Shed No Tears for Palmyra

 

Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and King os Saudi Arabia in 1936

The Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and the King of Saudi Arabia in 1936 (1)

It is now certain that systematic destruction is regularly visited on the structures of Palmyra built by Romanized Arabs around the time of Christ. The immediate blame rests on the young men who haul in explosives and light the fuse. Some blame rests on Bashar Al Assad, who wished to rule Syria even if unable to protect its people and heritage. But many others should take a share of the blame as we are asked to shed tears for its destruction.

The young men who inflict the damage are mostly native sons, foot soldiers of the “Islamic State”, and fervent believers in its Wahabi ideology. They are the end product of two generations of proselytizing to redefine the face of Islam to be that of the narrower Wahabism. The proselytizing was generously bankrolled by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When a country is named after the patriarch of its Royal Family, it is natural to see the survival of the Nation and that of the Family as one and the same. The Family saw its survival as contingent on the support of the Wahabi clerics and spared no treasure to support their internal vision and external outreach. The United States was happy to support the Family’s ambitions for the better part of 80 years. These ambitions went beyond the Wahabi proselytizing to include opposition to all forms of republican, revolutionary and even liberal efforts. Thus the first modern revolutionary republic, and a bastion of liberalism, came to support the most absolute and retrograde of monarchies. The US sided with Saudi Arabia against the revolutionary republican Arab regimes, especially Egypt, in the 1960s. It aided Saudi ambitions to dominate the Afghan resistance and to wage war by proxy on the Shi’a republic of revolutionary Iran. The US sent its soldiers to shed blood for Saudi Arabia in 1990, and looked the other way when a dozen Saudi nationals participated in the murder of 3000 Americans on American soil. Today the Saudi military is fully engaged, not against ISIS on its northern borders, but against a ragtag group in Yemen for the sin of being Iran’s friends.  For laugh lines we have former General David Petraeus suggesting the use of one Wahabi set of extremists, who applaud and support attacks on the US, to fight the Islamic Republic. This is the Saudi approach, now echoing in the halls of Washington. General Petraeus is a much decorated officer, hailed for the Iraqi “Surge”, sold as the answer to stem the destruction of Iraq. In effect, we are seeing the repackaging of the Surge as substitute for policy or acceptance of indifference.

But a share of the blame must also be awarded to those outside the policy circles. To journalists; who regularly described Wahabi clerics as “austere” and “puritanical”, a happy euphemism for men who celebrate the basest of passions, men’s outright ownership of women’s bodies, and criminalize the higher passions, the things we know as Art, Music, Dance and Literature. To academics; who declared a time of “Spring” when the “moderate” Islamists will lead democracies. Never mind that their Egyptian leader saw fit to kiss the hand of the Saudi King in 1936, at the same moment the country became sovereign for the first time in two millenniums. To Think Tanks; who promote democracy ahead of liberalism, and employ men who celebrate “illiberal democracy” as good enough for the natives. To all of us who saw the narrowing crudeness of public discourse in the region as something to blame on others, run away from, or tolerate as intrinsic to the locals.

Beyond Palmyra there are many ancient monuments that dot the Levant and North Africa. They are all in some form of danger. The safest are, ironically enough, under the direct or indirect control of the Iranian regime or the military-led government of Egypt. The destruction of the statues of Bamyan and the sacking of Iraqi antiquities in 2003 were the opening shot in a new cultural war, literally. The global powers are barely able to articulate arguments, let alone formulate actions, to protect such heritage. So unless we are willing to traffic in empirical facts about cultural artifacts, we should save the tears shed for Palmyra. They will be needed for future destructions.

— Maged Atiya

1 Courtesy of the Middle East Institute


Sea of Misery

At the beginning of the Fourth Century CE the Roman Empire was at its zenith. It had reorganized successfully into two manageable halves, stood the pressure from the Persian Empire, acquired a new state religion and reworked its finances and public administration to a stellar state. Within a dozen years after that the Empire began to suffer serious stresses which would ultimately culminate in the loss of Thrace, Spain, Gaul and North Africa, accounting for considerable revenue, and eventually the complete collapse of its Western half.

