A Palimpsest of Copts and Jews

The early Ninth Century CE was a terrible time for Egyptians, a concluding time of a sequence of revolts. The Arab armies arrived in the middle of the Seventh Century, and Egypt became a province of the rising empire governed from the Levant. A hundred years later the center of the Islamic empire moved east, and the occupation was closer to the Persian invasion of more than a century earlier, rapacious and intolerant. Faith, and to a lesser extent money, moved the mostly Christian population of Egypt to revolt. In a series of encounters known as the “Bashmuric Revolts”, the overlords from Baghdad sent in central Asian mercenaries to put down the revolts with predicable violence; killing, enslavement and mass burning of Churches and Monasteries followed. By the middle of the Ninth Century the native Copts had given up all armed resistance. Never again would Copts resort to force to defend themselves, no matter how great the oppression.  The scale of the physical damage would only be rivaled by the riots of the 14th Century, and 2013, in the wake of the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood President, Morsi.

Some of these events paint a fascinating miniature of the complex relationships between faiths and their histories in Egypt. One burnt Church, St Michael in old Fustat, was either bought or appropriated by a group of local Jews around 880 CE. It became the Ezra Synagogue, a center of Jewish life in Egypt for more than a thousand years thereafter. Rarely have Churches been forcibly changed to Synagogues; Ezra is an unusual specimen. The Synagogue contained a “Genizah”, or a store room for discarded documents carrying the name of God, and hence not candidates for destruction. The accumulated treasure paints a picture of Jewish life in Egypt and the region throughout the Crusades and Middle Ages. The Jews of Egypt were globalists. The community was in the hub of trade from Andalusia in the West to India in the East. Equally telling is the absence of Copts in these documents, for although Egypt remained mostly Christians for centuries afterward, the Christians of Egypt closed in on themselves, hemmed in by Muslim rulers and a West that regarded them as heretics. The Genizah records were “discovered” in the 1890s, and the events around that are telling of the varying fortunes of Jews and Copts for the next century.

In the beginning of the 19th Century Egypt began to attract new Jews and Christians. In the case of Jews, it was Ottoman and European Jews who came to work with Egypt’s modernization efforts. They arrived with substantial social capital, far above their impoverished Egyptian relatives. The removal of the Genizah records to Europe was the occasion for protests by Egyptian Jews, who resented the newcomers’ high handed ways. In time, however, Egyptian Jews became absorbed into the new elite, by both marriage and business. When the Jewish exodus from Egypt began in 1948, there was little difference between those whose roots ran back decades or centuries. All left together.

The fortunes of the Copts took a radically different road. The arrival of the British Church Missionary Society (CMS) had a largely positive impact on the Copts. But fifty years later, in the 1850s, came a new breed of missionaries, American Evangelicals. They viewed the Orthodox Copts as derelict Christians and sought to convert all of them to Protestantism. The Orthodox Church faced a threat as great as the Asian armies of centuries ago. It was entirely possible to imagine the Orthodox creed becoming an antique and vanishing vestige, as Copts saw the superior benefits of Protestant education and advancement. In fact, that did not happen. The Protestant threat became an occasion for reform, the vast majority of Egyptian Christians remained in the Orthodox creed, and the Church tied its fortunes closely to the rising Egyptian nationalism. It is not an exaggeration to state that Copts sacralize the land of Egypt as much as the Jews do the Holy Land. The Evangelical Christians became a part of native Egyptian Christianity rather than the other way around.

The establishment of Israel was the proximate cause for the departure of the Jews from Egypt, but the ultimate causes were both nativism and political Islam.  The majority of Copts engaged in one and rejected the other, without noting the contradiction involved. It was left to another migration, that of Copts to North America and Australia, to highlight those contradictions. In an odd twist of fate, a term normally associated with Jews, “Diaspora”, is now contested among Copts. Some accept it, others reject it. Both positions freighted with historical and social consequences.

When it comes to faith, land and history, peoples invariably find themselves as threads in a wider weave. Hegemony and exceptionalism do little but rend the fabric.

