If you even so much as glance at a newspaper these days, you’ll see that Egypt is very much in the throes of an identity crisis. This is nothing new, and as these images suggest, much of these differing viewpoints on what a modern Egypt “should” look like stems from social and political thought in the mid 20th century.
Gamal Abdel Nasser shaped the face of Egypt from 1956 to 1970. A critical time on national and international fronts, his social justice-oriented ambitions did not come entirely democratically. He won his second term by legally forbidding others to run against him. Source: Shmoop
A woman arming herself in 1956. During the 1950s when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and joined together in resistance against the Israeli-French-British attack, it wasn't uncommon for women to volunteer to fight. Unless filling administrative spots, women today cannot assume such roles. Source: Egyptian Streets
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Women engage in political rallies in Assiut: not a single one is wearing a veil or conservative dress. Source: Egyptian Streets
The Alexandria waterfront at Montaza Palace, 1956. Source: Foreign Policy
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Taken in 1959, this photo captures Alexandria at its cosmopolitan height. Six languages were regularly spoken in Egypt's second largest city, and Arabs, Sephardic Jews and Europeans would intermingle peacefully, sporting whatever clothing they pleased. Much of this influence changed upon the arrival of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who made it his presidential ambition to shirk Egypt of its colonial past and cultivate an "authentic" Arab identity--even if it meant repressing those whose understanding of "Arabness" included a very public display of one's religion. Today, Alexandria is one of the most conservative cities in Egypt. Source: Foreign Policy
1950s and 1960s Egypt: When Arab Modernity Allowed Bikinis
Wanting to part ways with imperialist powers and craft what he deemed to be a united Arab identity, Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted Egypt's political path through the international turmoils that defined 1950s and 60s. To put it quite lightly, Nasser was a point of major annoyance to Western powers who sought Egypt's help during the Cold War, and to religious Egyptians whom Nasser pushed to the social margins in his secularization of the state, he was an object of absolute scorn. But to millions of others who saw benefits from charismatic Nasser's social justice-oriented ambitions and socialist, secular reforms, his vision was the new Arab modernity.
Decades later, fundamentalists pushed to the sidelines re-emerged, resonating with many Egyptians frustrated with the status of the Egyptian state. The Muslim Brotherhood and the now-ousted president Morsi have picked up on Nasser's winning blend of populism and dictatorial tendencies and are using this period of political and economic flux as an opportunity to cast a new vision for what they believe is the "true" modern Egyptian identity. What that actually looks like remains to be seen, but if these pictures are to prove anything it is that people can, for better or worse, change.