The Gaza conflict of 2014 and the clearing of the Rab’a Al Adawiya encampment in 2013 may seem to have little in common. In fact, a comparison of the two events, without belaboring the analogy, can give insight into the current torment in the region.
The first thing we notice is the utter disregard for life on all sides. Life in today’s Middle East is cheap; few regard the death of friends or opponents as cause for pause. Let us pause at this thought and leave it at that.
Beyond that, both events share a wide mismatch between goals and means. A six-week fetid gathering in a Cairo square was no more likely to bring President Morsi back to office than Hamas’ feeble rockets are to bring down Israel or establish a Palestinian state. The Egyptian security forces blunt and brutal clearing of the square is as effective in swaying the Brotherhood as Israel’s attacks in altering Gazan perceptions.
Both events feature cynical leaders who put their followers in harm’s way for purely political or even organizational goals. Did the Brotherhood leaders not know of the habitual use of force by Egyptian police, or of the long standing animosity among them toward the Brotherhood? Did Hamas think that placing rockets in the middle of civilian facilities will tie Israel’s hands? The reader can guess both answers easily.
Then there is the wide-spread habitual mendacity. Hamas labels its stand “resistance”, while the Brotherhood claimed the sit-in was for “legitimacy”. Of course, Hamas has its first and foremost goal the survival of its organization and the spread of its ideology. The Brotherhood wanted to grab the Egyptian state and use it for its ideological ends; “legitimacy” be damned.
Both events also feature brave words and foolish actions that can easily backfire. Some of the participants in Rab’a carried improvised or antiquated weapons, not enough to repel an attack by security forces, but enough to give them cause. Similarly, Hamas’s rockets are just enough to feed the perception that Israel needs to “deal” with the threat, but not come to terms with its root issues.
Both summers saw attempts by outsiders to “mediate” the conflict. Some were well-meaning, others foolish, and more than a few self-important. None saw that mediation was pointless as both sides wanted conflict. There is a conviction, especially in the West, that peace makers are blessed even when they are demonstrably useless and foolish.
The reaction of “spectators” was similar in both cases. Many found the suffering to be in a good cause, or justified the killing as something nobler than bloodletting. Even governments engaged in the pornography of publicizing images of death and suffering.
We are, in the end, left with death and noise amid spectacular and wide-spread refusal to accept reality or even causality. We are in the dreamland of nightmares. Neither kinship nor affection can make us forgive those who wear their errors as medals.
– Maged Atiya
In July 1946, almost exactly 68 years ago, the authoritarian government of Isma’il Sidqi ordered the arrest of the Egyptian Intellectual Salama Moussa. Almost 60, he endured two weeks in the hospitality of an Egyptian jail with good cheer. What is remarkable about this episode is that by then he was well beyond his earlier advocacy of radical cures to backwardness, tweaking of Egyptian sensibilities and general attacks on the mendacity and stupidity of the ruling classes. He had in effect given up politics, handing over his newspaper to George Hunayn and Ramses Yunan, esthetes and Trotskyites of little political effect. For most of the 1940s he wrote for the Coptic publication Misr, an odd occupation for a man estranged from the Church and perennially critical of religious authorities. We don’t know fully what moved the cranky Sidqi to order his arrest. But the circumstance can give clear evidence.
