A recent conversation with an Egyptian businessman sheds light on the current situation in the country. He is a young man who started his own technology business and continues to try to grow it against all odds. Such entrepreneurs can lead Egypt out of the economic doldrums. His small business is not beholden to the state and employs dozens of people at decent wages. It is not unduly romantic to see such business as a microcosm of a desirable Egypt, as it employs both men and women, of different faiths and political views. In time a burgeoning Middle Class would demand, and ultimately find, respect for its freedom and property. Up until 2011 the picture was bright. He was able to attract many foreign contracts by a combination of a good product at lower prices. Furthermore, Egypt was considered an upcoming “tiger” and an attractive destination.
The first hit came in January 2011. The idiot who turned off the internet to thwart foreign plotters probably had no thought, or little cared, that it would also irritate foreign clients. There was an uptick of good will during the short after-glow of the revolution. But by the summer of 2011 there was further turmoil, which continues to this day. For a man trying to sell his wares abroad, Egypt’s current reputation is a nasty head wind. The narrative is one of protests, sexual harassment, religious zealotry, intolerance, repression, violence and a near insurgency. Few Egyptians have read H.L. Mencken on Journalism, and they see dark plots where there is only the natural inclination to report the most stirring news. To be fair, Egypt has handed reporters plenty of rich yarn to weave a dark tapestry. Any attempt to find hope, or balance the picture, is often rejected as justifying government repression. There is even the occasional esteemed academic who rejects any warm feelings toward the country with unhelpful snark.
It goes without saying that the political and cultural elites of Egypt have failed it. This is of little comfort to someone trying to meet a payroll. Yet there is little concern for such men, or for the people who are on the receiving end of the payroll. They are squeezed on all sides. There is the Army, which is traditionally statist and has little understanding of the environment necessary to promote entrepreneurship. The Brotherhood respected the market place, but its eyes were always on a higher goal, and its aging leaders are willing to bring down the house. Many supporters of the former regime are smarmy, and a few are outright crony capitalists. Many of the activists agitating for political freedom lean heavily left, and have little sympathy for business or the role it might play in cementing actual freedoms. The population at large is suspicious of those who prosper and maintain foreign connections. The most damaging binary dynamic is that of protest and the government’s ham-fisted response to it.
Protesting to achieve social or political reform is now considered praise-worthy. The canonization of men such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King has obscured their real achievements. Their success is due less to their saintly character, or the purity of their goals, but more to their political acumen. In the struggle against injustice they chose their weapons well, and wielded them with deftness in selective battles. Above all, they were realistic political men. Even in the best of cases protest is an uncertain business. Indian independence was a bloody affair, and would have been far bloodier without the leadership of Nehru, who was not overly fond of Gandhi, and because of his readiness to cut deals, and if rumors are right, fall into bed with his opponents. Yet in Egypt people seek a narrative without shades, of right and wrong, good people and bad ones. It is a mirage. Questions must be asked about protest; such as who are the protestors, what is their program for governance, how do they see the rest of the world and society, do they relate to the average man, and most importantly, has protest worked or landed Egypt in deeper straights. Yet to ask these is to invite accusations of collaboration with the regime, indifference or even cruelty. These accusations must be received with equanimity and returned with affection. But they do little to further understanding or show a way out of the current mess. Protesters often have the enormous courage to face jail or worse, but not to subject their views and tactics to criticism. As an enterprise, the goals of protests are laudable, but their balance sheet is increasingly negative.
The poet Qabbani wrote : “for daring to approach your deaf walls I was beaten with my own shoes”. The lines are meant to evoke anger at the cruel ruler. But we can read them in a different way; as a cautionary tale about the futility of approaching the crumbling walls and seeking redress from the fearful men within. Better to keep the shoes firmly on, march forward, and build a different edifice; perhaps not a shining city on a hill, but a sturdier structure on less shifting sand. It is not that Egypt has lacked for dissidents who withdrew from society to build a different one. Islamists, Salafis, and to a lesser extent Copts have all done so. Yet what they have built is either too small to matter or too grotesque to fathom. Neither the protesters, nor those seeking to silence them, have advanced a workable vision of governance, prompting one Egyptian historian to borrow from Kolakowski, and Baudelaire, to describe the conflict as between lovers of clouds and lovers of prostitutes. To describe a private business that makes a healthy profit from foreign exports as “non-governmental organization with foreign funding” is to provoke nervous laughter. In Egypt’s current koftesque stage what is literally true is also undeniably false.
