The Failure Chorus

All societies come with problems; Egypt possesses many more of them than average. The author of this blog has called a few of them to light. Most of the glaring deficits, such as authoritarian governance, degraded public discourse, infantile politics, are symptoms of deeper ills which will take decades or longer to reform. Egypt, since the 1952 coup and the revival of the Islamists in 1970s, has forcibly “disappeared” many of its most serious thinkers and reformers, for they do not fit the views of the majority or the interests of the ruling elites. The process of rediscovering these voices and reigniting a long term effective social reform is by nature slow and painful, with many a reversal inevitable. The desired end result is societal, not merely political, reform. The worst outcome to be avoided, sometimes at painful costs, is state failure.

Still, humans yearn for a happy ending within the typical time constraints of a Hollywood movie. None more so that many outside observers and scholars who persuaded themselves, nay hung their reputations, on a tale of “Spring” and other such stuff. But Egypt stubbornly refused to follow the happy script. It is not a surprising outcome for many who observed the country and its struggles with its identity, the anchor chains of its history and the limitations of its resources. Rather than adjust the expectations, or revise the tale, many of the Scheherazades insist on finding alternate tales, with clear cut heroes and villains, well-identified moral lines and crisp recommendations for quick solutions. None of the recommendations frequently broadcast on editorial pages and social media will bring immediate relief to Egypt, nor a quick solution to its problems. Some might bring even greater suffering.

As the current regime consolidates its power, a vocal chorus has emerged. The voices within it rightly call out the regime  on its many errors, brutalities and occasional ineptness. They also pray for its collapse. It is unlikely, for a variety of reasons, that this “Failure Chorus” will contribute positively to a long-term positive outcome in Egypt.

First these voices do not criticize the regime in a manner likely to alter its behavior or provide a humane outcome in the many cases of injustices inflicted on specific individuals. Their eagerness to believe the worst of the regime often impairs their judgement, as tales from Egypt are never as straightforward as they appear. Surgeons normally use scalpels, as we must all agree.

Second, when these voices report on the current threats of terrorism and violence the tone teeters on the gleeful. They do not distinguish between those threats which are regional, and for which the regime of Morsi was ill prepared to deal with, and those that arise from his disaffected followers. Also, in the case of the latter, none of these voices ask if agents of this violence can be accepted as a future democratic force, and under what conditions. Instead, there is simply the sense that such violence is Egypt’s deserved lot for the sin of removing a dangerously hapless man from power grasped through deeply flawed political deals.

Third, these voices are constantly urging “punishment” for the regime, without articulating clearly if such punishment will alter its behavior or simply increase the suffering of the people. Such urgings exaggerate the power of outsiders, or more precisely of outsiders who are in broad agreement with this Failure Chorus.

Finally, these voices give little thought to the disaster that would afflict Egypt, and the world at large, should the Egyptian state fail, or should the Muslim Brotherhood, or a more virulent variant of it, acquires undisputed power through violence. No one with an iota of affection for Egyptians, generally or specifically, can see anything but horror in such outcome. This, more than anything else, renders the Failure Chorus suspect in the eyes of many Egyptians, and deaf even to its occasionally sensible recommendations.

The best way to deal with Egypt today is through understanding tempered with a cool detachment. When we gaze on Egypt we need to keep in our peripheral vision the bloody failures around it. The Failure Chorus, full of passion, is blinkered through selective focus and deafened by the voices raised in righteous indignation.


— Maged Atiya

Abu Borges El Masri

Someone penned a satirical letter pretending to be Mexico’s President apologizing to Egypt for the accidental killing of Mexican tourists by the Egyptian Army. Many Egyptian media outlets reported it as genuine. This event is remarkable only for its quotidian nature. It is in line with the behavior of many in the country, including its officials. When explaining events as diverse as the recent tragedy or the crash of EgyptAir flight 990, Egyptian officialdom often displays Saramago-like fictive skills.  One suspects that if Borges were alive today he would see in Egypt the greatest fiction he would have wished to write.

