If you Google the phrase “Egyptian sectarianism” or some variant thereof, you are likely to get over a million hits. The narrative of Egyptian sectarianism is as popular as it is misleading. Egypt’s sectarian tensions are a manifestation of a deeper identity crisis. The key to understanding Egypt today, and possibly any future salvation, is in understanding its evolving bi-nationalism. The first half of the 20th century is often called the “liberal era” in Egypt, and Egypt today is shaped by the failures of that era, which was hardly “liberal”. The era generated the two currents that dominate Egypt today. The first, best known and most studied, is political Islamism; the attempt to infuse political discourse with religion. Yet there is a second, countervailing current of infusing religion with a national identity. This is a far less discussed current, yet as critical to Egypt as political Islamism. It is worth a slight detour to understand this current, one adopted largely, but not solely, by Copts.
A few months ago I watched a parish priest of an American Coptic church give a tour of the church building to some neighborhood leaders. He started with a summary common to most Copts, especially immigrants. His words, almost verbatim, were “ We American Copts are immigrants from Egypt. We follow the rites of the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church. We are modern people who never lost touch with our ancient roots, which go thousands of years back to the earliest history of the Nile valley”. These words are notable for what they emphasize and what they lightly skip over. Taken together they are a declaration of national identity as much as a religious one.
National identities are created and are constantly revised to reflect social and historical forces. What they provide is a mental template for each member of the nation to identify with others that will never be met; present, past and future. Any phrase that starts with “We [substitute any national identity here] are …” involves dearly held generalizations. How the Copts became a nation is a complex and winding story, linked closely with Egyptian history, their attempts to come to an uneasy peace with modernity, the tumultuous history of their Muslim brethrens in Egypt, the halting attempts to modernize Islam and the rejection of modernity by an influential fraction of Egyptian Muslims. To recognize this national identity is neither to praise it nor condemn it, but to attempt to come to terms with what exists. Identity is never exclusive as the many “hyphenated” people attest. And in a global world it is often possible to have multiple identities struggling to coexist within a single individual. But invariably in critical moments, when choices must be made, one identity will claim more loyalty than others.
In the 1850s the Copts were freed from the formal strictures of “dhimmitude” and let loose to face societal prejudice, both subtle and coarse, and the waves of Protestant missionaries who sought to convert them from their ancient ways. Some of these missionaries were well-meaning; others were the soft end of the colonial spear. Regardless, the Church saw them as a threat and made various attempts to change and modernize. The most powerful of these attempts, and the most successful, was the “Sunday School” movement. As its name indicates, it borrowed the Protestant concept of Sunday School instruction to reform the flock, purge the clergy of ignorance and venality and make the average Copt as literate as any Christian in his theology. Many of the leaders were remarkable men; well-educated, resourceful and dedicated. They joined monasteries and rose as Bishops until they finally took control of the Church. But the requirement of celibacy for Church leaders meant that many others worked on the periphery of the Church, contributing in other ways. These were men and women of varying skills and inclinations; some pious, some secular, and even a few non-believers. Yet they created the discipline of “Coptology” in the 20th Century along with many in the West. They researched languages, wrote histories, transcribed ancient hymns into modern musical notation, built museums and established institutes of learning. Consciously or otherwise they came to resemble the German intellectuals of the early 19th century who created German nationalism through literature, the arts and sciences. More than a few were educated abroad and had other “lives” before settling into their roles as Coptic intellectuals. They were driven by a combination of factors: the persistent discrimination against Copts by state and society, the rise of militant Islamism that saw no place for Copts in the body politic or even the nation, the rise and fall of Arabism which the Copts never bought into, and the failure of the Egyptian “liberal” nationalist movement of men such as Lutfi El Sayed, which, in spite of its emphasis on secularism, quickly adopted anti-Coptic views for electoral gains.
While the initial focus of the cultural renaissance was on a religious group, it quickly acquired a secular tinge. Some of that was simply the result of the long-standing tension between the clergy and laity within the Coptic community. But there were also other motivations. The secular intellectual Salama Moussa spoke in his autobiography of the shame he felt when he realized that he knows less about ancient Egyptian history than many Europeans. Similarly, many of these thinkers did not want the study of the Copts to be an entirely Western occupation. Others joined in the Western passion for studying and classifying cultures. Where Edward Said saw ill-intent in such efforts, calling them “Orientalism”, these intellectuals saw an opportunity and a way to hedge their cultural bets. This explains why the Copts’ attitude toward the West lacks the militancy of “Arabism” or “Islamism”, even when the British administrators of Egypt detested them or the West seemed indifferent to their concerns. Almost always these efforts made a common link with ancient Egyptian culture, entwining the Christian and Pagan strains in a single identity. Few Coptic demonstrations today fail to conjoin the Cross and the ancient Egyptian “Ankh”.
