Gamal Abdel Nasser – Destroyer of the Arabs

Egyptian President Nasser (1918-1970) is frequently hailed as the epitome of the great Arab leader. His nemesis for much of the 1960s, Faisal Ibn Abdel Aziz, not so secretly believed that Nasser was an unscrupulous Egyptian out to swindle many of the Arab lands out of their natural resources. Nasser’s desire to unify the Arabs under his leadership, and by extension Egypt’s, would have greatly helped Egypt and disadvantaged the Arabs, as the union with Syria amply demonstrated. Yet in this season of Arab state collapse few are advancing the thesis that Nasser is the man who struck the first blow that led to today’s horrors. Let us remember four elements, all of his creation, that arguably cooked up today’s toxic brew.

Creation of the Security State. Between 1952 and 1954 Nasser created a template for state structure that would be followed by several other Arab nations. The rough outline of it is simple. Overthrow a monarchy; declare a populist Republic; base its institutions on the primacy of the military and security services; and finally proclaim such an entity as a forward-looking and revolutionary. If the formula barely held in Egypt, it is because of its history of cohesion and Statism. The other Arab countries that emulated this model, Libya, the Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have all collapsed.

Adoption of trans-national goals. Arab nationalism gave Nasser a justification for meddling in the affairs of other Arab states. His real reasons were probably base (vanity) and narrowly nationalistic (advantaging Egypt). But the formula became a handy tool for more principled, and far more dangerous, true believers, namely the Islamists. His diatribes against the Sykes-Picot accord, most of which were nonsense, have been adopted by a wide range of wild Jihadis, who sing his lyrics but to a very different tune.

The demonization of Israel.  Nasser’s trial-by-fire in the Faluja enclave convinced him that the Arab armies are no match for Israel. He never really wanted to fight Israel, and at one point even sought a reapproachment with Ben-Gurion.  He was forced into one war, 1956, and bumbled into another, 1967, both verifying his hunch and destroying his dreams and ultimately his life. Yet, his constant taunting of Israel, and the demonization of the country, did little to help the true victims of the Jewish national dream, the Palestinians, and much to embroil the Arabs in failing enterprises.

The corruption of Education. Within a month of the 1952 coup, Nasser had taken Sayed Qutb’s advice to radically alter the educational system. The result was a drop in the intellectual output in Egypt, and as its teachers traveled into the Arab countries, they carried the virus along. Today the entire Arab world publishes fewer books than a decent size University Press in the US.

The Arab masses, and their leaders, are the authors of this collapse. But they were also willing students of a capable tutor. Nations have no epitaphs, but states do. When that of the Arab states is written Nasser should be accorded the dubious title of the “Destroyer of the Arabs”.

— Maged Atiya


Tawadros Agonistes

Pope Tawadros II became Bishop of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark the Apostle less than 30 months ago. On his ascension he insisted that he would devote himself to his ecclesiastical duties and avoid politics. He has delivered on the first with robust changes in Church policy and pointedly changed his mind on the second. The Pope has become a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and effectively a contestant in them, an “agonist”. The assumption of such a role makes it necessary to subject the Pope to careful and well-reasoned critique, if only to forestall potential errors and pitfalls. While the vast majority of the Pope’s flock almost certainly supports his stands, he has faced criticism. Much of this criticism misses the point and little hits the target.

One criticism is that it is unseemly for the Pope to be so close to the President. We do not know the real nature of the relationship between the two men, beyond the public expressions of support and respect. But more to the point, all Popes in modern Egyptian history found it necessary to build a close relationship with the ruler. Strong or public disagreement can be dangerous, and does not always rebound to the benefit of the community, regardless of the merits of the case. Kyrillous IV (The Great Reformer) found that out to be true in the 1850s, so did Kyrillous V in the 1890s, and so did Shenouda in the 1970s. In any case, is it really the responsibility of a religious Patriarch to be a throaty supporter of democracy in a land with few democrats?