In the short story “The House of Asterion” Borges rewrote the myth of the Minotaur from the point of view of the monster. But Egypt today is that myth told from the point of view of the sacrificial victims. Ninety Million souls lost in a labyrinth of mirrors and reflections, tales and rumors, fiction and myth, with no prospect of a Theseus for the rescue.  Unlike the Greek tale, Egypt’s labyrinth has no Minotaur, or at least no single Minotaur.  The wanderers fall victim to their own fears. Those fears can assume any number of shapes. The labyrinth of mirrors features a multitude of Minotaurs. A heretical thought places a lost Daedalus, not King Mena, as the builder of Egypt.

This state of affairs is not new. The 1960s featured a Radio Ramadan serial called Scheherazade. It was an hour of tales that opened and closed with a musical theme from one of Nasser’s favorite composers, Rimsky-Korsakov. If one were young enough, and unschooled enough, the other 23 hours of programming seemed no different. Nasser, the consummate actor, held sway over an entire country by the sheer force of his tales. The Scheherazade serial was a sly comment on his tenure. The country eagerly awaited the next installment and held its occasionally murderous urges in check. All of Nasser’s successors were lesser actors. Sadat was a lesser talent and his performances were accordingly more contrived and theatrical; less natural. His remarkable September 5 1981 speech lost the tale, and presaged his end. Mubarak, a journeyman capable of one acting tic, lost his grip when he could no longer convincingly retell his tale of future woe.

Outsiders are not immune to this virus. Many fall for the tales of one or more of the various Egyptian personalities and factions and retell them in stentorian tones of high moral purpose. Fact-checking Egypt is sometimes akin to ploughing water, but it must be done. Still, one can hardly tell what is true or false in the tales of the “Zero Student”, or a Samira Ibrahim or a Mohamed Soltan. But the tales, like all tales, provide a moral, and one eagerly taken up by men and women of all stations in life. Journalists, policy makers, and intellectual tourists fall victim to even grander tales, much like the tourist who pays handsomely for a recently made ancient artifact. Try to convince the tourist of his error, which would destroy both his investment and his self-esteem, and you are likely to find defiance and anger. The most dangerous thing to possess in the Egypt-planet is a skeptical mind.

These observations admit no conclusion, offer no explanation, nor recommend any course of action. Egypt seems to muddle through with fictions laced with the occasional rude awakening. The country prays fervently to its God, and takes events, both positive and negative, interchangeably as omens and portents. We can hector it from the sideline, but to little effect. A friend asked “are you disillusioned with Egypt?”. The question has no answer; for how can there be disillusion with an affectionately held illusion.

— Maged Atiya

What is the matter with Egyptian Authoritarianism?

Authoritarianism, the default governance mode in Egypt, is always offered as a cure or a necessity, and with the pious declaration that the ruler has no interest in power, merely assuming the troubling mantle to serve his children. The most notable aspect of this observation is the sincerity of the declaration, and the willingness of many, including intellectuals, to go along with its fundamental reasoning. This is not historically unique; Raymond Aron noted that most European societies achieved modernization and prosperity under authoritarian governance. But Egyptian authoritarianism is a slightly different breed, having evolved in an environment where the country has been a province of other empires for millennia, and with a permanent separation between the state and the people,  as well as having a persistent poverty and cultural retardation that cannot be wholly explained given the country’s wealth in human resources. Egypt’s singular problem is underdevelopment, something that many recognize yet refuse to admit in a straightforward fashion. The persistence of authoritarianism, like the persistence of underdevelopment raises the question of why Egypt seemingly can’t escape either. The roots of authoritarianism are both cultural and economic, and of the two the latter is more amenable to a solution, and might ultimately influence the former in a positive fashion. And it is to the economic factors that must turn some attention.