Any doubt that Copts are a “nation” today can be removed by a close observation of both the Church and the laity. The Coptic Church has a well-defined theology, which it guards jealously against syncretism. It is conservative, and as disapproving of agnosticism and atheism as any Church. Yet it does not make a point to force out those with less than firm faith, and lacks the desire, or perhaps the means, to enforce orthodoxy via coercive methods. Those who wear their faith lightly, or have none, can generally expect the Church to marry them, baptize their children in due course, and observe funeral services at the end of their lives, as long as decorum is observed. But beyond that, those lay people who have drifted from strict belief and observation of theology and practice still identify as Copts. Immigration, while trimming their numbers in Egypt, strengthened their national identity in the melting pots of North America and Australia.
Egypt has endured and enjoyed four elections in the last two years. A small cottage industry arose to interpret these results, almost always along the lines of “Islamists” vs. “non-Islamists” polarization. But there is simpler and more likely explanation. There are three basic blocks of Egyptian voters. The first block consists of those voters who adhere closely to the Egyptian identity, perhaps a quarter or a third of the voters, including all Copts. This block sees Egypt’s problems in a national sense and views religious harmony as both desirable and necessary. The second block is that of committed Islamists, also a quarter to a third of the vote. They view Egypt’s destiny in fulfilling the discourse of political Islam across national lines. They range from the mildly Islamists on the fringe of such movements as the Brotherhood to extreme Jihadists willing to join any fight anywhere where Islam is perceived to be under threat and parade in medieval garb in a willful act of self deracination. The third block, somewhere between a third and half of the voters are the “swing Egyptians”. The elections for the Parliament had the swing voters going overwhelmingly to the Islamists block because they offered a coherent-sounding program of pious prosperity. In the presidential final round the swing voters split between the Islamists and Egyptian blocks. Ahmed Shafiq was perhaps the least understood phenomena of post-revolution Egypt. Many pundits bayed for a “liberal” Egyptian alternative, one which is able to organize and put forth a popular program, and is neither Islamists nor “Mubarak”. Yet Egypt is unlikely to produce a liberal in the Western mold. Shafiq was as authentic a liberal as Egypt could produce at the moment and still manage to win elections. He has a track record of favoring open markets and open religious atmosphere. He was also a capable political organizer, delegating to a young campaign staff, and displayed the aging open-shirt masculinity that many in Egypt thought would bring order back to the unruly streets. When pitted against Morsi, the generic Brotherhood man, the battle was nearly a draw. Shafiq maybe history, but his campaign and tactics could be the future in Egypt.
Egypt lacks the economic prosperity and political openness to become a bi-national state such as Canada or Belgium. Dictatorial rule, by military or other entities such as the Brotherhood, will only aggravate and inflame the national identity crisis. The only way out is to fight a long and determined battle for the loyalty of the swing voters. Future elections may be close, but the trend lines could be dramatically radical. A few close wins by the Egyptians versus a few close wins by the Islamists will yield vastly different historical outcomes.
Ever since Napoleon, world powers saw Egypt as critical to their interests. The current world power, the United States, is no different. Its policy leaves a lot to be desired, however. The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli once quipped that “Chemistry is too hard for chemists”. Similarly, the US Egypt policy is too subtle for American diplomats. The policy has two faulty assumptions. First that buddying up to Islamists will moderate their behavior and make them friendly to the West. That assumption fails the empirical test as well as underestimating the degree to which Islamists are faithful to their Manichean ideology. The second faulty assumption is the belief that openly favoring any faction will tarnish it. This is an odd form of self-loathing, charming in waifs with guitars, but unseemly for a world power with unrivaled economic, cultural and military dominance. It is really very simple. The security of the world and the West is best served with the defeat of the trans-national Islamists in Egypt. Ditching these two assumptions will clarify and strengthen policy. Compared to other areas of concern, such as Syria or Iran, Egypt is not very complicated, at least if you recognize the existence of two Egypts rather than a single one.