Historians blame a series of “barbarian” invasions for this calamity. In fact, the ultimate cause was far away in Asia. The pastoral Huns were suffering serious ecological disruptions and their bloody and cruel raids pushed the Germanic nations across the Roman frontiers. These Germans were no “Barbarians”, they had been Romanized for generations, somewhat uneasily. It can be said they were facing their “struggle with modernity”, and as much as they wished to emulate the Roman ways, the Empire was neither ready to accept them fully nor reject them totally. Soon the river banks of central Europe began to teem with refugees wishing to cross into the Empire ahead of the predations of the Huns. The Empire had developed a coherent “immigration policy”, but it was designed for a different time and circumstances. It never expected to admit entire nations, accounting for tens of thousands of grown men and their families, altogether numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The Empire tinkered with the policy here, adjusted there, but ultimately it failed, most spectacularly at Adrianople, where the Roman Emperor Valens lost his life battling the Goths and Alans, who originally wanted refuge, but now had their eyes on grander prizes.

The Roman Empire never became aware of the causes of the human flood, at least not in time. Had it fully understood the crisis, most likely it would have sent a punishing expedition through its wealthier Eastern half into Asia to subdue the Huns, end their raids, and thus remedy the ultimate cause of the flood of migrants. The Empire did not lack for will, it lacked for communication.

It would be inaccurate to draw exact parallels between today’s Mediterranean and the Fourth Century Danube. Still the most prudent course of action for Europe is not to tempt fate and attempt a vigorous remedy for the causes that put millions on the move, many drowning in the sea of misery.  There is Libya, which the West aimed to democratize by airpower and now is in desperate need of no more than a few battalions to disarm the militia and put in place a functioning government. There is Syria, where inaction and moralizing has caused nearly half its people to take to the roads. But at the root of it are the wild men of the so-called Islamic State, a Performance Arts troop of cruelty and bigotry, fond of destroying all traces of civilization. In matters such as these, preemptive action is always difficult to justify, while inaction is always difficult to rectify. But the empirical facts are clear and brutal.  Dead bodies in trucks on the side of European roads. Floating lifejackets with no occupants on the Aegean sea. Entire families running across frontiers and fording rivers. The last scene would be instantly recognizable to a Roman limitanei 1700 years ago.

 

— Maged Atiya


Keyboard Wars in Egypt

When hundreds of fighters allied with the so-called Islamic State streamed into the Sinai border village of Sheikh Zwayd, there were few reporters to document the situation. The notorious murderousness of these men, as well as restrictions from the Egyptian government, had understandably depleted the pool of reporters there.  This did not stop the filing of many reports in the Western press, nor of many journalists taking to the social media to comment on the unobserved scene. A rare voice in this cacophony was that of Egypt historian Steven Cook who tweeted Egyptians are fighting the same group as the Iraqis, but without the help of sectarian death squads”, thus summarizing in a few words all that matters in this fight and in all the other fights raging in the region. The majority of the foreign press, however, were dusting up old stories of ISIS conquests and preparing to bulk-edit “Egyptian” for “Iraqi”.

We do not know all the details of what did occur during that fight. We do know that some things did not happen. The ISIS-affiliated group did not take over the town, nor was the Black Flag hoisted on government buildings. We also know that the conscripts of the Egyptian Army, clean-faced young men, the majority devout Muslims from rural or working-class backgrounds, did not ditch their uniforms and flee. That was a story worth reporting, but instead the majority of reports spoke of government repression, escalation of attacks since the removal of President Morsi, the alienation of young men, etc etc etc. All very important topics, but hardly breaking news. There was some reason for the Egyptian government to be miffed at this, but in typical fashion, it compounded the problem by attempting to shape the narrative and intimidate the reporters. It thus shifted the attention from the shortcomings of the reporting to that of its own.