The question of “What is the matter with Egypt?” is gaining some currency, no doubt due to the post-January 2011 disappointments. Egypt can’t seem to follow the bright and hopeful script written for it by others. The question echoes that of Thomas Frank’s book “What is the matter with Kansas?” where he argues that cultural and identity issues make Kansans vote against their economic interests. Kansas, weather aside, is a perfectly lovely place in spite of Frank’s valid concerns. The same question can be asked of many places, both functioning and broken, and largely reflects the questioner’s anxiety.  Yet there is a common thread between Kansas and Egypt in the transmutation of the economic struggle into other struggles. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in the 1930s that the abolition of property in the Soviet Union will simply move the inevitable human conflict from the economic to the far more dangerous political and cultural spheres. It is a profound observation that can easily be applied to an understanding of what ails Egypt. Egypt has transmuted its economic struggles into either nationalist or religious struggles. These struggles are fraternal twins bound to be occasional collaborators and frequent bitter enemies. To the eyes of its sons, and largely oppressed daughters, the poverty of Egypt was never a problem to be tackled head on in direct fashion, but a by-product of another larger phenomenon. It was due to the foreigners’ exploitation of the country (the nationalist narrative) or the West’s war on Islam (the religious narrative). Once a problem is made indirect and subsidiary to other less tangible issues it becomes that much more intractable.

There are plenty of demons that haunt Egypt, but no more so than most nations. Nativism, hyper-nationalism, authoritarian governance, religious chauvinism and bigotry are social ills not uncommon elsewhere. We can find reasons why these ills may retard economic development, yet Egypt’s economic underdevelopment remains a mystery especially when compared to other nations. In the 1850s Egypt was ahead of Japan by most measures, but within 50 years Japan had leapt into the forefront of economic and technological achievements, while Egypt stagnated. It can be said that Japan was at least as authoritarian, nativist and hyper-nationalistic as Egypt. Korea was a devastated mess in 1956, but within a decade it also leapt ahead of Egypt. It was governed by an Army elite, as least as repressive as Nasser’s core of Free Officers. Authoritarianism is less a cause of underdevelopment than its companion, both children of deeper ills.

Egypt experienced many waves of economic development, modernization and state building since the 1770s, with major roles played by foreigners, or more accurately foreign Egyptians, for mostly they took to the country even if at times they disliked it. Muhammad Ali imported them for his imperial project; Lord Cromer relied on them to administer Egypt for the British Empire, even while developing a cadre of native functionaries. The economic elite included a smattering of foreign-born Egyptians and many Egyptians who emulated foreign manners. To the average Egyptian, prosperity came to seem as a foreign trait. It was all too easy to conflate the desire for prosperity and social justice with the cry of “taking back Egypt”. This was a subtle component of ‘Urabi’s appeal in 1880s, the direct cry of the Egyptian revolution in 1919, and almost the entirety of Nasser’s economic plan in 1950s and 1960s. This nativism proved destructive in a world where prosperity and openness to global influences were increasingly intertwined. It also created a mindset where development is a by-product of restoring national greatness. Of course the very opposite is true. In many ways Egypt is a country shackled by its history. The desire to restore ancient greatness, whether of the Ancient Egyptians or the Muslim Empires, often detracts from a much more realizable goal; achieving a decent level of prosperity common to midsize countries. The myth of Egypt as an exceptional place, a grand edifice buried in the sands and needing restoration by its people is debilitating, forcing backward glances rather than a forward vision, and useless arguments about which heritage is worth restoring. The pursuit of greatness can detract from the simpler tasks of developing a country where the buildings are well-tended, the roads are safe, the trains stay on track, the ferries remain afloat, and the police does not habitually beat the citizens, or vice versa. Somehow, the slogan of “let us be as wealthy as Slovenia” does not resonate well in Egypt. The country seems to respond to leaders who ask it to bat for the fences while handing it a flimsy stick for the purpose.

Authoritarianism is harmful at an individual level, inflicting injustices and suffering on those who cross its path, willingly or accidentally. It is also harmful at a communal level, robbing the country of contrary voices that call out potential disasters in the making. Yet, few practical remedies are actually offered, beyond the obvious exhortation to be “more democratic and inclusive”. The trick of course is not to become democratic, but to remain so; especially when the competing political forces are fundamentally authoritarian. Inclusiveness sounds like a virtue, until subjected to a critical review of what exactly is being “included’ in the political mix. In Egypt’s case authoritarianism has become tied to a political and economic system (Statism) that leaves it the favorite among all other choices. “Statism”, or the belief that the State, not the society, is the ultimate manifestation of the nation, is endemic to Egyptian political thinking. Ultra-nationalists see it as the path to national greatness. Islamists see it as the way to create a more pious and godly society. Even revolutionaries see it as the way to foster social justice. As a result authoritarian governance seems to draw strength from both its supporters, through the promise of greatness, and its opponents, through the fear of chaos. This raises the question of whether there is a path out of this doleful loop.