Another frequent charge is that the Pope’s support for the regime has not improved conditions for the Copts. It is true that many of the coercive measures against Coptic identity persist, and there is much tolerance for mob behavior against Copts. The trouble is that many, if not most Copts, feel that conditions are better now than under the Muslim Brotherhood regime. To persist in this charge is to assume the mantle of uncomfortable arrogance. Also, conditions are such that most Copts are grateful when things are not significantly worse off, which Papal disapproval of the regime might have triggered.

A third charge is that the Pope’s stand is risky for the Copts, should the political winds shift. The reality, of course, is that the Islamists’ hostility toward the Copts has little to do with their positions or preferences. And even if the regime were to attempt reconciliation with a more docile version of political Islam, the Pope’s support for the regime will either be a minor positive or a negligible negative.

The real question is whether the Pope’s stands and statements elevate the Copts as a community and thus enhance the chances for both survival and continued progress, which depend entirely on their own efforts, for it is unrealistic to look for help elsewhere. We should recognize, but not be discouraged, by the grim realities. Egypt retains a nasty religious discourse; witness the mobs that greet any attempt to build a Church or a cultural center, even to honor those slain in Libya. The region beyond is in free fall with much of Eastern Christianity trying to evade the wrath of competing Islamic forces.  The larger world is of little help. While the West frets over the fate of Eastern Christianity, it lacks both the will and the means, and in some cases even the desire, to affect it. Numerically, the fate of the Copts and the fate of Eastern Christianity are nearly synonymous. The Copts must shoulder this responsibility as they have always done, alone or with the uncertain support of some of their fellow Egyptians. In that regard some aspects of the Pope’s public stands leave a lot to be desired.

First, there is the constant echoing of national propaganda about the conspiracies against Egypt. This is unnecessary as the Pope is in no position to combat these conspiracies, even if real. But more importantly, they place him, and by extension the community where he is the leader by default, in a rather sorry camp. He has a responsibility to represent the Copts as the better part of the national consciousness, not its common denominator. This is also important in building external support, however meager the returns might be.

Second, there is the dismissive attitude toward members of the community who do not fall in line with the Church official positions. Even if those positions are sound, regurgitating attitudes and arguments of decades long gone, which were mostly won by the Clerical establishment anyway, is of little value. Many who contributed to the cultural and social resurgence of the Copts in the last two centuries did so in opposition to this very same Clerical establishment. They were motivated by deeper reasons, often little articulated; of a sense of historical duty and obligation to a nation with no topography and one that transcends the exact details of belief and faith.

Third there must be recognition that the future of the Copts, while tied closely to that of Egypt, is not synonymous with it. They have become the largest group of Eastern Christians while never taking up arms, and often facing daunting odds in the country they intensely love but rarely loves them back with similar intensity. At critical moments, cultural progress, initiated by the laity, and more often than not without the whole-hearted approval of the Clergy, has made the difference. This cultural progress is increasingly a phenomenon removed from Egypt, both because of the strength of the immigrant community and the cultural weakness of Egypt. The current media profile of the Pope, unfortunately, does not make him the representative of a resurgent Eastern Christianity that bridges the gap with between East and West and attempts a larger and more embracing definition of both culture and faith. And it is in that role that Copts will have the better chance of not only survival, but more importantly, of growth and progress.

The Church always echoes Egyptian and Coptic exceptionalism, sometimes with good reasons. The deeper question is the exact contour of the “exception”. Is it in the pedestrian facts of history and geography, or in a more profound grounding in attitude and culture? Should the Pope, in his capacity as “father”,  encourage his flock to embrace the more hopeful message of Isaiah 60:3 rather than the narrowly exclusive one of Hosea 11:1? That in a nutshell is the contest.

— Maged Atiya


French Gothic New York (Church of the Holy Trinity)

Originally posted on jewish philosophy place:

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Does it belong to the urban fabric? Well, yes and no. Consecrated in 1899, Church of the Holy Trinity is Episcopalian. It is sunk back off of E.88th Street between First and Second Avenues in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan.  Occupying half a city block, it used to be a mission site in what was then a working class neighborhood. There is a little historical sketch and architectural information on the church website, which you can read here.

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On US Military Aid to Egypt

The restoration of US military aid to Egypt, with strings attached, came in the middle of a week of tumultuous events in the region. It is still worth a comment, even an unconventional one from a source normally skeptical of most conventional wisdoms.

