With Sissi, Egypt Sees a Return of the Pharaohs

Ever since Sissi began his presidential term, he has frequently spoken of the Egyptian people as a single entity – not Muslims, not Christians, but Egyptians.

Elie Podeh and Elad Giladi
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In this Feb. 17, 2015, file photo, an Egyptian Christian woman wears a shirt with a photo of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.
In this Feb. 17, 2015, file photo, an Egyptian Christian woman wears a shirt with a photo of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Credit: AP
Elie Podeh and Elad Giladi

On August 6, the new Suez Canal was inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance. In honor of the historic event, there were two ceremonies, attended by both Egyptian and foreign dignitaries, that recalled the festive dedication of the original canal in 1869.

Numerous media reports discussed the political and economic aspects of this event, but they missed the aspect that was simultaneously most interesting and most surprising: Islamic and Arab identity are both out, while pharaonic culture is returning in a big way. One could say the most salient trend at both ceremonies was their presentation of the new Egypt as marching forward while also connecting to its pharaonic past. As President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi put it in his speech, “Egypt is a great country and has a civilization of 7,000 years.”

As expected, the army was the focus of the ceremony, which included a military parade and an air show, both as a mark of appreciation for the enormous effort it made in digging the canal and because of its role and stature in Egyptian society. Even Sissi, the hero of the event, was in uniform.

But alongside the militarist motif, one could also detect pharaonic ones. The most prominent was the line of trumpeters dressed in pharaonic garb that greeted the president.

To this we can add the design of the ceremonial stage: the official emblem of the Suez Canal Authority along with the date of its nationalization, July 26, 1956, plus the emblem of the new Suez Canal along with the date of its inauguration, born aloft by the hands of two pharaonic figures.

Not far from the stage, on the banks of the new canal, a new sculpture was unveiled for the first time. Its official name is the Statue of Awakening, but it is better known as “the winged lady” or “the winged peasant woman.” The focus of the sculpture is a woman who resembles the pharaonic goddess Isis, thanks mainly to her wings, which symbolize strength, freedom, protection and security. Behind her is a large obelisk, and at her feet are two sphinxes.

The sculpture clearly symbolizes the integration of modern and ancient Egyptian tradition, each of which preserves the other: The sphinxes, pharaonic lions, protect the eternal Egyptian woman, while she spreads her wings over them.

In 1928, Egyptian King Fuad inaugurated a sculpture called “Egypt’s Awakening,” by the famous sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar, in one of Cairo’s main squares. The statue was supposed to symbolize the start of a new era – the rebirth of the Egyptian nation on the basis of its glorious pharaonic past. The similarity between this sculpture and its new counterpart, from the standpoint of both their names and their characteristic motifs, is striking.

The second ceremony, which took place at night, was laden with pharaonic motifs. The stage was made in the form of a ship sailing on the Nile, with its mast in the form of a pharaonic ankh, which symbolizes life and/or the Nile River.

The ceremony itself could be divided into three parts. The first part consisted of opening remarks and greetings to those present by the two Egyptian masters of ceremonies, who were dressed in the colors of the Egyptian flag. The second part featured a musical extravaganza by the Egyptian composer and musician Omar Khairat. The third and most interesting part presented excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Aida.”

The popular belief is that this opera was commissioned by Egypt’s ruler in honor of the inauguration of the original Suez Canal, but this isn’t exactly true. Its inaugural performance at the Cairo opera house actually took place in December 1871. The section impressively performed at the current inaugural ceremony was the “Triumphal March.” It should be stressed that the entire opera deals with pharaonic culture; it is based on French Egyptologist and archaeologist Auguste Mariette's plot for "Bride of the Nile, and takes place in ancient Egypt.

A small story from the sidelines of the event underscores how Islamic and Arab symbols were deliberately excluded from the ceremony. People involved in the rehearsals raised an outcry over the fact that some of the women in the opera company that performed “Aida” insisted on wearing headscarves in addition to their pharaonic costumes. But the event’s management made it clear to them that this was permitted only during rehearsals; at the ceremony itself, they would have to wear “full pharaonic dress.” And so it was.

Ever since Sissi began his presidential term, he has frequently spoken of the Egyptian people as a single entity – not Muslims, not Christians, but Egyptians. In order to implement this vision, and also to fight the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has to moderate the Islamic motifs that are deeply entrenched in Egyptian identity.

During and after the presidential election, both Egyptian and global media outlets made many comparisons between Sissi and the legendary Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who promoted pan-Arab unity. But the inaugural ceremony for the canal gave a clear answer to the question of where Egypt, or at least its ruling elite, is headed: not toward Islam, and not toward pan-Arabism, but toward building a deep-seated identity based on Pharaonism.

Even if the Egyptian media exaggerates when it compares the building of the new canal to the building of the pyramids, there’s no doubt the project’s completion within a year constitutes an impressive achievement for both Egypt and Sissi. It will become a symbol of the regime, just as the Aswan Dam was for Nasser’s. But the president still has a lot of work to do to return Egypt to political stability and economic growth.

Prof. Elie Podeh teaches in Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Elad Giladi is a doctoral student in this department.

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