Some months ago, at a breakfast with an Egyptian activist, he asked for advice on how to best alter the Egyptian state. I offered that if you do not like the state the choices are limited to two; leave the country, or build alternate structures away from the state that create just the set of social conditions he advocates with sincere passion. The second option is the most difficult, but perhaps most rewarding, as it will entail moral compromises and moral disillusions. Meeting a payroll or culling of the unproductive, can make a man or a woman quickly lose absolute faith in great ideals. That is the beginning of a healthy political system, where not all battles are for great causes, and not all losses are historical disasters. Sadly, the advice not only fell on deaf ears, but it encouraged the young man to see in his interlocutor a moral coward, a regime supporter, and a lifelong enemy.

There is a statement, attributed to famous editor and left-of-center intellectual, Hani Shukrallah, that “It is interesting that the dynamic of revolution and counter-revolution reduces social and political conflict to its bare bones, rendering it almost a moral struggle: between reason and idiocy, compassion and heartless cruelty, i.e. the best and the worst in human condition!”. Many in Egypt find this statement admirable, even righteous. To this author it encapsulates, in its Manichean and certain views, why Egyptian intellectuals have failed to create a democratic alternative. If you simply take out “revolution” and “counter-revolution” and substitute the cherished heaven and bogeymen of militant Islamism, or ultra-nationalism, the statement could have been uttered by any of their proponents. Egypt does not lack for intelligence, or courage, or moral certainly; it lacks for tolerance of diversity. Every opponent is not a detestable enemy, and every ally is not a paragon of virtue. The struggle between reason and idiocy, cruelty and compassion, is within every individual, and the recognition of moral fallibility and associated lack of certainty produces a profound distrust of such statements. In that lies the beginning of politics as a human endeavor to reconcile the needs of the many for the interest of the whole.

One must end this post on a note of hopeful pessimism. That Egypt will endure authoritarian governance, and its ills, until a new generation decides to develop the country in different ways. Unlike the previous generations of foreigners who took to the country, these are natives who withdraw from its conventions; becoming apostates to its visions of national greatness, public piety, and hysterical fears. They will seek to develop not the country, but its inhabitants, one soul at a time. They will not demand selflessness and sacrifice from the “people”, but promote self-interest moderated by concern for rules. Until then the country will be doomed to cherish the past, fear the present, and chart magical courses for the future.


— Maged Atiya

Keyboard Wars in Egypt

When hundreds of fighters allied with the so-called Islamic State streamed into the Sinai border village of Sheikh Zwayd, there were few reporters to document the situation. The notorious murderousness of these men, as well as restrictions from the Egyptian government, had understandably depleted the pool of reporters there.  This did not stop the filing of many reports in the Western press, nor of many journalists taking to the social media to comment on the unobserved scene. A rare voice in this cacophony was that of Egypt historian Steven Cook who tweeted Egyptians are fighting the same group as the Iraqis, but without the help of sectarian death squads”, thus summarizing in a few words all that matters in this fight and in all the other fights raging in the region. The majority of the foreign press, however, were dusting up old stories of ISIS conquests and preparing to bulk-edit “Egyptian” for “Iraqi”.

We do not know all the details of what did occur during that fight. We do know that some things did not happen. The ISIS-affiliated group did not take over the town, nor was the Black Flag hoisted on government buildings. We also know that the conscripts of the Egyptian Army, clean-faced young men, the majority devout Muslims from rural or working-class backgrounds, did not ditch their uniforms and flee. That was a story worth reporting, but instead the majority of reports spoke of government repression, escalation of attacks since the removal of President Morsi, the alienation of young men, etc etc etc. All very important topics, but hardly breaking news. There was some reason for the Egyptian government to be miffed at this, but in typical fashion, it compounded the problem by attempting to shape the narrative and intimidate the reporters. It thus shifted the attention from the shortcomings of the reporting to that of its own.

