The Gaza conflict of 2014 and the clearing of the Rab’a Al Adawiya encampment in 2013 may seem to have little in common. In fact, a comparison of the two events, without belaboring the analogy, can give insight into the current torment in the region.
The first thing we notice is the utter disregard for life on all sides. Life in today’s Middle East is cheap; few regard the death of friends or opponents as cause for pause. Let us pause at this thought and leave it at that.
Beyond that, both events share a wide mismatch between goals and means. A six-week fetid gathering in a Cairo square was no more likely to bring President Morsi back to office than Hamas’ feeble rockets are to bring down Israel or establish a Palestinian state. The Egyptian security forces blunt and brutal clearing of the square is as effective in swaying the Brotherhood as Israel’s attacks in altering Gazan perceptions.
Both events feature cynical leaders who put their followers in harm’s way for purely political or even organizational goals. Did the Brotherhood leaders not know of the habitual use of force by Egyptian police, or of the long standing animosity among them toward the Brotherhood? Did Hamas think that placing rockets in the middle of civilian facilities will tie Israel’s hands? The reader can guess both answers easily.
Then there is the wide-spread habitual mendacity. Hamas labels its stand “resistance”, while the Brotherhood claimed the sit-in was for “legitimacy”. Of course, Hamas has its first and foremost goal the survival of its organization and the spread of its ideology. The Brotherhood wanted to grab the Egyptian state and use it for its ideological ends; “legitimacy” be damned.
Both events also feature brave words and foolish actions that can easily backfire. Some of the participants in Rab’a carried improvised or antiquated weapons, not enough to repel an attack by security forces, but enough to give them cause. Similarly, Hamas’s rockets are just enough to feed the perception that Israel needs to “deal” with the threat, but not come to terms with its root issues.
Both summers saw attempts by outsiders to “mediate” the conflict. Some were well-meaning, others foolish, and more than a few self-important. None saw that mediation was pointless as both sides wanted conflict. There is a conviction, especially in the West, that peace makers are blessed even when they are demonstrably useless and foolish.
The reaction of “spectators” was similar in both cases. Many found the suffering to be in a good cause, or justified the killing as something nobler than bloodletting. Even governments engaged in the pornography of publicizing images of death and suffering.
We are, in the end, left with death and noise amid spectacular and wide-spread refusal to accept reality or even causality. We are in the dreamland of nightmares. Neither kinship nor affection can make us forgive those who wear their errors as medals.
– Maged Atiya
In his magisterial study of Eastern Christianity published in 1968, historian Aziz Atiya ends his book on a melancholy note, noting the passing of the “lost Churches” of Carthage (Present Tunisia) and Pentapolis, the five cities of present Libya, and Nubia. Fifty years after the Arabs conquered Egypt, they came to North Africa. Overnight, the Carthage Church, once the home of Tertullian and Augustine , those of the Trinity and the City of God, vanished with nary a trace. Atiya attributes this loss to its shallow roots in native soil, having always looked to Rome. The disappearance of Christianity in Carthage was the first, but not the last, of Muslim-induced ending of Eastern Christian communities.
A dozen years after the publication of this work, in the summer of 1980, Atiya was in a happy and expansive mood. Earlier that year, in Lake Como, an editorial board was formed for the Coptic Encyclopedia and authors were identified and assigned tasks. The project that had eluded him for the better part of thirty years seemed within reach. He was determined to dedicate his ninth decade to its completion. He was especially proud that a majority of authors might not be Egyptians or even Copts. He had always wanted to free the study of Coptic history from the clutches of hagiography and turn it into a full-fledged field of scholarship. “Coptology” would now stand as a younger sister to Egyptology.
