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
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