 

— Maged Atiya

 

 


Sons of The Revolution

Throughout the 1960s the Egyptian government sponsored a special celebration every July 23 in honor of the children born on that day. In Cairo, the celebration was at the old Rivoli Cinema. The routine was set and unchanging from year to year. It started with the 1 year olds, brought to the stage by their beaming mothers, then 2 year olds, and so on in increasing order of age. The grand finale was the march of those born exactly on July 23 1952, who dashed up to the stage to receive their certificates. By the time of the last such celebration in 1967, those “sons of the revolution” were surly 15 year old adolescents and no longer charming young boys.  The affair was sad and ramshackle, like the city outside steeped in defeat. The cinema had a half-built brick blast wall that seemed to do little but obscure the once grand entrance.  Revolutions, like boys, grow older, and without effort or accretion of knowledge, promise inevitably turns to disappointment.

On the fourth anniversary of the January 2011 uprising many have mourned the fact that the young revolutionaries were largely sidelined, with some even in jail. They advanced the dreams of an alternative path where the young would now be ruling, the country free, the old regime entirely upended, and the vigor of youth leading Egypt forward.  None have noted that Egypt had experienced one such outcome, in 1952, where young men came to power, upended the old regime, and attempted to govern by the dent of a spirit of revolution and without any discernible program. The young men who came to power brandished promises of Ishtirakiya, Hurreyia, Demokratia (Socialism, Freedom, and Democracy). In fact they brought forth a repressive regime where mouthing these slogans in the wrong order earned one a beating. The repression and paranoia of the Free Officers regime was rooted in a variety of societal factors, but also in the lack of a governing vision. The 1952 revolution had no defining document such as the 1776 American declaration which put forth a concise definition of appropriate governance and a legal case for revolt. The best 1952 could do was the flowery words of Anwar El Sadat, who sonorously intoned a mixture of platitudes and intimations of conspiracies. There was more than a faint echo in 2011.

The 1952 revolutionaries detested politics. They strove to destroy the old political elite, on the correct charges that they were inept and sometime corrupt. But in the absence of politicians what rose was leadership by charisma and unchecked power; by men who insisted they are too pure for politics, and that their purity justified coercing others to their views. Anyone who challenged their methods or actions belonged to the discredited “feudal” classes. Nasser may have lifted land reform policies from Mirrit Ghali, but he could not tolerate the man in his cabinet. This propensity to demonize politics and refusal to honor differing views is also apparent in the 2011 edition of revolution. The grating word “felool” was hurled easily, and after July 3 the preferred term was “coup supporter” or “Fascist”.

Egypt of course experienced many “revolutions” in the past two centuries. All have failed to bridge the economic and social gap between the country and the global world, and even within Egypt, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The death of revolutions comes in many forms. The ‘Urabi revolution died in the quick defeat of his forces at the hands of a British expedition, in his humiliating barefoot surrender, and his ultimate disillusion with his actions. The 1919 revolution died at the hands of anti-liberal forces, as well as the paradox of the slogan “Egypt for Egyptians” mouthed by an elite that had little trust in the people (perhaps with good reasons). The 1952 revolution was in deep trouble by the mid-1960s, but got a quick shove from the 1967 defeat.  The 2011 revolution died many deaths; by the anarchic violence in the fall of 2011, by the farcical Parliament brought forth by free elections, by the chaotic and rule-free Presidential elections of 2012, the lack of a constitution, and by the loss of nerve on part of the people who could not detect in Morsi’s rule the end-game of Islamism’s profound lack of a workable governing philosophy.

Cromer hurled the withering, and incorrect, charge against Egyptians as incapable of organized planning. Mirrit Ghali refined that by focusing it on the ruling elite. Actually, the appropriate analogy comes from the American film “Cool Hand Luke”, where the protagonist, Paul Newman, resists an oppressive order with nothing more than his courage. He builds no rapport with other prisoners, even when they profess admiration for him, and does not negotiate for any tangible improvement in the prison camp. The alpha prisoner, George Kennedy, admires Luke, insisting that “nothing can be a cool hand”. In the end, however, nothing can’t beat the established oppressive order. Luke is broken by the repeated brutality of the guards and pleads for mercy on the promise of never attempting to revolt. The other prisoners walk away from him. Luke, it seems, wasted his courage and the trust of others by his utter lack of discipline. He came at them with nothing.