In the end both protests and the attempts to suppress them have to be mindful of not crossing the line the binds people into a cohesive society, a test that Egypt currently fails. The authorities will not calculate the cost of success, nor the protesters the cost of failure. The vision remains of raging against a wall, rather than building a bridge. Few are willing to either co-opt or be co-opted.
Another conversation closes this post. It is with a veteran of the student protests at Columbia. The aging man, still inordinately fond of his younger, slimmer and hairier self, recalls a heady moment of protest. He had taunted and jeered the police for two days before finally lobbing a rock in their general direction. He was charged by a policeman who pinned him with the hackneyed scream “Spread’em .. against the wall M*F*”. He shot back “can we discuss this over a slice of Pizza?”. The policeman softened slightly, “maybe, but after I bust you and get off shift”. The exchange did not save him from arrest, a night in jail, and a misdemeanor fine, nor change his persistently idealistic and radical politics. Still, even to his resolutely unsentimental listener, and one who harbors considerable doubt about the details, the fable has resonance.
– Maged Atiya
Labor Day 1981 was the latest it could be, tacking on a few additional days to the summer and making a quick side trip to Egypt possible. The Egypt of late August 1981 was a troubled and troubling place. The entire country, or at least what could be glimpsed of it, was in a grumpy and sour mood. The victory of 1973 seemed a distant memory. The expected peace dividend was not at hand. President Anwar El Sadat was dancing faster on the high wire, leaving the country dizzy and confused. Everywhere there was evidence of dissatisfaction and signs of trouble ahead. Little united people beyond dislike for Sadat. The owner of a newspaper Kiosk, once thought to be kindly and avuncular, lashed out at the President in vituperative words. He was a “Pharaoh”, a “black donkey”, who played the fool to the admiring West. His closeness to the Jews and the Americans had split Egypt. He complained bitterly about the Copts, stopping suddenly at the realization of his listener’s religion. Further up the social ladder, people were also angry. Corruption among Sadat’s favorites was fierce. The country’s economy was in shambles. The agreement with Israel was a humiliation. The litany of complaints went on and on. Sectarian clashes had roiled Cairo that summer, and some neighborhoods were practically sealed off. “This would never have happened under Nasser”, huffed a man who suffered a few months in jail for his criticism of the great leader. There was menace in the air. An attempted courtesy call on Bishop Samuel as aborted; he was “exceptionally pre-occupied with important matters”. A priest hinted, sotto voce, that a quick exit from Egypt is wise, in case airports are suddenly closed. As the airplane lifted off the runway, Cairo, and the surrounding verdant valley, suddenly disappeared from view in a yellow haze. There was nothing but enveloping sand, leaving an uncomfortable feeling that a certain Egypt had completely disappeared; or perhaps, more ominously, that it had never existed beyond a cherished imagination.
In the 1980s the Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram, was regularly available at a corner newspaper stand on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The edition appearing on Labor Day contained an account of President Sadat’s speech on September 5. The man, at least it seemed at that time, had come unhinged. Sadat Agonistes was at war with the rest of Egypt. He had ordered the entire elite of the country to march off to jail. Listening to the speech for the first time, decades later but before the January 2011 events, still did not change that impression. Expounding for nearly two and half hours, Sadat poured out his frustrations and anger in loopy anecdotes, complicated grievances, remembrances of his great moments, and anger at the country that refused to embrace him. He lashed out at the Muslim Brotherhood leader, and the Coptic Pope. He accused the Brotherhood of sectarianism, but repeated their charges. The speech was high drama, one that would require an entire army of psychologists to unravel its layers. Through his mouth poured out all of Egypt’s darkness. The leader and the country had become one in anger. Exactly three years after his triumph at Camp David, all seemed to be going badly for him. A month later he was dead. In reality, Egypt had left Sadat well before she took his life.