Many argued that aid should not have been resumed at all since US law prohibits such aid in the case of “coups”. This is an eminently rational and defensible view, and an inconsistent one. If a “coup” is defined as the removal of an elected leader then both January 2011 and July 2013 were technically “coups”. To define only one as a “revolution” is to invite endless and pointless disputations and place one in a position of defending some indefensible actions. More to the point, we should ask how the US came to provide military aid to Egypt and why it should continue it, as well as in what manner.

US-Egyptian began to sour badly in the early 1960s due to Egypt’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Egypt was the revolutionary forward-looking power headed for a collision with Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the traditional regimes. The US sided with the latter due to unreasonable Cold War fears and reasonable concerns about the flow of oil. In reality Egypt’s bark was far worse than its bite; Nasser was no Napoleon, and Egypt was not about to topple regimes across the region. But siding with Saudi Arabia seemed sensible at that moment, even if it put the US in the camp of some retrograde opponents of the Egyptian regime; The Saudi monarchy, the Yemeni Imams, and the socially repressive Muslim Brotherhood. The strain lasted for over a decade, and through two major wars with Israel. The three wars of the 1963-1973 decade left Egypt broke and weakened. The creation of a US military semi-alliance with Egypt and flow of military aid were predicated on the country being no longer a threat to Israel or to the conservative Gulf monarchies, or any other regional power for that matter. That Egypt kept its part of the bargain is still no reason to continue aid; international politics is not a game of cricket and interests trump fairness. Even if aid is discontinued Egypt is unlikely to be a threat to Israel, with which it is enjoying a close relationship, nor to the Gulf countries who underwrite a significant portion of badly needed foreign investments. So why continue the aid; why not save the 1.6 Billion or so of loose change to repave downtown Detroit? The answer is simple; the upside of continuing the aid outweighs the downside of withholding it, slightly.

The optimistic view of the so-called Middle East is that today’s calamities will continue for some time to come. A more informed view sees far worse disasters around the corner. The most rational course of action is to minimize the number of countries and people thrown into the current cauldron. In that vein it is critical not to allow the ramshackle Egyptian state to collapse under the weight of both external factors and internal misadventures. But can military aid do that? Can it really affect the behavior of the country’s most dominant single institution, the military? That depends on the nature of the aid and the manner in which it is administered on an on-going basis. This is where the Obama grudging release offers fascinating possibilities, although one suspects unintentionally.

Altering the Egyptian military from a large tank-and-plane static army into a nimble fighting force will not be easy as it requires social as well as doctrinal changes. But it is a goal worth setting across the board, both in military aid and in other economic and social domains. But that goal cannot be pursued unless the questions are asked and the answers are sought away from the conventional and mostly self-defeating pious declarations about support for democracy and inclusiveness. Without aid there is no leverage, and aid wrongly administered will also have no leverage. The real question is whether the US takes Egypt sufficiently seriously to manage aid closely and with clear cut demands that reach across the entire spectrum of social and political issues. The readout of Obama’s conversation with Sisi hints at desire to see the military alter its ways. That is necessary but not sufficient. There is no reason not to go further and offer a full-throated demand to alter education, support liberal thought and free markets. The reason to do so extends beyond Egypt to the overall region, which remains perilously close to chaos that can draw in reluctant Western powers. The irony is that successful administration of aid will bring Egypt back to a version of itself similar to the 1963 edition, albeit with more economic and military power. Egypt may then become as truculent and difficult a friend of the US as Israel. But at least the region will have the nucleus of a third path away from Iran’s revolutionary Islam and Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Islam. If we are not sure that such path is possible, or that the US can play a role in its emergence, then by all means let us save the money and pave Detroit. But that scenario involves the eternal balancing between the current forces, a continuation of the current oddities where the US seems to be fighting with all sides and against all sides, neither effectively nor to any foreseeable end.

