Danish and Egyptian cultural institute - What does it mean to be "Egyptian"?


Between June 2009 and December 2010, a not-for-profit Danish and Egyptian cultural institute approached ReD to work on a project with them. They hoped to understand the value systems of everyday Egyptians through a series of research activities and methods. Regardless of class, age, gender, political leaning, religious affiliation, or geographical location, the project intended to explore dialogue-building among Egyptians based on shared values.

Since working with applied anthropology is not common practice in Egypt, ReD and our client worked together with the ACPSS--Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies-- to select and train a group of Egyptian researchers, who then conducted the research over the course of several weeks during the summer of 2010. It was decided to base the research on thorough, semi-structured interviews with 25 respondents aimed at broadly reflecting the demographic diversity of Egypt.

The researchers spent between four and eight hours with each respondent in their home, allowing for deep conversations following an open-ended interview guide designed to cover a selection of relevant themes. This format also allowed the respondents to talk about the things they wanted to talk about.

Furthermore, it allowed for the researchers to spend time “hanging out” with the respondents and their families, doing participant observation and taking part in their everyday life routines as well as having more informal encounters with family members and neighbors.

In a highly politicized climate, this second part was essential for researchers to understand the motives behind the more polished and tailored answers in the interviews. In a climate where even the weather can be seen as a code for commentary about the current regime, the respondents guarded their responses and tried to avert any troubling interpretations, making the participatory observations essential for understanding the deeper feelings at play.

Once ReD and the client completed all the research activities and thoroughly organized and analyzed the data, it became evident that there were a number of values that resonated with respondents. In particular there was one value—or, rather, aspiration—that stood out. Before anything else, the respondents yearned for stability.

But despite hardships and their longing for a stable future, the respondents all expressed a clear set of values, describing how they see themselves more broadly as Egyptians.

They cited:

  • Solidarity and generosity: giving to those in one’s community who have less and need help was seen as the way to create a social safety net for oneself and others.  These values were seen as the glue binding a great community together;
  • Patience and endurance: Keeping one’s head down and working hard was seen as the good Egyptian way of realizing one’s destiny;
  • Valor and courage: Standing by people in need in the face of injustice was seen as a traditional value on the wane in modern Egypt. This was something people strongly lamented and expressed the need to strengthen.

In the midst of conversations centered on what was seen as particularly Egyptian values, other key concepts emerged determining what was considered good and virtuous in Egyptian society:

  • Faith: Religion was viewed as the source of all values, the one from which all normative judgments should be derived;
  • Authentic heritage: Descending from the pharaohs was a source of pride to the Egyptians but also cause for inferiority toward previous generations; and
  • Family: The primary unit, providing a designated role to fulfill.

Each value positively defines a trait that is thought to be inherently Egyptian. But the values are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There may be internal inconsistencies, they may slightly overlap in content, and some may influence others. All this is to be expected and gives credit to the depth and diversity of the people whose lives, words, and actions are at the very core of their descriptions.

This project laid the foundation for coming events, workshops, and work to be done by the institute, which is tasked with promoting and creating grounds for peaceful dialogue in Egypt.

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