Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Quashing of Egyptian Identity

Political conflicts often surround issues of identity - i.e., people struggling for their rightful place in society. Some struggles are about relative positioning (e.g., ethnic or religious minority groups demanding more equal treatment). There are other types of identity struggle, however.

In the Palestinian case, I've long thought of their particular situation as a struggle for what has essentially been a "forbidden identity." So much of the driving force across the decades has been to call for, or insist upon, the very right to be Palestinian - not so much in the sense that Palestinians deserve rights (which, of course, they do - and this certainly is a fundamental part of their struggle), but rather the more basic, existential plea for the legitimacy to be thought of and referred to as Palestinian.

It is all tied up in who's land it is, what that land should be called, and, by extension, what the identity of the inhabitants of the land (or a portion of it) is. For its part, the intent or effect of the Israeli occupation, out of perceived threat to its own national identity, has been quite literally to forbid a Palestinian identity from developing (if identity is writ large - as it should be - to refer to national identity).

Identity is very much at the crux here in Egypt. But it looks very, very different. Here, the essence of the revolution appears to have been a response to what Egyptians feel has been a "quashed identity" (quash being the best word I can come up with for the moment - and it took some searching through the thesaurus!) That is, no one - here or outside - has any trouble knowing that there has been an Egypt, with people called Egyptians, for millenia. And, to point, for much of that existence, Egypt and its people have been heralded.

What one hears repeatedly now, however, is how utterly constrained Egyptians have felt over the past decades - in terms of realizing and showing their Egyptian-ness. So much of the passion and profound joy that is expressed now everywhere has to do with finally being able - not alone to be free - but to be able to be Egyptian again. It appears to have everything to do with the rigid constraint on expression of any kind that has paralyzed the nation for decades, but it also surrounds the pillaging of the nation's riches by the same leaders, such that the majority of the population has been so poor as to be unable to realize their honor.

"Lift up your head high, you're Egyptian!" was the refrain chanted by the throngs at Tahrir on Feb 11 when Mubarak resigned. So it was yesterday too as thousands welcomed the resignation of the Mubarak-designated interim prime minister (Shafiq), and greeted with jubilation a major fruit of their revolution: a leader (Sharaf) from outside the regime that for so long quashed their souls.

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