— Maged Atiya


Immigrant Zero

April 12 marks the 60th anniversary of the passing of Ahmad Zaki Abu Shadi. Most historians of Egypt mark the end of the so-called “liberal era” from the date of the 1952 coup. A more fitting date would be April 1946, when Abu Shadi immigrated to America *, one step ahead of the twins of Egyptian oppression, the secret policeman and the religious fanatic. A mere decade earlier, Abu Shadi was a luminary of Egypt’s cultural scene, a doctor by day and a poet, translator and cultural reformer by night. He bore the stigmata of the rare Egyptian liberal, advocacy for the right of women to control their lives and their bodies. The intervening years were bad for his kind. In 1933 a budding Egyptian thinker, Sayyd Qutb, published in Abu Shadi’s magazine “Apollo”. A decade later he would denounce similar men as “Brown Englishmen”. Qutb and Abu Shadi, once companions, were now sailing in opposite directions. Having left Egypt for America, Abu Shadi made a remarkable confession of faith, writing for a radio program “For the sake of freedom, I preferred to leave my country when tyranny was throwing independent thinkers into chains”.  Qutb, returning to Egypt from America would speak of how independent thinking in the West led men to become “numb to faith in religion”.

Perhaps there were earlier Egyptian immigrants to America, but Abu Shadi’s public act of immigration, rare for its time, should earn him the distinction of “Immigrant Zero”.  More immigrants would follow him, seeking either freedom or opportunity, or both. Many would not share his vision, but bring Egypt’s divisions and ills along for the ride. Even after decades of immigration, there is no large representative “hyphenated” group that espouses broad liberal values, especially with an eye for implementation in Egypt. It is not that the immigrants and their descendants lack men and women holding these views; it is that they are so far unable to create a viable block. The situation mirrors the travails of liberal political currents in Egypt. Even with the third generation of immigrants now coming into adulthood, there seems to be no movement toward building such groups. Many walk away in despair of the seeming insolubility of the Rubik Cube of Egypt and freedom.

It is unfair to expect a small group of immigrants to lift the fortunes of their Motherland. But it is not too much to ask them to preach the values they witness every day in lives frequently better than any they might have had in Egypt.  This observation brings us back to the point made amply by Abu Shadi and his cohorts; that political oppression in Egypt is a by-product of social oppression, rather than its cause. The nation’s constrained and unreasoned attitudes towards religion and sex make it easy for many a demagogue, on any of the polarized sides, to mobilize followers and marginalize opponents. The situation has not gotten better with time either. The “chains” of Abu Shadi’s lament may now seem velvety by comparison.

 

— Maged Atiya

 

* Abu Shadi’s work can be found in two locations. “The Bee Kingdom“, collated by his granddaughter, artist Joy Garnett. Also, at the library of the University of Utah, placed there by historian Aziz Atiya, who followed him into immigration by a few years, and was his one-time neighbor in Alexandria.


ISIS, Iconoclasm and Islam

Right around Luxor the Nile seems to change its mind about flowing north and makes a dash east toward the Red Sea. After 30 miles or so it gets its nerves back and continues its northward journey to its destination with the Mediterranean.  The “knee” of the great river is home to many ancient Egyptian small temples. Few are as grand or iconic as Luxor or Aswan’s, but they give a sense of the deep religiosity that must have pervaded the land with multitude of temples. If you know where to look you will find evidence of crosses chiseled onto the faces of these temples. Early Egyptian Christians (and Christianity sprouted roots in Egypt very early and with little assistance from the original Jewish followers of Jesus) must have used these temples for worship. Strictly speaking the chiseling of Crosses is an act of vandalism, or more severely Iconoclasm of the ancient pagan temples. There is a certain irony, but no surprise, that the modern descendants of these Christians seem to include the ancient Egyptian key of life, the Ankh, frequently as part of cultural celebrations.

Iconoclasm is the act of destroying religious icons. The term derives from two periods of the Byzantine Empire that experienced a reversal of fortunes against the rising Arab (mostly Muslim) forces in the east and against the Slavs in the Balkans.  The destruction of religious icons was done ritualistically to denote rejection of their worth, and perhaps even theological deviancy.  Any attempt to relate iconoclasm to Christian theology is bound to fail. For example, Nestorians did not particularly venerate icons, nor did Egyptian Monophysites (as all Copts are), reject them. Equally problematic is the attempt to imply that the Byzantine Iconoclasts were influenced by Islamic thought or the opposite, that Islam’s iconoclasm is borrowed from Byzantine practices. Islam’s prohibition on images was never absolute, and was observed mostly in the Levant, Arabia and Egypt. Persia and India continued their rich tradition of colorful human imagery.

