camp David agreement. In 2006, at the height of mounting opposition to his security state, Mubarak sponsored a parade of the colossal statue of Ramses II from outside the railway station to the Giza Plateau.
Domestically, the Sisi regime employs Egyptology to try and craft some kind of nationalist political narrative to justify its hold on power, which though ill-formed and unconvincing is nevertheless worthwhile given the regime’s complete lack of both democratic and Islamic legitimacy. Race is integral to fascism and Egyptology also injects a potent racial discourse into Sisi’s brand of nationalism. Eminent Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy has compared his ostentatious displays with the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, hosted by Adolf Hitler and immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia.
“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” wrote Kyle J. Anderson, assistant professor in the Department of History & Philosophy at SUNY Old Westbury.
“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.”
In the past Sisi himself has often been compared to a new pharaoh by both his supporters and opponents. In January 2014 the flamboyant former Antiquities Minister and famous Egyptologist Zahi Hawass likened him to the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II who restored order to Egypt about 4,150 years ago. Sisi himself has reportedly denied the comparison, a prudent move given that the Pharaohs are ambivalent symbols and the despots of both the Bible and the Quran.