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
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
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
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
Egyptian President Nasser (1918-1970) is frequently hailed as the epitome of the great Arab leader. His nemesis for much of the 1960s, Faisal Ibn Abdel Aziz, not so secretly believed that Nasser was an unscrupulous Egyptian out to swindle many of the Arab lands out of their natural resources. Nasser’s desire to unify the Arabs under his leadership, and by extension Egypt’s, would have greatly helped Egypt and disadvantaged the Arabs, as the union with Syria amply demonstrated. Yet in this season of Arab state collapse few are advancing the thesis that Nasser is the man who struck the first blow that led to today’s horrors. Let us remember four elements, all of his creation, that arguably cooked up today’s toxic brew.
Creation of the Security State. Between 1952 and 1954 Nasser created a template for state structure that would be followed by several other Arab nations. The rough outline of it is simple. Overthrow a monarchy; declare a populist Republic; base its institutions on the primacy of the military and security services; and finally proclaim such an entity as a forward-looking and revolutionary. If the formula barely held in Egypt, it is because of its history of cohesion and Statism. The other Arab countries that emulated this model, Libya, the Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have all collapsed.
Adoption of trans-national goals. Arab nationalism gave Nasser a justification for meddling in the affairs of other Arab states. His real reasons were probably base (vanity) and narrowly nationalistic (advantaging Egypt). But the formula became a handy tool for more principled, and far more dangerous, true believers, namely the Islamists. His diatribes against the Sykes-Picot accord, most of which were nonsense, have been adopted by a wide range of wild Jihadis, who sing his lyrics but to a very different tune.
The demonization of Israel. Nasser’s trial-by-fire in the Faluja enclave convinced him that the Arab armies are no match for Israel. He never really wanted to fight Israel, and at one point even sought a reapproachment with Ben-Gurion. He was forced into one war, 1956, and bumbled into another, 1967, both verifying his hunch and destroying his dreams and ultimately his life. Yet, his constant taunting of Israel, and the demonization of the country, did little to help the true victims of the Jewish national dream, the Palestinians, and much to embroil the Arabs in failing enterprises.
The corruption of Education. Within a month of the 1952 coup, Nasser had taken Sayed Qutb’s advice to radically alter the educational system. The result was a drop in the intellectual output in Egypt, and as its teachers traveled into the Arab countries, they carried the virus along. Today the entire Arab world publishes fewer books than a decent size University Press in the US.
The Arab masses, and their leaders, are the authors of this collapse. But they were also willing students of a capable tutor. Nations have no epitaphs, but states do. When that of the Arab states is written Nasser should be accorded the dubious title of the “Destroyer of the Arabs”.
— Maged Atiya
Pope Tawadros II became Bishop of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark the Apostle less than 30 months ago. On his ascension he insisted that he would devote himself to his ecclesiastical duties and avoid politics. He has delivered on the first with robust changes in Church policy and pointedly changed his mind on the second. The Pope has become a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and effectively a contestant in them, an “agonist”. The assumption of such a role makes it necessary to subject the Pope to careful and well-reasoned critique, if only to forestall potential errors and pitfalls. While the vast majority of the Pope’s flock almost certainly supports his stands, he has faced criticism. Much of this criticism misses the point and little hits the target.
One criticism is that it is unseemly for the Pope to be so close to the President. We do not know the real nature of the relationship between the two men, beyond the public expressions of support and respect. But more to the point, all Popes in modern Egyptian history found it necessary to build a close relationship with the ruler. Strong or public disagreement can be dangerous, and does not always rebound to the benefit of the community, regardless of the merits of the case. Kyrillous IV (The Great Reformer) found that out to be true in the 1850s, so did Kyrillous V in the 1890s, and so did Shenouda in the 1970s. In any case, is it really the responsibility of a religious Patriarch to be a throaty supporter of democracy in a land with few democrats?