The colloquial interest in Iconoclasm is motivated by the horrific destruction of ancient heritage in the Levant by the loose bands of armed men on behalf of the so-called “Islamic State”. The frequent interpretation is that ISIS is being rigorously Islamic and the destruction follows Islam’s prohibition against images. Another more nuanced interpretation is that ISIS is acting from a more modern resistance to Western hegemony in taste, which dictates that respect and preservation of ancient artifacts is a sign of civilized behavior.  Neither is truly satisfactory, and there is a more ready explanation.

First, it is counter-empirical to insist that Islam is hell-bent on destroying ancient heritage. It has had 1400 years of near dominance in a broad region. Yet, there have been few recorded instances of systematic destruction of ancient heritage. Some Muslim thinkers even took the initiative to attempt to understand and admire the mute witnesses to ancient empires, or read in them historical lessons. The attitude of the average faithful Muslim for many centuries was to either ignore or profit from the heritage.

The attempt to interpret the destruction using the now canonical discourse of “Orientalism” and “post-colonial” discourse is also unsatisfactory. The ideas of preservation and conservation are now intrinsic to many indigenous efforts at social reform, including those most hostile to the Western cultural influences. It is not uncommon for the cultural elite (of all religions) to hector their fellow believers into conservation by shaming them though highlighting of similar Western efforts. The removal of the Genizah records from Jewish Cairo 100 years ago was occasioned by bitter arguments within the community there.

The most intelligent and scholarly example of the above argument was advanced by Elliot Colla in a blog posting. We can respect Colla’s scholarship and still disagree with three of his arguments. First, that there is “nothing uniquely ‘Islamic’ about the ISIS attacks”. While not unique to Islam, it is rooted in many orthodox views of it. Anti-Semitism is not uniquely Christian, but Christianity sometimes helped and even fueled it. Second, that we need to take “autocratic and colonial legacies” into account when discussing such destruction. Again, the evidence is against such a view. The most systematic “Salafi” destruction has been in Saudi Arabia, ironically against Muslim heritage. Mecca and Medina are rebuilt to resemble Las Vegas. This is in a region that experienced little or no colonialism and where such destruction is supported by religious authorities that cow the political autocrats. Third, that we must compare the destruction of ancient statues with the toppling of Saddam’s massive statue prompted by American troops. Are we to say that the toppling of the statue of Mussolini can shed light on a potential destruction of Coliseum?

The explanation of ISIS behavior is not to be found in complex and intricate scholarly arguments. These are simply attempts to assert dominance within the faith using particular concepts that are genuinely within it but not intrinsic to its continuation. A fair comparison would be the rise of virulently anti-Semitic group within the Christian community which revives the old charge of deicide against the Jews to gain dominance over other Christians, especially those in the mainstream of modern liberal societies. It would be a tough sell in today’s world, primarily because of the strength and legitimacy of many of these societies, and because most of the major Christian denominations have long rejected, or at least avoided, the ugly charge.  ISIS is attempting to tweak other Muslims into following it. By positing the challenge in stark and violent terms, which are bound to generate strong response, they are hoping that the Muslim community at large will be bitterly divided, with ISIS garnering the larger portion. The ISIS cycle of increasing violence and destruction is Salafism carried to its logical ends. The challenge is primarily not to the West, but to other Muslims.

 

— Maged Atiya


America and Egypt – By Edward Albee

The great American playwright Edward Albee has acquired a richly deserved reputation for minutely painting long and intimate relationships that go sour when partners grow deaf to each other and the nuances of their mutual concerns. His work could easily be applied to the last week, or indeed the last decade, of Egyptian-American relations.

The precipitating event of the last week was the release of an ISIS video detailing the beheading of 21 Egyptians, all from the poor province of Minya, and all belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. From the moment the tape was released it was clear that both parties had grown insensitive to each other’s pains.

