Egyptians boast that they possess the world's longest continuously recorded history. Among scholars, the boast spurs lively debate.
In 2011, as Egypt's Arab Spring revolt began, to encourage unified political action, secular and Islamist revolutionary leaders touted the global significance of Egyptian history. As to the precise global significance? Save that chat for later.
Later has arrived, but as a civil war, not a chat. The boast has emerged as a boundary marker underlining an essential divide separating nationalists of all stripes from hardcore political Islamists in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
The scholastic gripes involve less deadly disagreement. Egyptian writing appeared some 5,300 years ago, but the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia's Sumerian city states predates Egypt's hieroglyphs. However, in 2013, Egypt exists. Though Al Sumaria is a popular Iraqi television station, Sumer's city-states are archeological digs or names on stone tablets.
"Continuous" history depends on definition. Egyptian dynasties rose and fell. Is foreign rule discontinuity? Alexander the Great of Macedonia became pharaoh in 332 B.C. Muhammad Ali, Egypt's Khedive from 1805 to 1849, was Albanian. But no matter the ruler, Egyptians never disappeared.
Do gaps in the record break continuity? Scribes typically used pharaonic reigns to chronicle events, and episodes of war and violent civil conflict interrupt scribal accounts. Wars kill scribes and destroy libraries. However, the Nile River continued to flow. Egyptians kept fishing and farming. New scribes always started scribbling again.
Last week's Cairo clashes left at least 650 dead and 4,000 injured. Six hundred fifty dead is not a civil disturbance. Several firefights between police and Muslim Brotherhood resistance cells looked like platoon engagements. The conflict is a civil war, albeit a slow one.
The Obama administration refuses to call the military-led toppling of Muslim Brotherhood politician and elected president Mohammed Morsi a coup. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt's defense minister and armed forces commander, used military forces to seize political power. Since the coup, Sissi has added deputy prime minister to his portfolio. It was a coup.
The Washington Post sent scribe Lally Weymouth to Egypt. In early August, before the military fought the Brotherhood in Cairo, Weymouth interviewed Sissi. Sissi contended that if the military had not acted in July, a civil war was certain. The Brotherhood has argued the coup ignited a civil war. I think the coup revealed the civil war's existence, before the Brotherhood acquired unaccountable and unchallengeable power. Time will tell.
The significance of Egyptian history was the subtext of the interview's most revealing passages.
According to Sissi, Morsi's problem with the Egyptian people began with the Brotherhood's "concept of the state" and ideology "for building a country ... based on restoring the Islamic religious empire." Morsi was "not a president for all Egyptians," but a president representing his Brotherhood supporters." Sissi told Weymouth the problem was evident from the moment Morsi assumed office.
To Sissi and his fellow Egyptian nationalists (secular and Muslim), Morsi is first and foremost an Islamist internationalist. Since A.D. 646, when the Prophet's Arab Muslim army completed its conquest of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood believes an Islamic identity supersedes an Egyptian one. For the Brotherhood faithful, that is when significant Egyptian history begins. Hence Morsi's fundamental problem with the Egyptian people.
Sissi believes Islamist internationalists regard Egypt as a base for establishing a global caliphate. Improving Egypt's economy is an afterthought. Al-Qaida, Arabic for "The Base," has roots in Egypt's most militant Brotherhood cells. Al-Qaida senior commander Ayman al-Zawahir is Egyptian. He joined the Brotherhood at age 14. At age 15, he formed a cell dedicated to toppling Egypt's government. No, the July coup didn't start a civil war.
Pharaonism, a nationalist movement that emerged in the late 19th century, appealed to popular pride in Egypt's historical legacy and expressed a common perception regarding ethnicity as well as religion. Egyptians were predominantly Muslim and spoke Arabic but ... they were Egyptians.
Secular pan-Arabism served Gamel Abdel Nasser's broader political purposes, so Egypt assumed an official Arab identity. Egypt is the Arab Republic of Egypt. Arab ethnicity suits some, perhaps the majority, of Egyptian nationalists, but others remain not yet convinced. To these Egyptian nationalists, 5,300 years of continuous history Egyptian identity is decisive.