It is likely that Nasser would never have lost an election in Egypt. Yet every referendum he every proposed or starred in had results that would be the envy of the six-sigma preachers of corporate America . The final figure always had a profusion of the digit “9″, as if the government printing press had no other digits at hand. The 1956 referendum was won by a margin of 99.9%, other referendums featured additional nines. Nasser wore his nines with elegance as he was always assured of the people’s love, less can be said about the garish and bloody imitators in the region.
Historians have generally accepted this as the expected behavior of dictators. Yet Nasser was hardly a vicious dictator in the mold of Saddam, for example. His power rested on a wide acceptance by many forces in Egypt, although with stiff resistance as well. Nor can it be said that it was born of his early association as a callow youth with various totalitarian groups in Egypt. He managed to outgrow all of these associations, and in time crack down on most of them. Also, we should note that this practice set the stage for other imitators (primarily Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt), who lived and governed differently and in different circumstances. There may yet be another explanation for that obsession with overwhelming and ridiculous winning margins.
Nasser may have realized early on the fragility of the Egyptian state. From the outside, the structure of the Egyptian state seems mighty and oppressive. But its oppression might owe less to might than weakness. He, and subsequent rulers, maybe have been in touch with the anarchist streak in the Egyptian soul (traffic patterns are the best hint there), and feared its eruptions. Anything less than an overwhelming, even silly, win might spark a protest that will quickly mushroom into outright rebellion. Subsequent history does not show them entirely wrong. In fact, stare long enough at the three nines and the current situation in Egypt becomes clearer. 2011 was the year that the brittleness of the seemingly mighty state was laid bare for all to see. 2012 was the year it became absolutely clear that the Muslim brotherhood sees elections as the means to acquire power, rather than the method for safely alternating it among different hands. Neither winning power by peaceful means nor losing it by extra-legal ones is likely to alter the Brotherhood view of governance as simply a means to repress and eliminate opponents. Pundits who talked knowingly of the “moderate Brotherhood” now intone about the “return of the regime”. 2013 is the year it also became clear that the “regime” can never return, as one of its components was the presence of the Brotherhood as peaceful and beaten opposition, useful to narrow the social and intellectual space and as a convenient patsy in the ring.
The notion of dissent as rebellion has taken hold in Egypt with dangerous consequences. It is not merely those in power that view dissent as a rebellion. More alarmingly, dissidents also see dissent as a means to overturn the political order. Much of the confusion in the reaction of Western observers to the current protest law lies in the different understanding of “dissent”. In a functioning liberal and plural system dissent is a means to alter the behavior, rather than affect the removal, of leaders. Yet listen to all factions in Egypt and you will see that dissent is seen as simply a way toward radical change of leaders and even rules. This sets a dangerous feedback loop of repression and dissent that must be broken in some fashion or a more open system can never be established in Egypt. The intellectual sphere in Egypt has narrowed considerably under the onslaught of religious fundamentalism and societal disrespect for differences. It is not surprising that in such an environment there is an obsession with total approval, for that indicates total control as well.
The best contribution toward stability in Egypt is to further the understanding that a regime is not illegitimate if it has the approval of only 51% of the people, or even if it has the approval of a minority. A regime is legitimate because it acquired power by the rules and maintains power by strict observation of these rules. The rules need to include respect for the natural rights of the individual and communal need for law and order. Until that understanding animates the politics of Egypt, look forward to further repressions fueled by the belief that anything short of total approval constitutes a loss of legitimacy. The 99.9% solution is Egypt’s millstone.
– Maged Atiya
There is a rich history of immigrant tales about the first Thanksgiving in America. It is never too much to add more. This tale dates to 1969 in the picture-perfect snowy Rockies.