The mood turned darker when discussions drifted to the fate of Eastern Christianity. It was a time of rising sectarian tensions in Egypt, and President Sadat adopted something less than a statesman’s stand. But Atiya did not fear for the Copts, as he seemed to share in the common, and almost mystical, belief that Christianity will always exist in the land of Egypt. His fears were for other Eastern Christians, what he called the Jacobites and Nestorians, the Christians of Syria and Iraq. With scholarly precision he identified three factors that threatened their precarious existence. First there was the internecine fighting between various Islamic groups. The Lebanese civil war was still raging and he, disregarding borders created in his lifetime, lumped Syria and Lebanon together. The Iran-Iraq war had not yet started, but the revolution in Iran had clearly rattled the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Second was the choices made by the local groups, who let their intellectual leaders lead them astray toward false directions, such as Arab nationalism, which was not bound to prove a refuge. Third was the bumbling of the West. The last reason was a curious one, and somewhat surprising for him to consider. This was a man who lived more than half of his long life in the West, studying and teaching in its institutions. He had great respect for Western culture and admiration for its accomplishments. He always warned that scholars in the East need to rise to Western standards. He had also done a great deal to smooth the occasionally touchy relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the mainline Protestant Churches of the West.
Atiya was a rare bird; a Coptic scholar of Islam, who knew it intimately, respected it greatly, but saw its present dangerous course clearly. He had done seminal work on the Crusades, which allowed him to have a measured view of the enterprise. While he believed that many Crusaders where imbued with true religious, rather than purely mercenary, fervor, he also saw that as a dangerous conceit. He identified the role of the European Catholics in the destruction of Byzantium, beginning with the Fourth Crusade, 250 years before its final fall to the Ottomans. Eastern Christians had to be wary of Western enthusiasm, especially if coupled with uncertain or indifferent execution of goals.
Those sentiments ran coldly true in 2003 as good Christian men from a far away continent sought to bring democracy to Iraq. Their pursuit began the suffering of over 2 Million Assyrians, Iraq’s Christians. Today Nineveh, for 2000 years the home of Arab Christianity, has none. A band of psychopaths may have delivered the final blow, but the weakening started earlier. Now these Christians must contend with the pain of exile and the deracination of their people due to cultural adjustments. Nor were the Americans the sole culprits in this. British recruitment of the Assyrians in the 1920s was a foolish policy, especially when the grand men in Westminster turned their heads at the massacres of the 1930s.
But why should we care about the fate of Eastern Christians? The disappearance of Eastern Christianity is a loss to both Western Christianity and Islam. If Western Christianity is deaf to its roots, it will suffer a slow death at the hands of its most tenacious enemies, blind secularism, vapid materialism, and the choices of “life styles”. As for Islam, if it cannot live with its religious brethrens, close relatives theologically, then it will not be able to live with the world at large. A fortress Islam, simmering in anger, is hardly the vision of a bright future. There is a lesson in the very history of Islam. It was born in Arabia after a century of brutal religious struggle between the Christian kingdom of Axum (present Ethiopia) and the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (present Yemen). These kingdoms had become proxies for Byzantium and Persia in their imperial struggles. In the end, the Arabs adopted neither religion. Religious warfare is rarely a benefit to even the winning side, if there is such a thing.
The agony of Nineveh is the agony of both the Christian West and the Muslim East, though neither recognizes it.
– Maged Atiya
A video emerged showing the head of the National Union of Women, Mervat El Tallawy, declaring her pride in the election and badgering the European Union Election Observer mission members into leaving a news conference, to the cheers of the crowd. Some can be heard to scream “Allahu Akbar”. In a region drunk with religion, God’s name is brought into all sorts of unhappy events, from wanton killings to a fit of poor manners. It was an ugly spectacle. It was particularly chilling to see Ms Tallawy, an otherwise decent woman and stalwart supporter of women’s rights, always under assault in Egypt, descend into this display with seeming ease. Egypt has been enacting an endless variety of Noah’s nakedness for the past few years. But we need not avert our eyes.
This spectacle would be less alarming if it were not for the daily staple of conspiracy theories and lunatic speculations common on Egyptian media. The underlying illness is an identity crisis, with various factions insisting that the country adopt but a single identity rather than coming to an acceptance of the diversity of Egypt and building a tolerant system that can turn this diversity into an advantage. The air is rife with calls for eradication, praise of illiberal democracy, strong men, and national and religious takfir. This cannot end well.
