Sea of Misery

At the beginning of the Fourth Century CE the Roman Empire was at its zenith. It had reorganized successfully into two manageable halves, stood the pressure from the Persian Empire, acquired a new state religion and reworked its finances and public administration to a stellar state. Within a dozen years after that the Empire began to suffer serious stresses which would ultimately culminate in the loss of Thrace, Spain, Gaul and North Africa, accounting for considerable revenue, and eventually the complete collapse of its Western half.

Historians blame a series of “barbarian” invasions for this calamity. In fact, the ultimate cause was far away in Asia. The pastoral Huns were suffering serious ecological disruptions and their bloody and cruel raids pushed the Germanic nations across the Roman frontiers. These Germans were no “Barbarians”, they had been Romanized for generations, somewhat uneasily. It can be said they were facing their “struggle with modernity”, and as much as they wished to emulate the Roman ways, the Empire was neither ready to accept them fully nor reject them totally. Soon the river banks of central Europe began to teem with refugees wishing to cross into the Empire ahead of the predations of the Huns. The Empire had developed a coherent “immigration policy”, but it was designed for a different time and circumstances. It never expected to admit entire nations, accounting for tens of thousands of grown men and their families, altogether numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The Empire tinkered with the policy here, adjusted there, but ultimately it failed, most spectacularly at Adrianople, where the Roman Emperor Valens lost his life battling the Goths and Alans, who originally wanted refuge, but now had their eyes on grander prizes.

The Roman Empire never became aware of the causes of the human flood, at least not in time. Had it fully understood the crisis, most likely it would have sent a punishing expedition through its wealthier Eastern half into Asia to subdue the Huns, end their raids, and thus remedy the ultimate cause of the flood of migrants. The Empire did not lack for will, it lacked for communication.

It would be inaccurate to draw exact parallels between today’s Mediterranean and the Fourth Century Danube. Still the most prudent course of action for Europe is not to tempt fate and attempt a vigorous remedy for the causes that put millions on the move, many drowning in the sea of misery.  There is Libya, which the West aimed to democratize by airpower and now is in desperate need of no more than a few battalions to disarm the militia and put in place a functioning government. There is Syria, where inaction and moralizing has caused nearly half its people to take to the roads. But at the root of it are the wild men of the so-called Islamic State, a Performance Arts troop of cruelty and bigotry, fond of destroying all traces of civilization. In matters such as these, preemptive action is always difficult to justify, while inaction is always difficult to rectify. But the empirical facts are clear and brutal.  Dead bodies in trucks on the side of European roads. Floating lifejackets with no occupants on the Aegean sea. Entire families running across frontiers and fording rivers. The last scene would be instantly recognizable to a Roman limitanei 1700 years ago.


— Maged Atiya

Keyboard Wars in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya

July 3 in Egypt – Two Years Later

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya

The True Nakba -June 9 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya


Out of The Sudan

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya

Arabization of Islam – Islamization of the Arabs

On December 8 1965 King Feisal of Saudi Arabia flew to Tehran for a meeting with the Shah of Iran. Both men shared a pebble in their shoes; President Nasser of Egypt. There were also other similarities between the two men. Both were absolute monarchs and sons of petty adventurers who raised themselves to seemingly ancient thrones and assumed lavish roles. Both were spending considerable oil fortunes to modernize their countries. Both ruled nations with flammable religious hierarchies that rarely held back from baiting angels and devils in equal measures.  But beyond these similarities there were vast differences. Feisal was as wily as the Shah was improvident. Iran’s alliance with the most visibly and noisily Sunni power earned the Shah the scorn of the Shi’a Mullahs, and within a dozen years would cost him his throne. Feisal knew that an alliance with the primary Shi’a power in the region would anger the atavistic Wahabi clerks, who viewed these fellow Muslims as worse than Christians, or even Jews. To boot, Saudi Arabia was increasingly reliant on Christian powers for its security and the continuation of the Saud family in power. Feisal’s acumen led him to one road, buying off the Wahabi clerks with a flood of cash to support their Da’wa, or missionary efforts in the Muslim world and beyond. The marriage of convenience between Saudi Arabia and Iran soon collapsed in a heap of venomous and murderous recriminations, but not before begetting a twin offspring that still haunts the region, and indeed the world.  The twins are the curious and dangerous phenomena of the Arabization of Islam and the Islamization of Arab Nationalism.

