Egypt’s fight for historical memory

The Mubarak regime kept its records secret, depriving historians of crucial sources.

egypt history [GALLO/GETTY]
Official histories approved by the Mubarak government excluded large sections of Egyptian society, including women, working people, Coptic Christians and the poor, argues one historian [GALLO/GETTY]

In recent years, on websites, newspaper articles, and in various academic publications, young Egyptian historians, journalists, pundits and activists began grappling with an uneasy sensation that they were ignorant about their country’s history.

In a recent posting on his website, Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy admitted as much, and added that given the repressive nature of authoritarianism this was hardly surprising.

A citizen who cannot reason historically about the business of the state is not a participating and change-demanding citizen, but a docile subject. This is the way a succession of Egyptian regimes wanted things to be. And this is how they were.

In the last few weeks, we have heard in great detail how the Mubarak regime robbed ordinary Egyptians of their political, human, economic and social rights. That is, how an ever-growing number of Egyptians were robbed of their human dignity.

Yet parallel to this realisation, and indeed tightly bound up with it, Egyptians have also begun to understand they were also robbed of their past, their sense of history, and their right to a critical historical consciousness.

Saving the past

As a new civic dawn breaks on the Nile valley and with political submission now a thing of the past, Egyptian public intellectuals will have to confront the urgent task of reinstituting their human right to history, salvaging their past from oblivion, and turning it into democratic building blocks.

What exactly does this mean and what concrete steps should be taken?

Let’s begin with the problem. Chose any major event or issue in recent Egyptian history, be it the 1967 war with Israel, the business history of privatization, the treatment of political prisoners, the pedagogy of school curricula, or national water policy, and ask yourself if you can find relevant historical sources in the state archive. The answer is a categorical no.

Though a progressive archival law has been in place since 1954, the state largely ignores it and does not deposit its records for public scrutiny. With a lack of transparency and accountability as guiding principles of those in power, historians were systematically incapacitated.

Consequently, decades of Egyptian history are virtually unknown, or worse, they are known in a highly distorted and for the state, self-serving, fashion.

‘No records’ from Camp David

For those who follow Egyptian history writing, this is hardly a new topic. Since the 1960s, Egyptian historians have been periodically petitioning the regime to open its records for scrutiny.

Using the political momentum that the Subsidy and Bread Riots of 1977 had created, historians petitioned the government once again. “We want to know,” they said, “what happened in 1967. The records belong to the people.”

Anwar Sadat, the former president, listened and established an official committee for the writing of the war’s history. Hosni Mubarak chaired it. He did his best to kill the initiative, and was indeed successful.

The government kept the 1967 records secret. Rumor has it that a few years ago, when the Palestinian peace negotiations team asked the Egyptian government if they could consult their records on the Camp David Accords for the sake of leveraging their position vis-à-vis Israel, the Egyptian government could not even locate the relevant files. Lost, or simply denied, the result is all the same.

For decades now, in place of the critical history that only an open-ended public discussion can generate, Egyptians have been consuming cheap substitutes of pseudo-history created by official committee.

This was a history so simplistic that it positioned the omnipotent state as a singular historical player and the Egyptian public as mere foot soldiers in its service. A sense of Egyptian exceptionalism cut through much of the official and semi-official histories. Especially ubiquitous is the politically sterile mantra of a glorious 7,000 year old civilization. Can citizens demand their rights with such a triumphalist and uncritical history? Obviously not.

Some former Egyptian officials, the most famous of whom is Mohamed Hasanein Heikal, possess their own private state archive of stolen docuemnts. These individuals are free to tell whatever story they like. But can these privately-generated stories help Egyptians objectively know history and thus, claim their rights? Not likely.

Can they help maintain rights that have already been secured? Not likely either.

Silenced voices

Nationalist patriotic histories have their place as important identity codifiers but they cannot stand alone. While in any country school textbooks are typically not indicators for progressive critical historiography, the situation in Egypt is not restricted to the classroom but extends far beyond it into the press and university campuses.

Pseudo-history is everywhere. And who is missing from it? Copts, women, peasants, workers, the poor and the politically disenfranchised, to name a few. Or, in other words, the majority of Egyptians.

Living without history ultimately leads to living without rights. In 1992 Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim dedicated his new novel Zaat to this issue. He showed how his protagonists were disconnected from their immediate past to the degree that their moral landscape had become completely devoid of any ethical passion. Unable, and then unwilling, to act politically, they were by definition un-politicised, docile subjects.

Living in alienation even as they live together, they suffer from a general loss of meaning and a chronic inability to appropriate truth. They were classic exemplars of the so-called docile Egyptian.

If the novel teaches anything, it is that history is too important to be written by the state. And this is why in the momentous and transformative euphoria of the past few weeks, alongside the calls for human, economic, and social justice, we should not forget historical justice. 

Here is a rare opportunity. In a new Egypt there are likely to be strongly voiced calls for the institution of a free press and the transformation of censorship laws. But this is also the time for Egyptian historians, archivists, and journalists to achieve a historic landmark and enshrine the popular right to history in clear and binding legislation.

Yoav Di-Capua, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, specialising in modern Arab intellectual history. His publications include the 2009 book Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in 20th Century Egypt (California University Press).

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