Foreign reporting is a peculiar genre. Reporters have to both document facts and provide “context” for the readers back at home who might not be familiar with history and culture of the countries in question. Naturally all reporters come freighted with their own ideas and biases. The best among them will pierce through that fog. It is more complicated in Egypt, where a sense of injury and hyper-nationalism has made everyone behind a camera or a notebook seem like a dangerous spy. Some reporters go beyond writing to exhibit their biases and occasional holes of knowledge on social media. The reporters are suddenly the glaring sidebar, muddling the real story. But what is the real story here?

The story is by-now a familiar one, of identity fights and state collapse. Should Egypt succumb to these then all hell will break loose. But in managing to fend off terrorism using the instruments of the state, however creaky and clumsy, there is hope left. To build a democratic and prosperous state, you need to start with an actual state. This is an unsurprising statement, but one that occasioned an esteemed Western reporter to attack it as “conniving with the coup”. There is a loss of perspective here, a proverbial trees-for-forest confusion. A century ago Western powers put potentates in charge of states, more recently it has yanked potentates from them. Various actions, from the invasion of Iraq to the fall of Qaddafi, have adopted the attitude of change-regime-now-ask-questions-later. Egypt has been largely exempted from both processes, but Egyptians have honored the Western powers by impugning these actions to conspiracies rather than to fumbling. The rest is history in the making. Yes, the Egyptian state is ramshackle, and Egyptians need to place more effort than pride in it; but when faced with its dissolution, can they really be expected to join in? Reporters can not be expected to participate in this fight, and they can best refrain from doing so by sticking to the facts, and skip the “context”.

So to sum up a frustrating post. An unsolicited advice to the Egyptian government is to “chill out” To the Western press, I offer no advice. These are the things we hold sacred; that no government should muzzle the press, that no reader should believe newsprint blindly; that news is a product where the tires must be kicked, the fabric handled and the package sniffed; and that men, both wise and foolish, should await facts before filing reports.

— Maged Atiya


July 3 in Egypt – Two Years Later

Two years ago I wrote that the removal of President Morsi is as difficult to condone as it is to condemn. Events since then have not altered this judgment, even if the post reads with embarrassing naïve faith in the willingness of Egyptians to step from the edge.

The “difficult to condone” part is easy. The removal of Morsi was a violation of the rules, even if such things are sketchy and elastic in Egypt. It is also not a healthy development for Egyptian politics, pushing its politicians into more infantile behavior. Above all it is not healthy for the Army. Egypt is surrounded by chaos and collapsing states caused by the fall of the Arab order and outside meddling in it. The Army has a tough job defending the country, and it needs to be above the fray, not a partisan in its politics.

The “difficult to condemn” part is significantly harder. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the removal of Morsi has occasioned the violence that followed it. If true, then it is an implicit condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood. If false, then it is an equally implicit endorsement for the need to remove the inept Morsi. The reality is likely in-between and much arguing can ensue about its exact position. Some will argue that Egypt would have been in far worse shape had Morsi stayed in power, given the events around it. That argument can never be empirically proven and hence must be discarded. The real troubling aspect of all this comes from a different spectacle; the unraveling of Iraq. It is tempting to see no analogy at all between the fractious Iraq and the supposedly “real” and solid Egypt. Certainly there are major differences, but one must not fall too easily into believing the myth of Egyptian exceptionalism. All states, subjected to certain stresses, will falter in similar ways. The fact of the matter is that Iraq was ruled by an elected and hapless leader who had no political checks against his power. In the end he sank the state. With all collapsing about him he was ejected from power, not by a native force, but by the fiat of foreign leaders secure in capitals far away. But it was still too late.

These are the uncomfortable facts. It is the sadness of those who care about Egypt that there is no comfortable ground to stand on, and that any hope for an exit from this situation remains years away.

— Maged Atiya


Fouad Ajami – Reconsidered

The immediate aftermath of the passing of men and women prompts a summation of their contributions and achievements. Inevitably, as time passes, more nuanced evaluations set in. These are not always negative, but the best are well-rounded; as often what is missed is the best guide to what was accomplished.