By the end of World War II the arc of Moussa’s life was pretty clear. His earlier optimism about the possibility of developing Egypt as a normal country in the Western model had faded, replaced instead by a sense of gloom over the forces gathering toward a stormy future. The inflection point might have been the ugly election of 1938, which featured interference by the King, in the person of his henchman Sidqi, anti-Semitic and anti-Coptic riots, regular religious incitement by many politicians, as well as unseemly gloating by the rising Muslim Brotherhood that their time to govern is near at hand. Moussa spent a good deal of the 1940s agitating against the Brotherhood and against the looming fight in Palestine. He saw nothing less than a disaster in the ascendance of Arabism and Islamism. Many criticized his posts in Misr as unduly alarmist; but to read them today is to see prescience at work. This, probably more than anything else, had aroused the ire of Sidqi, and perhaps King Farouk. Farouk, still in his twenties, was aiming to exploit Islamism and Arabism to forestall any developments toward a constitutional monarchy that would leave him both honored and powerless. He coveted the title of “Caliph”, which made him engage in unnatural discourses with the Brotherhood. He wanted leadership in the “Arab” world, leading to the formation of the Arab League; its fresh pulpits broadcasting self-defeating rhetoric of praise for the already dead Hitler and advocating an ill-prepared war against the Zionists. In a few years Farouk would depart Egypt in humiliation, neither the first nor the last man destroyed by the explosive devices he wished to employ for his narrow purposes. But in the meantime, the voices of men such as Moussa, weak and irrelevant in the dangerous currents of street politics, were a reminder of his lack of illegitimacy. Good sense would have advocated ignoring such men, but it was not the time for good sense. It can be said in praise of the Egypt of 70 years ago, is that it was milder and gentler toward critics.
But then, as now, the land was ruled by myths advocated as facts, shortcuts sold as solutions, and outlandish schemes whose failure would rebound to the advantage of those that proposed them because blame can always be placed elsewhere.
– Maged Atiya
In his magisterial study of Eastern Christianity published in 1968, historian Aziz Atiya ends his book on a melancholy note, noting the passing of the “lost Churches” of Carthage (Present Tunisia) and Pentapolis, the five cities of present Libya, and Nubia. Fifty years after the Arabs conquered Egypt, they came to North Africa. Overnight, the Carthage Church, once the home of Tertullian and Augustine , those of the Trinity and the City of God, vanished with nary a trace. Atiya attributes this loss to its shallow roots in native soil, having always looked to Rome. The disappearance of Christianity in Carthage was the first, but not the last, of Muslim-induced ending of Eastern Christian communities.
A dozen years after the publication of this work, in the summer of 1980, Atiya was in a happy and expansive mood. Earlier that year, in Lake Como, an editorial board was formed for the Coptic Encyclopedia and authors were identified and assigned tasks. The project that had eluded him for the better part of thirty years seemed within reach. He was determined to dedicate his ninth decade to its completion. He was especially proud that a majority of authors might not be Egyptians or even Copts. He had always wanted to free the study of Coptic history from the clutches of hagiography and turn it into a full-fledged field of scholarship. “Coptology” would now stand as a younger sister to Egyptology.
The mood turned darker when discussions drifted to the fate of Eastern Christianity. It was a time of rising sectarian tensions in Egypt, and President Sadat adopted something less than a statesman’s stand. But Atiya did not fear for the Copts, as he seemed to share in the common, and almost mystical, belief that Christianity will always exist in the land of Egypt. His fears were for other Eastern Christians, what he called the Jacobites and Nestorians, the Christians of Syria and Iraq. With scholarly precision he identified three factors that threatened their precarious existence. First there was the internecine fighting between various Islamic groups. The Lebanese civil war was still raging and he, disregarding borders created in his lifetime, lumped Syria and Lebanon together. The Iran-Iraq war had not yet started, but the revolution in Iran had clearly rattled the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Second was the choices made by the local groups, who let their intellectual leaders lead them astray toward false directions, such as Arab nationalism, which was not bound to prove a refuge. Third was the bumbling of the West. The last reason was a curious one, and somewhat surprising for him to consider. This was a man who lived more than half of his long life in the West, studying and teaching in its institutions. He had great respect for Western culture and admiration for its accomplishments. He always warned that scholars in the East need to rise to Western standards. He had also done a great deal to smooth the occasionally touchy relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the mainline Protestant Churches of the West.
