The last century in Egyptian history is book-ended by the dual revolutions of 1919 and 2011. The first had its cry of “Egypt for the Egyptians” and the second had a subtle variation on that “The Egyptians are here”. It is universally accepted that Egypt is the oldest nation state and has one of the most clearly delineated national characters.
Identity is rarely well-defined except in the dull instances where it is of trivial consequence. But Egyptian identity seems particularly slippery at the moment, perhaps because it is coming under repeated assaults. Since the rise of political Islam in the 1940′s, the definition of an Egyptian has been constructed ever more narrowly. First it was Jews, both Egyptian and Ottoman, whose ancestors in one case have lived in Egypt for centuries and in the other for decades, that were declared “UnEgyptian”. Such a declaration, as cruel as it was erroneous, was justified on the grounds of threats from Israel. Then the motley collection of other ethnic groups who have made Egypt their home for centuries were also declared “UnEgyptian”. The Ottoman Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Levantines were are suddenly bereft of the Egyptian identity. Such narrowing, once begun, can only draw ever narrower. Soon Copts, secular Muslims and other sympathizers will lose their citizenship. In the end “Egypt” will be entirely erased. The country will be defined as some vague outpost of the “Arab nation” or the “Muslim Ummah”. Those that pushed out their kin in the interest of faith will find no kinship with those sharing only a faith. All that will be left is the sad spectacle of former Egyptians waving an ancient black flag, dressed as Saudis, hoping for a handout from Qataris and claiming to have a Turkish economy. The memory of loss will remain with a few, but for the majority there is only the loss of memory.
If there is hope it will be in Egypt’s remarkable capacity to absorb invaders and turn them into Egyptians. Invaders walked like Egyptians long before the Bangles urged them to do so. Perhaps they were enticed by the fleeting but intense reverence Egyptians have for their rulers, or maybe it was just cool to be an Egyptian. Whatever the reason, they all did it; the rustic Macedonians, the worldly Romans, even the pious Fatimids. History records that of all the people who crossed into Egypt through the soft underbelly of the Sinai, only one wished to leave voluntarily. Ironically, the Jews still choose the Sinai as the stage upon which they received their laws, suffered their punishments and, centuries later, perfected their tans. So perhaps this moment is a temporary insanity brought on by a narrow cult, and in time the “Arab Islamic Republic of Egypt”, will shed the fetters of these identities preferring the more maternally embracing “Egypt”.
Sometime in the late 1950′s an idea came to one of the functionaries of the Egyptian government to offer special birthday celebrations to those boys born on July 23 1952. Those “Sons of the Revolution” were special indeed. It is not clear where the idea came from, perhaps the author read something about the “New Man” of Marxism, or perhaps he was just trying to get in the good graces of Nasser and his coterie. The events were celebrated for nearly a decade. In the early 1960′s they reflected Egypt’s fading cosmopolitan air and the remnants of prosperity not killed off by Nasser’s “Arab Socialism” and bungled central state planning. But as the years wore on the celebrations took on a decidedly shabby air. The last such event, to this author’s knowledge, took place in July 1967. It was a heart-breaking affair at the Rivoli cinema. Outside the doors lay bags of sand that had been placed there in early June, prior to the war. The bags had begun to rot and sand piled up in forlorn puddles. Someone had started to build a blast wall of bricks, but must have just given up or run out of bricks, so all that was left was a waist-high wall of irregular bricks and protruding mortar. It all seemed like an apt metaphor for a country once promised greatness but ruled by ineptitude. The boys of 1967, barely into their teens then, are men now, most nearing their retirement. It must be heart breaking for them to contemplate the ruin that the 1952 “revolution” made of their lives and their country.
There is an apocryphal tale favored by many Copts. It retells a supposed meeting between the Coptic Pope and a Russian Count, an emissary of the Tsar, in the 1850′s during the Crimean war when Russia was keen to outflank the Ottoman empire. The Count offers the Pope the Tsar’s protection for the Copts in exchange for loyalty to the Russian Church. The Pope asks the Count “and who protects the Tsar?”. The Count, as expected, replies, “God, of course”. The Pope concludes the meeting by saying that “We Copts prefer to cut out the middle man and seek God’s protection directly”.
Something like this was probably behind the refusal of many Coptic leaders to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While fetid allegations swirl about secret deals between the US and the MB, the chances are that serious Copts do not believe this nonsense. It was a smart decision not to been seen as seeking a foreigner’s help against their fellow Egyptians. The meeting would have seemed exceedingly sectarian. The Copts needed to give no cover to US politicians wishing to appear concerned about their fate. That concern, laudable as it maybe, is not likely to materialize in much action beyond polite bleating, should things turn nasty for the Copts.
Better to take their chances with their fellow Egyptians, including those in the Islamist camp. Even if many of those are fond of mixing bitter intent with honeyed words.