The year since the passing of Fouad Ajami has not dimmed appreciation for his honesty, humanity and scholarship. He was a decent, learned and passionate man. For all the criticism he leveled at Arab culture, he refrained from becoming for the Arabs what Nietzsche was for the Europeans or Berdyczewski for the Jews; a man, in the words of the former, who “philosophizes with a hammer”. At heart, Ajami was a conservative, with little desire for the modernist approach to creation by deconstruction. But the power of negation is important (as Nietzsche’s comment reminds us), and in fact is central to progress. The Western modernists understood this, whether in arts or sciences. The best of them made negation a secondary component of creation, but did not shrink from its inevitability. But Ajami was not a modernizer, even if he wanted modernity for the Arabs. It is a paradox of our time, and his life, that many Arabs vilified Ajami, who wrote and spoke Arabic perfectly, and was culturally closer to the Arab heart, than his contemporary, Edward Said, who gave voice to Arab rage while remaining enigmatically closer to Western thought. In Ajami’s writing one can discern sadness, dangerously close to sentimentality, for the loss of the Arabs, of the once-mighty laid low. It is a measure of his fealty to Arab culture that he chose to practice its most common form, the art of elegiac eulogy.

Eulogy is a suspect art, especially when practiced outside the narrowest focus on men and women. As soon as one begins to write eulogies for cultures and ideas there is the temptation to traffic in nostalgia, which remains the Arabs’ opiate. At the heart of any eulogy is either pedagogy or exhortation; the former is nearly useless unless unnecessary, while the latter is dangerous when rarely heeded. In reading and re-reading Ajami, one stumbles on the eulogies, which sometimes take place of a simpler “good riddance”. Nowhere is this more visible than for his inexplicable love for Egypt.

The day Mubarak resigned, American media broadcast images of happy Egyptians roaming the streets cheering “Ahom, Ahom, Ahom, El Masreen Ahom” (Here come the Egyptians). Ajami beamed with happiness at these images, when others might have considered the declaration with some alarm. He had hung out with the likes of Naguib Mahfouz, Louis Awad, Milad Hanna, and Tahseen Bashir, absorbing Bashir’s refrain that “Egypt is a country while the Arabs are tribes with flags”. Ajami had nostalgia for an Egypt he imagined and loved, and rarely examined the myth created by such men. In valuing an integral, unique and eternal Egypt, Ajami was doing some transference for the “Arab Nation”. Ajami’s admiration for Egypt always seemed part-and-parcel of his desire to reform the Arab culture and improve the lot of the Arabs. There is little evidence that he considered the alternatives; that the Arab culture, such as it is, is beyond repair, and the “Arab Nation” is a farce written by second-rate pedagogues. He would not have approved of Salama Moussa’s desire to write colloquial Egyptian in Latin letters, nor of relegating Classical Arabic to dusty classrooms and favoring a multitude of tongues, as Latin had evolved in Europe.

In the end we still come away with respect and admiration for Ajami, but note that he was a mighty man who could lift a mighty hammer, but land it with the gentlest of blows. He believed that he can save the people by reforming their culture. Others might come away with a less sentimental conclusion; that it is best to save the people and damn everything else.

— Maged Atiya

 


The True Nakba -June 9 1967

For a few in Egypt who had access to external information, the June 5 1967 rapid success of Israel came as no surprise. The Jews had in less than two decades built a functioning state that acquired the underpinning of Western culture that many Egyptians envied. The claims and exhortation of “Voice of the Arabs” radio were hollow, and even for a young boy the Arabic language had acquired such a patina of empty bravado that it seemed less a native tongue than imposition by an evil step-mother. In any case, the evidence of defeat came rapidly with news that all military aircrafts around Cairo had been destroyed in less than one hour.

