“Bonaparte, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the French Republic, in Africa and in Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine – the unique nation of the Jews, who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny, which even so has never been able to destroy your name of your existence as a nation ……
Rightful heirs of Palestine!
My great nation, which does not trade in human beings or in countries, as did those who sold your fathers into slavery in other nations, herewith calls upon you, not to conquer your inheritance, but to receive only that which has already been conquered, so that you can remain there as ruler, under our guarantee, and will defend it against all foreigners”(1)
Or so went the declaration by the Corsican General, not yet 30 years of age, allegedly made in Jerusalem on Passover day 1799. Historians have never been able to confirm the authenticity of this claim. The original declaration in French was never found, and Napoleon was never in Jerusalem. On the other hand, many other substantiating documents exist, including discussions in the Directory. There is, most famously, a German translation smuggled to England just prior to WWII, as the Viennese rabbinical family that owned it was set to escape Hitler. That has been alleged to be a forgery. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rumor in Egypt that a Jewish family owned a Hebrew copy signed by Napoleon himself. But the source of the rumor could have been many of the Nazi fugitives who lived in Egypt then. Yet a number of historians have concluded that something like this document could have easily been in Napoleon’s mind as he marched from Egypt to punish the ruler of Acre, Ahmed Pasha Al Jazzar (The Butcher). The bloody and cantankerous man had smuggled an Ottoman firman to Egypt a few months prior which caused the Cairo riots of October 1798. Ahmed Pasha was known to be partial to sectarian killings, having started his reign in the Levant by sealing Christians into the walls of Beirut. When the French approached his walls he rounded up all the Christians of Acre, killed them and tossed their bodies over the wall. His reasons were not entirely murderous. The Christians, Jews, Druze and Shi’a of the Levant were collaborating with Napoleon in his effort to topple the Ottoman Empire. There is plenty of documented evidence that the French General promised small independent Cantons to all the diverse religious groups of the region. Napoleon landed in Egypt with a clear dream. He would build a new oriental empire on the ashes of the Ottoman shambles. Egypt would be its vanguard, Islam its ideology, and the Levant pacified by subdivision into vassal states. “Little Europe” was too small for him. A century before the Ottoman demise, the Frenchman had in mind a “post-Ottoman” order. Napoleon’s vision was a less democratic version of the nascent United States. A constellation of states which would emerge independently from a French culture, but still owe more than a passing resemblance to it. His dreams of an oriental empire faded before the walls of Acre, and as his army swept back to Egypt, a multitude of Levantine Christian refugees joined it to escape the revenge of the Butcher. The scene of the “Shawam” escaping the chaos of their homeland to Egypt would be repeated many times in the next two centuries. By a cruel irony, the French army entered Egypt on June 5 1799, and upon this occasion and on this date the great General declared his loss a victory.
There was another vision for the region, one rarely taken up by recent historians. It starts with an equally talented and remarkable, but lesser known, General Louis Desaix, Almost the same age as Napoleon, and possibly more original and daring. Desaix had all of Napoleon’s skill and energy, but little of his near mystical ambition and self-regard. He accompanied Napoleon on the expedition to Egypt, before dying in Italy in 1800. In late 1798 he set out from Cairo to chase one of the previous rulers of Egypt, Murad Bey, whom he had defeated at the battle of Imbaba. Desaix was to travel as far south as the first cataract, at the head of the first European army to do so since the Romans. The Mamlukes outnumbered and outgunned Desaix, and knew the country better. Yet he won every encounter with brilliant military tactics and the unswerving dedication and love of his troops. His feats of generalship remain little noted. It was during this campaign that he made the acquaintance of another remarkable man, Mu’allam Ya’qub. Ya’qub was Murad’s deputy and tax collector; not an unusual profession for a Copt at the time. Murad was “Sheik Al Hajj”, but it was Ya’qub who managed the complex task of organizing the caravans to Mecca, some from as far away as West Africa. It was Desaix who persuaded Ya’qub to switch sides, and he proved a great asset. He ran an intelligence network on the movements and location of the Mamluke armies. He sealed the Red Sea ports against the influx of warriors from Arabia, who flocked to the promise of killing infidels, but stayed to pillage Egyptians of all religions. Sometime between 1799 and 1801 Ya’qub cooked up a daring and wholly new idea; creating a nation-state out of Egypt, totally unconnected to any empire and lacking any affiliation to a larger Muslim or Arab identity. He formed a “Coptic Legion”, boarded a ship for Europe in 1801 to argue for an independant Egypt in the courts of Europe, but died soon after. His legion would distinguish itself in the Napoleonic wars and its descendants would continue to live in France to this day.