Foreign reporting is a peculiar genre. Reporters have to both document facts and provide “context” for the readers back at home who might not be familiar with history and culture of the countries in question. Naturally all reporters come freighted with their own ideas and biases. The best among them will pierce through that fog. It is more complicated in Egypt, where a sense of injury and hyper-nationalism has made everyone behind a camera or a notebook seem like a dangerous spy. Some reporters go beyond writing to exhibit their biases and occasional holes of knowledge on social media. The reporters are suddenly the glaring sidebar, muddling the real story. But what is the real story here?

The story is by-now a familiar one, of identity fights and state collapse. Should Egypt succumb to these then all hell will break loose. But in managing to fend off terrorism using the instruments of the state, however creaky and clumsy, there is hope left. To build a democratic and prosperous state, you need to start with an actual state. This is an unsurprising statement, but one that occasioned an esteemed Western reporter to attack it as “conniving with the coup”. There is a loss of perspective here, a proverbial trees-for-forest confusion. A century ago Western powers put potentates in charge of states, more recently it has yanked potentates from them. Various actions, from the invasion of Iraq to the fall of Qaddafi, have adopted the attitude of change-regime-now-ask-questions-later. Egypt has been largely exempted from both processes, but Egyptians have honored the Western powers by impugning these actions to conspiracies rather than to fumbling. The rest is history in the making. Yes, the Egyptian state is ramshackle, and Egyptians need to place more effort than pride in it; but when faced with its dissolution, can they really be expected to join in? Reporters can not be expected to participate in this fight, and they can best refrain from doing so by sticking to the facts, and skip the “context”.

So to sum up a frustrating post. An unsolicited advice to the Egyptian government is to “chill out” To the Western press, I offer no advice. These are the things we hold sacred; that no government should muzzle the press, that no reader should believe newsprint blindly; that news is a product where the tires must be kicked, the fabric handled and the package sniffed; and that men, both wise and foolish, should await facts before filing reports.

— Maged Atiya

July 3 in Egypt – Two Years Later

Two years ago I wrote that the removal of President Morsi is as difficult to condone as it is to condemn. Events since then have not altered this judgment, even if the post reads with embarrassing naïve faith in the willingness of Egyptians to step from the edge.

The “difficult to condone” part is easy. The removal of Morsi was a violation of the rules, even if such things are sketchy and elastic in Egypt. It is also not a healthy development for Egyptian politics, pushing its politicians into more infantile behavior. Above all it is not healthy for the Army. Egypt is surrounded by chaos and collapsing states caused by the fall of the Arab order and outside meddling in it. The Army has a tough job defending the country, and it needs to be above the fray, not a partisan in its politics.

The “difficult to condemn” part is significantly harder. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the removal of Morsi has occasioned the violence that followed it. If true, then it is an implicit condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood. If false, then it is an equally implicit endorsement for the need to remove the inept Morsi. The reality is likely in-between and much arguing can ensue about its exact position. Some will argue that Egypt would have been in far worse shape had Morsi stayed in power, given the events around it. That argument can never be empirically proven and hence must be discarded. The real troubling aspect of all this comes from a different spectacle; the unraveling of Iraq. It is tempting to see no analogy at all between the fractious Iraq and the supposedly “real” and solid Egypt. Certainly there are major differences, but one must not fall too easily into believing the myth of Egyptian exceptionalism. All states, subjected to certain stresses, will falter in similar ways. The fact of the matter is that Iraq was ruled by an elected and hapless leader who had no political checks against his power. In the end he sank the state. With all collapsing about him he was ejected from power, not by a native force, but by the fiat of foreign leaders secure in capitals far away. But it was still too late.

These are the uncomfortable facts. It is the sadness of those who care about Egypt that there is no comfortable ground to stand on, and that any hope for an exit from this situation remains years away.

— Maged Atiya

The True Nakba -June 9 1967

For a few in Egypt who had access to external information, the June 5 1967 rapid success of Israel came as no surprise. The Jews had in less than two decades built a functioning state that acquired the underpinning of Western culture that many Egyptians envied. The claims and exhortation of “Voice of the Arabs” radio were hollow, and even for a young boy the Arabic language had acquired such a patina of empty bravado that it seemed less a native tongue than imposition by an evil step-mother. In any case, the evidence of defeat came rapidly with news that all military aircrafts around Cairo had been destroyed in less than one hour.