Atiya was a rare bird; a Coptic scholar of Islam, who knew it intimately, respected it greatly, but saw its present dangerous course clearly. He had done seminal work on the Crusades, which allowed him to have a measured view of the enterprise. While he believed that many Crusaders where imbued with true religious, rather than purely mercenary, fervor, he also saw that as a dangerous conceit. He identified the role of the European Catholics in the destruction of Byzantium, beginning with the Fourth Crusade, 250 years before its final fall to the Ottomans. Eastern Christians had to be wary of Western enthusiasm, especially if coupled with uncertain or indifferent execution of goals.
Those sentiments ran coldly true in 2003 as good Christian men from a far away continent sought to bring democracy to Iraq. Their pursuit began the suffering of over 2 Million Assyrians, Iraq’s Christians. Today Nineveh, for 2000 years the home of Arab Christianity, has none. A band of psychopaths may have delivered the final blow, but the weakening started earlier. Now these Christians must contend with the pain of exile and the deracination of their people due to cultural adjustments. Nor were the Americans the sole culprits in this. British recruitment of the Assyrians in the 1920s was a foolish policy, especially when the grand men in Westminster turned their heads at the massacres of the 1930s.
But why should we care about the fate of Eastern Christians? The disappearance of Eastern Christianity is a loss to both Western Christianity and Islam. If Western Christianity is deaf to its roots, it will suffer a slow death at the hands of its most tenacious enemies, blind secularism, vapid materialism, and the choices of “life styles”. As for Islam, if it cannot live with its religious brethrens, close relatives theologically, then it will not be able to live with the world at large. A fortress Islam, simmering in anger, is hardly the vision of a bright future. There is a lesson in the very history of Islam. It was born in Arabia after a century of brutal religious struggle between the Christian kingdom of Axum (present Ethiopia) and the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (present Yemen). These kingdoms had become proxies for Byzantium and Persia in their imperial struggles. In the end, the Arabs adopted neither religion. Religious warfare is rarely a benefit to even the winning side, if there is such a thing.
The agony of Nineveh is the agony of both the Christian West and the Muslim East, though neither recognizes it.
– Maged Atiya
In the space of one day, in Egypt, a Copt was convicted of insulting Islam on the word of her pre-pubescent students while another is referred to trial based on the flimsiest of social media hints. Hundreds of miles to the East a gang of psychopaths executed hundreds of men in cold blood for being the wrong kind of Muslims, while shouting the Muslim profession of faith in exalted pride. No one accused them of insulting Islam.
– Maged Atiya
A video emerged showing the head of the National Union of Women, Mervat El Tallawy, declaring her pride in the election and badgering the European Union Election Observer mission members into leaving a news conference, to the cheers of the crowd. Some can be heard to scream “Allahu Akbar”. In a region drunk with religion, God’s name is brought into all sorts of unhappy events, from wanton killings to a fit of poor manners. It was an ugly spectacle. It was particularly chilling to see Ms Tallawy, an otherwise decent woman and stalwart supporter of women’s rights, always under assault in Egypt, descend into this display with seeming ease. Egypt has been enacting an endless variety of Noah’s nakedness for the past few years. But we need not avert our eyes.
This spectacle would be less alarming if it were not for the daily staple of conspiracy theories and lunatic speculations common on Egyptian media. The underlying illness is an identity crisis, with various factions insisting that the country adopt but a single identity rather than coming to an acceptance of the diversity of Egypt and building a tolerant system that can turn this diversity into an advantage. The air is rife with calls for eradication, praise of illiberal democracy, strong men, and national and religious takfir. This cannot end well.
The mindset that gives rise to such behavior is profoundly damaging to Egypt. There is the coarsening of the national discourse and the associated inability to view and solve the country’s massive problems in a level headed manner. The resulting xenophobia is of little help to a country unable to foot its bills and eager for return of tourism and foreign investments. The hysteria makes it even harder for friends of Egypt to lend assistance in any meaningful way. Foreign reporters are badgered on a daily basis on social media and in forums for “conspiring against Egypt”. Such accusations do little to change the tone of reporting, and actually make it harder to call out much of the sloppy reporting of Egyptian reality. If there are foreign nations conspiring against Egypt for their gain, and probably there are, the constant crying of wolf actually gives them cover. Think tanks and policy makers outside Egypt sometimes display blinkered views, but it is hard to bring any clarity amid this din. This entire pattern of behavior does little to inconvenience its targets, and much to disrupt positive developments in Egypt.
