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Home » Cultural Geography, Geopolitics, Nationalism, Southwest Asia and North Africa

Nationalism and Language in Egypt

Submitted by on February 16, 2011 – 8:20 pm 3 Comments |  

Those who doubt that the recent uprising in Egypt will lead to a stable democracy often cite the poor state of democratic governance in Iraq. Those optimistic about Egypt typically counter by contrasting democracy as imposed by a foreign conquest with democracy as derived from a popular uprising. Equally pertinent is Egypt’s status as a nation-state. A large majority of Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, strongly identify with the Egyptian nation. In Iraq, on the other hand, regional and religious affiliations often take priority. Iraq, after all, was cobbled together after World War I by British agents – especially Winston Churchill – out of three former Ottoman provinces. Egypt too was formerly under Ottoman (after 1517) and then British (after 1882) dominion, but it had always been a distinctive place with its own political identity. Scholars who emphasize the deeply rooted or “primordial” nature of ethnic groups and national identities argue that Egypt functioned as a nation-state even in ancient times, a status that it would periodically lose and then regain as foreign empires waxed and waned. To the geographical determinist, Egypt is all but destined to nation-statehood, its population isolated from others by forbidding deserts and crowded into a narrow, fertile valley.

But Egypt has never been a perfect nation-state. Nor do all permanent residents of Egypt identify themselves primarily as Egyptian today. According to the Wikipedia’s basic data sheet, 99 percent of Egypt’s people are Egyptian, 0.9 percent are Nubian, and 0.1 percent are Greek. The actual situation – no surprise – is more complicated, as demonstrated in the “demographics” section of the same article:

Egyptians are by far the largest ethnic group in Egypt at 91% of the total population. Ethnic minorities include the Abazas, Turks, Greeks, Bedouin Arab tribes living in the eastern deserts and the Sinai Peninsula, the Berber-speaking Siwis … of the Siaw Oasis, and the Nubian communities clustered along the Nile. There are also tribal Beja communities concentrated in the south-easternmost corner, and a number of Dom clans…

The discrepancy between the two figures (99% and 91%) of Egypt’s Egyptian population stems in part from the imprecision of the country’s statistics. But it also derives from the problems inherent in classifying national identity. A number of the “non-Egyptian” groups are considered Egyptian in certain circumstances, and several are in the process of becoming Egyptian. The Abazas, for example, are a Circassian/Abkhazian people whose ancestors fled Russian assaults in the Caucasus in the 19th century; although they have long maintained a distinct identity in Egypt, the future of the group is uncertain. Population estimates for the Doms, relatives of the Gypsies/Romanies of Europe, vary tremendously, from tens of thousands to a more than a million, suggesting uncertainly about categorization. Many Doms hide their identity to avoid discrimination. According to a prominent Dom website: “in Egypt, most of them claim to be Palestinian to justify their acquired Egyptian accent [and] to help them secure a smooth social integration among their communities.”

Minority groups that occupy their own territories more easily maintain their identities. The Siwis in western Egypt, for example, isolated in their large oasis, have retained their Berber language. Egypt’s far south, another remote environment, was long dominated by linguistically distinctive Nubian peoples. Only with the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 was their hold on the region diluted.

Egyptian nationalism has also been compromised by the broader linguistic and religious communities to which most of its citizens belong. Ethnic Egyptians are Arabic-speakers, but the Arabic-speaking realm extends over all or part of more than twenty countries. The Arab nationalism that infused political discourse in the mid-20th century framed the “national community” in pan-Arab terms, diminishing the significance of state boundaries and identities. From 1958 to 1961, Egypt and Syria actually joined together under the banner of Arab nationalism to form the United Arab Republic. While Arab nationalism may be a largely spent force today, Islamism also works against the Egyptian nation, as it disparages nationalism in general. Here the community of the faithful, not the nation-state, is promoted as the proper source of identity and political action.

Had it not been for the dampening influence of Islam and pan-Arabism, Egypt might have developed a stronger form of nationalism buttressed by a national language. The linguistic unity that extends from Morocco to Oman exists at the formal but not the popular level. Official speech across the Arab World uses Modern Standard Arabic, based on the language of the Quran, but that is not the language of the home or the street in any country. Local dialects prevail, and linguists regard many of these “dialects” as separate languages in their own right, including Egyptian Arabic. In the early twentieth century, a few steps were made to develop Egyptian Arabic into a literary and quasi-official language, but this movement came to an end with the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Pan-Arab sentiments as well as reverence for the classical Arabic of scripture ensured that Egyptian Arabic would remain a mere dialect, with no pretension to national status.

Yet had Egyptian Arabic been transformed into a national language, it would have potentially strengthened the unity of the country’s core while weakening bonds with the periphery. Not all Egyptians speak Egyptian Arabic. As can be seen on the language map, four distinct dialects of Arabic divide the country. Relatively few Egyptians speak Libyan Arabic or Bedouin Arabic, but as many as 19 million speak Sa’idi, or Upper Egypt Arabic, the dominant tongue of southern Egypt. Egyptian Arabic and Sa’idi Arabic are roughly as different from each other as Spanish and Portuguese. According to the Ethnologue, Egyptian Arabic speakers from Cairo cannot understand Sa’idi Arabic, although Sa’idi speakers can generally understand Egyptian Arabic to some degree.

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  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    I'd like to clarify two things. First, you say that "Modern Standard Arabic [is] based on the language of the Quran" — the relationship between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Classical Arabic (=the language of the Quran) is similar to that of, say, French and Latin. There are significant grammatical differences between MSA and Classical Arabic. For example, the former but not the latter allows the Subject-Verb-Object order (e.g., 'The men bought the book'); Classical Arabic was exclusively Verb-Subject-Object (literally, 'Bought the men the book'). Incidentally, the same change has happened also from Biblical Hebrew to Modern Hebrew.

    Second, you say that "Sa’idi speakers can generally understand Egyptian Arabic to some degree" — this may extend to speakers of other colloquial varieties of Arabic, not just Sa'idis. It appears that speakers of other varieties of Arabic can to some degree understand Egyptian Arabic but not vice versa. This is due in part to the prominent role of Egyptian Arabic among other Arabic "dialects": it's the largest "dialect" by a hefty margin and it's frequently used in Arabic film and media, which speakers of other "dialects" are exposed to more and more.

  • Martin W. Lewis

    Thanks, Asya, for the clarifications. Most sources do indicated that that MSA and Classical Arabic are quite similar — the Wikipedia, for example, states that "The modern standard language is based on the Classical language. Most Arabs consider the two varieties to be two registers of one language.." But it is quite possible that "most Arabs" exaggerate the similarities of the two languages for a variety of reasons. I have long thought of the relationship between Classical Arabic and modern Arabic dialects, such as Egyptian Arabic, as being similar to the relationship between Latin and French, while thinking of the relationship between MSA and Classical as being more like the relationship between the Latin of the Roman Empire and the Latin of the Renaissance, but evidently that is not the case.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    It is true that the Arabs tend to treat both Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic as the same language, only differing in style, and they even have the same term for both in Arabic, roughly meaning "the most eloquent (language)". Still, the time span between CA and MSA is about the same as pre-Viking Old English and Modern English, so despite the fact that in the case of Arabic we talk of a standardized literary language (which doesn't change as much as a spoken language), there are still significant differences, both lexical and grammatical. Since we don't have a decent yardstick to measure differences between languages, it's hard to say objectively just how big the difference is.

    Another group that likewise exaggerate the similarities among their languages are the Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.). There too it's the (standardized) written form of the language that creates the impression of a bigger continuity than there really is.