A woman out jogging suddenly stops to scold her seemingly aggressive German shepherd dog using a mix of English and Arabic words. She threatens her dog, saying it will face the same fate as Egypt’s stray dogs if it disobeys her orders. The woman’s words are loud enough to be heard by passers-by, piercing the silence of the up-scale district of Al-Sheikh Zayed on the outskirts of the Giza governorate.
Although the scene could be explained in the context of disciplining a dog, as probably most pet-owners do, it could hold a deeper significance. A woman walking her dog in an upper-class area has become a common scene, as many people now own dogs for safety reasons or perhaps to show off.
But the scene may also unveil a paradox in the human-dog relationship, particularly in Egypt. The woman talked to her dog as if it were a human, and indeed it has been proved that dogs can understand human intentions by linking the sounds they hear with emotions. On the other hand, the threat also showed a classist view of Egypt’s stray dogs, seeing them as inferior to their pedigree foreign counterparts like German shepherds, golden retrievers, huskies, and others.
Scenes of this sort may also be seen more and more as domestic dogs are no longer exclusively owned by the affluent classes who alone can afford them. Many people from the middle and lower classes today also have domestic dogs. This means dogs should no longer be viewed only as a symbol of class; they are now linked to broader issues of animal rights, business, and others.
The word “dog” is one of the most common insults used to humiliate opponents in quarrels among individuals and families in Egypt. It has been adopted in literature and the cinema, where dogs are often used as negative symbols, sometimes to criticise authority or to raise public awareness.
A case in point is Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s novel The Thief and the Dogs, turned into a film in the 1960s. In the novel, dogs are used to symbolise betrayal as well as the lust for money and power. In the same vein, dogs are used as a negative symbol in The Bus Market, a 1980s film by late director Atef Al-Tayeb. The late actor Nour Al-Sherif appears in the last scene of the film beating a thief and cursing him saying, “you are the son of a dog.” The insult was indirectly meant for the government and was Al-Tayeb’s way of criticising the Open Door Policy of the 1970s.
Some politicians have not shied away from using the term to insult their opponents and sometimes to attract public opinion. Late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser fired back at those labelling him a “dog” on the BBC in the 1960s, calling them the “sons of 60 dogs”. Former president Anwar Al-Sadat likewise slammed one of his opponents, the preacher Ahmed Al-Mahlawi, as “a dog thrown in prison” in a speech a month before his assassination in 1981.
Decades later, the same term was again used as a political insult in talk shows in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution. Late broadcaster Wael Al-Ibrashi was labelled “a dog” while appearing on a talk show in 2015, and the word was frequently used as an insult among guests and activists with different viewpoints.
The word “sheep”, however, soon replaced “dog” after the 30 June Revolution to describe those belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The use of dogs as an insult means that they are widely perceived as inferior creatures that may sometimes be seen as impure in Islamic law. There have been fatwas (Islamic legal rulings) that consider dogs as impure, invalidating ablution, and preventing angels from entering houses where they are accommodated.
Such fatwas may allow individuals to own dogs if they have a job to do such as guarding a house, hunting, or monitoring livestock, however. Meanwhile, dogs have also been used in popular proverbs indicating infidelity, such as “a dog’s tail can never be straightened” or humiliating opponents and criticising authority, such as “the dog howls and the caravan passes.”
Owning dogs has also been perceived as a symbol of power in various economic, social, and political forms. Domestic dogs were historically owned by the affluent classes who could afford their expense and who perhaps had a garden to keep them in. Owning dogs was considered a luxury for the poorer segments of society and also by the middle classes whose budget is mostly consumed on food, education, and healthcare. A 2015 survey of income and expenditure by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) indicated that only 0.4 per cent of Egyptian families spend money on pets.
Dogs have also been associated with the security institutions, since they are used by police to chase criminals, catch prisoners, and detect drugs or explosives.