Ya’qub’s friend Desaix made three seminal contributions to Egypt, a country he seemed to like well-enough but without the hysterical passions of Napoleon. First he thinned the ranks of the Mamluke warlords and their militias, making it possible for Muhammad Ali to eradicate them a little more than a decade later. The credit for ridding Egypt of the vicious military caste that ruled over it for over 500 years and nearly brought total destruction on it, goes to both the French soldier and the Albanian Wali. Second, he brought forth a vision of governance unknown to Egyptians at the time. Napoleon enjoyed the title of “Al Sultan Al Kebir” (the Great Ruler), while the peasants of the countryside gave Desaix the title “Al Sultan Al ‘Adil” (The Just Ruler). Desaix’ vision of capable government and justice administered without regard to wealth or religion remains an elusive but inviting reality in today’s Egypt. Finally Desaix gave protection and support to many Savants, especially the artist Vivant Denon, who made the first reliable and extensive sketches of Egyptian antiquities. When he arrived back in Cairo in the heat of July 1799, the Savant could do little but speak of the greatness of what he saw and the fact that it preceded European civilization by centuries. In Denon and Ya’qub we detect the first stirrings of an Egyptian nationalism that held the nation to be an exceptional phenomenon, and the visible and indelible markings of religion and language as merely superficial aspects of a deeper essential self (2). That vision holds some promise but also a dark underbelly, and to this date it remains neither able to fulfill the promise nor capable of totally riding itself of its sense of injury and anger.
As the region remakes itself it is worth considering the lessons of more than two centuries ago, although we should gird ourselves for a likely disappointment.
— Maged Atiya
1- As collated by Paul Strathern in “Napoleon in Egypt”
2- Louis ‘Awad did much to revive Ya’qub’s reputation. Islamists are fond of pointing out his defense of the Coptic quarter of Cairo against the mob as evidence of his “sectarian agenda”.
No, not that one of 2011. The January revolution that comes to mind is that of 17-19 of January 1977. Thousands poured into the streets to protest the rise of subsidized bread prices. The police fled, and the panicked President asked the Army for help in quelling the chaos in Alexandria and parts of Cairo. If revolutions are to be measured by their results, then this was a profound and often forgotten event. Let us enumerate a few of its after effects.
Sadat in a panic over a lack of dividend for the impressive showing in the October 1973 war, and fearful of a US sponsored talk fest on peace in the Middle East, took matters into his own hand and eventually initiated direct talks with Israel. The result was an upending of the “Arab order” that still resonates to this day, in the hopelessness of building a Palestinian national state, the disintegration of the Levant and the rise of Saudi Arabia as the paranoid hegemon of the region.
The riots firmed Sadat’s desire to find allies among the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a fateful decision for him, and for the battered country he ruled. In the last days of his life he would realize the error of believing that the Brotherhood, and its allies, would seek anything less than the entire pie. That lesson seems to have been forgotten 34 years later, and with bloody consequences for the country.
The riots convinced the Egyptian political elites that subsidies for the poor were an evil necessity and can not be touched; the third rail of Egyptian politics, as it were. This conviction condemned the country to further three decades of authoritarian economic stagnation. Ironically, the attempt to reverse this in the decade before 2011 which was bearing some fruits in economic growth, came to an effective end in 2011.
Shortly after the events of 1977 Tahseen Bashir remarked that “Egypt is the only country in the Arab world, the rest are tribes with flags”. The son of Egyptian aristocracy was paraphrasing a widespread feeling among those of his class during the early 20th century. They believed there were only two civilizations in the region, Egyptian and Persian. The irony of today is that both countries continue to struggle with the demons of their nationalism and religion sapping their potential greatness, while the “tribes” have fragmented even further.