The Thanksgiving menu, clipped from a newspaper, was spread on the kitchen table and the family hunched over it like the general staff of a beleaguered army. If one of the boys had doubts about the upcoming enterprise he did not voice them. There were reasons for skepticism, as Mother’s years of commanding others in the kitchen made her a Field Marshal bereft of troops to man the trenches, and ready to draft the entire family to her aid. The exoticism of the menu meant that she would fight on unfamiliar terrain. Turkey is not unknown in Egypt, but its name (Deek Roumi or Thracian Rooster*) hints at its less than fulsome acceptance by the population. It did not help that a frozen one was obtained late in the game, with its innards hard and solid inside it. The youngest boy was sat on a stool in the kitchen with a hair dryer to defrost it. For hours he pointed the dryer at the bird like a gun, staring at it with the grim determination of a hostage taker. There was a hearty debate as to whether yams, a favorite of the working-class fair goers in Egypt, should be included. In the end they were allowed reluctantly, but as a step-child largely ignored in the oven till they burned to a crisp. Cranberry sauce was attempted with the skill honed with handling chemistry sets, and occasional cherry bomb making. But in the last minute adults intervened adding more sugar to the tart brew which simply made it boil over in a volcanic eruption that left a Jackson Pollock on the kitchen wall. With things going badly, it was finally decided to fight with known tactics. A large tray of macaroni with Bechamel sauce was brought to the battle. One would like to credit this event as starting the peculiar practice of Egyptian immigrants serving baked macaroni at Thanksgiving. But it is possible that great minds arrive at the same end independently. The recommended desserts, Pumpkin and Pecan pie, were abandoned in favor of native Egyptian versions. The entire battle necessitated the presence of two large fans to clear the house of smoke.
The last part of the American menu featured a large family gathering, something exceedingly difficult to find at that moment and in that place. Finally a young doctor and his wife were obtained for the requisite role. Father would give detailed street directions on the phone, alerting them to the presence of black ice and snow mounds as it had snowed a couple of days before. He concluded by saying “we are the green house a few meters behind the Bar-Lev line of snow”. The couple arrived on time, their VW Beetle wheezing up the hill. The young wife took one look at the set table and began to cry. It reminded her of how much she missed her family. She spent the meal fighting back tears and discreetly blowing her nose at opportune moments. But before the meal can start, a long-distance call was placed to Egypt. These calls were arranged in advance then , and timed to last 3 minutes, hardly enough time for the copious Egyptian greetings. At the 2:59 mark the gruff voice of the male operator barged in yelling “kefaya ya effendi“. That was simply the occasion for Father’s show of power and diplomatic skill to stretch the call to nearly twice its length, enough time for all to yell their greetings and best wishes.
The meal came to an unexpected end. A few American acquaintances stopped in for dessert. They came bearing Pecan and Pumpkin pies, whose color and consistency made the Egyptians discreetly avoid them, at least until the next day when the first tentative forks started a lifetime of love with the native staples. But the Americans were not bashful. After a quick prayer, including a mention of the Latter Day Saints Church, they took heartily to the Egyptian desserts and polished them off. Their uninvited, but not unwelcome, arrival set the tone for how the strange new land will be made home.
– Maged Atiya
* Grateful to Hussein Omar for the correction.
John Kerry, a sober and thoughtful scion of American governance, could not have gauged the reaction to his comment that the “Muslim Brotherhood stole the Egyptian revolution”. In reality stealing this revolution is not grand theft, or even petty larceny, but the pick-pocketing of dreams and illusions. But if we are to draw attention to one theft we might go further and mention others, even if we can not hope to make more than a partial and paltry list.
Removing President Morsi from power is a theft of an election. But before his supporters smile with smug satisfaction, let us point out that he took his razor thin majority and his historic responsibility and fenced them for a favorable position for his friends and in-laws, collectively known as the Muslim Brotherhood. The sins of the first president of the second republic are small compared with those of the second president of the first republic. Nasser pocketed the affection and grand dreams of his countrymen to build a pyramid scheme of vanity. His predecessors were not innocent either. The political leaders of the “liberal age” gambled the hopes of Egyptians for a modern nation in a losing roulette against a variety of small bore fascists, both religious and otherwise. But the list of larcenous leaders would not be complete without mention of Khedive Ismael and his Gido, Muhammad Ali. Ismael stole the proceeds of the Suez canal, dug with the labor of Egyptians at the behest of clever Europeans, to build grand palaces with marbled floors and posh Opera houses with plush carpeting. These edifices would only be admired from afar by the vast majority of Egyptians, who could not dare to enter or despoil them with their perennially bare feet. Muhammad Ali stole the dreams of modernizing Egypt, and indeed possibly the entire region, to pay for his personal imperial project. Nor are leaders the only thieves in this history. Most of the intellectual leaders of Egypt wasted their time in frivolous disputes rather than present a workable vision to Egyptians in their cultural vernacular. The religious and social leaders took the honor bestowed on them by their fellows and followers and lost it in decades-long cowardly retreat against forces of ignorance and reaction. Arguably all of Egypt has mortgaged its promise to pay for its fears and insecurities. Even the act of making a catalog of these thefts is itself an act of theft; stealing time from more pleasurable pursuits in a vain attempt to draw the attention of those who no longer trouble themselves to read or bother to listen.