- Maged Atiya
The US prospered in the relative isolation of a magnificent continent. When it began to assume its current role as a world power it did so with uneasy tension between its values and its interests. Such is the prickly perch of power. Egypt today is a happy exception in that the declared values of the United States coincide with its perceived interests. However, this coincidence seems to have escaped the attention of the current policy makers.
The US was silent while the Egyptian constitution was rushed through last fall. That constitution is a mediocre document, brined in ill-will, and put together by buffoonish men afflicted with bigotry both ancient and modern. But the bitter fruits of that document will haunt us for some time. As Americans we need to see that our government responds with clarity and strength, both to uphold our values and guard our interests.
The Egyptian constitution is designed to strangle the cultural and religious life of Christians (mostly Copts) , who will be expected to “know their place” in the new Egypt. One legal and effective means will be to charge any “uppity” Copt with “insulting Islam”. The victim can be hauled to prison and the dock on the mere testimony of a jealous neighbor, an aggrieved business partner, or even a student given a low mark. Even if freed after enduring the initial ordeal, the victim will have suffered enough to guarantee silence, and others will see an edifying spectacle, knowing that any expression of sympathy or strength will earn the attention of the state for “breathing while a Copt”. Even worse, a supporting position by any one else, or the the Church for that matter, can cause a riot sure to inflict collective punishment on many for the perceived misdemeanor of one.
We have seen that in the US before. It is called “Jim Crow”.
The US needs to respond forcefully to every single such incident. There should be expression of outrage and shaming of the authorities. Better yet, the US can offer asylum for such victims. There is little downside to this and plenty of upside. On the upside, the US will be identified with freedom and dignity, even among its critics. If the price of speaking out against the religious bigots is a one-way ticket to the US, then surely more and more people will speak out, to the improvement of both countries. The Egyptian authorities may complain privately about “interference”. That should be brushed with the wave of the hand. They might even warn ominously that it is “unproductive” as it may empower worse bigots to take over. Again, the US can remind them of the fate of Mubarak who similarly warned, and that there is a downside for the current rulers as well, the least of which maybe breaking bread with Mubarak in jail. If Egyptian authorities publicly complain about US “meddling” they will seem weak as there is little they can do given their current need for foreign support. In any case, bullies will respond to strength better than to weakness. We will be aligning our interests with those who support our values, with the clear recognition that the current bigots will eventually harm our interests as well as our values.
American Copts can assist by contacting their elected officials on every level, asking them to publicly acknowledge their support for the civil rights of Copts and liberal Muslims in Egypt and their disapproval of religious Jim Crow laws. Those on the left side of the aisle seem to need special attention.
There is no easy solution to Egyptian intolerance, but inaction is the worst possible response.
The Egyptian Church is the only apostolic church to have originated among gentiles and not among Jews who followed the path of Jesus. While the Copts’ New Testament is identical to that of all mainstream Christian churches, the church still has a distinct non-Pauline feel to it. The African church gave rise to many seminal figures of early Christianity, including Anthony, Athanasious, Cyril and of course Augustine. After the Arab invasions the African church vanished except for the Copts, who survived in their traditional homeland of the Nile valley, from the shores of Alexandria to the highlands of Ethiopia. When Christianity was introduced to the rest of Africa centuries later, it was by European missionaries. The Coptic church has been sending missions to Africa only in the last few decades, and with increasing success.
Across the Atlantic on the American continent, the Coptic church is entirely an immigrant story. There has been little outreach to the American community at large, or to African-Americans. As with most immigrant groups, Egyptians sought economic success and integration into the wider American society, and the struggle of African-Americans was distant to them. This is an odd situation given that African-Americans are both intensely religious and in constant search for African roots, especially connections to ancient Egypt. Black American churches have a wide range, from standard mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, to exclusively Black mainline churches (mostly Baptist) to tiny storefronts with self-appointed preachers.
It is high time that American Copts attempt an outreach to the mainline Black churches, at least on cultural and educational lines. There are many advantages to such outreach, both for American Copts and African-Americans. American Copts have always tried to highlight the plight of their Egyptian brethren, but with little impact on policy. Their participation in American policy is limited by their recent arrival and their history of second class citizenship in Egypt, which left permanent scars on their collective psyche. The participation, as such, is limited to a few sparse demonstrations outside the gates of power armed with homemade signs. Alarmingly, a few have drifted into the loony right wing with its odious brand of Islam-baiting. It is time to up their game.