The reports of his death made it obvious how Sadat was becoming a foot note. In the pre-Internet age news traveled leisurely, especially for those who owned neither a TV nor a Radio, nor cared much for newspapers. The news of Sadat’s assassination came in a terse phone call. The caller reported the sad news of Bishop Samuel’s assassination, and only later in the call, and after some pressing, did it become clear that Sadat was also among the victims. Three American Presidents walked in his funeral, but barely any Egyptians bothered to show the outpouring of grief that accompanied Nasser’s passing a decade earlier. It was easy to ignore Sadat in the subsequent decades, and hold onto the low esteem that had built up in the last few years of his life, at least until the recent events in Egypt.
Sadat’s short and turbulent term in office may deserve another look. The political stagnation that accompanied Mubarak’s three decades have dimmed the memory of the wild gyrations of the Sadat years, which occurred as regularly as the flooding of the Nile. The view had built up that his actions represented less of a plan and more of a high wire act by a politician seeking to survive, figuratively, and ultimately, alas, literally. His own actions made this uncharitable view plausible. Some never forgave him for dalliances with the Brotherhood, a move that he ultimately regretted anyway. Others saw in his frequent interviews with the likes of Barbara Walters an embarrassing spectacle. Even those who agreed with coming to terms with Israel felt that he done so chaotically, perhaps embarrassing Egypt as a result.
Is there room for a revision of this view of Sadat? Watching his September 5 1981 speech a year after the removal of President Morsi brings out an interesting new view of him. It is possible that Sadat was a man more in touch with his country, for better or worse, than the legion of urbane elitists who derided him. His life is defined by his ambition to rise above his modest beginnings; and willingness to do so with any tool available at hand. He may have seen this scrappiness as a plan to push the country forward. He clearly wanted to lead, literally to be a few steps, but not too many, ahead of his people, and cajole them to follow. In that September speech there was the faintest of hints that perhaps he realized he had walked too far ahead, and in the process became a man exposed. If their is a single theme to that speech it is the role of religion in public life and its underside of sectarianism. Confessing to be the “believer President”, or the “Muslim President of a Muslim Egypt” did not close the arguments or silence the opposition. In fact, it opened fresh avenues of discord. Sadat may have realized he needed to address the issue directly. In his mind it was no longer possible to reason with these demons, but inevitable to confront them. He may have meant the speech as a public disquisition on religion and identity, instead it came out as a primal scream. In that the light Sadat’s actions appear more tragic than desperate or ill-intentioned. It was the last act and testament of a man who loved his country, but in understanding the pain of its history, expected no love back.
What would Egypt have been like had the assassins failed, and Sadat survived and reconciled back with his country? We will never know. The current troubles of Egypt reflect the utter hollowness of its political class, made infantile by long decades of stagnation under Mubarak. Would that class have developed differently under an extended Sadat leadership? Egypt has a history of fascination with totalitarianism, seeing in it a possible cure for backwardness. Yet, it has never managed to pull off a truly totalitarian system, one that would either lurch the country forward or finally cure it of this unhealthy fascination, or preferably both (although Russia serves as a sobering reminder that such outcome is not always guaranteed). Sadat’s death shortly after tossing the political class into prison allowed no satisfactory resolution, like a tragedy with a lost ending. The farce to this tragedy is that Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, thirty three years after his brief stint in jail, is said to be writing speeches for yet another president.
