Gamal Abd El Nasser – Method Actor


Marlon Brando, who saw his acting talent as an undesired gift, explained his method as inhabiting the character so thoroughly that all his actions were produced by its logic rather than his thinking. The intimate link between politics and theater has always been with us, Shakespeare wrote of it, the Greek dramatists never missed it, and even the ancient rulers dressed for maximum effect. We speak regularly of politics on the “public stage”. Few men in modern Egyptian history have embodied that link better than President Nasser. A protean man and a motherless child, he left a giant imprint on his nation and beyond, not because of belief in any specific philosophy or ideology, but because he lacked any and was able to inhabit the character of the hero so thoroughly that it defined his rule and his policies, leading to his rise and ultimate fall, in an arc that any dramatist would instantly recognize. Egyptians, and others beyond the Nile, were his audience, his fans, the people who loved him because of what they projected onto him, and what he reflected back on them, rather than for his political legacy, most of which was ultimately disastrous. It is not hard to imagine Nasser in a different setting, as a matinee idol in 1950s Egyptian movies, always the dashing man who solves all problems, projects masculine kindness, leaving younger women swooning and older ones grinning in maternal delight. All the meantime, men would hold back envy and imitate every move.

The camera is said to recognize and love a great actor. A day after the 1952 coup the Free Officers posed for a photograph. It was a stiff and public pose, with the senior officer, General Naguib sitting behind a desk surrounded by his subordinate men. He should have been the center and focus of the camera, instead, inexplicably, the camera drifted to focus squarely on Nasser, making him the center of the photograph. No one knew his future role, save the the prescient camera. Nasser’s fate was sealed. He would act out every nuance of his role regardless of his better instincts, including those of survival. In Manshiya Square October 24 1954, on a cool night, shots rang and bullets flew toward him. He did not do the sensible thing and duck, instead he stood erect and declared that “I live for you and die for you. Nasser will not die because every man is Nasser”. This is history imitating drama. Almost exactly two years later, in the darkness of a Cairo night, his closest comrades urged him to surrender to the invading British forces and be the conscience of the nation from prison, like so many colonial leaders of the time. But that could never have been in any script that any producer would approve. He stood erect, and the improbable happened, as it would in any melodrama; the American President, Eisenhower, abandoned his erstwhile friends and allies to side with Nasser. The hero was born, again.

There was a darker side too. When Syrian wily villains approached him for a union with Egypt in early 1958 his sound judgement was to say “No”. But that was not the logic of the character, the great Arab leader. So he overruled his own good judgement and plunged in, going even as far as erasing Egypt’s eternal name, a move that sealed his political fate with many. Even worse, he authorized “limited” interference in the affairs of Arab countries as part and parcel of his role. They all rebounded badly on him, as Egyptian intelligence in those days was more farcical than most with its Clouseau-like ineptitude. Once the union with Syria failed in 1961, Nasser found himself needing to prove greatness within Egypt. He embarked on a series of economic reforms, all along socialist-realist lines, that made panoramas worthy of Diego Rivera, but crippled Egyptian growth to this very day. The great Arab leader also had to support an inept Yemeni general to the tune of 20,000 Egyptian lives.  Such was the constraints of the character written for him. Nor could he back away from brinkmanship in 1967 that was to lead to a great military disaster. The most powerful argument he gave for his actions in May 1967 was a single line, Beckett-like, “I am not Anthony Eden”. The hero lives on. In the darkest hour love brings salvation. It was the genuine love of the people, as well as their bafflement, that buoyed him on June 9 1967.

Death comes once to men, but is enacted over and over again by great actors. His almost fatal heart attack in 1968 did not slow him down, but moved him to action. His greatest and most peripatetic two years were ahead of him. The great Arab hero did not die until his role dictated it. Nasser would pass away only when his Arab world would burst into the violence of “Black September”. Arab “brothers” battled each other in Jordan within earshot of their common enemy. Within hours the curtain fell on Nasser the man, but the role lives on, waiting for a new actor to take up the mantle.

– Maged Atiya

The 6 Hour War

It is too early for history to pass judgement on the horrifying events of August 14 2013 at Rab’a El Adawya square. While some have compared it to Muhammad Ali’s 1811 massacre of Mameluke notables which ended their 500 years of power forever and set Egypt on the road to modern statehood, the mind drifts to a different analogy; that of June 1967.

Just as Nasser massed Egyptian troops in the Sinai for purely political reasons and with no comprehensive plan for an all out war with Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood packed its followers in the square with no clearly planned end point. Nasser saw the closing of the straits of Tiran as a leverage to extract some concessions from Israel and enhance his domestic standing, eroded by economic sluggishness and the war in Yemen. Similarly the Brotherhood also saw the rally as a forum to extract political concessions and to voice its opposition to the removal of President Morsi. Both events followed serious and strenuous negotiations between the two sides. In 1967 UN Secretary General U Thant did the bulk of the work, while in 2013 there were various international actors, including a free wheeling effort by US senators McCain and Graham. In 1967 Nasser did not grasp that Israel had little interest in negotiations and was eager to deliver a serious blow to the Arab armies to bring the states to a more concessionary mood. The Brotherhood made the mistake of assuming that while negotiations were ongoing they can continue to demand concessions and avoid bloodshed. Both were wrong. As Israel struck suddenly in 1967, the military gave the order to the police to clear the square with minimal warning. The deaths of Egyptian troops in 1967 and the protesters in 2013 owe as much to the bumbling of their leaders as to the firepower of their attackers. In less than 6 hours on a summer morning Egyptians woke to a new reality, with all that followed being brutally inevitable. 