An effective policy platform must be built quickly, and therefore not from scratch. The platform must be hewed from existing timber. One strain must appeal to hard-headed American interest. This is the strain that sees political Islamism as a threat to peace and Western values, and is largely right-of-center. But another equally powerful strain would be the American left, where the Copts’ struggle for equal citizenship will evoke echoes of the American civil rights struggle. The Black community’s struggle for civil rights had two strains, an angry separatist strain that favored confrontation with the wider community, and an integrationist strain that favored working with forces within the society at large to accomplish a peaceful and principled achievement of equal rights. The appeal must be to the integrationist strain that can recognize in the Egyptian church an authentic mainline version of Christianity with orthodox doctrine and deep connections to ancient Egypt. These two foundations will give Copts access to the halls of power with existing and effective lobbying channels.
In the final analysis American Copts need to sort out their priorities and loyalties. The first loyalty is to their adopted homeland; to seek an American policy that serves American interests and reflects American values. Their second loyalty is to their coreligionist in Egypt to provide succor and protection. Their third priority is to the world at large, to expose political Islamism as a modern aberration, a danger to world peace and above all to Islam itself. The outreach to the African-American community serves all these purposes.
This is a post about Egypt. However, a real-life story from America will illustrate its moral well. Just before the winter holidays in 2012 a young man walked into an elementary school in a pleasant and peaceful small town and shot more than two dozen children and teachers dead in their classrooms. America has one of the most permissive gun regulations, and people generally agreed that the horror of the tragedy will give momentum to push through more gun control laws. Surely no one who has heard of this massacre would object, and almost all Americans have heard of it. Surely those opposing gun control will be silenced by this event. But it was not so. The proponents of easy access to guns simply blamed the violence on too few guns. If teachers had been armed to the teeth, they argued, maybe the gunman would have been shot earlier in the rampage. It is an argument that leaves anyone with an ounce of sense gasping for air. But it does illustrate that for true believers no evidence is sufficient to change their minds. In fact, any event can be altered and seen in the light of their deeply held beliefs.
This brings us back to Egypt in a round-about way. The calamitous failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to govern or advance Egypt is clear enough. Perhaps this will decrease their popularity, or even discredit the idea of religiously tinged governance. Perhaps the average man will conclude that sensible liberals with a secular bent should be given a chance. But that is unlikely. The immediate result of the MB failure will likely be the empowerment of even more narrowly religious groups. If the MB failed it was perhaps due to its insufficient ardor in religious matters. Or perhaps it was too easy on critics and allowed too much leeway for “destructive” opinions. Events in of themselves do not discredit a governing elite. It is the existence of a successful alternative that does so. If the capitalist West did not exist in freedom and prosperity next to the Communist East it is doubtful that Communism would have collapsed. There would have been nothing for people to compare their conditions to and no alternative to adopt. Failure can continue to fail in ever downward cycles. Success is not merely the failure of failure but the arduous process of building and persuading.
Islamist rule in Egypt will not truly and finally fail unless the people are shown a clear alternative and a proven success. The Islamists will not simply concede defeat and leave power. They will always insist that their program is valid and simply needs an ever stricter enforcement. This leaves us with the tantalizing thought of how to offer an alternative Egypt, what its shape and development should be and what relationship it will have to the failing Egypt.
The Egyptians will not develop a new Egypt without leaders not afraid to imagine it.
Bassem Youssef hosts a popular satirical program (El Bernameg or “The Program”) on Egyptian television. When the Egyptian Prosecutor hauled him into court to answer charges of insulting the President and Islam he started a media circus that quickly pulled in the American satirical program “Daily Show”, the Muslim Brotherhood, its political party, the Egyptian President, the American Embassy and the US State Department. A seemingly minor affair is likely to have a major impact on a critical policy.
The US policy toward Egypt since January 25 2011 has been a makeshift affair, improvised and circumscribed by a desire for “responsible” statesmanship. It left the US seeming to be in a position of support for the Islamists parties in Egypt, especially the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It is doubtful that this is the intention of the policy. As often the case in the complex world of power politics, a minor affair can shed light on complex issues, even at the risk of oversimplification. There are many reasons why the “Bassem Affair” will alter US policy toward Egypt.