It is not quaint historicism to recall the January 1977 revolution, for the next revolution in Egypt is likely to resemble the 1977 events rather than the 2011.
— Maged Atiya
The suspension of Russian flights to Egypt will likely decimate tourism in the Red Sea. So why did Putin, who is idolized by many in Egypt, make that decision? It is possible that he is concerned about Russian lives, put at risk by lax airport security. It would be a welcome change from his heretofore attitude toward lives, both Russian and non-Russian. More likely Putin is using the crash of the Russian airliner as pretext to wrest something out of Egypt, as always for his gain. As a man well versed in Soviet history he must know something about the “Kosygin tactic”. The Soviet Union desired a naval base in Alexandria. From the beginning of the Yemen war in 1962 to the final departure of advisors in 1972 the man in charge of the policy, Alexei Kosygin, alternately provided aid and withheld it to coerce Nasser into providing the base. Nasser, and his fellow Free Officers, would not relent, if only because they built their reputation on keeping Egypt out of foreign alliances and keeping foreign bases out of Egypt. For that decade the Soviet Union approximated a frustrated High Schooler ineptly trying to unhook the well-clasped ample Egyptian bra. In the end it was an unlikely American, Henry Kissinger, who pulled a “Kosygin” on Kosygin, and cemented a relationship, now fraying. (Kosygin never recovered from that humiliation). Putin clearly wants something and is trying to coerce it out of Egypt. Perhaps it is mere influence, or something more substantial such as assistance with the various Middle Eastern escapades he is involved in.
Egypt today is a country at the end of its tether (more on that in a separate post). Like the proverbial animal in that pathetic situation it could lash out and act in an unpredictable fashion. But this denouement is an opportunity for the country to start anew and chart a better path. It is 1876 all over again in Egypt, but this time without either the rapacious European bankers or Lord Cromer. It is the end of the 1954 Nasser state (as 1876 was the end of the Muhammad Ali state). That state has reached a dead-end, where it can no longer sweet talk or coerce the citizens, and where it offers no vision beyond plodding along. Egypt needs an overhaul and reorganization of the state; its legitimacy and obligations to the citizens, defences, finances, administrative structures and relations with the region and the world. One suspects that many in power know that, but are unable to break the tether that binds them to the post of the 1954 state, and keeps the country just barely away from the peace and prosperity it desires. President Sisi expressed effusive gratitude to the US in September, both to the English and Arabic press. But the US kept a lofty distance, perhaps because it is no longer in a mood of “nation building and democratization”. Little more than a decade ago the US spent a Trillion Dollars and thousands of lives trying to build a democracy in so-called Iraq; a task as fanciful as growing Cranberries in the Sahara. With collapsing states all over the region the US is in no mood for a second go. That is a costly mistake. There are better ways to build nations than Paul Bremer and his merry crew of Heritage conservatives (hint – it involves capable natives). There are better ways a great power can assert its influence beyond raw military might (perhaps advice can be sought from the sage of Sutton Place, who pulled the first Kosygin). The US can finally cash in, on the cheap, on the bet it has so expensively made and now discarded. With Egypt almost entirely alone and friendless, the US can step in with a package of recommended administrative reforms and assistance to rebuild the shambling state and create a native example of what can work in the region. Egypt has been in recent times a regional example or a cautionary tale. It is unlikely that counter-productive Egyptian pride will accept a Cromer redux, so the manner of assistance must be clothed in acceptable forms. Several times in the recent months Egyptian officials asked for such “assistance” from Egyptians abroad, and even created a special ministry for “immigration”, headed by a woman. The feelers are all there, as they were in 1973. A great power should, like a real estate speculator, know when to step into a troubled neighborhood and buy on the cheap. Putin has spent several years tweaking the US in the Ukraine and Syria. It would be sweet to send him chasing his head, bare-chested, in the one place likely to matter greatly in the Middle East. And, as an added bonus, finally figure out a US policy in the region away from the failures and frustrations of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the slowly unfolding debacle of either embracing the Saudi monarchy or dancing with the Iranian Mullahs. But two critical questions remain; is the US in a mood to truly affect the Middle East for a better long term outcome, and does it have the diplomatic and cultural skills to do so?