The mindset that gives rise to such behavior is profoundly damaging to Egypt. There is the coarsening of the national discourse and the associated inability to view and solve the country’s massive problems in a level headed manner. The resulting xenophobia is of little help to a country unable to foot its bills and eager for return of tourism and foreign investments. The hysteria makes it even harder for friends of Egypt to lend assistance in any meaningful way. Foreign reporters are badgered on a daily basis on social media and in forums for “conspiring against Egypt”. Such accusations do little to change the tone of reporting, and actually make it harder to call out much of the sloppy reporting of Egyptian reality. If there are foreign nations conspiring against Egypt for their gain, and probably there are, the constant crying of wolf actually gives them cover. Think tanks and policy makers outside Egypt sometimes display blinkered views, but it is hard to bring any clarity amid this din. This entire pattern of behavior does little to inconvenience its targets, and much to disrupt positive developments in Egypt.
Tallawy’s outburst is not only an ugly spectacle and a disgraceful display of poor manners. It is a grim omen for Egypt.
– Maged Atiya
Posters featuring former Defense Minister and current Presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El Sisi and both Coptic Pope Tawadros II and Sheikh Ahmad El Tayyeb of Al Azhar are not uncommon in Egypt, offered both in praise and in condemnation. In praise, they attempt to burnish the legitimacy of Sisi as a man uniting all of Egypt and bridging the religious divide. In condemnation, they insist that the removal of President Morsi was a conspiracy between these unsavory actors. Such is the current polarization of Egypt that the same image can play both ways. In the wake of the removal of Morsi and the massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the role of religion in public life, always a combustible issue in modern Egyptian history, is very much at the front of the agenda of any leader.
I have argued previously that should Sisi assume the office of President he will face an array of problems that require innovative and effective solutions. The choice is stark: continue the regime established by Nasser in 1954 and face failure or attempt to alter it, at least as a transitional figure. The role of religion is one area where an exception can be made. Sisi has already made it clear that he disapproves of the Muslim Brotherhood view of religion in public life and made uncompromising statements insisting that they have no place in the political arena as an organization. The Brotherhood sees the state as the handmaiden for promoting religion; the vision that Sisi outlined turned that on its head, seeing religion as a tool for promoting the state and national unity. As a result, Sisi will have few choices but to echo the policies adopted by Nasser toward the role of religion in public life, or even earlier policies dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. These policies cannot be described as “secular”, but rather as state control of the religious message. He recalled his childhood growing up cheek-to-jowl with a synagogue and listening to Church bells as reflecting the “true” Egypt, a country of pious and religious people of peaceable nature. In that myth religion is a static feature of life reflecting the character of the people and serving as a foundation for the state. These misty ideals must be translated into policy, which will likely mean closer embrace of established religious institutions, such as Al Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as a greater role for them in public life.
On the eve of the 1952 coup Al Azhar was active in supporting King Farouk’s efforts to claim the title of “Caliph”. Nasser, having deposed Farouk, had no choice but to attempt a major alteration of Al Azhar. He placed it under effective state control and expanded its purely religious role to include a variety of university-level educational programs. After Nasser’s death Al Azhar continued to expand. Today some estimates claim that as much as 25% of secondary and 10% of post-secondary non-trade students attend Al Azhar schools, run independently from the Education ministry. If Sisi is to achieve his desired goal of creating an alternative to political Islam, he will have to pay close attention to the massive Al Azhar institution, perhaps assuming even greater control than Nasser attempted. Rather than make the public sphere less religious, the state will likely attempt a nationalistic channeling of the message.
Sisi, in friendly gestures to Tawadros II, also seems to be well on the way to emulating Nasser’s close relationship with Pope Kyrillous VI. Kyrillous was invested in 1958 as a compromise transitional figure between the old guard of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the fiery young reformers, the group of well-educated monks from the Middle Classes, known as the “Sunday Schoolers”. The friendship they formed for the remainder of their lives (Kyrillous passed away a few months after Nasser) was important for both men. The Pope managed to ease the restrictions on the building of Churches, including a grand new Cathedral at Abbasyia, inaugurated in 1968 with Nasser as the guest of honor. Nasser burnished his image as a leader of all the people, including the significant Arab Christian minorities in the Levant, who repaid him with adulation. Ironically, that era also marked a serious weakening of the liberal Coptic elite and strengthening of the role of the Church as the sole spokesman for the community. The feuds between the clergy and laity from the 1930s to the 1950s were ended by the wisdom of Kyrillous as well as heavy hand of Nasser, who marginalized much of the pro-democracy liberal Coptic elite.