Nasser always insisted that 1952 revolution continues, especially during difficult days. The wily Egyptians largely chalked that up to brave talk, and walked away. Something like this is happening today. Whether wisdom or additional suffering will emerge from this chaos remains unknown.

 

— Maged Atiya

 


The General in the Cathedral

The visit of President Abdul Al Fattah Al Sisi to the St Mark Cathedral during the celebration of the liturgy of Coptic Christmas Eve evoked the expected commentary. Much of it reflected the views of the commentators, and their take on the current regime, than the reality of where Egypt, and the region, are today on interfaith relationship.

The visit was also symptomatic of today’s Egypt, improvised, somewhat clumsy but possibly sincerely felt. There was a certain cringe factor in seeing a President, and a former General, assuming the Microphone during a liturgy at the altar of the See of St Mark the Apostle. On the other hand, as historian Samuel Tadros noted, Copts must have felt like citizens even for one day. In any case, Pope Tawadros II, has given fulsome support to the current regime, reflecting both his personal views, and likely the views of the majority of Church officials and laity. The Pope, who assumed the throne of St Mark just two years ago, has proven to be a capable, even slightly visionary, administrator of ecclesiastical affairs, and a problematic commentator on current politics. His remarks reflect the mainstream views of many of Egypt’s elite of his age and status, although it must be said that this mainstream sometimes runs paradoxically uphill against the gravity of both facts and logic. As one Egyptian-American noted, we should have enough respect for Copts to criticize what is perceived as poor choices.

Pulling back from the personalities and turmoil of current Egyptian politics, one must ask what the comments would have been had Sisi not visited the Cathedral, or whether after 40 years of the Islamization of the public sphere, any more could have been expected.  Since 1911 the Copts have ratcheted demands for full citizenship rights downward, as they progressively gotten less with each cycle. Today, they are happy just to be visited during the occasion of the birth of their Savior, and not listen to Fatwas declaring that good wishes to Christians contradict the letter and the spirit of Islam. The Copts, who now make 75% of the region’s Christians, have taken a different road from the majority of Eastern Christians, and the horrors inflicted on them have been significantly less. While this empirical fact should not be a reason to demand less than full rights for Egyptian Christians, it should color comments on what one American historian privately called “the daunting and exhausting issue of Copts in Egypt”.

The visit comes days after Sisi insisted to an audience of Azharis, on the occasion of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, that 1.5 Billion Muslims should not set themselves against the other 80% of the human race, and that a “revolution in religion” is necessary. While some will insist that these are words without patent action, few will recall that Sadat’s words in the opposite direction 40 years ago, also without patent action, inflamed the public sphere. Words do matter in the short term, while realistic improvements are invariably long-term.

There are plenty of disappointments about the course of events in today’s Egypt. Some are disappointed that it has not emerged as full-fledged Islamist “democracy”. Others are disappointed that is has not followed the “Tunisian model”, ignoring the differences between the two societies. Yet, for all the sadness of the violence accompanying the 2011 revolution and its aftermath, and for all concerns about the current bout of nasty Hyper-nationalism, the bloodletting has been much less than the surrounding region, and those in power remain nominally committed to the idea of a shored-up state based on citizenship and away from sectarian violence that characterizes the relationship between faiths, and within Islam in the Levant. It is fair to wonder why the demand for less sectarianism should be coupled to tolerance for autocracy. But once the question is posed, we should not shrink from the disappointing answer.

It is not bigotry of low expectations to find some light in a faint gesture, even if the reality remains difficult. The best one can say about Egypt today is that the climb, steep as it is, follows a different path from the surrounding region. Egypt, and its Christians who remain an essential and faithful facsimile of it, may yet plod through.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


