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Gehad Quisay

Sudan-Egypt spat: My pyramids are bigger than yours

Pyramids of Marowe [AFP]

Date of publication: 1 April, 2017

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Sudanese social media takes on Egyptian talk shows over the pyramids of Marowe, but is there more to the animosity?
The Egyptian media went into a meltdown last week after Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, mother of the current Emir of Qatar, made a visit to the pyramids of Marowe in Sudan.

The media's fury wasn't targeted towards the Qatari royal - but Sudanese society - a marked shift from passive aggression to open hostility between the neighbouring countries. 

"You [Egyptians] think that you are the best this world has to offer when you are in fact the dirtiest, please shower," said the host of Sudanese online show Zool Cafe, outrageously.

But it wasn't the murder of Sudanese refugees, nor the casual use of ethnic slurs, that caused Sudanese social media to strike out in the first place – it was a spat about pyramids.

It wasn't the murder of Sudanese refugees, nor the casual use of ethnic slurs, that caused Sudanese social media to finally strike back after decades of Egyptian media bigotry – it was a debate about pyramids.

The 20-minute long Zool Cafe video, which has over a quarter of a million views, chastised Egyptians with offensive stereotypes and generalisations.

"When Sudan gave up it's lower half it only did so geographically," [referring to the secession of South Sudan.] "Where did your [Egyptian comedian Ahmed Adam's] lower half go?" said host Mohamed Aweida.

Aweida was referring to an Egyptian MP's comment about Egyptian men's sexual impotence September last year. 

The online show even went as far as to brush aside Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's war crimes against his own people presenting him as a superior leader to Egyptian President AbdelFattah al-Sisi.

"As though we've been waiting for you Egyptians to grant us legitimacy, go check the humiliation your president has been suffering. At least our president is a real man, we may have some issues with him but that's no one's business" said the online host.

Soundcloud based podcast Jbana and No Chill had a more pragmatic, however still underhanded, critique of Egyptian Sudanese relations, claiming that the backlash over Sudanese pyramids was because "Egyptians are uneducated".

The hosts then mocked Egyptian pride over the country's claimed victory over Israel in 1973 declaring it "a fantasy".

Racism towards Africans with darker skin is common in Egypt. While waiting in line at Cairo International Airport two years ago, a security officer once asked me to step away from an Ethiopian woman who was standing beside me so she wouldn't "rub off" on me. Stories like this, outrageous as they seem, are numerous and very common.

Racism is common and somehow normalised in Egypt

Black people are often called 'abd, the arabic word for slave, and Egyptian newspapers freely use the 'N word' both in English and Arabic.

Such disdain for black people manifested itself fully in Egyptian media reaction to the pyramids of Marowe.

"Apparently Sudan has pyramids now? They look like cheese triangles," laughed an Egyptian late night show host. "You can't just claim to have pyramids, you need to be civilised to have pyramids."

Such racially charged comments have often been displayed in Egyptian media.

For decades, Egyptian cinema cast Sudanese people almost exclusively as butlers and servants while television shows used them as comedic props often recycling stereotypes of an overly mellow, lazy Sudanese man.

For decades, Egyptian cinema cast Sudanese people almost exclusively as butlers and servants while television shows used them as comedic props often recycling stereotypes of an overly mellow, lazy Sudanese man

The delicate historical power relations between Egypt and Sudan played a role in creating such distorted view of race.

"Egypt and Sudan are ours and [we'll take] England too if possible."

This protest chant was first used by Egyptians during the days of British colonial rule and since then has been frequently reused in Egyptian films and television shows. It summarises Egyptian attitude towards Sudan, an odd mix of superiority and comradery.

"There is no country called Sudan, Sudan is a part of Egypt," boasted ex-MP and popular Egyptian talk show host Tawfik Okasha, last week.

Okasha's assertion is popular among Egyptians.

When Egypt gained its independence from the British, Sultan Fuad I was renamed King of Egypt and Sudan, a title his son Farouk I inherited.

In 1953, Gamal Abdel Nasser – following the fall of the Egyptian monarchy – signed an agreement with the United Kingdom giving Sudan independence.

This history is understood by Egyptians as proof that Sudan was part of Egypt. In fact, Sudan was an unwilling partner. The union of the two nations was nothing more than the colonial project of the dynasty of Mohammed Ali Pasha which was overshadowed by Egypt's own struggles against British colonialism.

Following the independence of the two nations, Egypt and Sudan maintained close relations. They were the first two post-independence Arab nations to have open borders.

Sudan was the only Arab nation to oppose Egypt's expulsion from the Arab League following the Camp David Accords Egypt signed with Israel in 1978. Two of Egypt's seven presidents, Mohammed Naguib (1953-1954) and Anwar Sadat (1970-1981), were born to Sudanese mothers.

However, despite such dynamics Sudanese people in Egypt have constantly faced prejudice and discrimination that remains ongoing today.

Tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees who flee internal conflict to Egypt are systematically brutalised by Egyptian authorities.

Tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees who flee internal conflict to Egypt are systematically brutalised by Egyptian authorities

In one incident in 2005, Egyptian security forces opened fire on a peaceful sit-in by Sudanese refugees, killing 20. More recently, 15 people were killed while trying to flee to Israel in 2015.

Some Middle East experts have said that Egyptians' false sense of nationalistic superiority can be analysed as a mere coping mechanism against the harsh realities they live in.

The crushing political oppression visited upon the people of Egypt predates their current military republic. Even the jubilation of the 2011 uprising quickly turned sour as the military reassumed its position in power, illegally detaining thousands of young activists.

These political defeats are paired with dire economic conditions that have seen the Egyptian pound, once worth 2.55USD in 1973 falling to a staggering 0.055USD today.

The Sudanese nationalist reaction to this pseudo-crisis could be analysed in the same light. The nation that was literally torn apart in 2011, has little political peace and no economic solace.

Sudan's president is an international pariah wanted for war crimes against his own people. His actions have invited strict economic sanctions from the international community.

These sanctions affect the Sudanese people rather than the alleged dictator. Even those who don't live in Sudan are not spared. Sudanese people are often denied visas and scrutinised at international airports. 

Such petty rivalry will only hinder any efforts to enact concrete changes to the issues of racism that face Sudanese people in Egypt.

Standing by empty nationalism will only drive both nations further apart. While Egypt and Sudan bicker about civilisations long since gone, their respective share of the Nile is under threat and the agricultural treaties they signed are in danger.

Surely, food and water are more important to the people than who has the bigger pyramids?

Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, having graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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