Sykes-Picot II

The first President Bush asserted the right of the US to come to the defense of Kuwait when Iraq invaded it in 1990. His reasoning was simple and clear; the invasion was a violation of the Westphalian state order that has sustained sovereignty of nations since the 17th century. It would fall to his successors to violate this very same system under various pretexts. President Clinton ignored it under the “Right to Protect” in the Balkans. The second President Bush violated it to bring democracy to Iraq. President Obama violated it in Libya, also under the “Right to Protect” and in multitude of other places to hunt down terrorists who inflicted harm on US citizens.

President Putin of Russia has outdone all four American Presidents by emulating their contradictory actions within the space of two years; first under the pretext of protecting Russian ethnics in Crimea, and then under the pretext of protecting Syrian state sovereignty and persecuting a war on terrorists who harmed Russian citizens. Putin’s actions seem a burlesque of the American precedent only because of the authoritarian nature of the Russian system; but they are no more deadly and far less expensive. The point is that moral outrage is of little value here. The Levant has turned into a Minoan Labyrinth for great powers (US), former great powers (Russia) and shambling actors (Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia).

This could turn out very badly, even worse than the current chaos, unless good sense is retrieved quickly. The most rational outcome is some sort of imposed peace, respecting current borders, recognizing some spheres of influence, leaving certain undesirable actors, such as the so-called Islamic State, out in the cold, while respecting the interests of others. The US which has shown scant regard for national borders in the last decades needs a revamped policy that considers the desirable long term outcomes in the region. None of the regional or international actors are clean of hand or pure of heart, but proposing a hard-nosed solution may finally wrestle some relief for the suffering civilians. Anything else is a prelude to madness.

— Maged Atiya


In Praise of Sykes and Picot

The Sykes-Picot accord was a dastardly and wicked attempt by the colonial powers to divide the great Arab nation for their nefarious purposes”

Thus intoned the Fourth Grade Civics and History book widely used in Egypt throughout the 1960s. It would be more than two decades before one reader would begin to divine the nonsense therein. At its basic level the Anglo-French agreement created borders and recognized states to be ruled by Arab leaders for the first time in centuries. If these lines had not been drawn, it is likely that even smaller statelets or worse, mayhem, would have reigned. The reader with any doubt need look no further than current headlines about the bloodbath in the Levant.

The Arabs of the region would not have made a single unified nation had Sykes and Picot not made a few of them. And nothing really stopped them from uniting into larger units once the colonial powers departed two or three decades later. In fact, that departure occasioned the fragmentation of Lebanon, the descent of Syria and Iraq into despotism, and the laying bare of Arab lands for the grasping and meddling hands of the retrograde House of Ibn Saud, now rewarded with a Kingdom. Had oil not been discovered and made to fill its coffers that state would have collapsed as surely as the previous iterations of Wahabi Utopias. The current attempt at unification by the so-called Islamic State features a replica of Saudi Arabia, less the oil and the lavishly endowed royal family. It too will likely fail, by the usual means. Internal backstabbing among its leaders, corruption, and a fatal tendency to sell out to the highest bidder.

Today the Levant could do far worse than to restore the Sykes-Picot borders and create moderately repressive states within them. Far more likely there will be more, not less, states than Sykes and Picot imagined, and some of them will bring forth horrors on their inhabitants. So let us sing the praises of Sykes and Picot, two men who attempted to unify the Arabs, and failed not because they made too many states, but too few.
— Maged Atiya

The Failure Chorus

All societies come with problems; Egypt possesses many more of them than average. The author of this blog has called a few of them to light. Most of the glaring deficits, such as authoritarian governance, degraded public discourse, infantile politics, are symptoms of deeper ills which will take decades or longer to reform. Egypt, since the 1952 coup and the revival of the Islamists in 1970s, has forcibly “disappeared” many of its most serious thinkers and reformers, for they do not fit the views of the majority or the interests of the ruling elites. The process of rediscovering these voices and reigniting a long term effective social reform is by nature slow and painful, with many a reversal inevitable. The desired end result is societal, not merely political, reform. The worst outcome to be avoided, sometimes at painful costs, is state failure.