The late Egyptian colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm invoked the symbolism of the dog in his famous poem “The Lady’s Dog”, which sparked widespread controversy because of its political significance. The dog symbolised corruption, with Ismael in the poem being bitten by a dog but unable to obtain his right by law.
In the countryside dogs have historically been associated with their functional nature rather than the symbolic representation of power, status, and authority. Dogs have always helped farmers in guarding livestock. There is a coexistence between humans and dogs in the countryside, as dogs were normally kept in places attached to peasant homes. The idea that the inhabitants of urban areas, historically the seat of authority in Egypt, would own dogs and even spend money on them could sound strange to those living in rural areas.
However, rural culture has changed with the decline of the agricultural sector in the 1970s and the subsequent labour migration to the Gulf. The idea that dogs were owned only for functional purposes in the countryside soon declined. Even so, dogs hardly became popular for other reasons, as for some religious people dogs are seen as “impure.”
Dogs have sometimes been humanised in Egyptian culture.
They historically had functional purposes like hunting and guarding, as can be seen engraved on the walls of Pharaonic temples. Dogs seemed to be highly appreciated by the Pharaohs, and they had their own tombs and were even mummified like humans. The fact that Anubis, the god of the dead and the protector of cemeteries, is shown with his head in the form of a Pharaonic Saluki dog is a case in point.
In the modern period, dogs have been associated with the values of loyalty and courage. They are widely viewed as being more loyal to their owners than humans, and some mothers might even urge their children to behave like a dog in terms of gratitude. This viewpoint was featured in “The Dog and the Dove,” a poem by 20th-century poet Ahmed Shawki.
The same idea of humanising dogs has also featured in films. In the 1960s, a dog was featured as protecting its blind owner in The Black Candles starring Salah Selim. Many years later in 2013, a dog was featured as helping its owner recover from a coma in On my Body starring Ahmed Helmi.
Egyptian families from the poorer and middle strata of society have thus started to think that owning dogs could help breed a sense of responsibility in their children, and this trend has been supported by the emergence of new fatwas that allow dogs to live in homes on the grounds that they are not impure. Religious scholars have been encouraging kindness to dogs in general.
Grand Mufti of Egypt Shawki Allam, for instance, issued a controversial fatwa in August 2020 that contradicted the widespread religious view of dogs as impure. He said that according to the Maliki School of Islamic Law dogs are not impure and do not invalidate ablution or prevent angels from entering the homes that house them. His fatwa provoked controversy because it contradicted the prevailing view.
Dogs have been further humanised with the emergence of satellite cities and gated communities in Egypt over the past three decades. Those moving to the new settlements away from the bustle of the city sometimes want to own dogs for security reasons in remote areas. Owning dogs can also be a matter of prestige or social status. They are a common feature in almost all the gated communities and satellite cities where many homes have private gardens to shelter pets as well as wide streets to walk dogs.
The 25 January Revolution was an added factor in the spread of dog ownership in Egypt. The state of insecurity that followed the revolution made many think of owning dogs to protect them against attacks as security was lacking at the time. The growth of social media after the revolution also boosted the culture of volunteering and youth engagement with the public sphere. Some Egyptian young people used social media in promoting humanitarian issues instead of engaging in politics.
Voluntary groups interested in saving homeless animals emerged, such as Refk (mercy) established in October 2014 and aimed at rescuing homeless animals in Cairo and Giza. Its Facebook page currently has 164,570 likes and 384,149 followers and displays videos showing attempts to rescue homeless animals, especially dogs and cats.
However, these groups have faced criticism from their families on the grounds that more compassion should be directed to the poor instead of to animals. Rufia Tohami, a young volunteer and founder of a dog-rescue group, said on YouTube that their work was criticised on the grounds that caring for dogs was a luxury when poverty prevails, but she insisted that compassion was “indivisible” nonetheless.
The idea of volunteering to rescue the estimated 15 to 20 million street dogs in Egypt has recently been an issue of debate between government agencies on the one hand, who have to deal with an estimated 40,000 bites a year, and animal rights groups who oppose the culling of these dogs.