The majority of Egyptians like to think of Egypt as their mother. It is a proposition that grows dubious with trenchant analysis. But even if the myth is to be believed, the conclusion must be that Egypt is a bad mother, secreting the inexplicably deep love of her children and offering disappointment in return, sending many of them scurrying away from her sandpaper bosom.
– Maged Atiya
The authoritarian men who governed Egypt for the past few decades were a different breed from the deformed versions of neighboring countries. None were a Qaddafi or a Saddam. All tried to live with the pretense of following a constitutional order, albeit one tweaked for their needs. Even President Morsi, who declared himself above all laws, did so for a short period of time. There is something to be said for this history. It is a thin reed, but better than none, and it is a good start to build what Egypt needs, a system of rules and laws. “Democracy” is often mistaken for a desired end. But regular trips to the polling stations are of little value if the underlying constitutional order is rotten, as Iran has shown for nearly four decades. A good constitution will survive various trials that test the limits and deficiencies of democracy. The US is a perfect example. Machine politics chicanery and ugly racial politics did not subtract from the people’s affection for regular and unpredictable elections. The system is set up to slow down popular will. Even Presidents can assume office with a minority of votes. A well designed constitution gives spine to individual freedom and hope to the marginalized.
It is unfortunate that little attention is paid to the current “committee of 50″ attempting to alter the Egyptian constitution of 2012. The news from that chamber is not encouraging, although the final text has yet to emerge. It seems that even with Islamists in the minority, the secular “liberals” are fearful of offending them. They are reluctant to issue a full cry for a liberal order that can restore prosperity and stability. Instead, they are negotiating with themselves as to the level of obeisance to pay to the muddled theories that place religion in the bulls eye of politics. The past decades have seen a ratchet effect for a devolution of the Egyptian political order toward a poorly constructed theocracy. Piety, a virtue in the narrow confines of a man’s home, is a tedious and oppressive intrusion on the public sphere. What is needed is not slowing down the progress to a disastrous end, but a radical departure from what has not worked. If the committee continues to cave in on various articles, such as the lamentable 219, then it will be little remembered in history for anything beyond servility to the gun and cowardice in the face of the bigoted.
– Maged Atiya
The conventional wisdom, expressed in a deluge of articles, is that the US is losing influence fast in the region commonly known as the “Middle East”. Every once in a while conventional wisdom is right, but usually no more so than mere chance warrants. Surprisingly none of these articles examine the more relevant point, which is whether the countries in which the US is losing influence have themselves lost influence in Washington. This is the more important question, since the US will survive long past the anger of the region, while many of the countries in it will need the US for a variety of tasks, both mundane and profound. Mooning a major power always carries the risk of exposing an ugly side, or worse.
One can not come to the rescue of the US policy makers easily. They have often jumped to the dance floor with two left feet. On the other hand, what wisdom exists on this earth to make policy for a region suffering from a severe historical and cultural bi-polar disorder. The leaders of the region often seem to be auditioning for a Hollywood broad farce remake. Israel will cry bloody murder at the mere thought that someone might demand a modicum of civility in its policy. Turkey is led by tough men with thin skin and tender feelings. Saudi Arabia refused a Security Council seat and took to the fainting couch instead. Iran’s haggling holy men can hardly be called trustworthy. Syria’s name is now spoken with pain and a lowered gaze for the brutality its various factions have adopted in lieu of politics. Then there is Egypt, oh Egypt!
Most countries of the region have long ceased to make foreign policy for the benefits of their citizens and instead base their decisions on projections of fear, anger, hurt and spite. Asking the US to twist and turn at every gyration of these labile partners makes little sense. There is reality outside this ward, and it is that the US remains the eminent economic and military power, and much more importantly, the vital intellectual center of the world. It can wait out various psychotic episodes if it holds fast onto its guiding principles. Like Milton’s comfort in his dying light, the US policy will “also serve who only stand and wait”.
