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Sons of Egypt

Sam Khan | University of Lancaster

The Egyptian revolution of 1919 saw country-wide demonstrations against the occupation of both Egypt and Sudan by Britain, leading to a peak of nationalist sentiments and widespread support for the newly established political party, the Wafd. The ‘veiled protectorate’ was a term used to denote the first period of British rule, from 1882-1914, during which the Khedivate of Egypt remained an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, and Britain held a de facto protectorate over the nation and its ruling. As such, Britain ruled the nation through the ruling class, which held no true sense of autonomy. The Declaration of Egyptian Independence was signed in 1922, after 40 years of occupation, but forms of British influence and occupation remained, specifically in the military, crippling the nation’s sense of security and strength - a sentiment widely felt by its people.

For postcolonial nations, early nationalist movements offered an opportunity for not only self-determination but also redefinition on the world stage. In the case of Egypt in particular, a nation not formally annexed but largely controlled and occupied by Britain, the shadowy nature of its colonisation did little in the way of dissuading communities and governing bodies from embracing the opportunity to remould their awakened nation in a new image.

In this spirit, the unveiling of Mahmoud Mukhtar’s sculpture Nahdet Misr (Egypt Awakened) in 1928 represented, for many, as the name would suggest, the beginning of a new and invigorated national emergence. Mukhtar, an Egyptian sculptor, considered a pioneering figure of the Egyptian Art movement as well as the ‘father of modern Egyptian sculpture’, claimed that he ‘wished to create a statue that combined all the dreams of Egypt and its civilisation, blending the glorious past with the nation's future aspiration.’* In this sculpted work, the nation’s ancient glory and its optimism for a brighter, independent future are represented by two figures: a fearsome Sphinx and a modest felaha (peasant woman).

Mahmoud Mukhtar, Nahdet Misr, 1928
Mahmoud Mukhtar, Nahdet Misr, 1928

From its very conception, the intent behind Nahdet Misr was interwoven with Egypt's nationalist dreams. The artist gained notoriety in Paris, where he continued his pursuit of education in fine art in 1911, constructing and displaying a smaller version of the sculpture. This received great praise from pioneering figure and leader of the nationalist Wafd party Saad Zaghloul, whom Mukhtar met in 1919, and delegates of the party aided in the funding of a grander reproduction to be displayed in Egypt in celebration of the very dream Mukhtar had carved into being. In the statue, Egypt is depicted as a woman looking to the future beyond the veiled protectorate she had endured.

Historically, the image of a feminine Egypt is far from unusual, as the expression Um- al Dunya (Mother of the World) would suggest: a name bestowed upon Egypt by natives and other Arab regions in celebration of its history. As part of the Fertile Crescent, the nation’s historical association with femininity draws on the land’s ability to “give life” as home to some of the earliest civilisations and achievements in science, religion, and culture. Coupled with the Sphinx, Abu al-Hawl (father of dread/ terror), presented in a protective, paternal role, the concept of a national family is carved into being, suggesting a sense of collective unity and belonging for previously colonised subjects. While the exact origin of the name Abu al Hawl remains in contention among natives, it highlights the long-held symbolic connection between the Sphinx and guardianship, as statues were often built outside of tombs to protect the dead. Yet, while this ferocious paternal figure stood strong in its granite form, emerging national projects present an ongoing struggle with the colonial past, most notably in gendered terms.

During the Victorian era, official colonial accounts and travel literature from Britain and Europe regarding Egypt perpetuated the idea that the East or MENA regions (meaning the Middle East and North Africa) were a place of simultaneous degeneracy, violence, and sensuality. The mission of European colonisers was therefore portrayed as necessary and honourable to the West. This Orientalist depiction and narrative upheld the idea that women of the East needed protection, and men were incapable of progression and self-governance, as they were weak and benighted. Gender was used strategically, particularly the hyper-sexualisation of women and feminisation of men by writers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to demarcate ‘otherness’ in imperial discourses.