— Maged Atiya
Einstein defined madness as repeating identical actions expecting different results. He also could have defined idiocy as the allocation of scarce resources toward irrelevant goals. The region around Egypt is rife with horrors born from the collapse of ineffective states. Respect by the citizens is central to an effective state. No one, however, respects an idiot. There is plenty of evidence that the state in Egypt is devolving to idiocy, especially since the events of January 2011. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. And the state of idiocy is not new.
When Nasser succeeded to the post of Prime Minister, then President, in 1954 he wanted to beautify the banks of the Nile near downtown Cairo, building a Corniche accessible to the common people; a laudable goal. Impatient with state bureaucracy, he trusted the task to a Free Officer, Abdel Latif Boghdadi. Two decades later, more of that story would emerge in a Church basement in the US through the words of an Egyptian immigrant. He was a fast rising young civil engineer when the project was proposed. He reviewed the plans and put a hold on granting the necessary permits. He had noticed the lack of proper drainage. His actions earned him the anger of Boghdadi, but he ultimately prevailed. The Corniche remained a lovely river walk well into the 1980s. The man’s career, however, suffered irreparably, ultimately causing his immigration. The recent floods in Alexandria are an eerie echo of those events. Pell Mell development drowned the city in rain due to improper drainage. A man who knows the city well commented that most of its state employees are “hapless Hanbalis, more worried about prayer schedules than drainage pipes”. Even worse, the young, dynamic, civilian and progressive governor, who had warned of this potential problem, was sacked. Egypt’s “Peter Principle” goes something like this “every capable man or woman will fall to the level of their worst expectations”.
Idiocy is evident in how mistakes are handled. The army incorrectly targets a convoy of tourists, killing a dozen, including Mexican nationals. This is no unusual event in the annals of counter-terrorism. The US Army, the best in the world, has done worse, including bombing a hospital in Afghanistan a few weeks after that event in Egypt. The idiot state flails for excuses and attempts to deflect blame through transparent lies. The intelligent state assumes responsibility and launches credible investigations to rectify the process and reduce future errors.
Idiocy is also evident in the manner by which the state defends itself against those who seek its destruction. Much effort is placed going after the lesser threats, wasting resources and credibility that should be invested countering more serious ones. When a judge denies medical treatment to a tearful young woman under administrative detention, he lessens himself and the system he serves. The state can not gain respect while appearing spiteful and petulant. Similarly, the prosecution of an American citizen, one Mohammad Soltan, was a classic case of idiocy. The young man is a clueless naif and unfortunate scion of bigotry. He bumbled into peripheral participation in what some called the “Rab’aa PR Project”, a euphemism for sectarian incitement. The smart response would be to deport the young man to obscurity in Rustbelt USA. Instead, the idiot state detained him and then released him, to wide acclaim by pundits and politicians in the West. They effectively made him the unlikely face of “Human Rights Violations” in Egypt.
Idiocy is a dangerous state among those with a modicum of power. It is sometimes difficult to tell who is a bigger danger to peaceful survival of the state; those who loudly proclaim the desire to destroy it, or those who ineptly offer to defend it. The trouble with the current situation is that most opponents of the state are bigger idiots. So how do we end this Jeremiad? We can begin by quoting the words of Emmanuel Abraham, an Ethiopian diplomat who spent decades smoothing the troubled relations between Egypt and Ethiopia. In 1995 he wrote “It seems to me that the modern people of Egypt, and especially that section which had a smattering of modern education and which in consequence has assumed the leadership of the common people, have abandoned the faith of their forefathers and have not fully grasped modern ideals and knowledge. They are like a man who goes out on a boat without oars.” It is good and well for people to insist that the Egyptian state becomes more democratic and “inclusive”, although this skeptical observer insists on an exact definition of what gets “included”. More importantly we should insist that the state advances its goals, even those we disagree with, intelligently. Those who want to bring democracy to Egypt might do well to start by bringing a pair of oars.