Another frequent charge is that the Pope’s support for the regime has not improved conditions for the Copts. It is true that many of the coercive measures against Coptic identity persist, and there is much tolerance for mob behavior against Copts. The trouble is that many, if not most Copts, feel that conditions are better now than under the Muslim Brotherhood regime. To persist in this charge is to assume the mantle of uncomfortable arrogance. Also, conditions are such that most Copts are grateful when things are not significantly worse off, which Papal disapproval of the regime might have triggered.
A third charge is that the Pope’s stand is risky for the Copts, should the political winds shift. The reality, of course, is that the Islamists’ hostility toward the Copts has little to do with their positions or preferences. And even if the regime were to attempt reconciliation with a more docile version of political Islam, the Pope’s support for the regime will either be a minor positive or a negligible negative.
The real question is whether the Pope’s stands and statements elevate the Copts as a community and thus enhance the chances for both survival and continued progress, which depend entirely on their own efforts, for it is unrealistic to look for help elsewhere. We should recognize, but not be discouraged, by the grim realities. Egypt retains a nasty religious discourse; witness the mobs that greet any attempt to build a Church or a cultural center, even to honor those slain in Libya. The region beyond is in free fall with much of Eastern Christianity trying to evade the wrath of competing Islamic forces. The larger world is of little help. While the West frets over the fate of Eastern Christianity, it lacks both the will and the means, and in some cases even the desire, to affect it. Numerically, the fate of the Copts and the fate of Eastern Christianity are nearly synonymous. The Copts must shoulder this responsibility as they have always done, alone or with the uncertain support of some of their fellow Egyptians. In that regard some aspects of the Pope’s public stands leave a lot to be desired.
First, there is the constant echoing of national propaganda about the conspiracies against Egypt. This is unnecessary as the Pope is in no position to combat these conspiracies, even if real. But more importantly, they place him, and by extension the community where he is the leader by default, in a rather sorry camp. He has a responsibility to represent the Copts as the better part of the national consciousness, not its common denominator. This is also important in building external support, however meager the returns might be.
Second, there is the dismissive attitude toward members of the community who do not fall in line with the Church official positions. Even if those positions are sound, regurgitating attitudes and arguments of decades long gone, which were mostly won by the Clerical establishment anyway, is of little value. Many who contributed to the cultural and social resurgence of the Copts in the last two centuries did so in opposition to this very same Clerical establishment. They were motivated by deeper reasons, often little articulated; of a sense of historical duty and obligation to a nation with no topography and one that transcends the exact details of belief and faith.
Third there must be recognition that the future of the Copts, while tied closely to that of Egypt, is not synonymous with it. They have become the largest group of Eastern Christians while never taking up arms, and often facing daunting odds in the country they intensely love but rarely loves them back with similar intensity. At critical moments, cultural progress, initiated by the laity, and more often than not without the whole-hearted approval of the Clergy, has made the difference. This cultural progress is increasingly a phenomenon removed from Egypt, both because of the strength of the immigrant community and the cultural weakness of Egypt. The current media profile of the Pope, unfortunately, does not make him the representative of a resurgent Eastern Christianity that bridges the gap with between East and West and attempts a larger and more embracing definition of both culture and faith. And it is in that role that Copts will have the better chance of not only survival, but more importantly, of growth and progress.
The Church always echoes Egyptian and Coptic exceptionalism, sometimes with good reasons. The deeper question is the exact contour of the “exception”. Is it in the pedestrian facts of history and geography, or in a more profound grounding in attitude and culture? Should the Pope, in his capacity as “father”, encourage his flock to embrace the more hopeful message of Isaiah 60:3 rather than the narrowly exclusive one of Hosea 11:1? That in a nutshell is the contest.
— Maged Atiya
The restoration of US military aid to Egypt, with strings attached, came in the middle of a week of tumultuous events in the region. It is still worth a comment, even an unconventional one from a source normally skeptical of most conventional wisdoms.
