Egypt and Ethiopia. Water and Climate. Competition or Conflict?

One of the more bizarre episodes of the short tenure of President Morsi, one which occasioned this author to think of him as a mortal danger to his country, occurred in the spring of 2013. Dr Morsi held a conclave of prominent Egyptians to discuss policy toward the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, during which many participants were heard to recommend ways to attack and destabilize their neighbor. The trouble was that Dr Morsi chose to broadcast the entire event live on Television. An Ethiopian acquaintance emailed a terse and chilling evaluation of the event; “Ahmed Gragn”. This was a reference to the Jihadist warlord who ravaged Ethiopia in the early 16th century during a failed attempt to convert it to Islam. The relationship between the two countries is a vital one for both, as they share a life-sustaining river and a history of intimate and occasionally fractious relations. Will Egypt and Ethiopia manage their relationship during the next decade as an example of effective collaboration or destructive competition? The fear is that the Nile basin may witness one of the first, and possibly most destructive, competitions of the new age of climate change.

The centuries long relations between the two countries are those of intimate, but not always loving, siblings. During the Middle Ages Ethiopia feared that Egypt was attempting to convert it to Islam; and as a result kept a wary eye on its northern neighbor. Egypt saw in Ethiopia a vital link in its trade routes. Ethiopia, predominantly Coptic in faith, recognized the Egyptian Church as its spiritual source, and often threatened to cut off the supply of the Nile waters whenever the notoriously brutal and sectarian Mamelukes leaned too heavily on the harried Copts. During the 19th century the nature of relations began to change. Ethiopia feared Muhammad Ali’s designs, while admiring his reforms, and wishing to emulate them. An Egyptian expedition to Ethiopia in the 1870s failed disastrously, due to the efforts of the great reforming Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV. That failure was instrumental in the formation of the ‘Urabi movement and the development of Egyptian nationalism and its inclination to favoring of the Army. The 20th Century saw an improvement in relations under the watchful eye of elites in both countries. Ethiopia had its share of philo-Egyptians who knew Egypt well and respected and admired its culture. Egypt, in turn, had many philo-Ethiopians who recognized the cultural kinship between the two countries. This closeness managed to smooth over the many crises of that time, such as Ethiopia’s suspicion of Nasser’s pan-Arabism, the discord between the Ethiopian and Egyptian Churches that led to the autocephaly of the Ethiopian Church, and the Ethiopian anger over Nasser’s High Dam plans. By the 1980s these elites had pretty much disappeared in both countries, victims of the Ethiopian revolutionary Derg and the rise of Islamists in Egypt. The latter kept up a barrage of demonization and insults toward “Al Habasha”, the common term for Ethiopia. As the two countries looked after the troubles at their borders, and internally, the relationship became one of ignorance and aloofness.

The construction of the “Renaissance Dam” in Ethiopia raises the spectre of discord again. Filling the dam will temporarily alter the river’s flow, but even a temporary alteration could be disastrous for Egypt. But more serious issues remain beyond the dam. Egypt and Ethiopia have identical populations, but Egypt uses 10 times as much water from the Nile as Ethiopia. The reasons are both historical and technological. Ethiopia enjoyed abundant rains, and the Blue Nile is difficult to harness. But with climate change and population growth Ethiopia will need to use more of the Blue Nile water, which supplies 85% of the Egyptian Nile. New technology, and a resurgent and reforming Ethiopia will suddenly make the ancient threat of withholding the Nile very real indeed. The picture is made worse, at least for Egypt, by the expectation that rising sea levels from climate change will place some of its low-lying arable land under the sea. Threats of force, as Morsi’s farce indicated, are unrealistic. Egypt, even at its strongest point, can not mount a foreign expedition, and in any case, few outsiders ever managed to win a war against Ethiopia. Ethiopia, stealing a page from Nasser’s High Dam adventure, has taken a “go-it-alone” approach without sufficient attention to the dangers of that approach. Egyptian leadership has, on the other hand, been largely absent; as the country is occupied by the pointless turmoil of its Arab and Islamic identity struggles. The latter has given Ethiopia scant reasons to be accommodating. This is a bad brew, and one with considerable danger for the world beyond the two countries. A water conflict between countries of a combined population of nearly 200 Million souls could send millions of refugees toward the shores of Europe, making the Syrian nightmare seem like a trickle. The involvement of China in acquiring water and land in Africa adds yet another dangerous international dimension to the equation. But what can be done?