The true disaster began to unfold four days later as Nasser tendered his resignation in a short speech on Television. For a few minutes some imagined an escape under Zakaria Mohieddin; a silent man whom many in Egypt believed to be friendly to the West and hostile to the failing economic policies of the preceding few years. But those who listened closely to the speech heard a father’s assumption of responsibility for the failures of his children; a profoundly damaging and cruel sentence to inflict on those who worshipped him, and those who loved him, even when they feared him. It was also an effective one, for crowds rushed into the streets to demand the immediate return of the “Ra’is”. There has never been an evidence of orchestration on the part of Nasser, and Egypt’s trajectory since that day provides plenty of evidence that the reaction may have been genuine. But a genuine reaction is far more troubling than a coerced one. And indeed, subsequent history would reproduce its lamentable features.

We should note Rushdi Sa’id’s description of the 1967-1973 years as those of “Hope and Despair”. There were genuine openings and an attempt to bring the country together in a spirit of cooperation and “can-do”, but the presence of Nasser, and the “Free Officers”, at the helm meant that little of fundamental change could come to pass. The February revolution of 1968 was at attempt at genuine and liberal change, and it was snuffed out quickly by the wily Nasser who came to its aid as if he had not governed the country for 15 years.

There were bound to be introspection on “what went wrong”. The first, and probably least known, was a panel talk in early July 1967 at Cairo University, organized outside official supervision and thus sparsely attended. A professor of Engineering (later forced to emigrate) boldly suggested that the defeat had two underpinnings. First, Israel had a more educated population, skilled in science and technology which are the tools of modern warfare. Second, it effectively mobilized its population because they were free to voice their views and believed in the goal for which they might give up their lives. The myth of “little Israel” had blotted out the reality that on June 5 Israel had a fraction of the population but more troops, armor and aircrafts than the combined forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Both points were to make it to the official and social conscience, but in grotesquely corrupted forms.

The official propaganda in Egypt began a campaign of promotion of “Science and Technology”, as a quick magic potion to overcome the defeat. But few were willing, even if able, to assert that science rested on the pursuit of truth, and to promote it, one had to rid Egyptian education of lies. In fact, the opposite came to pass. Commentators claimed that Science was an Arab contribution that the West has since appropriated and now it was time to claim it back in “authentic” form. The Israelis, understandably cocky, strutted on the world stage aided by admiring Western press. The psychic damage was severe, leading to a claim that the West had a fundamental aversion to Arab progress and an innate desire to keep the “East” under heel. This flammable discourse had existed since the 1920s and the days of the “Eastern League “in Egypt. (As an aside, the virus having acquired a systematic vector would eventually jump its host to settle in Western discourse of “post-colonialism”) This handicap meant that even the rise of impressively educated technical elite would not rid the country of habits of thinking that anchor authoritarianism deep into the social structure. A prime case is that of Dr. Mohammad Morsi, an American-educated rocket scientist, politician, and briefly a President of the Republic, who would issue bizarre and clearly incorrect speculations with a straight face. Nor is he an exception. Among his opponents there are many (in the acid words of an Egyptian scientist) “back-street obscurantists”.

The second corruption was even more dangerous. The observation that in 1967 Israeli troops were more willing to die for their cause than the Arab troops was twisted horribly toward a culture of death rather than freedom. What the professor meant was that the average Israeli soldier was a citizen with a stake and a voice in his polity, while the Arab soldiers felt coerced, intimidated and ultimately not valued as either citizens or free men. The resurgence of political Islam post 1967 twisted this logic into building a desire to protect and die for Islam. It was but a short step to the grotesque and alien world of suicide vests and decapitation videos.

Many will correctly try to link the setback of June 5 1967 to the current disasters in the Arab world. The hinge remains June 9 1967, when reality, having shone a light on profound deficiency, caused a retreat to the comfort of myths and repose of death within them.