Banning Exodus : The Skulls of Flinders Petrie

It was 1942 in the Holy Land, and with death approaching, the eminent Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie willed his head to the Royal College of Surgeons.  In the chaos of war Petrie’s head was lost and found and ultimately deposited for storage in its intended destination. Wags will point out that this was not the first, but definitely the last time that Flinders Petrie lost his head in pursuit of his ideas.  Outside the field of archaeology, where he was one of the Greats, Petrie lost his way.  An anti-democratic devotee of racialist theories common to the late Victorian era, he spoke regularly of “fine” and “exhausted” races and placed the northern people at the tip of an imaginary pyramid of superiority.  When the British took over the administration of Egypt’s affairs in 1880’s, aided by a display of military force, they opened up the country for excavation by archaeologists, British as well as other Europeans and Americans. A notable dean of that crew was Wallis Budge, who theorized, based on philological evidence, that the Egyptian civilization had a Nilotic origin. This would not do for Petrie, who could not imagine any other builders of the dazzling Egyptian civilization than a northern race.  He postulated an entire mythology of a superior race entering Egypt from the north, building its civilization, only to be ultimately defeated and corrupted by successive invasions of “eastern” people.  To prove his point, he went on a bizarre pursuit to measure the skulls of Egyptians, both the Copts, whom he viewed as pure native Egyptian stock, as well as others. Little was gained from his unscientific studies, beyond the puzzlement of a few old monks and confused farmers.

If that were not enough, Petrie also ventured into the treacherous pursuit of finding factual basis for the Old Testament. A Christian Brethren by faith, he believed that the Old Testament was indeed factual. Upon uncovering a Stele by a New Kingdom successor of Ramses II, Merneptah, he insisted that it documents the Israelites. More recent scholarship places the events of Exodus possibly 200 years later, closer to the age of Psusennes, the last great Pharaoh of Egyptian stock, before the country would become a province of other empires for nearly 3000 years. It is important to note that Psusennes was as removed from the Pyramids of Giza as we are from him. Ancient Egypt was ancient even to Ancient Egyptians. In any case, Petrie was the sort of brave soul who would place himself squarely between God and the actors in his drama, most notably Jews and Egyptians.

Into this murky and emotional fog rides a top-name Hollywood director with his crew of screen writers, special-effects men, and sexy six-pack abs actors. By adopting the historically inaccurate, but ultimately irrelevant tale, that Jews built the Pyramids, he was bound to run afoul of Egyptian sensibilities currently inflamed by several years of turmoil. “Exdous”, panned by the critics, was now banned by the Egyptians. It is not the first Hollywood movie to earn this distinction. Half a century ago both “Cleopatra” and “Lawrence of Arabia” earned similar honors, although for very much vaguer reasons. Cleopatra’s producers were deemed too friendly to Israel, while Lawrence of Arabia did not hew to Nasser’s historical tales of Arab Nationalism. The charge against Exodus is historical inaccuracy, and the movie is very much guilty of that. This is not to condone banning a movie. Such bans against movies, books or any work of art are never justified. The best defense against a bad work of art is a better one. This is where things get tricky. Egypt lacks the cultural weight to make a better version of “Exodus”, and so banning it is the best it can come up with. In these uncertain times, historical greatness is Egypt’s patrimony, and Exodus seems like an attempt the rob the grave. Those who disapprove of the ban as an example of authoritarianism miss the point, this film would be banned under any conceivable Egypt regime, although it must be said, that one is unable to conceive of any Egyptian regime that is not at least mildly authoritarian. Egypt is very much a land shackled by its history, or more accurately by the reluctance of the Egyptians to let go of historical grievances. Egypt is potentially a decent mid-size country, but it cannot conceive of itself as anything less than a great nation, since it once was. It is not uncommon for men to let childhood trauma stymie the potential for adult happiness. Since there are no psychiatrists for nations, they often play out their trauma in dangerous, even bloody, ways.

It is remarkable that the antagonists in the current cultural war in Egypt both share a fundamental desire to create a modern national identity out of a storied past. Some yearn for a past of thousands of years ago, of which little is truly known. Others want to imitate the meager life of nomadic Arabs who lived on the rim of empires 1400 years ago. The romanticism of both is heart-wrenching, and increasingly deadly. The danger is not merely to the antagonists, but to all sorts of innocent bystanders. Almost anyone in Egypt who deviates from one of the accepted orthodoxies is liable to be banned. Egypt is not the first country to reject diversity and demand a unique and singular identity. It would not be the last to suffer the consequences of such constrained vision. The consequences are unfortunately sometimes measured in skulls.