We must recognize that the Nile basin issues can not be resolved solely by the countries involved. Climate change is a creation of the industrialized world and it has a responsibility to assist the affected countries. But beyond the moral imperative, there exists a practical necessity of not seeing a human crisis at the periphery of Europe and near the heart of Africa. The problems of the Nile basin resemble others previously managed by the United States during the first half of the 20th century, and by the Netherlands in its struggle with the North Sea. An international consortium, including all Nile countries, to manage the river waters for the people living alongside it, and funded partially by the developed nations is the best way forward., The cost will be small compared to the cost of managing crises and refugees. Such an achievable effort will radically alter the landscape of the basin, for the better, and provide a better life for nearly 300 Million people. Failure is unimaginably dire.

— Maged Atiya


The Incompetent State

The crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai is now causing widespread damage to the tourism industry in Egypt, estimated to bring in 6-8 Billion USD annually. There is even talk of a “collapsing state” due to this loss. To put things in perspective, there are over 100 US companies whose net profits exceed that of Egypt’s tourism industry. This is a frightening picture of the fragility of the Egyptian state. Lost in all the noise and opinionating, based mostly on pre-conceived biases, is a discussion of how Egypt got to this sorry state.

Tourism, or at the least the current Egyptian version of it, is not a happy industry. A few magnates, owners of resorts and associated businesses, do well. The majority of workers are “service industry” types; literally people who cook, clean, and serve the tourists sunning themselves on the beaches. For a country to base half its foreign earnings on this industry is a humiliating and profoundly damaging state. This humiliation, rarely acknowledged in the open due to the overly sensitive Egyptian psyche, is at the root of what seems to be national madness. A sense of injury and hurt aimed at the world in general, and at any particular critic that dares point out problems that Egyptians themselves have identified. This should be a moment of reflection for Egypt. The loss of tourism revenue threatens the state because Egypt imports twice as much as it exports, and relies on food imports to feed its burgeoning population. To correct this state, it is important to identify and correct its root causes.

The country as a whole suffers from poor education, low social entrepreneurship and rapidly increasing population. These problems reflect badly on the system that Egyptians have constructed to misgovern them since 1954, when the first “native” state took over. We do not need to dive into post-colonial mumbo jumbo to discuss this issue. Many countries around the world have threaded the development needle, evolving from a backward state to advancing and prosperous development. Often this is done under the watchful eye of enlightened authoritarian systems, which eventually give way to better and more liberal governance, once the population hits a magic level of GDP and Middle Class prosperity. The trouble with Egyptian authoritarianism is that it has been largely incompetent at economics, and often too weak to face a population fond of religious orthodoxy and bent on social conservatism. To escape the current vicious economic cycle, there will need to be major investment in Egypt, probably by many outside actors. The reason to do so is simple. No one wants a failed state on the Nile, astride Africa, Asia and Europe. But such investments must be pre-conditioned on major changes in public policies that favor investments and encourage small and medium entrepreneurs, and end the back-scratching cronyism of large businessmen getting preferential treatment from the state, or the Army. Such conditions will undoubtedly raise Egyptian hackles; as the hyper-nationalism seems rampant today. But many Egyptians are waking up to the outline of the disaster looming ahead. As the adage goes, an impending disaster can focus the mind.

It is pointless to recommend “democratic reforms” on Egypt today. They will not come, and any democracy that might conceivably emerge today will be fragile, prone to demagoguery, and in the grotesque language favored by many think tankers “illiberal”. To have a democratic state one must start with an actual state. Sadly, the best that can be recommended to Egypt today is capable and competent authoritarianism, which the current version is not. Many are asking that relations and aid to Egypt be predicated on ending its “repressive” policies. This observer argues that aid and relations be predicated on the quality of managers and the policies in place. In the end, native prosperity is more likely to bring social and political freedom than the well-intentioned urgings of outsiders.