In Egypt, a popular, and inflammatory, news show host, Ahmed Moussa, declared that the US is in league with ISIS. This is a particularly cruel and heinous charge to make against a country that has welcomed both Muslims and Copts and suffered thousands of deaths by one of the most prominent of the Islamist terror groups. The trouble with that charge is that no one reprimanded him, and many may have believed him. It was a sad moment for Egypt. His charges come on top of the daily barrage of odd theories speculating on whether the White House has been captured by the partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood, or is in fact plotting the demise of Egypt.

On the US side the response to the video was bungled in many ways, and subsequent turns have not improved things. Almost all world leaders denounced the barbarity of ISIS and recognized the multiple identities of the victims, as Egyptians and Copts. The latter is important because in the video ISIS made no reference to policies, or grievances; it simply stated that the 21 men are killed on account of their faith, before threatening more mayhem toward Catholics in Rome. The statements of both the White House and the State Department were generic, almost perfunctory, and purposely ignored the religious confession of the victims. This may have been part of a standing policy not to aggravate sectarian tensions, or recognize religion instead of nationality. Both are laudable goals, but they hardly fit the occasion. The reaction from the nearly 1 Million Egyptian-American Copts was swift and exceptionally negative. In time, a day or two later, the White House spokesman did recognize the victims as Copts, and the President did so in an op-ed in the LA Times, but much of the damage had been done.

The next set of events in Egypt was remarkable, and the US should have recognized that and reacted accordingly. President Sisi made a televised address in which he reserved Egypt’s right to respond to the death of its citizens. A few hours later a number of Egyptian Air Force sorties hit ISIS sites outside Derna in Eastern Libya. There are two ways to tell this tale. The first is of an Egyptian leader who took offense at the killing of Egyptian citizens by foreign elements and sent the Egyptian Army in pursuit, wisely or impulsively. The second, and this was a favorite among some Islamists, was that a Muslim leader sent a Muslim Army to kill Muslims on behalf of Christians. One commentator on a Muslim Brotherhood Channel even indicated that the killing was an appropriate retaliation for the Copts’ participation in politics through their Church. If one favors a future Middle East where the nation-state holds sway and sectarian and religious divisions are dampened down by the forces of national unity, then it is clear which narrative is favored. The US indicated disapproval of the strikes, on account of the danger they posed to the moribund political process in Libya. Perhaps the real reason is that the US does not wish to see Egypt bogged in Libya, which is a sensible concern. But love and concern expressed clumsily and inarticulately can seem like cruelty.

Memorial services for the 21 men were being organized around the US as President Obama spoke at the conference on “Countering Violent Extremism”. As usual, the President was cool, rational and analytical. But his remarks about the need to counter ISIS by promoting political inclusiveness and jobs were too cool by two degrees. The slain men were from Minya, one of the poorest provinces in Egypt. Poverty and unemployment pushed them to risk their lives in Libya, not as terrorists but as construction workers who remitted their wages to buy textbooks for their children. The men were also no strangers to political marginalization. Supporters of President Morsi burned more Christian property in Minya in 2013 than mobs had done in Egypt for the last few centuries. In 2012, as President Morsi exhorted his followers to approve the Islamist Constitution he staked his rule on, flyers circulated in Minya threatening Copts not to Vote. There is no doubt that the American President would laud these men, but the timing and wording of his remarks generated endless jokes about “Jobs for Jihadis”. As in an Albee play, words which are fine in isolation can hurt deeply in the confines of close relation.

Two countries which need each other, and where bonds of affection have existed in both strong and frayed forms, are now at an unhappy impasse in their relationship. Egypt is, or more accurately the Egyptians are, behaving oddly, seeming to regard the US as an enemy rather than understand its concerns as a great power, and seeing in its liberal polity both a hopeful example and a potential hedge against the chaos in the region. The US seems to believe the fiction that Egypt is no longer important, and perhaps deals with it through the prism of the difficult relationship with Islamist terrorism, rather than uniquely in its own right. The quicker the US recognizes that Egypt is not a regional issue, but that the region is a replay of many Egyptian ills, the more likely it is to salvage something from this fraught relationship.

 

— Maged Atiya


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