1- The MB overreacted. The bizarre, slightly deranged, response of the MB toward the US asserting its belief in freedom of speech comes on the heels of an equally bizarre statement against the rights of Women, seeming, among other things, to condone wife-beating as necessary to the health of society. A movement at the threshold of political power is now speaking its mind, and it is not pretty. The MB statements are truthful in affirming its core mission as social, its deeply-held beliefs as anti-modern, and its methods as coercive. The truth may set a man free, but freedom has made the MB truthful.
2- Americans laughed. In a few minutes of sharp and merciless comedy, Jon Stewart, the host of the “Daily Show”, lampooned Morsi as an oppressive buffoon. Millions of Americans get their political news from this show and are not likely to forget this episode when it comes to Egypt. Whatever the Brotherhood invested in its charm offensive in the US is now lost, and nothing short of a miraculous transformation of the tedious and rotund Morsi into a tolerant and svelte Mandela will alter this view.
3- The MB-friendly pundits chocked. The US academic community has grown a variety of Middle East “experts” reared on the leftish rhetoric of anti-colonialism. These have formed a phalanx of apologists for “moderate” political Islam, often tilting the balance of US policy, especially among Democrats. Anyone disagreeing with them (especially Egyptian or Egyptian-American liberals) is shunned as “right wing” or “intolerant”, or even “felool” (A thoroughly unEgyptian word). With this affair they are left speechless, many re-evaluating their youthful dalliances and indiscretions, much as leftist did in the 1930′s after the horrors of Stalin became obvious.
In short, we have two comedians to thank for what is likely to be a beneficial effect. As always, a few minutes of humor can cut through decades of obfuscation. To laugh is human, and is often the best defense against intolerance and pomposity.
The US foreign policy today is largely a reflection of the temperament of President Obama, a sensible man and a Harvard lawyer, who always tries to chart a middle course. This temperament is especially ill-suited to deal with the current situation in Egypt, and more specifically with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers possess the legendary Egyptian stubbornness in undiluted form. For Egyptians, stubbornness is both a virtue and a vice. For the Brothers it has been a survival mechanism. There is a common theme of alarm about the near collapse of the “state” in Egypt. The truth of such a possibility should not blind us to the more important imperative of seeking long term stability and prosperity for Egypt. The response from the US has been to propose a series of incremental and reasonable sounding measures to stave off the collapse. The Brothers see this as simply another tool to strengthen their grip on power. By refusing to enact any measures that might dilute their popularity but point the country toward long-term stability and progress, they are holding it hostage to further their political fortunes. Trying to meet the Brothers half-way is a fool’s errand.
The economic numbers are clear. In 2010, the last full year of Mubarak’s rule, Egyptian growth exceeded 7%. Since the revolution, under the guidance of the military first and then the Brotherhood, the growth has been less than 2%. The Brotherhood agenda is largely social. There is no clearer demonstration of that than their rapid and forceful response to the UN declaration on violence against women. Two years of economic collapse have elicited little from them beyond bleats about the “Nahda” project, while the possibility that women might not be subservient to autocratic patriarchs has unleashed their full roar. It is only fair that they be tagged with their failure. President Morsi campaigned on a promise of obtaining foreign investments from Qatar, Turkey and other “Islamic” sources of more than $200 Billion in his first four years. He should fulfill his promise, even partially, if accountability has any value in politics.
The second and equally important reality is that the Brothers are no democrats and have little interest in sharing power or achieving political consensus. That is their choice. Our choice, as Americans, should be to see to it that they leave power as rapidly as possible. There is the persistent fear that the alternative to the Brothers is a nastier regime. The US ignored Mubarak when he tried to play that card in January 2011, and should do so with the Brothers. The nastier regime will likely be terribly nasty for them as well, and that should be incentive enough to try to find a political accommodation out of the mess they created.
The failure of the Brotherhood is an important historic inflection point. They have wielded religion both as a cudgel and as a magic wand. It serves no one, most of all Egyptians, to ignore the reality of these false prophets.
Samira Ibrahim, the Egyptian activist, is being honored tomorrow along with 9 other women at the US State Department. The First Lady will be there. Given the flap over what she may have said on her Twitter account it might be useful for her to settle the issue with a few simple remarks, something along these lines will do.