Dog-rescue groups thus seek to find sanctuaries for stray dogs, also offering them up for adoption. They argue that keeping the dogs alive could help balance local ecosystems by limiting the spread of rodents and snakes, especially in the desert cities. Defending street dogs has become a trend in Egypt over the last decade, and more NGOs have emerged to rescue them and raise public awareness.
The Egyptian Association for the Protection of Animal Rights, based in Giza, the Egyptian Association for Animal Aid and Assistance, based in Alexandria, and the Egyptian Association of Animal Friends are a few cases in point.
Some vets estimate that Egyptians now own some eight million pets, calculated at three million dogs and five million cats. This growing number of domestic pets has opened the door to their being turned into a business, and more and more stores now sell pet food and accessories. Facilities have grown up to produce the food, and there is a growing number of veterinary clinics to serve the growing population of pets. Some hotels have even been dedicated to dogs, such as the 60 Store Hotel in Nasr City.
The dog business has also grown on social media, with many applications now being available on smartphones, so much so that the market for dogs in Egypt is now the largest in the Middle East. Dogs can be seen being bought and sold in markets in poorer districts such as Al-Sayeda Aisha, while pet centres have grown up in the new cities and in the Delta and Upper Egyptian governorates as well as on Facebook.
According to CAPMAS, the pet food market in Egypt was worth $284.8 million in 2020, mostly consisting of dog food.
Moreover, legislation has been in the making to regulate pet ownership and curb violations. Some may own dogs for illegal purposes such as harassment, theft, or dog-fighting. Dogs may also provoke arguments between neighbours due to barking or frightening behaviour.
A draft law was discussed in parliament in March to protect animal rights in Egypt further as well as to regulate pet ownership. The law imposes fines on anyone harming pet animals. It prohibits owning dogs without a license and/or by those under the age of 16. Dogs must be muzzled in public spaces, and penalties are imposed on all those using dogs for improper purposes.
The paradoxical symbolism and practices of dog ownership, ranging from humanisation to commodification in Egypt, cannot be separated from the globalised culture of pets, also just as paradoxical.
While Egyptian politicians are relatively conservative towards dog ownership owing to their stereotypical demonisation in traditional Egyptian culture, politicians in foreign countries may use dogs for other purposes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been keen on involving dogs in his official meetings with the officials of other countries, probably to symbolise the power of Russia vis-à-vis the US and Europe. In the same vein, US presidents have always been keen on a political image that shows kindness and compassion towards animals and respects animal rights in an attempt to win over more voters. An estimated 65 per cent of Americans own at least a dog, and there are many animal rights organisations both inside and outside the US that contain many voters.
Former president Donald Trump was perhaps an exception to the rule of dog ownership. However, Trump was keen to honour the dog used by the US military in the assassination of Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2019. This gesture reflects a US and western culture that sometimes turns dogs into heroes, something also seen in Hollywood cinema where dogs are often portrayed as a “man’s best friend”.
The influence of humanised dog characters such as Scooby-Doo, Lassie, and others in US popular culture have been engraved in the minds of Hollywood audiences and have even crossed borders to be imitated by Bollywood and Arab productions.
Ironically, the same symbolic value attaching to dogs in films materialised in reality when the dog Loukanikos played a role in protecting protesters against the tear gas that the security forces had used to disperse a protest in Greece against government austerity policies in 2008. The dog was honoured as “Person of the Year” by the US Time magazine in 2011 and graffiti bearing the dog’s image covered the walls in Greece after the dog’s death in 2014.
Caring about dogs should remain in the balance whether in Egypt or other countries. Too much interest in animals may come at the expense of humans. In the West, there are fears that dedicating too much attention to dogs may decrease people’s interest in having a family and children due to the Western culture of individualism, as was noted by Roman Catholic Pope Francis in January 2022.
*The author is a researcher at Al-Ahram.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.