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Census 2021: Why Western data collection is causing an Egyptian identity crisis

For Egyptians in the UK, the Census 2021 exposes pitfalls in Western constructions of ethnicity.

20 Mar 2021

Right now, households across the UK are busy filling out their Census 2021 forms. But for Egyptians in the country, a particular issue has emerged: an accurate representation of Egyptian identity doesn’t exist in UK data collection. The ‘Egyptian problem’ highlights several issues around data gathering on diversity and exposes the failures currently baked into a system that fails to acknowledge the history, and the context, of the citizens which reside within it. 

For some Egyptians, the Census questions on ethnicity will be straightforward. For others (myself included) it’s more complicated. Egypt has had a turbulent history of occupation and invasion; a multilayered society exists in Egypt as a result. 

Complex origins

The earliest recollection we have of Egyptian history is that of the ancient Pharaonic era, which interestingly, is the historical identity that a number of Egyptians choose to most closely identify with. Following this came the Greco-Roman era. In the mid-1st Century, the Coptic Church was established in Egypt, and the majority of Egyptians became members of this church and began to identify primarily as Copts with a Pharaonic origin. 

After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, around 639AD, Copts lost their majority, as many Egyptians converted to Islam. With this conquest, came the introduction of the Arabic language (which slowly replaced the Coptic language), the Arab identity, and an Arab cultural heritage which flourished most recently under the pan-Arabism era of Gamal Abdel Nasser.  

The Egyptian-Arab identity is one met with hot debate. Most recently, it erupted on social media following Rami Malek’s – whose family are Coptic Christians – Oscar win in 2019.  Copts maintain that they never identified as Arab, but rather retain a Coptic identity with a Pharaonic origin. Some Muslim Egyptians equally do not identify as Arabs, referring to themselves as Egyptians with an independent history, outside that of the Arab cultural heritage that the nation has inherited.

Between 1914-1922, Egypt was occupied formally by Britain (although British military presence remained until 1936). The arrival of British residents to the country is evident in the data that we see collected in the diaspora today. For instance, in the report for the last UK Census, it was noted that a high proportion (88%) of Egyptians who identified as white British arrived in the UK before 1981. The report goes on to state that Egyptians identifying with ‘whiteness’ is likely an attribute of those born to British subjects based in Egypt “during the UK’s administration of the country” – a remnant of a colonial past.

None of this even begins to account for the Nubian presence in Egypt, which dates back to 7000BC. As an ethno-linguistic, ancient African civilisation indigenous to the region in the South of Egypt and to the North of Sudan, modern day Nubians have their own cultural heritage. There is not enough data to account for how Nubian Egyptians  would identify themselves in the Census (an issue in itself) but some are likely to identify themselves as ‘Black’, adding another layer to our discussion.

Clearly, the Egyptian identity is complex and rich. Yet Egyptians filling out official datasets in the West, like the Census 2021, are given limited options for their ethnic identity – none of which are entirely accurate. If they cannot choose from the boxes provided, they are forced to identify as “Other”. 

Deficient data

In 2005 and 2007, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) conducted research to understand whether the ‘other’ box would improve the data collection for the targeted groups. Not a single one of the Egyptian respondents chose to identify as Arab. The majority of Egyptians would not identify ethnically as white. But for most Egyptians the Census 2021 will appear to only offer two options – ‘white’ or ‘Arab’ . 

In a report on the 2011 Census, it was stated that ‘there was a wider variety of ethnic groups from Egyptian born residents’ in comparison to other African born residents; 39% identified as white, 39% identified as Arab, and the rest identified as other ethnic groups.  

It’s a similar story in the US. In the 2010 Census, it became apparent that the ‘some other race’ category was the third-largest category after ‘white’ and ‘black’. In 2015, the National Content Test (NCT) tested a new category dubbed ‘MENA’ (Middle Eastern or North African) to allow those of Middle Eastern, North African, or Arab roots to more clearly identify themselves  – and to enable better standards for the collection of data from this population. 

“Egyptians identifying with ‘whiteness’ is likely an attribute of those born to British subjects based in Egypt ‘during the UK’s administration of the country’”

In 2018, the Trump administration said that the category would not be added, and Egyptians were explicitly told to identify as ‘white’. Boxes imply homogeneity.  The implication that Egyptians are a homogenous white group was, unsurprisingly, met with confusion, and outrage. 

For Egyptians, ticking either of the two boxes offered would be an act of conformity, or assimilation. For years, concept of assimilation has been used interchangeably with that of ‘integration’ in UK mainstream political discourse around migration. There is, of course, a difference. When one assimilates, they find themselves trying to fit into some sort of pre-prepared, acceptable box, into some ideal of acceptable ‘Britishness’. When one integrates, their culture, and their identity is sufficiently recognised before – or while – they simultaneously become members of British society. 

When Egyptians who don’t identify as ‘Arab’ or ‘white’, data collection like the Census drives home a lack of recognition. Their history is not being recognised, their context isn’t being recognised, and their identity is not being recognised. Instead, they’re told to fit in a box that isn’t shaped to accommodate them – and will subsequently provide an inaccurate dataset to be used for years to come. 

Moving forward: granularity and diversity

In practice, of course, this sort of recognition, particularly in documents like the Census is difficult to achieve. ONS acknowledges that a higher granularity (level of detail) of data is needed around ethnicity, but it also argues that having a larger number of boxes would be impractical. An increased granularity of data, however, is necessary – lumping large groups of people in the ‘some other ethnicity’ category, as well as having them dispersed in various different categories, makes it difficult to identify trends in different communities, a problem- that has become more evident during Covid-19. Moving forward, we need to find a way to both increase granularity, and equally acknowledge diversity. In this particular case, the MENA category, with a sub-section asking for more specific data provides a potential solution. 

The problems faced by Egyptians with the 2021 Census speaks to a wider issue: the current inability of some governments in the West to acknowledge the rich cultural heritage of minority ethnic communities and the significant role that Western countries played in the shaping of their countries. 

Homogeneity does not exist in Egypt, nor will it ever exist in the Egyptian diaspora. When the Egyptian diaspora fill out the Census in years to come, they may well find that there is nothing that quite accounts for the complex heritage which they consider their own, and will have to label themselves as ‘other’. It’s not enough to have to make a choice between limited numbers of neat boxes, and the vague void of the ‘other’ box.