Tallawy’s outburst is not only an ugly spectacle and a disgraceful display of poor manners. It is a grim omen for Egypt.
– Maged Atiya
Posters featuring former Defense Minister and current Presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El Sisi and both Coptic Pope Tawadros II and Sheikh Ahmad El Tayyeb of Al Azhar are not uncommon in Egypt, offered both in praise and in condemnation. In praise, they attempt to burnish the legitimacy of Sisi as a man uniting all of Egypt and bridging the religious divide. In condemnation, they insist that the removal of President Morsi was a conspiracy between these unsavory actors. Such is the current polarization of Egypt that the same image can play both ways. In the wake of the removal of Morsi and the massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the role of religion in public life, always a combustible issue in modern Egyptian history, is very much at the front of the agenda of any leader.
I have argued previously that should Sisi assume the office of President he will face an array of problems that require innovative and effective solutions. The choice is stark: continue the regime established by Nasser in 1954 and face failure or attempt to alter it, at least as a transitional figure. The role of religion is one area where an exception can be made. Sisi has already made it clear that he disapproves of the Muslim Brotherhood view of religion in public life and made uncompromising statements insisting that they have no place in the political arena as an organization. The Brotherhood sees the state as the handmaiden for promoting religion; the vision that Sisi outlined turned that on its head, seeing religion as a tool for promoting the state and national unity. As a result, Sisi will have few choices but to echo the policies adopted by Nasser toward the role of religion in public life, or even earlier policies dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. These policies cannot be described as “secular”, but rather as state control of the religious message. He recalled his childhood growing up cheek-to-jowl with a synagogue and listening to Church bells as reflecting the “true” Egypt, a country of pious and religious people of peaceable nature. In that myth religion is a static feature of life reflecting the character of the people and serving as a foundation for the state. These misty ideals must be translated into policy, which will likely mean closer embrace of established religious institutions, such as Al Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as a greater role for them in public life.
On the eve of the 1952 coup Al Azhar was active in supporting King Farouk’s efforts to claim the title of “Caliph”. Nasser, having deposed Farouk, had no choice but to attempt a major alteration of Al Azhar. He placed it under effective state control and expanded its purely religious role to include a variety of university-level educational programs. After Nasser’s death Al Azhar continued to expand. Today some estimates claim that as much as 25% of secondary and 10% of post-secondary non-trade students attend Al Azhar schools, run independently from the Education ministry. If Sisi is to achieve his desired goal of creating an alternative to political Islam, he will have to pay close attention to the massive Al Azhar institution, perhaps assuming even greater control than Nasser attempted. Rather than make the public sphere less religious, the state will likely attempt a nationalistic channeling of the message.
Sisi, in friendly gestures to Tawadros II, also seems to be well on the way to emulating Nasser’s close relationship with Pope Kyrillous VI. Kyrillous was invested in 1958 as a compromise transitional figure between the old guard of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the fiery young reformers, the group of well-educated monks from the Middle Classes, known as the “Sunday Schoolers”. The friendship they formed for the remainder of their lives (Kyrillous passed away a few months after Nasser) was important for both men. The Pope managed to ease the restrictions on the building of Churches, including a grand new Cathedral at Abbasyia, inaugurated in 1968 with Nasser as the guest of honor. Nasser burnished his image as a leader of all the people, including the significant Arab Christian minorities in the Levant, who repaid him with adulation. Ironically, that era also marked a serious weakening of the liberal Coptic elite and strengthening of the role of the Church as the sole spokesman for the community. The feuds between the clergy and laity from the 1930s to the 1950s were ended by the wisdom of Kyrillous as well as heavy hand of Nasser, who marginalized much of the pro-democracy liberal Coptic elite.