– Maged Atiya


How Mubarak Acquitted Himself

The author of this blog will note that he never liked Mubarak. It was not a reasoned response, but a visceral reaction. Mubarak seemed to embody the worst aspects of Egyptian male misbehavior, controlling, domineering, occasionally indifferent, sometimes sneering, and at other times self-pitying. The reaction was enough to persuade this former Egyptian to avoid the country for the duration of his rule, and beyond. Mubarak made being born in Egypt a congenital condition worthy of seeking cure in a larger and perhaps less visible identity. Of course, it is wrong to pin all the blame on Mubarak; but he was case 1 of what has gone wrong in Egypt. He lived on to see himself, and by turns, his country humbled. Yet one senses that no grand understanding came his way. His derisive survival mocked his country as poor and humble and incapable of greatness.

There were some positive aspects to the long years of Mubarak. The Army was persuaded to stay away from politics. Infant mortality was reduced dramatically. He made deft moves diplomatically in the 1990s to have the country’s external debt wiped off.  He tried to open up some political room for the Muslim Brotherhood. He made stumbling steps toward liberalizing the economy. Yet, every positive step lived in the shadow of greater errors.  But few of his errors match his performance in February 2011, and none of his successes are as great as his final acquittal in court.

Mubarak insisted that he stood between Egypt and disaster. We are tempted to think of this as the refrain of a humble and limited man who rose above all he ever expected to be, only because he never did much about it. He was not delusional enough to expect immortality, yet he never developed leadership to follow him and stave off disaster. He never even appointed a Vice President, until he was nearly gone. He raised his palms against a nation, insisting that it should not look behind him where abyss looms, but did nothing to point to a better direction. He got away with it because his opponents were too pious or too foolish to point out this simple fact. They railed against him as a dictator, but demonstrated little liberality themselves.

Mubarak’s greatest sin came in February 2011. He attempted to stay in office by a patronizing display of self-pity. He begged his nation to respect him as an elderly father. He should have taken a different tack. He should have simply explained that to shove him off with 6 months remaining in his term would legitimatize arbitrary transfer of power to the Army by street mobs, and God help a country that sets up such a precedent. He should have begged to stay on as the elderly humble Bawab, who would sweep around while younger men built a better structure. His final magic act would have been to finish his term humbled for the sins of his errors. But a man capable of such reach would not have stayed in office for so long, nor left a vacuum in his wake.  His final atonement and redemption would be to offer his country a Shakespearean tragic denouement. He went for the tawdry television serial.

If Mubarak’s greatest error came in February 2011, his final success came afterwards. We should praise him for what he did not do. He did not flee the country. He did not beg for mercy. He stood in court, judged by men we judge inferior, even by his lowered standards. There was indeed the flood after him. A torrential downpour of errors, and blood. Nowhere near as much blood as the rest of the cursed region, but far too much by Egypt’s perceived gentle standards. In the end he was acquitted of charges that could not be proved, but not tried for errors that he demonstrably made. Those errors were that of a nation; formed of its clay and shaped by its humiliation.

In the end Mubarak was acquitted, and acquitted himself perhaps better than the mercurial and damaged country that sought his removal and now longs for his reign.

 

— Maged Atiya

 


Up Against the Wall in Egypt

A recent conversation with an Egyptian businessman sheds light on the current situation in the country. He is a young man who started his own technology business and continues to try to grow it against all odds.  Such entrepreneurs can lead Egypt out of the economic doldrums.  His small business is not beholden to the state and employs dozens of people at decent wages. It is not unduly romantic to see such business as a microcosm of a desirable Egypt, as it employs both men and women, of different faiths and political views. In time a burgeoning Middle Class would demand, and ultimately find, respect for its freedom and property.  Up until 2011 the picture was bright. He was able to attract many foreign contracts by a combination of a good product at lower prices. Furthermore, Egypt was considered an upcoming “tiger” and an attractive destination.

The first hit came in January 2011. The idiot who turned off the internet to thwart foreign plotters probably had no thought, or little cared, that it would also irritate foreign clients. There was an uptick of good will during the short after-glow of the revolution. But by the summer of 2011 there was further turmoil, which continues to this day. For a man trying to sell his wares abroad, Egypt’s current reputation is a nasty head wind. The narrative is one of protests, sexual harassment, religious zealotry, intolerance, repression, violence and a near insurgency. Few Egyptians have read H.L. Mencken on Journalism, and they see dark plots where there is only the natural inclination to report the most stirring news. To be fair, Egypt has handed reporters plenty of rich yarn to weave a dark tapestry. Any attempt to find hope, or balance the picture, is often rejected as justifying government repression. There is even the occasional esteemed academic who rejects any warm feelings toward the country with unhelpful snark.