The vision Sisi is propagating is fundamentally different from the Brotherhood’s vision of religion, making it difficult to see how any political reconciliation is possible. The upcoming state, should Sisi hold onto power, will not be less religious for the removal of the Brotherhood; just differently so and probably equally intolerant of religious dissent or attempts at fundamental religious reform. This is neither the secularism of the French variety nor a free market of religious ideas in the Anglo-Saxon model. It can best be described as “statist religion”.
It remains an open question whether such a re-orientation will create a viable alternative to political Islam or whether it will alleviate Egypt’s century long struggle with the place of religion within the national identity. At the moment, however, a majority of Egyptians seem to be in tune with an American revivalist ditty: “Gimme that ol’ time religion, ‘tis good enough for me”.
– Maged Atiya
Egypt has become the land of zero learning curve. Events seem to harden rather than alter the positions of all sides. The standoff between the two great illiberal forces in the country, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, is not heading to an obvious resolution. A year ago the Army adopted the statesman’s position of “warning” the Brotherhood and its civilian opponents to compromise for the sake of the country. The Brotherhood responded by further digging in. In time the Army called their bluff and removed President Morsi. The shock of this event was insufficient to penetrate the epistemological shell of a cult-like organization endowed with legendary Egyptian stubbornness. They refused to recognize the popular sentiment against their dominance and saw minor events as portents for the return of President Morsi. Outside powers encouraged their delusions and cynically left their people in harm’s way. Even the terrible slaughter at Rab’a was simply evidence that things cannot continue that way. They did not, they got worse. In the meantime, those who supported the removal of Morsi refuse to recognize that injustice is rife and that it feeds its twin, chaos. They are also unwilling to face the reality that the Gulf financial aid will end sooner or later and that a systematic focus on economic recovery requires more than “ending terrorism”.
This is a classic stalemate. One side cannot lose but unable to pacify; the other cannot win but able to disrupt. Stalemates in politics are often convenient and constructive, but in violent struggles debilitating and disastrous. The situation is in many ways similar to the aftermath of the 1967 war. Israel could not lose a war against the Arabs but could not forge peace with them. The stalemate was ended when a faction on one side found the psychological strength to make a sullen peace, and those who refused to go along left to their fate. It was not just; but it was not war. It also helped that a major power, the United States, made its goals clearly and unequivocally and then invested sufficient efforts to achieve them. The goals were the survival of Israel and the removal of Egypt from the battle. The methods varied, ranging from Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” to Carter’s “Camp David” strong-arming, but the goal remained the same.
Is a similar outcome possible today in Egypt? The best answer is that “we do not know”. It is disheartening to see otherwise sober statesman such as Senator Patrick Leahy burst out in red-faced frustration about Egypt and its relations with the US. It is also ineffectual. To clean up after the current wreckage requires a clarification of the goals, rather than a focus on methods. The task of US policy makers is unenviable. They need to preserve US interests, which requires making clear choices. Refusal to make choices led to the current situation where all sides seem hostile to the US. But can a country such as the US make a choice between two sides, one offering injustice and the other chaos? This requires subtle understanding and imagination to see the contours of what is possible and what might emerge in time. It is a long term, occasionally frustrating task; probably more so than the decade spent diffusing the Israel-Egypt standoff.
Absolute policy goals are best when they are few and easily articulated. At the moment the only logical goals for the US should be a clear support for the preservation of the integrity of the Egyptian state and the continuation of its support for furthering the development of an open globalized and prosperous world. It will mean that the official policy and the public pressure might need to go in different directions. This is a tough act for a noisy democracy, and requires leaders able to buck the public pressure on occasions. Let us hope they exist in Washington.
