Egyptian Harbingers

The army has been a player in the affairs of Egypt for at least 5,000 years, says Tom Holland.

Past parallels: an anti-Morsi protester dressed as a pharoah, compares the Muslim Brotherhood leader to Mussolini and Hitler. Tahrir Square, Cairo, November 2012

‘Man fears time,’ so the saying goes, ‘but time fears the pyramids.’ Egypt was already ancient as the Parthenon was being built. When Herodotus spoke to the country’s priests, they told him with a disdainful sniff that the Greeks were nothing but children. Although it is customary now, amid the failures of the Arab Spring, to take the immaturity of Egyptian political institutions for granted, Egypt, even in the midst of revolution, moves to rhythms older than those of any other existing state. Not for nothing was former president Hosni Mubarak nicknamed ‘the Pharaoh’.

Mohamed Morsi, whose deposition by the army in July pushed Egypt into the current phase of its crisis, would have resented any comparison between himself and his country’s ancient rulers. In the Qur’an as in the Bible, ‘Pharaoh’ serves as the archetype of the impious monarch. Nevertheless it is the measure of Egypt’s sheer antiquity that little seems to happen there that does not bear at least the trace element of some venerable precedent. The Muslim Brotherhood, with its austere and self-consciously political brand of Islam, had long been anathema to the country’s ruling elite. Morsi’s election as president in June 2012 served army and intelligentsia alike as a direct challenge. This was why, in the long run, he could not be left in power. The shock waves from the resulting coup are already serving to cast it as one of the defining crises of the 21st century. Egypt, nevertheless, had witnessed something like it long before.

When Amenophis IV succeeded as pharaoh 3,500 years ago in the mid-14th century BC, it was as the adherent of a monotheism that could not help but strike his countrymen as profoundly revolutionary. The change of his name, five years into his reign, to ‘Akhenaten’ signalled his rejection of Egypt’s traditional pantheon of gods and his devotion to a new, single deity: the Sun Disk, or ‘Aten’. Then, as now, religion in Egypt was an intensely political business and Akhenaten’s radical iconoclasm offended more than just the sensibilities of his subjects. The vested interests of the established priesthood had been struck a seemingly mortal blow. Those willing to side with the revolution scrabbled for advantage over the heads of those to whom it threatened ruin. As Akhenaten turned his back on the established political order, so Egypt seethed with resentment and whispered sedition.

The resources that a pharaoh could command were, of course, vastly superior to those available to a democratically elected president. Not only did the habit of obedience to their king come naturally to the Egyptians of the 18th Dynasty, but Akhenaten himself was a man infinitely more able and charismatic than the hapless Morsi. Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood spent barely a year in power before its overthrow, Akhenaten died as he had lived: an absolute monarch. But the writing was on the wall. Circumstances beyond his control had already served to doom his regime, even before his death. The last years of his reign had witnessed the ravages across Egypt of a pandemic. The gods had weighed his revolution and found it wanting.

Natural disasters have consistently served Egyptian regimes as harbingers of upheaval. Egypt, Herodotus wrote, is the gift of the Nile; and for as long as farmers were dependent upon its annual flooding, there was always the risk that what the river gave, it might also take away. Too high a flood, or too low a one, and even a pharaoh might fear for his crown. Now that Egyptian governments have the Aswan Dam to play with, they enjoy vastly more control over the Nile than their predecessors; but they continue to depend for their survival on their ability to feed their people. It is no coincidence that the current turbulence in Egypt has directly followed a sharp drop in global wheat yields. Mubarak and Morsi have both been destroyed, in effect, by the rising price of bread.

No crisis so great, though, that it can shake what has been, for 5,000 years now, the essentially military cast of power in Egypt. Akhenaten’s youthful successor, Tutankhamen, restored to the traditional priesthood all its prerogatives; he was succeeded in his turn by the heretic pharaoh’s uncle, Ay, who continued with the burial of the Atenist revolution. It was the army, though, under a general named Horemheb, that consigned it definitively to the grave. A damnatio memoriae was proclaimed not only against Akhenaten, but against Tutankhamen and Ay as well. All traces of their existence were wiped out. Their presence on the king lists was removed, their cartouches chiselled out.        

Horemheb ruled for over a decade and was then succeeded by his vizier, who took the name of Ramesses, under whom Egypt enjoyed its last efflorescence as the wealthiest and most glamorous superpower of the ancient Middle East. The blaze of Ramesses’ grandson and namesake, Ramesses II, served to blot out the memory of Akhenaten once and for all. The Egyptians forgot that such a pharaoh had ever existed. Only the excavations of 19th-century archaeologists restored him and Tutankhamen, too, to the historical record.

It is unlikely that the generals now ruling Egypt will be able to inflict on Morsi the oblivion that for thousands of years was Akhenaten’s fate. It will not be for lack of trying. Truly, in Egypt, there is nothing new under the sun.

Tom Holland is the author of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World