Still, humans yearn for a happy ending within the typical time constraints of a Hollywood movie. None more so that many outside observers and scholars who persuaded themselves, nay hung their reputations, on a tale of “Spring” and other such stuff. But Egypt stubbornly refused to follow the happy script. It is not a surprising outcome for many who observed the country and its struggles with its identity, the anchor chains of its history and the limitations of its resources. Rather than adjust the expectations, or revise the tale, many of the Scheherazades insist on finding alternate tales, with clear cut heroes and villains, well-identified moral lines and crisp recommendations for quick solutions. None of the recommendations frequently broadcast on editorial pages and social media will bring immediate relief to Egypt, nor a quick solution to its problems. Some might bring even greater suffering.

As the current regime consolidates its power, a vocal chorus has emerged. The voices within it rightly call out the regime  on its many errors, brutalities and occasional ineptness. They also pray for its collapse. It is unlikely, for a variety of reasons, that this “Failure Chorus” will contribute positively to a long-term positive outcome in Egypt.

First these voices do not criticize the regime in a manner likely to alter its behavior or provide a humane outcome in the many cases of injustices inflicted on specific individuals. Their eagerness to believe the worst of the regime often impairs their judgement, as tales from Egypt are never as straightforward as they appear. Surgeons normally use scalpels, as we must all agree.

Second, when these voices report on the current threats of terrorism and violence the tone teeters on the gleeful. They do not distinguish between those threats which are regional, and for which the regime of Morsi was ill prepared to deal with, and those that arise from his disaffected followers. Also, in the case of the latter, none of these voices ask if agents of this violence can be accepted as a future democratic force, and under what conditions. Instead, there is simply the sense that such violence is Egypt’s deserved lot for the sin of removing a dangerously hapless man from power grasped through deeply flawed political deals.

Third, these voices are constantly urging “punishment” for the regime, without articulating clearly if such punishment will alter its behavior or simply increase the suffering of the people. Such urgings exaggerate the power of outsiders, or more precisely of outsiders who are in broad agreement with this Failure Chorus.

Finally, these voices give little thought to the disaster that would afflict Egypt, and the world at large, should the Egyptian state fail, or should the Muslim Brotherhood, or a more virulent variant of it, acquires undisputed power through violence. No one with an iota of affection for Egyptians, generally or specifically, can see anything but horror in such outcome. This, more than anything else, renders the Failure Chorus suspect in the eyes of many Egyptians, and deaf even to its occasionally sensible recommendations.

The best way to deal with Egypt today is through understanding tempered with a cool detachment. When we gaze on Egypt we need to keep in our peripheral vision the bloody failures around it. The Failure Chorus, full of passion, is blinkered through selective focus and deafened by the voices raised in righteous indignation.


— Maged Atiya

Abu Borges El Masri

Someone penned a satirical letter pretending to be Mexico’s President apologizing to Egypt for the accidental killing of Mexican tourists by the Egyptian Army. Many Egyptian media outlets reported it as genuine. This event is remarkable only for its quotidian nature. It is in line with the behavior of many in the country, including its officials. When explaining events as diverse as the recent tragedy or the crash of EgyptAir flight 990, Egyptian officialdom often displays Saramago-like fictive skills.  One suspects that if Borges were alive today he would see in Egypt the greatest fiction he would have wished to write.

In the short story “The House of Asterion” Borges rewrote the myth of the Minotaur from the point of view of the monster. But Egypt today is that myth told from the point of view of the sacrificial victims. Ninety Million souls lost in a labyrinth of mirrors and reflections, tales and rumors, fiction and myth, with no prospect of a Theseus for the rescue.  Unlike the Greek tale, Egypt’s labyrinth has no Minotaur, or at least no single Minotaur.  The wanderers fall victim to their own fears. Those fears can assume any number of shapes. The labyrinth of mirrors features a multitude of Minotaurs. A heretical thought places a lost Daedalus, not King Mena, as the builder of Egypt.