Many argued that aid should not have been resumed at all since US law prohibits such aid in the case of “coups”. This is an eminently rational and defensible view, and an inconsistent one. If a “coup” is defined as the removal of an elected leader then both January 2011 and July 2013 were technically “coups”. To define only one as a “revolution” is to invite endless and pointless disputations and place one in a position of defending some indefensible actions. More to the point, we should ask how the US came to provide military aid to Egypt and why it should continue it, as well as in what manner.
US-Egyptian began to sour badly in the early 1960s due to Egypt’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Egypt was the revolutionary forward-looking power headed for a collision with Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the traditional regimes. The US sided with the latter due to unreasonable Cold War fears and reasonable concerns about the flow of oil. In reality Egypt’s bark was far worse than its bite; Nasser was no Napoleon, and Egypt was not about to topple regimes across the region. But siding with Saudi Arabia seemed sensible at that moment, even if it put the US in the camp of some retrograde opponents of the Egyptian regime; The Saudi monarchy, the Yemeni Imams, and the socially repressive Muslim Brotherhood. The strain lasted for over a decade, and through two major wars with Israel. The three wars of the 1963-1973 decade left Egypt broke and weakened. The creation of a US military semi-alliance with Egypt and flow of military aid were predicated on the country being no longer a threat to Israel or to the conservative Gulf monarchies, or any other regional power for that matter. That Egypt kept its part of the bargain is still no reason to continue aid; international politics is not a game of cricket and interests trump fairness. Even if aid is discontinued Egypt is unlikely to be a threat to Israel, with which it is enjoying a close relationship, nor to the Gulf countries who underwrite a significant portion of badly needed foreign investments. So why continue the aid; why not save the 1.6 Billion or so of loose change to repave downtown Detroit? The answer is simple; the upside of continuing the aid outweighs the downside of withholding it, slightly.
The optimistic view of the so-called Middle East is that today’s calamities will continue for some time to come. A more informed view sees far worse disasters around the corner. The most rational course of action is to minimize the number of countries and people thrown into the current cauldron. In that vein it is critical not to allow the ramshackle Egyptian state to collapse under the weight of both external factors and internal misadventures. But can military aid do that? Can it really affect the behavior of the country’s most dominant single institution, the military? That depends on the nature of the aid and the manner in which it is administered on an on-going basis. This is where the Obama grudging release offers fascinating possibilities, although one suspects unintentionally.
Altering the Egyptian military from a large tank-and-plane static army into a nimble fighting force will not be easy as it requires social as well as doctrinal changes. But it is a goal worth setting across the board, both in military aid and in other economic and social domains. But that goal cannot be pursued unless the questions are asked and the answers are sought away from the conventional and mostly self-defeating pious declarations about support for democracy and inclusiveness. Without aid there is no leverage, and aid wrongly administered will also have no leverage. The real question is whether the US takes Egypt sufficiently seriously to manage aid closely and with clear cut demands that reach across the entire spectrum of social and political issues. The readout of Obama’s conversation with Sisi hints at desire to see the military alter its ways. That is necessary but not sufficient. There is no reason not to go further and offer a full-throated demand to alter education, support liberal thought and free markets. The reason to do so extends beyond Egypt to the overall region, which remains perilously close to chaos that can draw in reluctant Western powers. The irony is that successful administration of aid will bring Egypt back to a version of itself similar to the 1963 edition, albeit with more economic and military power. Egypt may then become as truculent and difficult a friend of the US as Israel. But at least the region will have the nucleus of a third path away from Iran’s revolutionary Islam and Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Islam. If we are not sure that such path is possible, or that the US can play a role in its emergence, then by all means let us save the money and pave Detroit. But that scenario involves the eternal balancing between the current forces, a continuation of the current oddities where the US seems to be fighting with all sides and against all sides, neither effectively nor to any foreseeable end.
— Maged Atiya