We do not know if the military in 2013 was as surprised by the scale of destruction as Israel was in 1967. What we do know is that, just as in 1967 with the Arab states, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed a posture of resistance in face of a massive loss. The weekly demonstrations and attacks at various universities are the Brotherhood’s version of the famous “3 Nos” of Khartoum. As the Arab states refused negotiations with Israel until all land captured in 1967 is returned, the Muslim Brotherhood insists on no public negotiations with the military until Morsi is restored to power.  If these similarities are accurate, do they tell us anything about the shape of events in Egypt in the upcoming years? Some will argue that the comparison is specious, since the 1967 war was between recognized states, while the 2013 events are between political actors. This is true enough, except in the minds of many Egyptians who came to accuse the Brotherhood of begin an alien body to the nation, and who saw in the Brotherhood’s clumsy and failing attempt to capture the instruments of the state as the equivalent of an invasion by an outside force. The Brotherhood was helped little by its international supporters in places such as Turkey and Qatar. Their noisy but ineffectual support simply firmed up the worst in Egyptian minds. Just as importantly, what lessons will members of the Brotherhood draw from these events? Almost all pundits insist that cadres will be radicalized and resort to violence. Some undoubtedly will. But will a significant segment of the Brotherhood see the errors of the leaders and seek a revamping of their tactics? Time will answer these questions, but it is important to view this struggle correctly, not as merely over prerogatives and power, but also over identity.

After 1967 and its echo in 1973, Israel grew powerful and prosperous and increasingly had little to fear from the Arab armies. It did not however grow more peaceful, nor has it resolved the contradictions between being a Jewish and democratic state and an occupying power.  It may turn out that Egypt will no longer have to contend with the Brotherhood post 2013. It may even manage to improve its economic situation and perhaps join the ranks of rapidly growing developing nations. But whether the killings at Rab’a will resolve its identity crisis remains an open question.

– Maged Atiya

The Years Of Hope And Despair

Rushdi Said labeled the years 1968-1981 as “years of hope and despair”. The well-known geologist and occasional government minister described the following:

After the 1967 defeat the political leadership ended its dependency on the army and the intelligence apparatus because of their failure to defend the regime, and instead reached out for the support of the people. This shift was reflected in the measures that the leadership took to help modernize and democratize government administration. It streamlined the work of the government and made it accountable. It made sure that the government and public sector appointments were made in accordance with the merit system. These reforms of the government administration were strictly adhered to until the war of October 1973, a war that would have had no chance of success without these reforms. The reforms were abandoned after the 1973 war. (Science & Politics in Egypt, P 171)

The post-1967 years are often described as years of defeat and breakdown. There was that. The daily bread was often corrupted with saw dust. Staples were hard to come by. Oranges, for example, once plentiful, were in short supply, as they were used to pay the Soviet Union for weapons. The country suffered the effects of Israeli raids and occasional forays. But the years had a certain luminosity, as Said noted. Something felt very different in Egypt. There was an air of anticipation and possibilities. Economic growth, for the first time in several years, picked up. Students, some as young as 8 or 9, could demonstrate and even criticize the government openly. Al Azhar admitted women to its schools for the first time, and many came wearing short skirts. There was attention to merit; the commander of a major army was a Copt, for example. Government contracts were bid out fairly. Even the notorious Cairo traffic flowed smoothly, aided by newly constructed tunnels and bridges. How do we square these undeniable feelings and observations with the reality of defeat and the ever-present anxiety of  failure?

Egypt between the wars, 1967 to 1973, was free of two influences that haunted it for nearly two decades prior to 1967. Nasser smashed the Muslim Brotherhood to bits. Israel smashed the army. Free from both the Brotherhood and the army, Egyptians glimpsed a vision of Egypt unchained by these two authoritarian and hectoring groups.  After 1973 things changed rapidly, and not for the better. Sadat empowered the Brotherhood, initially on university campuses to counter the liberals and the left, but ultimately throughout society, and the army had its honor restored, although the best and most successful of its generals were booted out. Six days of war were followed by six years of hope and forty years of despair.

The fading year of 2013 has been one of despair in Egypt. Every week brought fresh horrors and searing images of pain. Who can forget the Port Said deaths, the lynching of Shi’a citizens, the attack on St Mark’s Cathedral, the horror of death at Rab’a, and the daily demonstrations  often accompanied by injuries and deaths. The polarized country is left feeling that it must choose between one of two tormentors. That would be a false feeling. There is luminosity in Egypt, which only a third way will uncover, and chart a path forward unchained by the forces that gave the land forty years of despair.