– Maged Atiya
That April was not the cruelest month of the year, but the most disappointing month of an entire generation. The day after it ended Egyptians went to the polls to vote for a “Constitutional Declaration”, the first, but alas not the last time, such a term was used. It was, like much else of the improvised regime, an invention of President Nasser. Out of 7,450,478 eligible voters 7,317,419 chose to vote (98.2%), and of those 7,315,743 (99.97%) approved of the declarations. It is possible that the vote was rigged, but equally possible that it was not. Egyptians had a developed a habit of agreeing with the ruler, especially when the alternatives are uncertain.
The trouble with April began in February. The judgment of a court martial on officers held responsible for the 1967 war debacle was passed on February 21 1968, and most deemed it nothing more than a severe slap on the wrist. Suddenly all of Egypt seemed to be on the brink of revolution. Workers walked out at army factories. Cairo University students walked out onto the streets of Giza. Across the city in Heliopolis new students at the elite Al Tabari school, boys not yet into their teens, burst out of the gates screeching slogans they barely understood in sympathy with the older students. As luck would have it they immediately ran into a surprised platoon of new police recruits on their lunch break, smooth-faced country boys of high school age. What followed was less of the police disbursing demonstrators than a school yard melee. All the students were home before supper, sullen and bruised, having learned that voice in Egypt is often found at the painful end of a policeman’s nightstick.
March was a month of excitement. Teach-ins in Giza featured young men with liberal political views, young women with wild hair and the leering informers. Middle-aged men, who imagined themselves in the know, speculated that this is the end of Nasser’s time, and that his second, Zakaria Moheiddin, the US man in Egypt, will soon take over. In time Nasser joined the revolution, for he was not a man who ever missed a revolt, including one directed at him. By the end of March, his efforts resulted in a new revolutionary document, “The March 30” declaration, which aimed to put the defeated Egyptian state on an even keel. Again, the cynics should note that he believed his words, and for the remainder of his life he was a changed man. He had taken off his Army uniform 14 years earlier, but now he seemed free of Army thinking as well. The country actually picked up some vigor, enough to allow it to coast to a face-saving battle in 1973. But March 30 was the end of any real improvement in Egyptian governance for at least a generation, possibly more.
As March ended, April featured the usual media barrage to support the keen vision of “El Ra’is”. April also featured something more celestial than TV appearances by tired sycophants. Early in the month people began to claim visions of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in a Zeitoun Church. In a pleasantly cool late April night a crowd assembled outside the Church. Wicker chairs were set up cinema style. The front rows, reserved for the VIPs featured upholstered cushions. The inevitable seller of salted Lupini beans plied his trade. As the night wore on the crowd stilled and finally slept. A couple of hours ahead of dawn there was a sudden stir, followed by cheers and applause. The one boy who stayed up intently looking at the sky saw nothing but blackness. He kept his silence out of respect for the crowd’s feelings, or in fear of its wrath. Perhaps the cheering crowds obscured his view. The rest of Egypt, the vast majority that did not assemble in Zeitoun, still held strong opinions about what they did not see. Some saw it as a heavenly sign favoring Egypt; others dismissed it as hallucinations of the religiously deluded. Few suspended belief awaiting firm evidence.
Among the skeptics was a charismatic Sunday school teacher in the Cleopatra Church, barely a mile away from Zeitoun. By June he had left his position without an explanation. The summer found him running bootleg Sunday school in the basement of the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Qubba Street. It was never clear whether boys flocked to the weekly meeting out of loyalty, need or the desire to hear bootleg records of “The Doors”. It did not hurt that he turned a blind eye to the pile of banana and Guava thought to cover the smell of Cigarettes and Alcohol. In time he was turned out of there as well, and eventually out of Egypt. In 1970s he was an enthusiastic builder of a Houston congregation, and an occasional demonstrator for democracy in Egypt. But the habits of an inquisitive mind also distanced him from his new Church. A chance encounter in April 1993, at Houston Airport, found him a portly shadow of his former self. He recognized but refused to acknowledge a former student.