The true disaster began to unfold four days later as Nasser tendered his resignation in a short speech on Television. For a few minutes some imagined an escape under Zakaria Mohieddin; a silent man whom many in Egypt believed to be friendly to the West and hostile to the failing economic policies of the preceding few years. But those who listened closely to the speech heard a father’s assumption of responsibility for the failures of his children; a profoundly damaging and cruel sentence to inflict on those who worshipped him, and those who loved him, even when they feared him. It was also an effective one, for crowds rushed into the streets to demand the immediate return of the “Ra’is”. There has never been an evidence of orchestration on the part of Nasser, and Egypt’s trajectory since that day provides plenty of evidence that the reaction may have been genuine. But a genuine reaction is far more troubling than a coerced one. And indeed, subsequent history would reproduce its lamentable features.

We should note Rushdi Sa’id’s description of the 1967-1973 years as those of “Hope and Despair”. There were genuine openings and an attempt to bring the country together in a spirit of cooperation and “can-do”, but the presence of Nasser, and the “Free Officers”, at the helm meant that little of fundamental change could come to pass. The February revolution of 1968 was at attempt at genuine and liberal change, and it was snuffed out quickly by the wily Nasser who came to its aid as if he had not governed the country for 15 years.

There were bound to be introspection on “what went wrong”. The first, and probably least known, was a panel talk in early July 1967 at Cairo University, organized outside official supervision and thus sparsely attended. A professor of Engineering (later forced to emigrate) boldly suggested that the defeat had two underpinnings. First, Israel had a more educated population, skilled in science and technology which are the tools of modern warfare. Second, it effectively mobilized its population because they were free to voice their views and believed in the goal for which they might give up their lives. The myth of “little Israel” had blotted out the reality that on June 5 Israel had a fraction of the population but more troops, armor and aircrafts than the combined forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Both points were to make it to the official and social conscience, but in grotesquely corrupted forms.

The official propaganda in Egypt began a campaign of promotion of “Science and Technology”, as a quick magic potion to overcome the defeat. But few were willing, even if able, to assert that science rested on the pursuit of truth, and to promote it, one had to rid Egyptian education of lies. In fact, the opposite came to pass. Commentators claimed that Science was an Arab contribution that the West has since appropriated and now it was time to claim it back in “authentic” form. The Israelis, understandably cocky, strutted on the world stage aided by admiring Western press. The psychic damage was severe, leading to a claim that the West had a fundamental aversion to Arab progress and an innate desire to keep the “East” under heel. This flammable discourse had existed since the 1920s and the days of the “Eastern League “in Egypt. (As an aside, the virus having acquired a systematic vector would eventually jump its host to settle in Western discourse of “post-colonialism”) This handicap meant that even the rise of impressively educated technical elite would not rid the country of habits of thinking that anchor authoritarianism deep into the social structure. A prime case is that of Dr. Mohammad Morsi, an American-educated rocket scientist, politician, and briefly a President of the Republic, who would issue bizarre and clearly incorrect speculations with a straight face. Nor is he an exception. Among his opponents there are many (in the acid words of an Egyptian scientist) “back-street obscurantists”.

The second corruption was even more dangerous. The observation that in 1967 Israeli troops were more willing to die for their cause than the Arab troops was twisted horribly toward a culture of death rather than freedom. What the professor meant was that the average Israeli soldier was a citizen with a stake and a voice in his polity, while the Arab soldiers felt coerced, intimidated and ultimately not valued as either citizens or free men. The resurgence of political Islam post 1967 twisted this logic into building a desire to protect and die for Islam. It was but a short step to the grotesque and alien world of suicide vests and decapitation videos.

Many will correctly try to link the setback of June 5 1967 to the current disasters in the Arab world. The hinge remains June 9 1967, when reality, having shone a light on profound deficiency, caused a retreat to the comfort of myths and repose of death within them.