– Maged Atiya
In the late 1930s and early 1940s Naguib Mahfouz penned a trilogy of novels set in ancient Egypt but with contemporary themes relating to political succession, legitimacy, social mores and struggle against foreign domination. “’Abath Al Aqdar”, “Radubis” and “KefahTeba” (Play of Fates, Radubis and Thebes’ Struggle) all sold well and were received with some acclaim, even if they lacked the mature Mahfouz style of psychological insight and realism. Mostly they were wooden set pieces designed to carry forward Mahfouz’s ideas. Two critics stood out in their fulsome praise of the novels. One was Salama Moussa, Mahfouz’s mentor and one-time employer. This is not surprising given Moussa’s lifetime espousal of Pharaonism. He was past his prime by then, and the remaining two decades of his life would be dedicated to retrospective reflections, score-setting, ideological agitation against the Muslim Brotherhood and occasional stints as a safe journalist for the 1952 coup makers. But Moussa’s praise was exceeded by that of Sayyd Qutb, who went further to suggest that the books be made mandatory readings for Egyptian schools, insisting that ancient Egypt should be a guide post for future development in the country. Within two decades Qutb would walk to the gallows for peripheral participation in farcical seditions, but his influence would continue to grow within Egypt and eventually outside it. His final works found new guide posts in a romanticized version of early Islam, and saw in ancient Egypt a warning tale about ignorance, cruelty, and dictatorship. Moussa’s descent to obscurity and Qutb’s rise to fame both reflect the fate of Pharaonism in Egypt, and outside it as well. The Western obsession with ancient Egypt has never truly faded, but it has been superseded in many quarters with fascination with Islamism, driven largely by its threats to the West, as well as how it neatly fits with “post-colonial” discourse currently in vogue among academics. Moussa, who respected the West and favored a constructive engagement with its heritage, is rarely studied, considered “safe” and therefore safely ignored. Qutb’s flammable narrative of grievance towards the West, the loss of imagined greatness and the promise of eventual triumph is deemed more worthy of study. When Sadat’s assassin screamed “I killed the Pharaoh”, 15 years after Qutb’s death, he was a witness to the damage Qutb’s ideas inflicted on the nation that damaged him. Pharaonism, one of the main engines of Egyptian nationalism, has been largely ignored and discounted, and when its effects come to the forefront on occasions, they evoke a puzzled response.
Pharaonism has assumed a variety of forms and as a result escapes easy definitions. At the core of it is a view that Egypt has a unique and integral history, from its earliest moments to its present day. The variety of historical forces, cultural transformations and religious shifts in Egypt are seen as mere surface ripples, a superficial reorganization of unique native features. There is more than a passing resemblance to various European forms of nationalism, especially those inclined to romanticism, such as German nationalism. It is a unifying force with a dark underside. Mahfouz’s third novel, “KefahTeba”, is laced with no small amount of xenophobia. The Asiatic invaders, the Hyksos, are sometimes described as “pale”, “flabby” and “treacherous”, in contrast to the dark, lean and honest Egyptians. Surf through Egyptian cable channels today and you will find echoes of that among the low grade peddlers of incitement, who frequently call Hamas, or even the very Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, “Hyksos”.
What are we to make of Qutb’s about-face regarding ancient Egypt? It would not be wholly correct to see it as part-and-parcel of his transformation from a liberal esthete to an Islamic “Fundamentalist”. Qutb’s rabid hostility to ancient Egypt seems more modern than atavistic. Early Arab invaders and subsequent Muslim historians generally lacked this level of hostility. Many (Al Mutannabi, Al Baghdadi) saw in the puzzling and silent massive monuments a witness to God’s wrath against pagans; that such a mighty empire can disappear without a trace. Others, such as Ibn Wahshyia or Abu ‘Ubayd Al Bakri, , were closer to later Western observers, marveling at these wonders and insisting they were built by a superior race of men (“they begat children who spoke at birth”). Islamic iconoclasm was never deployed towards the systemic destruction of the ancient Egyptian Atlals. They were certainly plundered, neglected and occasionally used as a quarry, but in only very few isolated instances did the rulers direct actual destruction. Qutb’s anger is closer to the attempt by various totalitarian systems to erase the past and create a “new man”. It was also motivated by his alienation from the ruling elites, which often employed ancient Egyptian history as a legitimizing tool (Nasser’s partisans claimed he was the first true Egyptian to rule the country since ancient times).