This state of affairs is not new. The 1960s featured a Radio Ramadan serial called Scheherazade. It was an hour of tales that opened and closed with a musical theme from one of Nasser’s favorite composers, Rimsky-Korsakov. If one were young enough, and unschooled enough, the other 23 hours of programming seemed no different. Nasser, the consummate actor, held sway over an entire country by the sheer force of his tales. The Scheherazade serial was a sly comment on his tenure. The country eagerly awaited the next installment and held its occasionally murderous urges in check. All of Nasser’s successors were lesser actors. Sadat was a lesser talent and his performances were accordingly more contrived and theatrical; less natural. His remarkable September 5 1981 speech lost the tale, and presaged his end. Mubarak, a journeyman capable of one acting tic, lost his grip when he could no longer convincingly retell his tale of future woe.

Outsiders are not immune to this virus. Many fall for the tales of one or more of the various Egyptian personalities and factions and retell them in stentorian tones of high moral purpose. Fact-checking Egypt is sometimes akin to ploughing water, but it must be done. Still, one can hardly tell what is true or false in the tales of the “Zero Student”, or a Samira Ibrahim or a Mohamed Soltan. But the tales, like all tales, provide a moral, and one eagerly taken up by men and women of all stations in life. Journalists, policy makers, and intellectual tourists fall victim to even grander tales, much like the tourist who pays handsomely for a recently made ancient artifact. Try to convince the tourist of his error, which would destroy both his investment and his self-esteem, and you are likely to find defiance and anger. The most dangerous thing to possess in the Egypt-planet is a skeptical mind.

These observations admit no conclusion, offer no explanation, nor recommend any course of action. Egypt seems to muddle through with fictions laced with the occasional rude awakening. The country prays fervently to its God, and takes events, both positive and negative, interchangeably as omens and portents. We can hector it from the sideline, but to little effect. A friend asked “are you disillusioned with Egypt?”. The question has no answer; for how can there be disillusion with an affectionately held illusion.

— Maged Atiya

What is the matter with Egyptian Authoritarianism?

Authoritarianism, the default governance mode in Egypt, is always offered as a cure or a necessity, and with the pious declaration that the ruler has no interest in power, merely assuming the troubling mantle to serve his children. The most notable aspect of this observation is the sincerity of the declaration, and the willingness of many, including intellectuals, to go along with its fundamental reasoning. This is not historically unique; Raymond Aron noted that most European societies achieved modernization and prosperity under authoritarian governance. But Egyptian authoritarianism is a slightly different breed, having evolved in an environment where the country has been a province of other empires for millennia, and with a permanent separation between the state and the people,  as well as having a persistent poverty and cultural retardation that cannot be wholly explained given the country’s wealth in human resources. Egypt’s singular problem is underdevelopment, something that many recognize yet refuse to admit in a straightforward fashion. The persistence of authoritarianism, like the persistence of underdevelopment raises the question of why Egypt seemingly can’t escape either. The roots of authoritarianism are both cultural and economic, and of the two the latter is more amenable to a solution, and might ultimately influence the former in a positive fashion. And it is to the economic factors that must turn some attention.

The question of “What is the matter with Egypt?” is gaining some currency, no doubt due to the post-January 2011 disappointments. Egypt can’t seem to follow the bright and hopeful script written for it by others. The question echoes that of Thomas Frank’s book “What is the matter with Kansas?” where he argues that cultural and identity issues make Kansans vote against their economic interests. Kansas, weather aside, is a perfectly lovely place in spite of Frank’s valid concerns. The same question can be asked of many places, both functioning and broken, and largely reflects the questioner’s anxiety.  Yet there is a common thread between Kansas and Egypt in the transmutation of the economic struggle into other struggles. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in the 1930s that the abolition of property in the Soviet Union will simply move the inevitable human conflict from the economic to the far more dangerous political and cultural spheres. It is a profound observation that can easily be applied to an understanding of what ails Egypt. Egypt has transmuted its economic struggles into either nationalist or religious struggles. These struggles are fraternal twins bound to be occasional collaborators and frequent bitter enemies. To the eyes of its sons, and largely oppressed daughters, the poverty of Egypt was never a problem to be tackled head on in direct fashion, but a by-product of another larger phenomenon. It was due to the foreigners’ exploitation of the country (the nationalist narrative) or the West’s war on Islam (the religious narrative). Once a problem is made indirect and subsidiary to other less tangible issues it becomes that much more intractable.