— Maged Atiya

The Kosygin Tactic

The suspension of Russian flights to Egypt will likely decimate tourism in the Red Sea. So why did Putin, who is idolized by many in Egypt, make that decision? It is possible that he is concerned about Russian lives, put at risk by lax airport security. It would be a welcome change from his heretofore attitude toward lives, both Russian and non-Russian. More likely Putin is using the crash of the Russian airliner as pretext to wrest something out of Egypt, as always for his gain. As a man well versed in Soviet history he must know something about the “Kosygin tactic”. The Soviet Union desired a naval base in Alexandria. From the beginning of the Yemen war in 1962 to the final departure of advisors in 1972 the man in charge of the policy, Alexei Kosygin, alternately provided aid and withheld it to coerce Nasser into providing the base. Nasser, and his fellow Free Officers, would not relent, if only because they built their reputation on keeping Egypt out of foreign alliances and keeping foreign bases out of Egypt. For that decade the Soviet Union approximated a frustrated High Schooler ineptly trying to unhook the well-clasped ample Egyptian bra. In the end it was an unlikely American, Henry Kissinger, who pulled a “Kosygin” on Kosygin, and cemented a relationship, now fraying. (Kosygin never recovered from that humiliation). Putin clearly wants something and is trying to coerce it out of Egypt. Perhaps it is mere influence, or something more substantial such as assistance with the various Middle Eastern escapades he is involved in.

Egypt today is a country at the end of its tether (more on that in a separate post). Like the proverbial animal in that pathetic situation it could lash out and act in an unpredictable fashion. But this denouement is an opportunity for the country to start anew and chart a better path. It is 1876 all over again in Egypt, but this time without either the rapacious European bankers or Lord Cromer. It is the end of the 1954 Nasser state (as 1876 was the end of the Muhammad Ali state). That state has reached a dead-end, where it can no longer sweet talk or coerce the citizens, and where it offers no vision beyond plodding along. Egypt needs an overhaul and reorganization of the state; its legitimacy and obligations to the citizens, defences, finances, administrative structures and relations with the region and the world. One suspects that many in power know that, but are unable to break the tether that binds them to the post of the 1954 state, and keeps the country just barely away from the peace and prosperity it desires. President Sisi expressed effusive gratitude to the US in September, both to the English and Arabic press. But the US kept a lofty distance, perhaps because it is no longer in a mood of “nation building and democratization”. Little more than a decade ago the US spent a Trillion Dollars and thousands of lives trying to build a democracy in so-called Iraq; a task as fanciful as growing Cranberries in the Sahara. With collapsing states all over the region the US is in no mood for a second go. That is a costly mistake. There are better ways to build nations than Paul Bremer and his merry crew of Heritage conservatives (hint – it involves capable natives). There are better ways a great power can assert its influence beyond raw military might (perhaps advice can be sought from the sage of Sutton Place, who pulled the first Kosygin). The US can finally cash in, on the cheap, on the bet it has so expensively made and now discarded. With Egypt almost entirely alone and friendless, the US can step in with a package of recommended administrative reforms and assistance to rebuild the shambling state and create a native example of what can work in the region. Egypt has been in recent times a regional example or a cautionary tale. It is unlikely that counter-productive Egyptian pride will accept a Cromer redux, so the manner of assistance must be clothed in acceptable forms. Several times in the recent months Egyptian officials asked for such “assistance” from Egyptians abroad, and even created a special ministry for “immigration”, headed by a woman. The feelers are all there, as they were in 1973. A great power should, like a real estate speculator, know when to step into a troubled neighborhood and buy on the cheap. Putin has spent several years tweaking the US in the Ukraine and Syria. It would be sweet to send him chasing his head, bare-chested, in the one place likely to matter greatly in the Middle East. And, as an added bonus, finally figure out a US policy in the region away from the failures and frustrations of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the slowly unfolding debacle of either embracing the Saudi monarchy or dancing with the Iranian Mullahs. But two critical questions remain; is the US in a mood to truly affect the Middle East for a better long term outcome, and does it have the diplomatic and cultural skills to do so?

