Egypt’s Controversial Revolutionaries
Egypt is no stranger to unrest – rather, it seems to embrace instability gracefully enough to stay on its feet after more than three revolutions in the last half-century alone. However, those who are at the forefront of these movements are not always liked; from death threats to feminism, from socialist agendas to anarchy, Egyptian revolutionaries have always pushed the limits.
Some would say a bit too far.
That doesn’t stand in the way of their legacy as game changers and status quo shakers. Here are some of Egypt’s most infamous, beloved and daring controversial figures.
Akhenaten | r. 1353 – 1336 BCE
The father of the Egyptian revolutionaries was, unsurprisingly, a pharaoh: a king who apparently had everything going for him, if only to bet on a manic crisis of religious freedom. Born around 1353 BCE, Akhenaten was pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom. Originally named Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten changed his name after only five years of sovereignty.
Many mistakenly believe that Akhenaten ignored the entire Egyptian religious pantheon for the emergence of a new deity, the Aten; in reality, worship of the solar deity existed but became fully focused and worshiped with Akhenaten’s decision.
Although names are hardly what earns it its notoriety; in a world of greedy paganism and love for a pantheon of gods, Akhenaten compressed Egyptian belief systems into a single, supposedly “monotheistic” religion, the first of its kind in the world. For his disdain for the country’s long-established priestly systems, as well as Egypt’s deep-rooted centers of worship for its multitude of deities, he was dubbed a heretic king who dislodged the gods and changed the capital from Thebes to Amarna – the city he founded.
His era, the Amarna period, is considered “the most controversial era in Egyptian history and has been studied, debated and written about more than any other”. This was not only due to religious change, but also to the resulting divergent style, breaking the tradition of established aesthetic and artistic conventions.
Gamal Abdel Nasser | r. 1918 – 1970 AD. J.-C.
It is a name that all Egyptians know, but how it is pronounced and in what context depends on the individual. Gamal Abdel Nasser is a divisive figure and by far Egypt’s best-known revolutionary. As a military leader, he engineered the 1952 coup to overthrow the corrupt Wafd party, ending British colonialism in Egypt.
He became the second president of Egypt after Mohamed Naguib and proceeded to expand the bureaucratization of the state; unfortunately, this came with military mindsets that worked for the “empowerment of state security forces to limit freedom of speech, assembly, and other constitutional rights granted to Egyptians.”
Despite this, he was much loved during the era of blind pan-Arabism in the mid-twentieth century. After a shattered optimism during the Six Day War of 1967, Abdel Nasser’s judgment is questioned. From continued economic deterioration and poorly implemented socialism, to the exodus of Jewish-Egyptian populations and the displacement of the Nubian population from Upper Egypt.
Moreover, many still harbor grudges against charismatic figures for the sudden misery of families, and companies have found themselves in it: overnight, homes have been confiscated and businesses ripped off.
On the other hand, it was Nasser’s ambitious project to ensure that education and health care would be available to all, which revolutionized and democratized opportunities for the Egyptian people.
It seems that, for Gamal Abdel Nasser, certain ends justify their means.
Naguib Mahfouz | r. 1911 – 2006 CE
Novelist, Nobel Prize winner and lover of literary missteps: Naguib Mahfouz is a force to be reckoned with. Growing up in the al-Jamaliya district of Cairo, he attended Cairo University to earn a degree in philosophy. Soon after, he would write some of Egypt’s most important, yet notorious, masterpieces – some of which earned him the esteem and hatred of the local population.
Mahfouz offered cynical views on contemporary Egypt, colonialism and the non-established monarchy. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his Cairo Trilogy: a set of deeply critical and overtly tragic novels depicting patriarchal hypocrisy, violent politics, and the intertwining of love, religion, and social taboos.
His most controversial piece, however, comes in the form of Awlad Haretna, or rather alley children (1996). After personifying elements of Islam, including God and the prophets, the book was banned in Egypt for basing characters on key characters and spiritual elements.
Islamic militants have on countless occasions called for his death and in 1994 Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck. Regardless of these assassination attempts, he would become one of Egypt’s most notable and esteemed literary figures.
Nawal al-Saadawi | r. 1931 – 2021 CE
There are few Egyptian feminists today who have not heard the name Nawal el-Saadawi. Not only did she define the modern feminist movement locally, but she gained international attention for her work. Born in 1931 in Cairo, el-Saadawi was a writer, activist and doctor who was at the forefront of Egyptian activism for decades.
Over the years, like Mahfouz, she has received death threats on her life as a result of her writings and lectures on discrimination against women. Her demand for equal rights stemmed from her personal history and experience as a doctor treating women in rural Egypt. She is quoted as saying her medical training was “invaluable” and a major influence in her life.
El-Saadawi was forced into exile in the early 1990s after her name was blacklisted by Islamic fundamentalists. She remained with Duke in the United States until her death in 2021.
Alaa al-Aswany | r. 1957 – Present
Alaa al-Aswany is the only one listed who remains active today and remains largely infamous: an outspoken and outspoken critic of military rule, with particular attention to the autocratic, late President Hosni Mubarak. Born to Abbas al-Aswany, a lawyer credited with reviving the maqamah (anecdotes written in rhyming prose), he developed a love for law and literature.
As a strong supporter of the 2011 Egyptian uprising and founder of the Egyptian i movement, al-Aswany has written several books on the issue, including On the state of Egypt (2011) and The Republic of False Truths (2018) – the latter was banned in Egypt for its continuous and outspoken criticism of state institutions.
In March 2019, his column in Deutsche Welle sparked a lawsuit; he criticized President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the questionable role of the Egyptian armed forces in civilian government. Today he resides in Brooklyn, New York in the United States after being banned from appearing on television, holding his literary salons, writing his weekly column in the Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm or publish more books.
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