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
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
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 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