Less than 1 in 5 Muslims speak standard Arabic with any facility, and even fewer are skilled in Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and the only language in which it should be read according to many Salafi (and hence Wahabi) theologians. In their mind this is a serious situation that will lead to either limiting the spread of Islam or the “corruption” of its tenets by native beliefs. What the Muslim world experienced since the 1960s was a new version of Arab cultural imperialism clothed in religious fervor. Many cultural institutions and practices unique to the harsh Arabian Peninsula were imported into various Muslim communities. This not only upset the cultural balances in many countries, but also created a cadre of nearly de-racinated young men ready to join in any fight to “save” Islam from its enemies. Curiously most of the dangers to Islam seem to be peculiarly Arab obsessions. Take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for example. For many decades three major Muslim powers had cordial relationships with Israel;  namely Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Since the 1970s, all have moved into confrontation with Israel, most recently Turkey under the pressure of its Islamist governing group. But beyond the Israel issue, all three powers became keenly involved in Arab affairs. Iran was a partisan in the Lebanese civil war, and now in the Syrian civil war. Pakistan developed close relationships with the Gulf, even importing Arabs to do fighting in Afghanistan and occasionally in Kashmir, and on many occasions lending troops to Arab countries. Turkey has recently become the unfettered voice of Islamism, working actively to undermine traditional Arab states such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Islam has become “Arabized” both in form and in strategic objectives. It is a development unlikely to positively affect many non-Arab Muslim countries, as it absorbs their energies into conflicts irrelevant to them, and sets them up for a nasty fight with the larger global world simply because the Arabs have a variety of such grievances.

But beyond the Arabization of Islam, Arab Nationalism became increasingly “Islamized”. The notion of a great Arab nation was developed by westernized theoreticians, including many Levantine Christians. In their view this was a way of building national identities larger than the narrow religious confessions, giving them political agency and power that would normally be unavailable if viewed as merely non-Muslim minorities. All nationalisms are at some level manufactured, and so is Arab Nationalism. This would not be a drawback if it had succeeded in its objectives. But beginning in the 1960s the entire edifice began to crumble. Saudi Arabia needed to grasp the leadership of the Arab nation from men such as Nasser of Egypt, motivated by self-interest. In his rendering of Arab nationalism, progress came as traditional monarchies are transformed into popular Republics. After the bloody demise of another Feisal in Iraq, the removal of the Yemeni Imam, and the traditional King of Libya, the house of Saud saw no alternative but to join, and ultimately drive, the Arab bandwagon. Money, and the decline of Egypt and Levant, assisted greatly. But Saudi Arabia could no more rid itself of its Wahabi baggage than a lion of its fangs. Inevitably, Arab nationalism became increasingly Islamized. Witness the flags of various countries such as Egypt and Iraq gaining deeply Islamic symbols (the Eagle of Qureish and the Shehada). In time this transition would serve more to shatter than cement the Arab nation. No better proof is needed than Palestine, locked in an existential struggle with Israel, seeing itself partitioned again between the nationalist PLO and the Islamist Hamas. The Levant, once the home of Arab culture and sophistication, is now a post-apocalyptic patchwork of religious lunatics. Egypt, which stayed aloof from Arab entanglements until the 1940s, only to lustily lead it for three decades, is now locked in an ugly struggle between the forces of Islamism and traditional nationalism. A significant fraction of the Egyptian public applauded Israel’s recent pounding of Gaza, and even the election of the hyper Jewish nationalist, “Bibi” Netanyaho. Even distant, and usually off-the-Arab-track Tunisia, is locked in a similar struggle.

The numerical reality is that being a Muslim cannot be conflated with being an Arab, while the forces of ugly ethnic cleansing may mean that all non-Muslim, or even non-Sunni Muslim Arabs will simply quit that national grouping. The harsh numbers are beginning to define the post-Arab reality. States such as Iraq and Syria can no longer be spoken of as real entities. Their component pieces will be largely Muslim, but not all will be Arab, even if Arabic speaking. The larger world is understandably interested in reducing the damage from the chaos in the Arab region, and in some parts of the Muslim world. But any rational policy must begin by ditching epistemological fallacies; first and foremost conflating Islamic and Arab cultures.

— Maged Atiya


Gamal Abdel Nasser – Destroyer of the Arabs

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


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