– Maged Atiya
At age 50, just before the outbreak of World War II, Salama Moussa (1887?-1958) was a man past his prime. He kept his prodigious energies for the next two decades of his life, but his influence would no longer be what it once was. Egypt had moved on and was determined, to its detriment, to ignore the odd man who tried to hector it to modernity. It is difficult to classify a man who took up and discarded ideas with great regularity. He did have a child-like love and faith in science and all that is modern, a faith that would sometimes lead him into blind alleys before he back tracked out. For example, his naïve Pharaonism and misunderstanding of evolution led him to Eugenics and was even a devotee of Flinders Petrie and Grafton Elliot Smith. Yet he was one of the few Egyptian men of his generation to love women, not as idealized romantic or social constructs, but as genuine flesh-and-blood beings standing in exact equality to men. The one constant in his life was his self-identification as a Fabian. In that regard, and in his general affection for Anglo-Saxon culture, he was a minority in Egypt.
The Fabian society was established in England 3 years before in Moussa’s birth in Egypt. It is identified as a “socialist” group. In reality it was something far more complex; for it was the child of a uneasy marriage between English Noblisse Oblige and prosperous capitalism. Fabians, named after the Roman general Fabius Maximus Cunctator who wore down Hannibal by delay, were anti-revolutionaries, focusing on slow patient reform over precipitate action. Moussa was introduced to it through the friendship and affection of a Fabian feminist. Later in life he would blurt that “English women are the most beautiful in the world”, an embarrassing admission that might be forgiven as an expression of loyalty rather than wide experience with that gender. Fabians were a colorful lot who favored social reform over politics, and many among them devoted themselves to studies of Sexuality and Eugenics, most notably the oddly eccentric and very English Havelock Ellis. Such views were to influence Moussa for the remainder of his life. He remained the faintly aristocratic and avuncular man who spoke openly about sex to an embarrassed and prudish nation. His refusal to adopt anti-western or anti-British views was colored by his intimate knowledge of the people rather than acceptance of imperialism. He stands in great contrast to Sayyd Qutb, whose professed constrained and closeted views of sex that fueled his antagonism to the West. It is always difficult for a man to hate a place if he loves its women.
Moussa was not the only colonial to be charmed by Fabianism, or Fabian women. Others in his fellowship include Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Jinah and Lee Kuan Yew. There is no doubt that Fabianism played a great part in their lives as public men and their success in governing. One is often tempted to think that the early death of Jinah led Pakistan away from a democratic path similar to India, and to its current Islamist agony. Moussa shared with these men a prickly hauteur and a very Burkean suspicion of democracy unless and until the masses, and the intellectual elite, are brought up to a cultural level sufficient for its implementation. Unlike Nehru, Jinah or Yew, Moussa would never rise to public office, and not for lack of desire. He was hampered by the most salient, and often ignored, factor in Egyptian politics; religion. As a Copt, even one who professed atheism, the best he could do would be to join established parties as a second fiddle, something contrary to his nature. Islamists would savage him as a Western collaborator comfortable in the knowledge that his birth faith would only confirm their allegations. In 1950 Sayyd Qutb, completing his conversion from a sensitive esthete to an Islamist firebrand, would rail against the “Brown Englishman” (“Al Inglisi Al Asmar”), a sneak attack against a man he knew and probably disliked. In time post-colonial studies in the West would come to implicitly side with such an assessment, to the great harm of Western policy toward a clear-eyed understanding of political Islam. In such current views political Islam is “authentic”, and those who argue for adoption of Western values, simply because they work, are doomed to failure and unworthy of broad and sustained support.
In May 2012, an Egyptian liberal, Amr Bargisi, wrote that until a liberal discourse develops in Egypt the country is doomed to a choice between “Islamist Repression or Repression of Islamism”. Such discourse must be grounded in current reality, yet it has to start by understanding many of the forgotten men, and of why they lost the opening battle of the war for their people’s soul.
– Maged Atiya
The AIDS cure claim by an Egyptian doctor is not easily dismissed as the product of a known wacko. How he peddled it and why many defend him makes the episode a metaphor rather than a farce. Egypt probably has no more charlatans any other country, and an American can never be smug about snake oil salesmen. But the nature of a con reveals much about the mark. While Americans are an easy mark for those peddling dreams of personal progress, Egyptians typically fall for those promising national glory. The dirty little secret of Egypt is that individual self-worth is often tied closely to how the world perceives the country. As a result, the country has fallen victim to an increasingly more brazen set of false prophets. The refusal to allow scrutiny into the “cure” should make us suspicious of it. When it fails, there will be a rush to find the perfidious foreign powers behind the derailing of the Egyptian dream. It has been thus and will always be so, until the habit is broken. The white-hot Egyptian hyper-nationalism needs a dousing of cold water, not so much to cool it, but to shatter its illusions.