Pharaonism had its heyday from the late 1800s to the 1940s. It became closely associated with the Egyptian national struggle for modernization and independence, as can be seen from works such as Sa’ad Zaghloul’s tomb (attacked as un-Islamic) and Mahmoud Mokhtar famous statue outside Cairo University. Starting in the 1940s the struggle against the British took on less national and more religious tones, as the Brotherhood formed armed groups and agitated less for Egyptian independence than for a broad rejection of the West, including the newly formed state of Israel. From that point on, Pharaonism fought what seemed to be a losing rear guard action against Islamism. Mahfouz, for example, never renounced it, but never completed his project of additional novels set in ancient Egypt. Political repression post-1952 further weakened Pharaonism, draining vitality out of nationalist parties and channeling much of the political discourse toward Arabism, and since the 1970s, Islamism. The revolution of 2011 was notable for its lack of Pharaonic symbolism, aside from the odd demonstration by Copts, who clung ever closer to the Pharaonic past as the public sphere became more Islamicized ( we should note here with some amusement what the 12th century Al Baghdadi wrote “Copts continue to preserve a great preference for the worship of the nation of their origin and suffer themselves readily to the customs of their ancestors“) . In fact, many of the young revolutionaries, purposely or otherwise, adopted the Islamist narrative of oppressive rulers as “Pharaohs”. This narrative, which seems natural to our ears today, would have been off-key in the 1930s when Mahfouz began his novels. In his trilogy the Pharaoh is a symbol of the nation, a manifestation of its hopes and an expression of its health. Oppression is associated with foreign influences; the Asiatic invaders and the marauding Bedouins. It would have been easy to think that Pharaonism is a quaint but irrelevant relic.
There is little question that the Muslim Brotherhood has been instrumental in shaping Egyptian social attitudes since the 1940s, even under repression. It is telling that Nasser, as Prime Minister prior to becoming President, took the reins of education from one Hussein (Taha) and handed it to another (Kamal El Din), almost certainly a Brotherhood sympathizer or perhaps a secret member. The Arabization program of the 1950s and 1960s was at its root Islamism-lite. Historians have yet to write a full account of the spectacular fall of the Brotherhood. But the warning signs were present at their moment of triumph. The organization wrapped itself tightly in the 2011 revolution that it would never have started. As the balance sheet of the revolution began to dip into negative territory, the public soured on those associated with it. The parliamentary elections of 2011 seemed a triumph for the tactics of the group. But there were troubling signs as well. Their slogan “Bringing prosperity to Egypt” displayed a tin ear; opening them to a backlash once the promise faded, and to the accusation by their opponents of behaving as if they were an external group to the country. They seemed to conclude that they have more to fear from their religious right than anywhere else in the political spectrum, thus fostering many more political miscalculations, such as putting up two candidates for President. Epistemological closure, a euphemism for stubbornness, served the Brotherhood well in opposition, and brought them down when in power. We do not know what finally tipped the balance against Morsi. As late as April 2013, Sisi warned that Army intervention in politics would set the country back decades and might be bloody. One suspects that Morsi’s support for sending fighters to Syria panicked the military, which saw dangers on three sides; terrorism in the Sinai, chaos in Libya and a collapsed state in the Sudan. The Brotherhood could not imagine that the country that gave it its votes would stand by and witness a brutal suppression. Ironically the events have a faint echo in 1952. The Wafd party, which dominated Egyptian politics on the premise that independence would bring dignity and prosperity, saw its stalwart voters flee in the early 1950s and watch as the Army and the Brotherhood disassembled its apparatus from 1952 to 1954.
The many, perhaps the majority, of Egyptians who supported the removal of Morsi face the paradox of removing an elected President to safeguard democracy. We can ignore the most unhinged voices in Egypt, usually the loudest and most entertaining. But we should heed saner voices that see the events of July 3 as necessary, not as a road to progress but as a last ditch rescue mission. These voices need a framework to manage the obvious contradiction. The new regime also recognizes that a return to the Mubarak formula will not work, and seeks an ideology to counter Islamism. It seems that Pharaonism 2.0 is being dusted up and offered as a possible solution to such issues. It has potential advantages. Its less attractive features of extreme nationalism and reverence for titular authority offer a good tool kit, especially in a region with collapsing states. Its association with the brief liberal era offers hope for many Egyptians that democracy might not be so far off. Also, as Egypt seeks approval from a global audience that views July 3 with some disdain, the “old Egypt” might be an attractive product for a world grown skeptical about “moderate political Islam” and fearful of the darker manifestations of Islamism. It is no accident that Sisi’s visit to the UN featured a flurry of kitsch Pharaonic ads (the Nile flowing by the Pyramids, etc.). The only gambit left off the menu was a parade of Tutankhamen’s mask down Broadway.