— Maged Atiya
“The Sykes-Picot accord was a dastardly and wicked attempt by the colonial powers to divide the great Arab nation for their nefarious purposes”
Thus intoned the Fourth Grade Civics and History book widely used in Egypt throughout the 1960s. It would be more than two decades before one reader would begin to divine the nonsense therein. At its basic level the Anglo-French agreement created borders and recognized states to be ruled by Arab leaders for the first time in centuries. If these lines had not been drawn, it is likely that even smaller statelets or worse, mayhem, would have reigned. The reader with any doubt need look no further than current headlines about the bloodbath in the Levant.
The Arabs of the region would not have made a single unified nation had Sykes and Picot not made a few of them. And nothing really stopped them from uniting into larger units once the colonial powers departed two or three decades later. In fact, that departure occasioned the fragmentation of Lebanon, the descent of Syria and Iraq into despotism, and the laying bare of Arab lands for the grasping and meddling hands of the retrograde House of Ibn Saud, now rewarded with a Kingdom. Had oil not been discovered and made to fill its coffers that state would have collapsed as surely as the previous iterations of Wahabi Utopias. The current attempt at unification by the so-called Islamic State features a replica of Saudi Arabia, less the oil and the lavishly endowed royal family. It too will likely fail, by the usual means. Internal backstabbing among its leaders, corruption, and a fatal tendency to sell out to the highest bidder.
Today the Levant could do far worse than to restore the Sykes-Picot borders and create moderately repressive states within them. Far more likely there will be more, not less, states than Sykes and Picot imagined, and some of them will bring forth horrors on their inhabitants. So let us sing the praises of Sykes and Picot, two men who attempted to unify the Arabs, and failed not because they made too many states, but too few.
— Maged Atiya
All societies come with problems; Egypt possesses many more of them than average. The author of this blog has called a few of them to light. Most of the glaring deficits, such as authoritarian governance, degraded public discourse, infantile politics, are symptoms of deeper ills which will take decades or longer to reform. Egypt, since the 1952 coup and the revival of the Islamists in 1970s, has forcibly “disappeared” many of its most serious thinkers and reformers, for they do not fit the views of the majority or the interests of the ruling elites. The process of rediscovering these voices and reigniting a long term effective social reform is by nature slow and painful, with many a reversal inevitable. The desired end result is societal, not merely political, reform. The worst outcome to be avoided, sometimes at painful costs, is state failure.
Still, humans yearn for a happy ending within the typical time constraints of a Hollywood movie. None more so that many outside observers and scholars who persuaded themselves, nay hung their reputations, on a tale of “Spring” and other such stuff. But Egypt stubbornly refused to follow the happy script. It is not a surprising outcome for many who observed the country and its struggles with its identity, the anchor chains of its history and the limitations of its resources. Rather than adjust the expectations, or revise the tale, many of the Scheherazades insist on finding alternate tales, with clear cut heroes and villains, well-identified moral lines and crisp recommendations for quick solutions. None of the recommendations frequently broadcast on editorial pages and social media will bring immediate relief to Egypt, nor a quick solution to its problems. Some might bring even greater suffering.
As the current regime consolidates its power, a vocal chorus has emerged. The voices within it rightly call out the regime on its many errors, brutalities and occasional ineptness. They also pray for its collapse. It is unlikely, for a variety of reasons, that this “Failure Chorus” will contribute positively to a long-term positive outcome in Egypt.
First these voices do not criticize the regime in a manner likely to alter its behavior or provide a humane outcome in the many cases of injustices inflicted on specific individuals. Their eagerness to believe the worst of the regime often impairs their judgement, as tales from Egypt are never as straightforward as they appear. Surgeons normally use scalpels, as we must all agree.
Second, when these voices report on the current threats of terrorism and violence the tone teeters on the gleeful. They do not distinguish between those threats which are regional, and for which the regime of Morsi was ill prepared to deal with, and those that arise from his disaffected followers. Also, in the case of the latter, none of these voices ask if agents of this violence can be accepted as a future democratic force, and under what conditions. Instead, there is simply the sense that such violence is Egypt’s deserved lot for the sin of removing a dangerously hapless man from power grasped through deeply flawed political deals.
