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
Egypt has become the land of zero learning curve. Events seem to harden rather than alter the positions of all sides. The standoff between the two great illiberal forces in the country, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, is not heading to an obvious resolution. A year ago the Army adopted the statesman’s position of “warning” the Brotherhood and its civilian opponents to compromise for the sake of the country. The Brotherhood responded by further digging in. In time the Army called their bluff and removed President Morsi. The shock of this event was insufficient to penetrate the epistemological shell of a cult-like organization endowed with legendary Egyptian stubbornness. They refused to recognize the popular sentiment against their dominance and saw minor events as portents for the return of President Morsi. Outside powers encouraged their delusions and cynically left their people in harm’s way. Even the terrible slaughter at Rab’a was simply evidence that things cannot continue that way. They did not, they got worse. In the meantime, those who supported the removal of Morsi refuse to recognize that injustice is rife and that it feeds its twin, chaos. They are also unwilling to face the reality that the Gulf financial aid will end sooner or later and that a systematic focus on economic recovery requires more than “ending terrorism”.
This is a classic stalemate. One side cannot lose but unable to pacify; the other cannot win but able to disrupt. Stalemates in politics are often convenient and constructive, but in violent struggles debilitating and disastrous. The situation is in many ways similar to the aftermath of the 1967 war. Israel could not lose a war against the Arabs but could not forge peace with them. The stalemate was ended when a faction on one side found the psychological strength to make a sullen peace, and those who refused to go along left to their fate. It was not just; but it was not war. It also helped that a major power, the United States, made its goals clearly and unequivocally and then invested sufficient efforts to achieve them. The goals were the survival of Israel and the removal of Egypt from the battle. The methods varied, ranging from Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” to Carter’s “Camp David” strong-arming, but the goal remained the same.
Is a similar outcome possible today in Egypt? The best answer is that “we do not know”. It is disheartening to see otherwise sober statesman such as Senator Patrick Leahy burst out in red-faced frustration about Egypt and its relations with the US. It is also ineffectual. To clean up after the current wreckage requires a clarification of the goals, rather than a focus on methods. The task of US policy makers is unenviable. They need to preserve US interests, which requires making clear choices. Refusal to make choices led to the current situation where all sides seem hostile to the US. But can a country such as the US make a choice between two sides, one offering injustice and the other chaos? This requires subtle understanding and imagination to see the contours of what is possible and what might emerge in time. It is a long term, occasionally frustrating task; probably more so than the decade spent diffusing the Israel-Egypt standoff.
Absolute policy goals are best when they are few and easily articulated. At the moment the only logical goals for the US should be a clear support for the preservation of the integrity of the Egyptian state and the continuation of its support for furthering the development of an open globalized and prosperous world. It will mean that the official policy and the public pressure might need to go in different directions. This is a tough act for a noisy democracy, and requires leaders able to buck the public pressure on occasions. Let us hope they exist in Washington.
– Maged Atiya
That April was not the cruelest month of the year, but the most disappointing month of an entire generation. The day after it ended Egyptians went to the polls to vote for a “Constitutional Declaration”, the first, but alas not the last time, such a term was used. It was, like much else of the improvised regime, an invention of President Nasser. Out of 7,450,478 eligible voters 7,317,419 chose to vote (98.2%), and of those 7,315,743 (99.97%) approved of the declarations. It is possible that the vote was rigged, but equally possible that it was not. Egyptians had a developed a habit of agreeing with the ruler, especially when the alternatives are uncertain.
The trouble with April began in February. The judgment of a court martial on officers held responsible for the 1967 war debacle was passed on February 21 1968, and most deemed it nothing more than a severe slap on the wrist. Suddenly all of Egypt seemed to be on the brink of revolution. Workers walked out at army factories. Cairo University students walked out onto the streets of Giza. Across the city in Heliopolis new students at the elite Al Tabari school, boys not yet into their teens, burst out of the gates screeching slogans they barely understood in sympathy with the older students. As luck would have it they immediately ran into a surprised platoon of new police recruits on their lunch break, smooth-faced country boys of high school age. What followed was less of the police disbursing demonstrators than a school yard melee. All the students were home before supper, sullen and bruised, having learned that voice in Egypt is often found at the painful end of a policeman’s nightstick.
March was a month of excitement. Teach-ins in Giza featured young men with liberal political views, young women with wild hair and the leering informers. Middle-aged men, who imagined themselves in the know, speculated that this is the end of Nasser’s time, and that his second, Zakaria Moheiddin, the US man in Egypt, will soon take over. In time Nasser joined the revolution, for he was not a man who ever missed a revolt, including one directed at him. By the end of March, his efforts resulted in a new revolutionary document, “The March 30” declaration, which aimed to put the defeated Egyptian state on an even keel. Again, the cynics should note that he believed his words, and for the remainder of his life he was a changed man. He had taken off his Army uniform 14 years earlier, but now he seemed free of Army thinking as well. The country actually picked up some vigor, enough to allow it to coast to a face-saving battle in 1973. But March 30 was the end of any real improvement in Egyptian governance for at least a generation, possibly more.
As March ended, April featured the usual media barrage to support the keen vision of “El Ra’is”. April also featured something more celestial than TV appearances by tired sycophants. Early in the month people began to claim visions of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in a Zeitoun Church. In a pleasantly cool late April night a crowd assembled outside the Church. Wicker chairs were set up cinema style. The front rows, reserved for the VIPs featured upholstered cushions. The inevitable seller of salted Lupini beans plied his trade. As the night wore on the crowd stilled and finally slept. A couple of hours ahead of dawn there was a sudden stir, followed by cheers and applause. The one boy who stayed up intently looking at the sky saw nothing but blackness. He kept his silence out of respect for the crowd’s feelings, or in fear of its wrath. Perhaps the cheering crowds obscured his view. The rest of Egypt, the vast majority that did not assemble in Zeitoun, still held strong opinions about what they did not see. Some saw it as a heavenly sign favoring Egypt; others dismissed it as hallucinations of the religiously deluded. Few suspended belief awaiting firm evidence.
Among the skeptics was a charismatic Sunday school teacher in the Cleopatra Church, barely a mile away from Zeitoun. By June he had left his position without an explanation. The summer found him running bootleg Sunday school in the basement of the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Qubba Street. It was never clear whether boys flocked to the weekly meeting out of loyalty, need or the desire to hear bootleg records of “The Doors”. It did not hurt that he turned a blind eye to the pile of banana and Guava thought to cover the smell of Cigarettes and Alcohol. In time he was turned out of there as well, and eventually out of Egypt. In 1970s he was an enthusiastic builder of a Houston congregation, and an occasional demonstrator for democracy in Egypt. But the habits of an inquisitive mind also distanced him from his new Church. A chance encounter in April 1993, at Houston Airport, found him a portly shadow of his former self. He recognized but refused to acknowledge a former student.
– Maged Atiya