— Maged Atiya

 


Out of The Sudan

A woman died in Cairo in 1966, said to be 102. In the last years of her life she remained an attraction for boys and girls who overcame the young’s normal revulsion for the very old to listen to her tales. Although she regularly confused near events, she had a sharp and unvarying memory for those of her youth. The tale she told repeatedly was of how she traveled north to Egypt from her home in the Sudan. She described herself on a donkey, carrying a newborn baby, with her husband hurrying behind her on foot. The iconography of her tale should make us suspicious of its accuracy, and indeed it is unlikely to be exact. There must have been others in her party, including a younger sister who would give birth to this author’s maternal grandfather. The traveling party must have looked more like a refugee train than a Holy Family.

But the events are partly true. In 1884 a certain Englishman, Charles George (Chinese) Gordon was sent to the Sudan to organize the removal of civilians from the advancing army of the Mahdi’s religious extremists.  Gordon was the kind of man that only Victorian England, or Hollywood, could conjure. In his case, it was both; Charles Heston starred in Gordon’s bio-epic “Khartoum” in 1966, before he stripped to his undies in “Planet of the Apes”. Gordon did indeed fulfill one part of his charge and evacuated most of the civilians likely to be butchered before ignoring the remainder of his brief and remaining in Khartoum to organize a valiant defense. He was killed in 1885, just days before a procrastinating relief expedition was to arrive. We should not delve further into Gordon’s fascinating and fragmented psyche; he was part warrior, part peacemaker, part soldier of fortune, part fervent abolitionist, part mystical fundamentalist, part daring general, part moral busybody and part closeted Homosexual. But the events he participated in are useful to recall today. In 1966 they were considered to belong resolutely to a darker past, impossible to believe they would ever recur in other disguises. A half-century later the bare outline of a last defense against wild religious extremism and the hesitant response of a great Western power to eventual intervention, seem sadly familiar.

The woman who traveled north out of the Sudan was ethnically Egyptian. Her father had gone south to start a farm and prosper south of the Cataracts, near Omdurman. It remains unclear as to why he left his village near Esna. He was either in the initial wave of an ethnic cleansing campaign against Copts by Muhammad Ali’s son Abbas Helmi I, or he simply sought better farmland. The Abbas Helmi campaign, mostly forgotten now, never took off, thanks to Egyptian inefficiency and to the murder of Abbas by his courtiers who were terrified by his mad ways. But the fate of Christianity in Northern Sudan remains instructive. The evacuation of Khartoum did not end Christian presence in the Sudan. The Mehdi’s revolt died and although Egyptian Copts never came back in any significant numbers, there were missions from Egypt as well as Europe to revive the local Christian population. Things remained stable until the 1980s when the Islamist government in the Sudan began a campaign of coercion against local Christians. That was the opening shot in a policy of bad governance that would create humanitarian crises of vast dimensions and ultimately rip the Sudan asunder. Those of us who warned in the early 1980s that the Sudan’s persecution of Christians is a precursor to worse deeds were largely ignored. Although monies were raised and protests were lodged, little could be done to effectively help the local population there. The horrors of Darfur and the Sudanese civil wars could be glimpsed then, but absent stark evidence in human blood, or interest from glamorous celebrities, Western governments were largely as uninterested as Gladstone had been a century before. Intervention can never be wholly separated from imperialism and the White Man’s burden consists of both good intentions and self-interest.

Out of the Sudan come instructive lessons. First, that expectation of outside help for Christians harried by Muslim extremists is likely to end in disappointment.  Once religious zealots seize the reins of power, the best hope for Christians is that they find a home elsewhere, however difficult the journey. But there is an even more important lesson. The costs of cleansing Muslim-majority lands of Christians are also high for the Muslims in the population. Long after the Christians are gone new victims will be sought and the wretched ratchet will keep turning in on itself. The lessons of the Sudan maybe lost on many lands in the Near East, but at least in Egypt they should be heeded. The ugly practice of pushing Copts out of their homes to calm irrational mobs, and allow the police to snooze in peace, will likely prove a disaster in the long term  for everyone, including those who incite or join the mobs. These events should not be seen as merely harmful to Copts, but a prelude to Egypt’s descent into its version of the Sudanese maelstrom.

— Maged Atiya


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