There are plenty of demons that haunt Egypt, but no more so than most nations. Nativism, hyper-nationalism, authoritarian governance, religious chauvinism and bigotry are social ills not uncommon elsewhere. We can find reasons why these ills may retard economic development, yet Egypt’s economic underdevelopment remains a mystery especially when compared to other nations. In the 1850s Egypt was ahead of Japan by most measures, but within 50 years Japan had leapt into the forefront of economic and technological achievements, while Egypt stagnated. It can be said that Japan was at least as authoritarian, nativist and hyper-nationalistic as Egypt. Korea was a devastated mess in 1956, but within a decade it also leapt ahead of Egypt. It was governed by an Army elite, as least as repressive as Nasser’s core of Free Officers. Authoritarianism is less a cause of underdevelopment than its companion, both children of deeper ills.

Egypt experienced many waves of economic development, modernization and state building since the 1770s, with major roles played by foreigners, or more accurately foreign Egyptians, for mostly they took to the country even if at times they disliked it. Muhammad Ali imported them for his imperial project; Lord Cromer relied on them to administer Egypt for the British Empire, even while developing a cadre of native functionaries. The economic elite included a smattering of foreign-born Egyptians and many Egyptians who emulated foreign manners. To the average Egyptian, prosperity came to seem as a foreign trait. It was all too easy to conflate the desire for prosperity and social justice with the cry of “taking back Egypt”. This was a subtle component of ‘Urabi’s appeal in 1880s, the direct cry of the Egyptian revolution in 1919, and almost the entirety of Nasser’s economic plan in 1950s and 1960s. This nativism proved destructive in a world where prosperity and openness to global influences were increasingly intertwined. It also created a mindset where development is a by-product of restoring national greatness. Of course the very opposite is true. In many ways Egypt is a country shackled by its history. The desire to restore ancient greatness, whether of the Ancient Egyptians or the Muslim Empires, often detracts from a much more realizable goal; achieving a decent level of prosperity common to midsize countries. The myth of Egypt as an exceptional place, a grand edifice buried in the sands and needing restoration by its people is debilitating, forcing backward glances rather than a forward vision, and useless arguments about which heritage is worth restoring. The pursuit of greatness can detract from the simpler tasks of developing a country where the buildings are well-tended, the roads are safe, the trains stay on track, the ferries remain afloat, and the police does not habitually beat the citizens, or vice versa. Somehow, the slogan of “let us be as wealthy as Slovenia” does not resonate well in Egypt. The country seems to respond to leaders who ask it to bat for the fences while handing it a flimsy stick for the purpose.

Authoritarianism is harmful at an individual level, inflicting injustices and suffering on those who cross its path, willingly or accidentally. It is also harmful at a communal level, robbing the country of contrary voices that call out potential disasters in the making. Yet, few practical remedies are actually offered, beyond the obvious exhortation to be “more democratic and inclusive”. The trick of course is not to become democratic, but to remain so; especially when the competing political forces are fundamentally authoritarian. Inclusiveness sounds like a virtue, until subjected to a critical review of what exactly is being “included’ in the political mix. In Egypt’s case authoritarianism has become tied to a political and economic system (Statism) that leaves it the favorite among all other choices. “Statism”, or the belief that the State, not the society, is the ultimate manifestation of the nation, is endemic to Egyptian political thinking. Ultra-nationalists see it as the path to national greatness. Islamists see it as the way to create a more pious and godly society. Even revolutionaries see it as the way to foster social justice. As a result authoritarian governance seems to draw strength from both its supporters, through the promise of greatness, and its opponents, through the fear of chaos. This raises the question of whether there is a path out of this doleful loop.

