Egyptologist Bassam Al-Shamaa tells Abeya
El-Bakry about the history of revolt in Egypt
January 2011 was not the first revolution in Egypt in the last 100 years. Unlike the July 1952 Revolution and the regime to which it gave birth, the January Revolution was not military. It was a civil revolution calling for civil rights and civil government. But nor was the July Revolution in any way unprecedented. As the Egyptologist, tour guide and writer who launched the 2005 Save the Sphinx campaign Bassam Al-Shamaa explains, there was a precedent for the January Revolution in the workers’ strike of 1155 BC. Al-Shamaa traces the Egyptians’ revolutionary character and how it has changed over an incredibly long period of time, indicating that at least some native traits have endured. Of course he is aware of the fact that revolution goes by many names, including “coup d’etat” when it involves military intervention. In ancient Egypt it was called sbi, he explains, meaning roughly rebellion; but by the time the army officer Ahmed Orabi led major protests in 18th century Egypt, it was known by the Arabic word hoga, literally meaning “frenzy” but perhaps more accurately translated as uprising, for which the accepted English term for the Arab world — following Palestinians protests — is “intifada”.
Revolutions were frequent before the unification of upper and lower Egypt, Al-Shamaa says, in the time of what he calls “the very ancient Egyptians”. There were two places in Upper Egypt — the southern half of the country — particularly known for protests: a city whose location is in the present-day town of Ballas, and Naqqada, 27 kilometres north of Luxor. “History works in steps, in my opinion,” Al-Shamaa says. “There is no such thing as an invention, only progress.” King Menes is credited with unifying the country but in fact there were several figures associated with this achievement when “the Lord of the Land(s)” became “the Lord of the Two Lands” and the double crown emerged. This period was in fact very similar to the situation we currently have with the breakdown in security and sharp polarisation between supporters and opponents of General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. At the time, Al-Shamaa says, governors and district heads seceded from the central government, which almost happened twice in the last year, in the cities of Al-Mahalla and Port Said.
A revolution took place after the death of King Pepi II, who was six-years-old when he was enthroned. He died 100-years-old, ruling for 94 years during which corruption grew. But it is Governor Rach-Ni-Ra, whose tomb lies on the west bank of Luxor, who strikes a chord with contemporary Egypt. He was given a letter of appointment in which he was advised by King Tuthmosis III to treat those who are far as he would those who are near and in turn he stated that he would not take bribes — the ancient Egyptian word was nkt, meaning “something” — which is a concept that lives with us today, the common phrase for bribing being “giving something”. Revolution broke out when Pepi II died in 2100 BC, followed by “an intermediary” period of 120 years during which there were constant security problems. “Four men go out and three return; the peasant goes to the field with a shield. Those who didn’t have anything, have everything.” Thus the inscriptions from that time, according to Al-Shamaa, echoing the conditions of the last two-and-a-half years in Egyptian history.
It was also this period that made it possible for the peasant to address the government in the famous Eloquent Peasant letters of Khu-N-Nbu, talking about the servant of the head of the ushers Geotinacht. Khu-N-Nbu may be considered the first rebel in history. After being bullied by Geotinacht, he wrote nine letters of complaint to the king and managed to retrieve the produce of which Geotinacht had robbed him, eventually switching places with that official. It is not possible to generalise in history, Al-Shamaa says, but we can trace certain bloodlines in the Egyptian character: “We have become a very tense nation, all sectors of society are tense. And we might have blamed that on the randomness of our modernity if we had not had Khu-N-Nbu, Geotinacht and the king who willingly compensates the weak. Just as Khu-N-Nbu was compensated, he might have been condemned to punishment for having demanded his rights. It is possible to say that this does not happen now in the current situation, with safety guaranteed those who are calling for their rights... ”
An ethical stance was woven into the religious beliefs of Egyptians, which stood in the way of any ideological encroachment. “On one occasion,” Al-Shamaa recounts, “the workers were not given their wages for 18 days. The number of workers during Ramses III’s reign had increased, so the wages had become lower. In the winter of the 29th year on the 10th day of the second month, workers began the strike. At the time celebrations were underway to renew faith in the king’s authority through athletic performances to prove his physical and mental capacity for the next period. These celebrations were very expensive, which may account for the lack of wages. Many corruption cases had already surfaced. The revolutionary slogan changed from ‘we are hungry’ to ‘we did not strike because of hunger, but we did because we have serious accusations we –––security checkpoints. The security forces, Medjai, were tall strong Nubians, and yet the people moved from one point to another. Either the workers fought them and won , which is quite impossible, or the Medjai let them through...”
Likewise the present moment: the police and the people are united. But that has not always been the case since 2011 and it is important to review the attitude of the police to the people in order to ensure that this unity should continue. Criticism of the police should be accepted as a positive contribution to the country as a whole. “It seems that the ancient Egyptians were peaceful in their approach to demanding their rights,” Al-Shamaa says. “Peaceful protests constituted the Egyptian revolutionary spirit, and it is clear from the information available that concern for their rights was underpinned by the ancient Egyptians’ concern for the safety of the land and the well-being of the soil itself.” It is a lesson we must learn in our present attempt at change.