The vision Sisi is propagating is fundamentally different from the Brotherhood’s vision of religion, making it difficult to see how any political reconciliation is possible. The upcoming state, should Sisi hold onto power, will not be less religious for the removal of the Brotherhood; just differently so and probably equally intolerant of religious dissent or attempts at fundamental religious reform. This is neither the secularism of the French variety nor a free market of religious ideas in the Anglo-Saxon model. It can best be described as “statist religion”.
It remains an open question whether such a re-orientation will create a viable alternative to political Islam or whether it will alleviate Egypt’s century long struggle with the place of religion within the national identity. At the moment, however, a majority of Egyptians seem to be in tune with an American revivalist ditty: “Gimme that ol’ time religion, ‘tis good enough for me”.
– Maged Atiya
Egypt has become the land of zero learning curve. Events seem to harden rather than alter the positions of all sides. The standoff between the two great illiberal forces in the country, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, is not heading to an obvious resolution. A year ago the Army adopted the statesman’s position of “warning” the Brotherhood and its civilian opponents to compromise for the sake of the country. The Brotherhood responded by further digging in. In time the Army called their bluff and removed President Morsi. The shock of this event was insufficient to penetrate the epistemological shell of a cult-like organization endowed with legendary Egyptian stubbornness. They refused to recognize the popular sentiment against their dominance and saw minor events as portents for the return of President Morsi. Outside powers encouraged their delusions and cynically left their people in harm’s way. Even the terrible slaughter at Rab’a was simply evidence that things cannot continue that way. They did not, they got worse. In the meantime, those who supported the removal of Morsi refuse to recognize that injustice is rife and that it feeds its twin, chaos. They are also unwilling to face the reality that the Gulf financial aid will end sooner or later and that a systematic focus on economic recovery requires more than “ending terrorism”.
This is a classic stalemate. One side cannot lose but unable to pacify; the other cannot win but able to disrupt. Stalemates in politics are often convenient and constructive, but in violent struggles debilitating and disastrous. The situation is in many ways similar to the aftermath of the 1967 war. Israel could not lose a war against the Arabs but could not forge peace with them. The stalemate was ended when a faction on one side found the psychological strength to make a sullen peace, and those who refused to go along left to their fate. It was not just; but it was not war. It also helped that a major power, the United States, made its goals clearly and unequivocally and then invested sufficient efforts to achieve them. The goals were the survival of Israel and the removal of Egypt from the battle. The methods varied, ranging from Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” to Carter’s “Camp David” strong-arming, but the goal remained the same.
Is a similar outcome possible today in Egypt? The best answer is that “we do not know”. It is disheartening to see otherwise sober statesman such as Senator Patrick Leahy burst out in red-faced frustration about Egypt and its relations with the US. It is also ineffectual. To clean up after the current wreckage requires a clarification of the goals, rather than a focus on methods. The task of US policy makers is unenviable. They need to preserve US interests, which requires making clear choices. Refusal to make choices led to the current situation where all sides seem hostile to the US. But can a country such as the US make a choice between two sides, one offering injustice and the other chaos? This requires subtle understanding and imagination to see the contours of what is possible and what might emerge in time. It is a long term, occasionally frustrating task; probably more so than the decade spent diffusing the Israel-Egypt standoff.
Absolute policy goals are best when they are few and easily articulated. At the moment the only logical goals for the US should be a clear support for the preservation of the integrity of the Egyptian state and the continuation of its support for furthering the development of an open globalized and prosperous world. It will mean that the official policy and the public pressure might need to go in different directions. This is a tough act for a noisy democracy, and requires leaders able to buck the public pressure on occasions. Let us hope they exist in Washington.
– Maged Atiya