— Maged Atiya


Out of The Sudan

A woman died in Cairo in 1966, said to be 102. In the last years of her life she remained an attraction for boys and girls who overcame the young’s normal revulsion for the very old to listen to her tales. Although she regularly confused near events, she had a sharp and unvarying memory for those of her youth. The tale she told repeatedly was of how she traveled north to Egypt from her home in the Sudan. She described herself on a donkey, carrying a newborn baby, with her husband hurrying behind her on foot. The iconography of her tale should make us suspicious of its accuracy, and indeed it is unlikely to be exact. There must have been others in her party, including a younger sister who would give birth to this author’s maternal grandfather. The traveling party must have looked more like a refugee train than a Holy Family.

But the events are partly true. In 1884 a certain Englishman, Charles George (Chinese) Gordon was sent to the Sudan to organize the removal of civilians from the advancing army of the Mahdi’s religious extremists.  Gordon was the kind of man that only Victorian England, or Hollywood, could conjure. In his case, it was both; Charles Heston starred in Gordon’s bio-epic “Khartoum” in 1966, before he stripped to his undies in “Planet of the Apes”. Gordon did indeed fulfill one part of his charge and evacuated most of the civilians likely to be butchered before ignoring the remainder of his brief and remaining in Khartoum to organize a valiant defense. He was killed in 1885, just days before a procrastinating relief expedition was to arrive. We should not delve further into Gordon’s fascinating and fragmented psyche; he was part warrior, part peacemaker, part soldier of fortune, part fervent abolitionist, part mystical fundamentalist, part daring general, part moral busybody and part closeted Homosexual. But the events he participated in are useful to recall today. In 1966 they were considered to belong resolutely to a darker past, impossible to believe they would ever recur in other disguises. A half-century later the bare outline of a last defense against wild religious extremism and the hesitant response of a great Western power to eventual intervention, seem sadly familiar.

The woman who traveled north out of the Sudan was ethnically Egyptian. Her father had gone south to start a farm and prosper south of the Cataracts, near Omdurman. It remains unclear as to why he left his village near Esna. He was either in the initial wave of an ethnic cleansing campaign against Copts by Muhammad Ali’s son Abbas Helmi I, or he simply sought better farmland. The Abbas Helmi campaign, mostly forgotten now, never took off, thanks to Egyptian inefficiency and to the murder of Abbas by his courtiers who were terrified by his mad ways. But the fate of Christianity in Northern Sudan remains instructive. The evacuation of Khartoum did not end Christian presence in the Sudan. The Mehdi’s revolt died and although Egyptian Copts never came back in any significant numbers, there were missions from Egypt as well as Europe to revive the local Christian population. Things remained stable until the 1980s when the Islamist government in the Sudan began a campaign of coercion against local Christians. That was the opening shot in a policy of bad governance that would create humanitarian crises of vast dimensions and ultimately rip the Sudan asunder. Those of us who warned in the early 1980s that the Sudan’s persecution of Christians is a precursor to worse deeds were largely ignored. Although monies were raised and protests were lodged, little could be done to effectively help the local population there. The horrors of Darfur and the Sudanese civil wars could be glimpsed then, but absent stark evidence in human blood, or interest from glamorous celebrities, Western governments were largely as uninterested as Gladstone had been a century before. Intervention can never be wholly separated from imperialism and the White Man’s burden consists of both good intentions and self-interest.

Out of the Sudan come instructive lessons. First, that expectation of outside help for Christians harried by Muslim extremists is likely to end in disappointment.  Once religious zealots seize the reins of power, the best hope for Christians is that they find a home elsewhere, however difficult the journey. But there is an even more important lesson. The costs of cleansing Muslim-majority lands of Christians are also high for the Muslims in the population. Long after the Christians are gone new victims will be sought and the wretched ratchet will keep turning in on itself. The lessons of the Sudan maybe lost on many lands in the Near East, but at least in Egypt they should be heeded. The ugly practice of pushing Copts out of their homes to calm irrational mobs, and allow the police to snooze in peace, will likely prove a disaster in the long term  for everyone, including those who incite or join the mobs. These events should not be seen as merely harmful to Copts, but a prelude to Egypt’s descent into its version of the Sudanese maelstrom.

— Maged Atiya


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