Third, these voices are constantly urging “punishment” for the regime, without articulating clearly if such punishment will alter its behavior or simply increase the suffering of the people. Such urgings exaggerate the power of outsiders, or more precisely of outsiders who are in broad agreement with this Failure Chorus.
Finally, these voices give little thought to the disaster that would afflict Egypt, and the world at large, should the Egyptian state fail, or should the Muslim Brotherhood, or a more virulent variant of it, acquires undisputed power through violence. No one with an iota of affection for Egyptians, generally or specifically, can see anything but horror in such outcome. This, more than anything else, renders the Failure Chorus suspect in the eyes of many Egyptians, and deaf even to its occasionally sensible recommendations.
The best way to deal with Egypt today is through understanding tempered with a cool detachment. When we gaze on Egypt we need to keep in our peripheral vision the bloody failures around it. The Failure Chorus, full of passion, is blinkered through selective focus and deafened by the voices raised in righteous indignation.
— Maged Atiya
Someone penned a satirical letter pretending to be Mexico’s President apologizing to Egypt for the accidental killing of Mexican tourists by the Egyptian Army. Many Egyptian media outlets reported it as genuine. This event is remarkable only for its quotidian nature. It is in line with the behavior of many in the country, including its officials. When explaining events as diverse as the recent tragedy or the crash of EgyptAir flight 990, Egyptian officialdom often displays Saramago-like fictive skills. One suspects that if Borges were alive today he would see in Egypt the greatest fiction he would have wished to write.
In the short story “The House of Asterion” Borges rewrote the myth of the Minotaur from the point of view of the monster. But Egypt today is that myth told from the point of view of the sacrificial victims. Ninety Million souls lost in a labyrinth of mirrors and reflections, tales and rumors, fiction and myth, with no prospect of a Theseus for the rescue. Unlike the Greek tale, Egypt’s labyrinth has no Minotaur, or at least no single Minotaur. The wanderers fall victim to their own fears. Those fears can assume any number of shapes. The labyrinth of mirrors features a multitude of Minotaurs. A heretical thought places a lost Daedalus, not King Mena, as the builder of Egypt.
This state of affairs is not new. The 1960s featured a Radio Ramadan serial called Scheherazade. It was an hour of tales that opened and closed with a musical theme from one of Nasser’s favorite composers, Rimsky-Korsakov. If one were young enough, and unschooled enough, the other 23 hours of programming seemed no different. Nasser, the consummate actor, held sway over an entire country by the sheer force of his tales. The Scheherazade serial was a sly comment on his tenure. The country eagerly awaited the next installment and held its occasionally murderous urges in check. All of Nasser’s successors were lesser actors. Sadat was a lesser talent and his performances were accordingly more contrived and theatrical; less natural. His remarkable September 5 1981 speech lost the tale, and presaged his end. Mubarak, a journeyman capable of one acting tic, lost his grip when he could no longer convincingly retell his tale of future woe.
Outsiders are not immune to this virus. Many fall for the tales of one or more of the various Egyptian personalities and factions and retell them in stentorian tones of high moral purpose. Fact-checking Egypt is sometimes akin to ploughing water, but it must be done. Still, one can hardly tell what is true or false in the tales of the “Zero Student”, or a Samira Ibrahim or a Mohamed Soltan. But the tales, like all tales, provide a moral, and one eagerly taken up by men and women of all stations in life. Journalists, policy makers, and intellectual tourists fall victim to even grander tales, much like the tourist who pays handsomely for a recently made ancient artifact. Try to convince the tourist of his error, which would destroy both his investment and his self-esteem, and you are likely to find defiance and anger. The most dangerous thing to possess in the Egypt-planet is a skeptical mind.
These observations admit no conclusion, offer no explanation, nor recommend any course of action. Egypt seems to muddle through with fictions laced with the occasional rude awakening. The country prays fervently to its God, and takes events, both positive and negative, interchangeably as omens and portents. We can hector it from the sideline, but to little effect. A friend asked “are you disillusioned with Egypt?”. The question has no answer; for how can there be disillusion with an affectionately held illusion.
— Maged Atiya