Egypt did not lack for people ready with a bucket of cold water. But the last century has seen a marginalization of such voices. In 1921 a misguided collection of prominent thinkers established the “Eastern League”. They included Rashid Reda, an early peddler of political Islamism and role model for Hassan Al Banna, and Al Ahmadi Al Zawahiri, whose grandson would take anti-Western anger to lethal heights. The elixir in their bottle was a belief that rejection of “Western values” would bring glory back to Eastern nations. Salama Moussa would spend the entire decade of the 1920s debunking such thinking with brazen assertions, both correct and provocative. His famous statement “ ana kafir bil sharaq wa mu’men bil gharb ” (“I am a disbeliever in the East and a believer in the West”) was a typically over-stated appeal for universality as cure for backwardness. Taha Hussein, a more measured man and a more elegant thinker, also made the case for the universality of civilization. Ahmed Zaki Abu-Shady established the “Apollo Group” to disseminate a literary version of unapologetic modernity. In a twist of fate the group included Sayyd Qutb, whose later apostasy from universalism would make him a major bottler and distributor of the most noxious of false hopes.
It is the tragedy of Egypt that the snake oil salesmen often proved themselves the more able promoters. Sensible voices were silenced or marginalized. Salama Moussa would spend the last two decades of his life in fruitless pursuits and score-settling. Taha Hussein was relieved of his command of Egyptian education by Nasser in 1954, and spent the next two decades little affecting national life while receiving plenty of honors. Abu Shady took the easy route out in 1947 and immigrated to America. He never came back. In the meantime, men such as Qutb and Ahmad Hussein, leader of the Egyptian fascists, would visit the West and come back with fantastical tales of its decadence and immorality, and advocate authentic cures for Egyptian ills. That the patient got progressively sicker was no reflection on those cures, but on the perfidious West which conspired ceaselessly against the country.
A story is told, reliably but with no proof, that shortly before Taha Hussein’s death he was visited by a group of his old friends. There was a mention of Abu Shady in connection with an attempt to house his collected papers in an American university. The ancient men began to weep. One suspects it was as much for the country that left them as it was for the departed friend who left it.
– Maged Atiya
February 24 2014 is the day Egypt found a cure for AIDS, and its cabinet resigned en-masse, most likely as a procedural step so that Egyptians can go to the polls again and democratically elect as President the leader of the Army that tossed out the last democratically elected President, who in turn got to his office by the good will of the very same Army that also tossed out a previous President. On this day of cumin-infused Kabuki theater let us recall an Egyptian intellectual unlike any of his generation, Salama Moussa (1887?-1958).
Moussa was a maddening man. His intellectual output was prodigious, took many twists and turns, and was often in-artful and even wrong. But like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog he got one thing right. He cared not a whit for the national struggle against the British; not that he had much sympathy or liking for the British Empire. During the first half of the twentieth century most Egyptian intellectuals were keen on liberating Egypt from the domination of the British. Moussa, on the other hand, was keen on liberating Egyptians from the domination of their native culture. Although proud of his Egyptian heritage, he saw the native religiosity and social and sexual oppression as the root of the country’s ills and their removal as the road to its resurgence and prosperity. His passions were stirred less by “Egypt for the Egyptians” than “Civilization for the Egyptians”.
Time would prove him sadly right, even if the last decade of his life left him demoralized and unsure of his legacy. The man advocating universal values has been largely ignored by his countrymen, who preferred authentic decline to foreign improvement.
Experts are fond of pointing out that the Arab cultural output is far below that of comparable populations elsewhere. Egypt, nominally Arab, leads in that decline. Not only is Egypt today behind many similar countries in cultural output, Egypt today is behind yesterday’s Egypt as well. Those who place the blame on a “deficit of freedom” are only partly right. Three years of revolutionary freedom have not markedly improved the output. The cause of this calamity is deeper than the lack of freedom. It is a cultural decline that coincided with the rise of belief in the superiority of native culture and withdrawal from the universal and global cultural influences. Egyptians today rightly complain about how outsiders mock them. At the same time an Army doctor claims to have cured AIDS with a cartoonish gadget.