Some months ago, at a breakfast with an Egyptian activist, he asked for advice on how to best alter the Egyptian state. I offered that if you do not like the state the choices are limited to two; leave the country, or build alternate structures away from the state that create just the set of social conditions he advocates with sincere passion. The second option is the most difficult, but perhaps most rewarding, as it will entail moral compromises and moral disillusions. Meeting a payroll or culling of the unproductive, can make a man or a woman quickly lose absolute faith in great ideals. That is the beginning of a healthy political system, where not all battles are for great causes, and not all losses are historical disasters. Sadly, the advice not only fell on deaf ears, but it encouraged the young man to see in his interlocutor a moral coward, a regime supporter, and a lifelong enemy.

There is a statement, attributed to famous editor and left-of-center intellectual, Hani Shukrallah, that “It is interesting that the dynamic of revolution and counter-revolution reduces social and political conflict to its bare bones, rendering it almost a moral struggle: between reason and idiocy, compassion and heartless cruelty, i.e. the best and the worst in human condition!”. Many in Egypt find this statement admirable, even righteous. To this author it encapsulates, in its Manichean and certain views, why Egyptian intellectuals have failed to create a democratic alternative. If you simply take out “revolution” and “counter-revolution” and substitute the cherished heaven and bogeymen of militant Islamism, or ultra-nationalism, the statement could have been uttered by any of their proponents. Egypt does not lack for intelligence, or courage, or moral certainly; it lacks for tolerance of diversity. Every opponent is not a detestable enemy, and every ally is not a paragon of virtue. The struggle between reason and idiocy, cruelty and compassion, is within every individual, and the recognition of moral fallibility and associated lack of certainty produces a profound distrust of such statements. In that lies the beginning of politics as a human endeavor to reconcile the needs of the many for the interest of the whole.

One must end this post on a note of hopeful pessimism. That Egypt will endure authoritarian governance, and its ills, until a new generation decides to develop the country in different ways. Unlike the previous generations of foreigners who took to the country, these are natives who withdraw from its conventions; becoming apostates to its visions of national greatness, public piety, and hysterical fears. They will seek to develop not the country, but its inhabitants, one soul at a time. They will not demand selflessness and sacrifice from the “people”, but promote self-interest moderated by concern for rules. Until then the country will be doomed to cherish the past, fear the present, and chart magical courses for the future.


— Maged Atiya

The Fall of Bashar

Dear Reader: Please indulge the author of this blog in a small Gedanken experiment.

By all indications Bashar Al Assad is running out of troops. In a civil war demography is king, and he is on the short end of that. True, Russia and Iran vowed never to let him fall, but in ambiguous terms. For Russia, a Bashar safe in a canton around Latakia is plenty good, for it assures it a long-desired Mediterranean naval base.  Iran wants to extend its sphere of influence and protect the Shi’a of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. None of these objectives require Bashar in Damascus.  When Bashar’s fall comes, it will be sudden and rapid. He will decamp to Latakia, followed by his clan and many refugees, some of whom might actually head out away from Syria. The fall of Bashar, like the receding tide, will expose the swimwear of all regional and international actors.

ISIS and Al-Qaeda units will rush to the south-north axis extending from Damascus to Homs, where they will be face-to-face with Hezbollah at the Lebanese border. Israel rightly regards Hezbollah, with its thousands of rockets, as a mortal threat. It will be tempted to see the circumstances as once-in-a-lifetime chance to end the threat, with ISIS as the anvil to the IDF hammer.  This may entail the destruction of Lebanon, and more refugees. Iran will not remain idle, but its capacity to project power outside its regional area is limited. It will most likely attempt to relieve Hezbollah by opening an Eastern front against ISIS, using its own units rather than the unreliable Iraqi Shi’a militias. ISIS has drawn a bull’s eye on the Hashemites of Jordan, but almost any course of action for Jordan will be a bad one. It is unthinkable to attack Israel, nor to side with Iran, nor to give succor to ISIS. Saudi Arabia, which could not tolerate Iranian allies at its distant southern border, will now have the Iranian army at its northern border, close to its oil fields. Will it give assistance to ISIS, which might initially be grateful but ultimately may decide to go for the whole Enchilada? Or will it launch a direct and catastrophic attack on Iranian troops. The Saudi royal family is a bit like the hedgehog, it knows one thing well, its survival. And of course there is Turkey. The bee in its bonnet is the Kurds. Will it resist the opportunity of chaos to set back their cause of independence by some steps?