It goes without saying that the political and cultural elites of Egypt have failed it. This is of little comfort to someone trying to meet a payroll. Yet there is little concern for such men, or for the people who are on the receiving end of the payroll. They are squeezed on all sides. There is the Army, which is traditionally statist and has little understanding of the environment necessary to promote entrepreneurship. The Brotherhood respected the market place, but its eyes were always on a higher goal, and its aging leaders are willing to bring down the house. Many supporters of the former regime are smarmy, and a few are outright crony capitalists. Many of the activists agitating for political freedom lean heavily left, and have little sympathy for business or the role it might play in cementing actual freedoms. The population at large is suspicious of those who prosper and maintain foreign connections. The most damaging binary dynamic is that of protest and the government’s ham-fisted response to it.

Protesting to achieve social or political reform is now considered praise-worthy. The canonization of men such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King has obscured their real achievements. Their success is due less to their saintly character, or the purity of their goals, but more to their political acumen. In the struggle against injustice they chose their weapons well, and wielded them with deftness in selective battles. Above all, they were realistic political men. Even in the best of cases protest is an uncertain business. Indian independence was a bloody affair, and would have been far bloodier without the leadership of Nehru, who was not overly fond of Gandhi, and because of his readiness to cut deals, and if rumors are right, fall into bed with his opponents. Yet in Egypt people seek a narrative without shades, of right and wrong, good people and bad ones. It is a mirage. Questions must be asked about protest; such as who are the protestors, what is their program for governance, how do they see the rest of the world and society, do they relate to the average man, and most importantly, has protest worked or landed Egypt in deeper straights. Yet to ask these is to invite accusations of collaboration with the regime, indifference or even cruelty. These accusations must be received with equanimity and returned with affection. But they do little to further understanding or show a way out of the current mess. Protesters often have the enormous courage to face jail or worse, but not to subject their views and tactics to criticism. As an enterprise, the goals of protests are laudable, but  their balance sheet is increasingly negative.

The poet Qabbani wrote : “for daring to approach your deaf walls I was beaten with my own shoes”.  The lines are meant to evoke anger at the cruel ruler.  But we can read them in a different way; as a cautionary tale about the futility of approaching the crumbling walls and seeking redress from the fearful men within. Better to keep the shoes firmly on, march forward, and build a different edifice; perhaps not a shining city on a hill, but a sturdier structure on less shifting sand.  It is not that Egypt has lacked for dissidents who withdrew from society to build a different one. Islamists, Salafis, and to a lesser extent Copts have all done so. Yet what they have built is either too small to matter or too grotesque to fathom. Neither the protesters, nor those seeking to silence them, have advanced a workable vision of governance, prompting one Egyptian historian to borrow from Kolakowski, and Baudelaire, to describe the conflict as between lovers of clouds and lovers of prostitutes. To describe a private business that makes a healthy profit from foreign exports as “non-governmental organization with foreign funding” is to provoke nervous laughter. In Egypt’s current koftesque stage what is literally true is also undeniably false.

In the end both protests and the attempts to suppress them have to be mindful of not crossing the line the binds people into a cohesive society, a test that Egypt currently fails. The authorities will not calculate the cost of success, nor the protesters the cost of failure. The vision remains of raging against a wall, rather than building a bridge. Few are willing to either co-opt or be co-opted.

Another conversation closes this post. It is with a veteran of the student protests at Columbia. The aging man, still inordinately fond of his younger, slimmer and hairier self, recalls a heady moment of protest. He had taunted and jeered the police for two days before finally lobbing a rock in their general direction. He was charged by a policeman who pinned him with the hackneyed scream “Spread’em .. against the wall M*F*”. He shot back “can we discuss this over a slice of Pizza?”. The policeman softened slightly, “maybe, but after I bust you and get off shift”. The exchange did not save him from arrest, a night in jail, and a misdemeanor fine, nor change his persistently idealistic and radical politics. Still, even to his resolutely unsentimental listener, and one who harbors considerable doubt about the details, the fable has resonance.

 

— Maged Atiya


Sadat Reconsidered

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


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