It is unlikely that Salama Moussa is glowering in anger from the heavens. He didn’t believe in the afterlife. Had he been alive, however, he would have pointed out that the holy men, the men in uniform, the modestly attired women and the poorly-read youth are the links of a chain binding Egypt to a cycle of decline and anger. It is a measure of that decline that if the social critic of the 1920s and 1930s were to repeat his warnings today he would be met not with social disapproval, but most likely with a term in jail or worse.
There was a time when Egyptian intellectuals debated the merits of a modernizing strongman vs. the retrograde populists. Egypt’s nightmare is that this choice may no longer exist.
– Maged Atiya
In the mid 1960s, as Nasser was elegantly proclaiming on television a new Social Democratic Republic (“Gomhurya Ishtrakia wa Democratia” ) a young man rose up with a stream of obscenities directed at the screen. One in particular remains itched in memory. “You sonofabitch, it is a republic of civil servants !” (“Ya Ibn Al Kalb Di Gomhuryat Al Muwazafeen“). The young man’s intemperance can be easily excused, for months before he had been given a number, a ceiling on the size of his burgeoning business beyond which it would risk nationalization. Months later he was still angry at the scratch of a pen that aborted his dreams. Nasser’s nationalization policies created a large public sector that remains an economic albatross. But blame does not rest solely on his broad shoulders. Large government in Egypt has many fathers, and Nasser shares this dubious distinction with many others, notably Muhammad Ali and Lord Cromer. All three men, founders of modern Egyptian regimes, wanted a large and pliant bureaucracy for increasingly abstract reasons. Muhammad Ali needed it for his imperial vanity project, Lord Cromer for the health of the British Empire which he served faithfully, and Nasser for “social justice”. Many who demonstrated in January 2011 held photographs of Nasser while demanding “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”. That is understandable given that Nasser worked tirelessly for “Bread” and “Social Justice”. While two out of three ain’t bad; if a choice is given one should opt for “Freedom”, for it can beget the other two more readily than they can beget freedom. The clearest danger to the cultural, political and economic health of Egypt is a large government. This is a difficult argument to make for a country craving security, but it must be made. The Muslim Brotherhood dream of fixing Egypt through a more moral government is a mirage, as a large government armed with morality is likely to be more intrusive and coercive. Neither should large government be blamed on stereotypes of Egyptians loving a “nanny state”. A country where half the economic activity is outside official channels can not be said to lack for entrepreneurship.
The trouble is not even the economic orientation of government. Both Sadat and Mubarak tried to shift the economic philosophy away from Nasser’s socialism and nationalization, but with government remaining large. the country created a class of capitalists fearful of government meddling that can ruin their business, and even worse, many who are dependent on it for largess. The ills of a large and ponderous government in Egypt go beyond the economic sphere. They affect the cultural and political fabric of society. The government ownership of a good portion of the media, and its regulation of the rest, means that no censorship is needed to control the press. Media, like any business, will toe the line for those that butter its bread. The customer is always right. Culture is not immune to government meddling as many of the leading lights are essentially civil servants. The size of the government is no help in provisioning human services, such as education and healthcare. In fact, its failures have created misery for Egyptians and opportunity for those who wish to create an alternative society rather than participate in a shared one. Such failures are the largest impediments for the desired end of a pluralistic and democratic government.
There is a feverish search for a new US policy toward Egypt, one that does not “reward’ violations of freedoms nor weaken the country at a time when it faces a Jihadist insurgency born of the usual nihilism common to the region. As always, a sensible policy is an active and positive one with unambiguous recommendations rather than meek condemnations. The best that can be done for Egypt is to recommend and assist in ways to trim its government and increase the size of the private sector. In the American context advocacy for small government is seen as a “right wing” cause. But in the Egyptian context, advocacy for a smaller government is neither left nor right, just a sensible way out of a historic dead-end.
– Maged Atiya