While the statue aimed to confront this ideology through the presentation of strong male and progressive female figures as the head of the awakened national family, the unveiling ceremony revealed the disconnect between the ‘imagined’ national project and reality. While the statue placed women at the centre of national identity and progression, the ceremony thrown in its honour was attended almost exclusively by men. Women, though symbolically present, were physically excluded from the new nation and its ceremonial awakening. The concept of a maternal homeland was more important to the nationalist agenda than the emancipation of women themselves. Almost unbreaking with colonial narratives, women remained ‘over-embodied’ as national subjects, as they continued to be viewed through modes of sexualisation, fertility, honour, and shame. Only this time, as suggested through the role of the Sphinx as Abu al Hawl and the implied nationalist masculine trajectory, sons of the nation were called upon to protect women and their honour, considered ‘foot soldiers’ of the nation.

Egypt's presentation as a woman who must be protected from the colonial gaze paved the way for the establishment of a strong paternal figure to rule over national subjects, a governing formation known as ‘moral paternalism’. The fearsome sphinx, or ‘father of terror’, was not limited to the realms of imagination but instead conceived as an idealised figure for the nation's leaders. Leaders of the national family were burdened with the responsibility of protecting and upholding the nation’s awakened sense of honour and as exemplary figures of moral and patriarchal masculinity.

Much like leaders of the nation, nationalist propaganda and wider discourses firmly defined the idealised male subject in relation to their role in the national family. Iconic Egyptian nationalist and celebrated figure Mustafa Kamil, who is often also considered an example of a specific kind of masculinity known as effendi, employed an emphasis on strength and honour to bridge nationalist identity from Egypt's colonial history. Coupled with the re-popularisation of boys' youth clubs to encourage fitness and a shared sense of duty from a young age, these central elements of masculinity and male trajectories set the precedent for what it meant to be an Egyptian man, and to, therefore, belong to the supposedly emancipated national family.

Egypt’s desire to demonstrate strength as an emancipated nation, however, was challenged by its defeats on the battlefield. The Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936 allowed Egypt to slowly regain control of its military forces, but the crippling effects caused by lack of funding and training over decades led to devasting losses. The Egyptian army had grown considerably during World War II, though it aided efforts more logistically rather than through direct combat while seeing its lands become battlegrounds. Very few Egyptians backed Britain, and as Germany threatened to invade Egypt in 1942, the British intervention held catastrophic consequences in the region, leaving the nation largely unstable at the end of the war. Additionally, Egypt's loss in the Palestinian War in 1948, in which the King had decided to intervene, further displayed the nation’s weakness. This sense of defeat was once again felt across the nation and was personally experienced by Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt's future president and member of the Free Officers Movement. Therefore, the Egyptian revolution of 1952 and the Coup undertaken by the Free Officers Movement, and the later victory in regaining control of the Suez Canal, were both a physical and symbolic victory for Egyptian nationalism, lifting military and police officers into idealised status in a show of strength and manliness. They served to embody the fearsome and proud paternal figure foreshadowed in Nahdet Misr, an emblem of ‘Egyptian Masculinity’.

This strong, paternal figure was the ultimate symbol of dignity and freedom for the Egyptian people, particularly the previously ‘feminised’ colonial male subjects. The establishment of this kind of identity, portrayed on the world stage by members of the Free Officers Movement, was cemented by President Nasser himself. Nasser’s ’strong-man’ leadership saw national militarisation and policing of ‘morality’ and ‘honour’ by the secret police or mukhabarat. In this new national reality, known as Neopatriarchy, subjects were rendered prisoners of the very state claiming to have freed them. Throughout the process of constructing the nation’s post-colonial identity, gender was a crucial element used to model and constrain the population, with expectations of heteronormativity and 'morality' enforced by the state.


Further Reading:

  • Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (London: University of California Press, 2005).

  • Farha Ghannam, Live and Die like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (California: Stanford University Press, 2013).

  • Khaled Al Khamissi, Taxi, trans by Jonathan Wright (UK: Aflame Books, 2008)

Sam Khan (full name Samah Iman Khan) is a second year PhD researcher at Lancaster University, specialising in world literature and North African masculinities in contemporary literature. She is currently reading texts from Libya and Egypt for her thesis, while also taking part in the university’s outreach programme.


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