To be among the few who predicted the fall of the Brotherhood as it achieved the pinnacle of power is of little satisfaction. Their fall is not a rejection of their narrow ideology for an alternative liberal attitude. And it came at a heavy price. There is the faint hope that form might create function; that the superficial trappings of a more inclusive nationalism might create such reality. It would require everyone to accept less than full vindication. This dangerous moment can cause Egyptians to pull back from the brink and accept a diverse public sphere. It can also cause them to double down and insist on a narrower definition of what constitutes acceptable national dialog, condemning the nation to decades of strife. There is little in the current environment to inspire optimism, yet Egypt has a capacity to surprise.
– Maged Atiya
A photograph circulated on social media shows a group of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in prison laughing and displaying the Rab’a four-finger salute. The first temptation is to respect their willingness to uphold their beliefs in face of extreme coercion. But a deeper look into the faces in the photograph highlights the troubles in the Egyptian soul.
Every young Copt is indoctrinated into the virtues of “Martyrdom”. The Church, probably the most Egyptian of institutions, calls itself the “Church of Martyrs”, and dates its calendar from time of one of the worst bouts of repression. It is tempting to find an analogy in the Brotherhood narrative. But we need to look deeper, first by looking into the troubling concept of “Martyrdom”. There were two kinds of Christians martyrs, broadly speaking. Those who were asked to renounce their faith, and were persecuted, tortured or killed for it. Then there were those who actively and defiantly professed their faith and challenged the authorities. The first group has to have our admiration. The second group is more troubling. There is an air of moral exhibitionism about such acts, and an underlying assumption of superiority and a desire to coerce others into the individual’s belief. Our attitude toward such “martyrdom” must be very wary.
The now famous call of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” stands as one of the clearest moral declarations in history. The sequencing is very important. Sometimes we need to sacrifice our happiness to pursue liberty. Sometimes we need to sacrifice liberty to protect our lives. But our highest duty, individually, familially and socially is to preserve life. If a man is inclined to faith, he may phrase it as honoring God’s gift. If such sequencing is kept at the center of our attention, then we can find a path in the thicket of the current Egyptian sad repression.
The Brotherhood members who defy authority, and as a result are jailed or killed for it, are indeed brave. We can offer empathy, but not approval. At the core of their actions is a belief that they are right, and that the rest of society must conform to their views. The Brotherhood ideology, from Al Banna, to Qutb, to today, displays a desire to radically alter the society. Theirs is a historic mission to make a “new man”, one that conforms to their views of godliness. They have actively, and largely successfully, altered the social landscape to their views; making it narrower and more coercive. They were aided by the rest of society; which rarely values individuality, and strongly disapproves of those who forge a different path. This is Egypt’s illness to cure, if progress is to be made.
We can respect the Brotherhood for its courage in standing up to society when it finally hit back. But we cannot list its members among admirable “martyrs”. They have long assaulted the two virtues necessary for a free society; respect for individual rights and defense of diversity. The courage to stand up for one’s beliefs does not lessen the odiousness of such beliefs. The willingness to throw lives away in pursuit of less personal liberty is not happiness.
– Maged Atiya
The codicils of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot led to the creation of five states in the Levant, four by commission (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan) and one by omission (Israel). A century ago three states looked promising. Lebanon and Syria contained the urban centers, the commercial and cultural elites and the closest connections to the West. Iraq had plenty of arable land, two ancient flowing rivers and sat atop a vast pool of oil. Israel and Jordan were the runt of that litter of states. Israel faced the hostility of its neighbors and murderous European anti-Semitism. Jordan was an oddly shaped strip of desert with little going for it. Its ruling house, the Hashemites, had just been ejected from the Hijaz by their neighbors to the south, the House of Ibn Saud. Their kinsmen in Iraq faced a cycle of coups until the last one, in 1958, dispatched with the king in a surge of blood lust. Its King, Abdullah I, was widely reviled by other Arabs for dealing with Israel. The one-time Mufti of Jerusalem, and a Hitler chum, sentenced him to being a “Yahudi”, a Jew. The sentence was carried out by an assassin’s bullet in 1951. Even worse, his son was mentally unstable and his grandson was a mere boy. Jordan’s luck began to turn when the boy grew up to be a substantial statesman. Today, the picture could not be more different. This brings us, by a roundabout way, to the events of September 1970, which constitute the opening shot in the long Arab civil wars, still raging 44 years after that fateful month.