— Maged Atiya


The Idiot State

Einstein defined madness as repeating identical actions expecting different results. He also could have defined idiocy as the allocation of scarce resources toward irrelevant goals. The region around Egypt is rife with horrors born from the collapse of ineffective states. Respect by the citizens is central to an effective state. No one, however, respects an idiot. There is plenty of evidence that the state in Egypt is devolving to idiocy, especially since the events of January 2011. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. And the state of idiocy is not new.

When Nasser succeeded to the post of Prime Minister, then President, in 1954 he wanted to beautify the banks of the Nile near downtown Cairo, building a Corniche accessible to the common people; a laudable goal. Impatient with state bureaucracy, he trusted the task to a Free Officer, Abdel Latif Boghdadi. Two decades later, more of that story would emerge in a Church basement in the US through the words of an Egyptian immigrant. He was a fast rising young civil engineer when the project was proposed. He reviewed the plans and put a hold on granting the necessary permits. He had noticed the lack of proper drainage. His actions earned him the anger of Boghdadi, but he ultimately prevailed. The Corniche remained a lovely river walk well into the 1980s. The man’s career, however, suffered irreparably, ultimately causing his immigration. The recent floods in Alexandria are an eerie echo of those events. Pell Mell development drowned the city in rain due to improper drainage. A man who knows the city well commented that most of its state employees are “hapless Hanbalis, more worried about prayer schedules than drainage pipes”. Even worse, the young, dynamic, civilian and progressive governor, who had warned of this potential problem, was sacked. Egypt’s “Peter Principle” goes something like this “every capable man or woman will fall to the level of their worst expectations”.

Idiocy is evident in how mistakes are handled. The army incorrectly targets a convoy of tourists, killing a dozen, including Mexican nationals. This is no unusual event in the annals of counter-terrorism. The US Army, the best in the world, has done worse, including bombing a hospital in Afghanistan a few weeks after that event in Egypt. The idiot state flails for excuses and attempts to deflect blame through transparent lies. The intelligent state assumes responsibility and launches credible investigations to rectify the process and reduce future errors.

Idiocy is also evident in the manner by which the state defends itself against those who seek its destruction. Much effort is placed going after the lesser threats, wasting resources and credibility that should be invested countering more serious ones. When a judge denies medical treatment to a tearful young woman under administrative detention, he lessens himself and the system he serves. The state can not gain respect while appearing spiteful and petulant. Similarly, the prosecution of an American citizen, one Mohammad Soltan, was a classic case of idiocy. The young man is a clueless naif and unfortunate scion of bigotry. He bumbled into peripheral participation in what some called the “Rab’aa PR Project”, a euphemism for sectarian incitement. The smart response would be to deport the young man to obscurity in Rustbelt USA. Instead, the idiot state detained him and then released him, to wide acclaim by pundits and politicians in the West. They effectively made him the unlikely face of “Human Rights Violations” in Egypt.

Idiocy is a dangerous state among those with a modicum of power. It is sometimes difficult to tell who is a bigger danger to peaceful survival of the state; those who loudly proclaim the desire to destroy it, or those who ineptly offer to defend it. The trouble with the current situation is that most  opponents of the state are bigger idiots. So how do we end this Jeremiad? We can begin by quoting the words of Emmanuel Abraham, an Ethiopian diplomat who spent decades smoothing the troubled relations between Egypt and Ethiopia. In 1995 he wrote “It seems to me that the modern people of Egypt, and especially that section which had a smattering of modern education and which in consequence has assumed the leadership of the common people, have abandoned the faith of their forefathers and have not fully grasped modern ideals and knowledge. They are like a man who goes out on a boat without oars.” It is good and well for people to insist that the Egyptian state becomes more democratic and “inclusive”, although this skeptical observer insists on an exact definition of what gets “included”. More importantly we should insist that the state advances its goals, even those we disagree with, intelligently. Those who want to bring democracy to Egypt might do well to start by bringing a pair of oars.

— Maged Atiya

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


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