“Thank you for honoring me today with this award. In recognizing me you are expressing faith in the future of my once great country, Egypt. I come today from an ancient land in the throes of a new revolution. My country has struggled with the effects of decades of misrule and centuries of stagnation. We have allowed our education to decay and our social discourse to grow crude and divisive in spite of our increased religiosity. I, like many other young Egyptians, have fallen into this trap at times. But it is never too late for any one to change. It is never too late for any woman to stand up for the rights of women and those who are religiously different. We can affirm the rights of the Palestinians without de-humanizing the Jews. We can denounce one crime without denying another.
I stand here with nine other women, nearly half of them are Muslims and almost all of them are not from the West. We all need to forge an authentic path to progress and prosperity, but we can do so without denying the brilliant contributions of the West. And above all we need to recognize that we will be at last free only when everyone of us is free at last”
The writer Alaa Al-Aswany finished many of his essays during the past decade with the phrase “Democracy is the Answer”, a play on the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the Answer”. In the last few days Al-Aswany came out in favor of boycotting the upcoming parliamentary election. Today, it seems, either democracy is not the answer or these particular elections, in his view, are not democracy. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood seems happy to promote polls as the answer. There is no parable here, just confusion. Politics in Egypt is slowly becoming a collective primal scream.
Democracy is neither an answer nor a system. Democracy is not even a tool. Modern democracy is an imperfect organism whose sole purpose is self-continuation. The purpose of practicing democracy is to insure continuation of democratic practice. We vote one set of bastards in so that we can vote them out sometime in the future. The same populace that votes for one set of economic and political ideas will eventually vote for their very opposite. And if this game continues long enough the sides eventually converge on some minimal set of core beliefs, often called “the center”.
Thomas Hobbes is the father of the modern state; the Isaac Newton of politics. He removed politics from the realm of theology and morality to the sober practice of rules and law. In his view governance is a mere contract between men who give up some of their “natural rights” in exchange for the protections inherent in a stable state. It is not divinely mandated, nor endowed with a divine purpose. Hobbes is the ultimate liberal; a man with no commitment to any system beyond one that guarantees men the maximum freedom possible in a stable and peaceable polity. Hobbes did not so much remove God and religion from politics as relegated them to an initial supporting role, then ushering them quickly off the stage. God gives man his inherent rights but quickly withdraws from the fray of politics.
Egypt has been struggling with modernity for two centuries. Its current tragedy is that its politics is now divided between two factions. On one side we have the pre-Hobbesians, otherwise known as “Political Islamists”. These are men with a purpose; applying God’s law to man. They have little interest in any iterative government, except as a temporary and tactical compromise. For them voting is a self-limiting tool to achieve their aims, after which it will become merely a way to choose different men to govern in identical ways. On the other side we see an incoherent collection of opponents unified only by what they oppose. Their reasons for opposing the pre-Hobbesians are so varied, and often contradictory, that it is essentially impossible for them to present a coherent platform of ideas. Of course, what is impossible is unlikely to happen. One can expect no clearly articulated plan from this opposition.
The chaos increased after the Islamists rammed through a constitution designed less to declare and protect the rights of man, than to obfuscate and circumscribe them. The opposition balked and dithered but presented no clear alternative. There was no declaration of ringing clarity to counter the rump constitution. Many have criticized the opposition for its vagueness of vision and lack of organization. There is no point in repeating these arguments, valid as they may be. The more relevant point is whether any amount of organization by the non-Islamist opposition can turn Egypt into a functioning democracy under the current circumstances.
The sadness of Egypt is in realizing that a robust coherent liberal opposition might in fact throw the country into further chaos. Khairat El Shater once said that all Egyptian law and political practice are “Western” deviations from Islam, imposed by “outsiders”. This is why, in a nutshell, worrying about the exact shape of “democratic” elections is besides the point. The competition is not between two visions for Egypt, but between two Egypts. The sooner this painful truth sinks in, the sooner Egyptians can make a choice. But it will be painful.
Modernity is the Answer.
There is plenty of criticism of President Morsi, and almost all of it deserved. Yet it all has the air of charging a lethal drunk driver with jay walking. The massive economic ills are blamed on the “revolution” and almost never on his inept leadership. This ignores the fundamental fact that growth in 2010 was 3-4 times the current growth, and in a worse global environment. Egypt’s economic problems are not ordained to be insoluble.