Outside the region there are many powers with stakes in the outcome. Europe will shiver at the multiplication of refugees. Russia will have endless opportunities at mischief. The US will have a hard time deciding whether to remain on the sidelines or intervene, but on whose behalf exactly?  A Saudi-ISIS alliance, an Iranian anti-ISIS, anti-Israel effort, or simply against all?

The purpose of this grim mental experiment is to show that the only rational course of action, as well as the one with least suffering for people, is for all actors to arrive at a negotiated settlement for the Syrian conflict, respecting existing borders, and with the Jihadis as the odd man out, and hopefully quickly gone as well. Whether the bumbling regional powers and dazed world powers can arrive at this end remains to be seen.


— Maged Atiya

Of Teeming Refugees and Empty Towns

The City of Utica is nestled in Central New York State, away from main roads and seemingly in decline. But look further and listen closer and you will notice one of the main reasons Utica reversed seven decades of population decline beginning in the year 2000. Utica has a large population of Balkan emigrants, many settled there after the famous “Dayton Accord” that finally closed the book on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eight decades after its official demise. The events that started with the shooting of a Grand Duke seem to find their denouement thousands of miles away in an unlikely place.

The year 1918 saw the collapse of three Empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman. The last two are still in progress. The events in the Levant are a final echo (hopefully) of the Ottoman collapse. As always, the collapse of Empires is occasioned by much human suffering, wars for power that jostle men, women and children from their homes and send them as mendicants on roads. The latest wave is that of Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi refugees, escaping fighting, the predations of the “Islamic State” and the general collapse of their native states. Refugees are never the teeming, faceless mass they are often taken to be. Among them lurk all the individuality, promise and errors of humanity. This wave is no different. Their plight has created waves of outrage, as well as defensive anger, but little by way of helpful action. Germany has promised to take in a million refugees, roughly a tenth of the estimated number of displaced civilians. Another four millions are spread out on the borders of nearby states, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt; all states in a tenuous state. There is strong criticism of the wealthy Gulf states for not taking in refugees, but the criticism, however justified, glosses over significant issues and is unlikely to bring a change in course, or relief for the refugees. Europe, beyond Germany, is hesitant to absorb a massive wave of displaced persons at exactly the moment when its politics is nurturing noxious demagogues who traffic in fear of Muslims.  Some are seeing the refugee crisis as a chance to push for their favorite outcome in the Syria, insisting that it will only be solved by the removal of Assad. We should shed no tears for him, but his collapse will send waves of Christian and Alawite refugees out of Syria. It will also bring ISIS to the borders of Lebanon and a chance to try to practice its genocidal policies on its population of Shi’a and Christians. It takes little imagination to play out this scenario.

Forgotten in the storm of outrage is the role of the US. The US has accepted more refugees from the Balkans, where it had a minimal hand in its wars, than from the Levant where it meddled extensively. The collapse of Syria has many authors; its Mafia-like leadership; many Gulf States who are nominal US allies; the chaos in Iraq occasioned by the smash-and-democratize dreams of 2003; and Turkish fears of Kurdish nationalism. Historically the US has been one of the largest, if not the largest, recipient of immigrants. Some sought riches and some wanted a safe distance from their potential executioners. Most have found some immediate suspicion but ultimate acceptance. Although the US immigration policies are now captive to fierce and unprincipled debates, mostly regarding “South of the Border” immigrants, there remains space for decency and assumption of responsibility if the right leadership claims it. There will surely be the usual noise about the lack of resources to manage the new influx, or the fear that many Jihadists will sneak in with the immigrants. But immigrants bring in resources in the form of sweat equity in the national enterprise, and the Jihadist problem exists regardless of immigration policy.

What is advocated here may seem fanciful. Eager workers to fill rust belt cities that lost millions in population over many decades. It you think this is a dream, ask the Mayors of these towns and cities.

— Maged Atiya


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