A recent post in this blog about why Copts leave Egypt (Why Do Copts Leave? ) elicited many excellent comments. Many were along the line “the author is an American Copt”, which is of course true. A few days later Joseph Fahim wrote an astute and passionate column “Not My President“ , in which he describes his experience as an Egyptian Copt at the pole end of a large Egyptian-American family of Copts. In essence, Fahim finds his extended family sympathetic but a bit clueless. He understands their fears, respects the reasons why they left Egypt but insists, or hopes, that their current state of fear will prove unfounded. He hopes that Egyptians have changed permanently and that they, and he, will never allow the Mubarak oppression to rise again in any form.
Most sensible non-Egyptian Copts fear the physical destruction of the community less than they fear its long term decline into cultural torpor and loss of identity and vigor. The events of the last 18 months in Egypt can be taken in many ways. But for those who suffered discrimination, large and small, in Egypt and have found the US far more embracing, the arrow has but one direction. The Muslim Brotherhood is a closed, cult-like organization. Its upper echelon is inter-related by blood and marriage. Its lower echelon, once firmly joined, risks loss of jobs and friends if they voice any criticism. The closest American analogy would be Scientology. Once Sadat relaxed the vigil against Islamists, they began to take over corners of the Egyptian culture and society. Entire University departments, professional syndicates and other organizations became MB-only bastions. As avenues in the society-at-large closed off, Copts left or became insular. The rise of the MB is the proverbial slow boiling of the frog. More lower state positions will now be MB zones. The “signifying” will be clear and unequivocal. Trimmed beards and Zebibas will be as critical for advancement as competence. The fight will slowly extend to all corners of society. Starting or maintaining a business will be difficult for Copts, as the customers and contracts will mysteriously evaporate. State jobs will become scarce. Perhaps a few exceptional individuals or families will do well, but the majority will find the walls closing in. And if the MB finally takes over the police and army, as the next battles are shaping to be, then the social threats will take on a more menacing aspect.
We have seen this before. In the 14th century, the Mameluke rulers of Egypt were eager for legitimacy of their rule, which they sought in narrow religious terms. They imported some sorry ideas from Europe, including pogroms. Gangs of ”Brotherhood” members attacked Copts and looted and killed with abandon. Finally an implicit agreement was made with the rulers. Coptic communities were allowed to decay in many places. A few Copts did well by working for the ruler and bought some protection for the community. But in general Copts sank to a state of cultural and physical decline. No one seemed to notice that the decline of the Copts was also the decline of Egypt. Coptic fortunes are invariably a barometer of the country at large.
History is not an improvement machine. Things can go bad very quickly and sometimes irrevocably. Those who say that things are different now because of better communication and attention of the world are missing the point. There will be no spectacles of oppression that draw the attention of the fickle Western media. A slow strangulation will set in, and every complaint will be balanced with a more favorable view of what the Islamists are doing. The cultural changes seen since the late 1970′s in Egypt will simply accelerate and have state legitimacy.
Still one hopes that the word from America will not be “I told you so”, but “I am glad I was wrong” .. perhaps.
This piece was originally published in The Telegraph
I hope you find it interesting and I look forward to read your comments and feedback
With Hosni Mubarak no longer in power, it seems inevitable that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel will be scrutinised in the public domain. Mohammed Morsi’s victory in the presidential election has triggered both fear and speculation regarding the future of the Camp David peace treaty.
Since 1952 Egypt has had five presidents, or for a better analogy, husbands. The first, Muhammad Naguib, was kindly and avuncular and disappeared quickly when the more dashing Nasser made his final move. Nasser maybe the one she loves most, a heart-stirring rake whose adventures were exciting but ultimately left the cupboard bare and the children ill-clothed. Sadat was the theatrical follow-up who turned angry when his earnest desire to feed the family only won him degrading comparisons with his irresponsible predecessor. In any case, one day he never came home after getting killed in a street fight with a bunch of thugs he once thought were friends. With the third husband dead, Egypt was growing tired and homely and settled for a stable man, an unimaginative clod whose dullness and sneering indifference were punctuated with bouts of domestic abuse. If he grew rich, those riches did not result in a better life for the family. He mixed a domineering attitude with patriarchal arrogance and self-pity. Eventually the beaten children gave him the boot.
And now she has a fifth husband. A provincial man of small stature who flatters her current homeliness and promises stable prosperity. But he comes from a family with a history of violence. Her children from the earlier marriages are deeply suspicious of him. To the more worldly ones he is an embarrassment, to the more martial ones he is a threat.
She is trying hard to put the best spin on him. She endows him with imaginary gifts spun of her insecurities rather than of his talents. Yet you suspect,or hope, that she looks in the mirror and thinks “I do not have to settle for this. I am not what I seem now. Perhaps I can do better.”