The collapse of the currency is not due solely to the large Current Account imbalance, but also, perhaps mostly, to the large capital outflow. That can be partly blamed on the revolution and the consequent instability. But all evidence points to an increase in the outflow since last year. More importantly, Morsi built his campaign on improving the economy by moving away from the “ills of the felool”. He even rammed through a sorry constitution by dubious means for the purely tactical goal of improving the foreign reserves. Those who had the stomach to listen to his loudly barked campaign speeches will recall that he promised a net capital inflow of $200 Billion dollars over his first term, or $50 Billion annually. Of course nothing of the sort happened. He did manage a few crumbs from his ally Qatar.
In fact, almost all of Morsi’s lurches and gyrations have had the opposite effect of increasing economic instability and hence capital outflow. Almost no attention is given to his promise; how economically illiterate it was to make it, and how inevitable that it was not kept. This, more than his gyrations into light-weight autocracy and general Ikhwan-coddling, represents the serious and present danger to Egypt and the breaking of his oath of office, reluctantly taken as it was. His appointments did little to increase confidence and hence willingness to invest in Egypt. His Prime Minister is a decent man who can only be described as “Ragel Ghalban”, with hardly any steel to make tough decisions. The recently appointed Finance Minister, Dr. Morsy Hegazy, surely “knows God”, but shows little familiarity with economic principles. With such a lot at the wheelhouse, any sensible man would reach for the life preservers.
The Egyptian opposition awaits for its version of James Carville. A country boy from Upper Egypt who can coin the native and catchy version of the “It’s the economy stupid”.
Steven Cook, one of the best Western historians of modern Egypt, advances the argument that “Egypt is too big to fail” (Is Egypt Too Big To Fail?). It is a solid argument buttressed by many facts. It does ignore, however, that when nations come to the aid of another it is often for both practical and sentimental reasons. The US assisted England in the early years World War II, prior to its own entry, for reasons of Anglo-Saxon cultural affinity. Similarly the US support for Israel, a difficult ally at best, rests on a strong emotional foundation.
The new Egyptian constitution summarizes the current identity crisis of the country. It seems that there are three Egypts all jostling for the loyalty of the Egyptians. There is the “essential Egypt”, the “Arab Egypt” and the “Muslim Egypt”. In short, Egypt, the Arab Republic of Egypt, and the Islamic Republic of Egypt. It is possible that the assistance to Egypt will depend on which Egypt emerges from this current torment. The Islamic Republic of Egypt may get some assistance from Qatar, although not likely from other Gulf states, or many other Islamic states for that matter. It is unlikely that the Arab Republic of Egypt will get much assistance from the Arabs, as the sad denouement of Nasser shows us. These scenarios are all subject to debate. One thing is certain, the West will not rush to prop up a pseudo-Caliphate or a zealous Arab nation. Global, and in particular Western, emotional attachment is to Ancient Egypt, and one that they imagine will emerge into a liberal nation. That Egypt closely resembles the familiar templates in the Western mind. When the West cheered the crowds at Tahrir Square in 2011, it was because they closely resembled the “right” version of Egypt, never mind the underlying facts and prospects of the revolution.
The reality, of course, is that there is no single Egyptian identity. But the popular passion and support necessary to garner large scale investment in another country relies almost entirely on vague emotional attachments, not reasoned debate. Part of the recent Western interest in Egyptian Copts (prickly Egyptian to the core) is their Christian roots and their attachment to Pharaonic heritage. Egyptology, for its first century, was a Western creation, from Fourier to Champollion to Maspero to Carter, and it still retains a certain resonance in the West. The West may aid Egypt in small or large ways, but it will depend on which version of Egypt the current rulers will project to the world.
Steven Cook is right to criticize “misplaced arrogance”. A century and half ago, Khedive Ismael foolishly proclaimed Egypt to be part of Europe. It was a vanity project unmoored from the reality and lacking in any foundation of a modern state. It was as un-authentically Egyptian as the concurrent Meiji restoration was authentically Japanese. One came to grief very quickly and one succeeded spectacularly. A residue of Ismael’s failed project and its humiliation remains in the Egyptian psyche. The West has grown wary of Imperialism and will not likely attempt a repeat of the 1876 scenario. But it could also let Egypt limp by as a semi-failed state, as long as the chaos is contained. The one sure way out is for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands and not wait for assistance, or at least motivate the right kind of assistance. The Egyptian identity crisis is not mere teenage angst, it is a serious business with real consequences to the Egyptians.