Hussein did not have an easy reign. He kept a cool head, even when others sought to dispatch with it. He was not immune to mistakes, the worst of which was embracing Nasser in May 1967 after more than a decade of cool, occasionally hostile, relationship. The embrace was deadly. Jordan lost the West Bank, nearly its entire army and was flooded by refugees. Palestinian militants sought in Jordan a base of operation against Israel. The decorum of Arab Nationalism meant that Hussein should say “Yes”, even if he meant “No”, while expecting little help from fellow Arabs when the inevitable reprisals would come. But Hussein did not follow the Arab script. He behaved as a standard national statesman, placing Jordan’s interests first, and realizing that no functioning state can tolerate independent armed militias, however misty-eyed the cause might be. In September 1970 he led his Bedouin troops, clad in checkered Kaffiyahs, against Yasser Arafat’s men. When Hafez Al Assad of Syria threatened to intervene, Hussein sought Israel’s help. The Arab civil wars had begun.
The nominal, and largely self-appointed, leader of the Arabs called a conference in his hometown, Cairo. News photographs show Nasser sitting between Arafat and Hussein, urging a truce. The calendar had him at a young 52, but his temples were graying, his pallor showed the tell-tale signs of heart disease and diabetes. He was a man working, and smoking, himself to death in order to contain the demons he had unleased. That intervention was Nasser’s last act. His weepy successor, Anwar El Sadat, would take a page from Hussein’s tale and place Egypt’s interest ahead of that of the Palestinians. When Arab leaders raged at him, including the diminutive Hussein who always secretly dealt with the Israelis, he simply dismissed them as “pygmies”, earning him the enmity of the leaders, as well as the Pygmies.
Back to the tale of September 1970. Arafat and his men were routed. They sought a new home. Only Egypt and Lebanon seemed promising. These were countries that sang from very different hymn books. If Oum Kalthoum symbolized matronly Egypt, Salacious Sabah and moody Fairouz symbolized Lebanon. Beirut of 1970 was a freewheeling cosmopolitan of many factions, most in the pay of outsiders. Arafat moved there, carrying the virus of civil war to a country with a weakened immunity to it. In less than five years, Lebanon would erupt into civil war.
Another September, five years later, would see armed men take over hotels to begin the landmark battles of Beirut, which were to last for more than a decade. The flames from that conflict would erupt in another far away corner, Iraq, in September of 1980. Sunni powers, seared by the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian revolution, urged, and occasionally paid, Saddam Hussein to start a bloody war that lasted a decade to no effect. Two years after that, in September 1982, the world would witness the first instance of a massacre now frequently repeated throughout the Levant. On September 16 and 18 armed men slaughtered civilians for the mere crime of being Palestinians, under the watchful eyes of Israel, the West and Arab countries.
The dominos of September continue to fall. September 2014 is yet another in this sad streak. History, like a good actor, rarely repeats itself. But it often reads from the same text. Today’s Levant recalls that of a century ago. Then as now, Imperial powers, aided by Peninsular Arabs, fought over the Levant. Then as now, Egypt stayed aloof, attempting to sort out its identity crisis, albeit with more blood today. Then as now, the Western powers meant well and bumbled badly. Now as then, it will end with ravaged lands, uncertain politics, dark memories, brutal divisions and fragile borders. Proponents of the “Arab Nation” will see conspiracies where there are open plans, enemies where there are self-interested actors, truth where there are lies and lies and betrayals where there are truths.
There is little to learn from the dominos of September, at least little than can be learned by those that matter. But the least we can do is fail to be certain, strive to understand, and struggle to empathize. All else is bound to be irrelevant.
– Maged Atiya
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