– Maged Atiya
To study the history of the 1952 coup in Egypt is to know what a near thing it was. But for the flutter of a few wings Nasser and the Free Officers would have earned a stint in jail followed by life as disgraced ex-officers, instead of ruling Egypt for decades. But the success of the coup created a template for power transition in the region and beyond. The recipe is easier than oven-baked popovers. An ambitious officer, some followers, tanks in the streets, and the ruler ushered out politely, or killed brutally, depending on the local customs. Nasser was for Middle East governance what Madonna is for pop music. He established new rules by brazenly breaking the old ones, even if he wholly lacked the requisite craftsmanship. A paranoid man to his very core, he set about establishing a new rule by coup-proofing his regime. And it worked. Sadat followed him in a constitutional manner and no backroom maneuvering by the military old guard would dislodge him, even with his knack for skydiving minus a parachute. Mubarak would take it even further by virtually eliminating the ability of the military to take exceptional steps in politics, and in so doing he would sleep walk through his last decade in power.
But a new coloring book for the transition of power in Egypt emerged, written not by officers or rulers, but by the Egyptian people themselves. A lovable lot who run their lives by the twin faiths in the benevolence of God and the healing power of chaos, they invented a “revolution”. In the waning days of January 2011 it was possible to see this emerging, and those who took pause were a minority, up against the bully pulpit of the media, US presidency, and academics who dubbed it “Arab Spring”. The pages of that book are easily numbered. Massive crowds in the streets, waving signs and flags, followed by tanks rolling, the military bowing to the will of the people by turning off the cell phone of the ruler and forcing him to sleep on the office couch. What follows is given high sounding names, such as “transition” and “road map”. Someone once remarked that God broke the mold after making the Egyptians. More likely it was the Egyptians who trampled it in their haste to show gratitude to their maker. What worked well in January 2011 would work equally well in June 2013, especially given that Morsi is far more hapless than Mubarak.
Is this the new “normal”? Perhaps. But it would be well for the doubters to voice their belief loudly now. To point out that democracy is not the objective, but the natural result of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism before democracy, or Egypt is condemned to an ugly cycle of chaos and repression.
It takes no great clairvoyance to predict the shape and outcome of President Morsi’s upcoming trial. The charges will be a variant of treason, a violation of the Egyptian state, and Dr. Morsi may wholeheartedly agree, for he sees that state as a monstrous violation of God’s law. The indication is that he will be his own lawyer, and the common witticism about the man who defends himself in court having a fool for a lawyer may not apply here. Dr. Morsi is likely to offer powerful words, which can be used equally to indict and defend him. The trial is invariably compared to the trial of former President Mubarak. But where Mubarak offered sneering silence, Morsi will offer a torrent of passionate words, probably at top decibel.
Anyone who hoped that Mubarak’s trial would be a moment of “truth and reconciliation” was disappointed. Egypt at the moment can’t handle the truth and is in no mood for reconciliation. Mubarak’s crimes were vague, for in truth he was no monstrous dictator, but a wily operator of the knobs offered to him by the state he inherited. He was, in the words of Fouad Ajami, a civil servant with the rank of “President”. If the only crimes Mubarak was guilty of were petty under the existing law, Morsi’s crimes maybe major only because of the lack of law. In reality, the one entity that should be on trial is Egypt, and the leaders who remade it in the last decades. Both Mubarak and Morsi are quotidian products of the system, and placing them in the dock clarifies little. A trial can be a excellent idea if used in the literal sense, as a forum to try out different ideas and views to enlighten and explain. But Morsi’s trial will be as muddled as Mubarak’s.
Lest we fall into despair, we should note something positive about the last three years. The possible emergence of a “third way” maybe seen in the millions of arguments conducted because of and in response to the “revolution”, usually in small forums. For decades Egypt has “covered up”, physically, morally and intellectually. We can only hope that it is finally ready for its Ham’s moment, this time in reverse, where Canaan’s curse is lifted by a recognition of the nakedness within.
– Maged Atiya