– Maged Atiya

Authoritarianism, If You Can keep It

A sense of gloom surrounds the upcoming third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution . There is a feeling that the gyre has turned back to the starting point of familiar authoritarianism. It would be an error to ignore Egypt’s long history of revolt and assume that the current trend is long lasting. Those who have been waiting for an answer of what system the revolution will produce seem to be getting a grotesque variation of the famous Benjamin Franklin quip: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”. The great fear is not that Egypt will keep a new-found authoritarianism, but rather that it will lose it without finding a superior substitute. Too little is written about the weakness of the Egyptian state, primarily because its habits of public and blunt coercion hide its underlying fragility. The closest analogy is a bully with a glass jaw. In a thousand schoolyard tales a bully reigns supreme until that moment when a punch sends him to the ground sniffling. After that it is always nearly impossible to regain the top dog status.

Much attention has been placed on promoting democracy in Egypt, and too little on identifying the rough outline of what constitutes “Egypt”. There is a strongly-held romantic view of the square-shaped desert land surrounding the Nile valley as integral and eternal. But the land has been labile for the better part of two hundred years as it tries to find an identity beyond that of an exploited province of great empires. That identity has been so strong and familiar that long after all empires have vanished exploitation continues at the hands of self-selected few. Politics in modern Egypt has sometimes been nothing more than an economically extractive process. Those who do not seek to enrich themselves instead have often brought up fantastic tales of hidden meddling by external forces. The rough outlines of a people’s soul are often defined by their collective mythology. When Egyptians from all walks of life, from the mighty Sadat to the earnest Muslim Brotherhood cadre to the hyper-nationalist Copt, whisper tales of external powers wishing to partition Egypt they betray their fear about the uncertainty of the Egyptian identity. The current polarization is between two camps favoring mobilization along familiar but largely mythological lines, nationalism and religion. Both camps are authoritarian in character, for they favor the collective over the individual, even if their definitions of the collective are radically different. Yet it would be false to assume equivalence between the two. Only the nationalist mobilization has the DNA to evolve into something resembling a liberal system that works for the benefit of the average man or woman.

As the noise of revolution dies down the real work must begin of building a national narrative and a working contract between the state and the people. It is difficult and uncertain work, with many likely reverses. But it is not without precedent in Egypt as there is much intellectual capital to start with. No other country in the region, except possibly Israel, has worried so long and wrote so extensively about what it means to be a “native”. The accusation of “unEgyptianness”, or worse of working for a foreign agenda, is a familiar one; hurled with poor aim both in the public sphere and occasionally across the dinner table.  Nevertheless, it should not slow down those who wish to construct a rational order based on exchange of rights for protection. Being an Egyptian should not be a one-sided deal of constant sacrifice for “Egypt”, but also of the country giving back dignity and prosperity for its citizens.

There is no durable retreat to authoritarianism, the end will be either chaos or a better and more liberal system. The outcome will depend on the work done in the shadow of authoritarianism and on the manner by which it is brought to heel.

– Maged Atiya


For much of its troubled history Pakistan has been a nominal, and occasionally a treaty, ally of the United States. It has alternated elected civilian government with military regimes aiming to correct the errors of the civilians. It has enjoyed the financial support of the Saudi royal regime. Its large and ponderous army fared badly against India whenever conflict came, and now is doing rather poorly against a home-grown insurgency by retrograde religious fundamentalists in a wild desert bad land. The reader who thinks this is an attempt to draw parallels with present-day Egypt would only be partly right. It is also important to call attention to the differences which, if rapidly erased, would spell disaster for both Egypt and the neighboring West.

Egypt is not Pakistan for one primary reason; the trenchant Egyptian historic identity, embraced most strongly today by the native Egyptian Christians, the Copts. Intellectuals will rush in at this point to elaborate that identity is largely manufactured and is in no way an integral and organic part of any polity. That could very well be true, and also irrelevant. This identity, utterly lacking in shallow-rooted Pakistan when it split from historic India, is the last vestigial protection against an array of familiar horrors. The horrors include a large country with a failing economy drenched in daily senseless violence. They also include a massive brain-drain that leaves it at the mercy of the worst among the confused citizens. More relevant to the West is the possibility that the Suez Canal, Sinai and the border with Israel may soon become the equivalent of the Pakistani Northwest Frontier. The economic plum of the Sinai will instead be a heartless land, a present-day Mad Max landscape where machines roam the air to hunt men below.

Egypt is not there yet, and all reason tells us to stop this slide. The current struggle between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood is a struggle between two occasional allies, neither having strong liberal, democratic or economic management track record. It is tempting to say “pox on both”. That would also be pox on Egypt, and ultimately on the West. There is a view in the West that political Islamism is an integral component of Muslim-majority countries and can not be defeated. There is nothing in history to support this view, and its adoption could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ultimate defeat of political Islamism is as critical to the liberal order in the West as was the defeat of home-grown totalitarian systems. There is no better place to start that process than Egypt. The strong historic identity, the existence of a large, native and patriotic Christian minority, as well as a significant fraction of Egyptian Muslims who wish to see a prosperous and diverse country devoid of religious bigotry, are all good portents. But only so with a commitment to a long and principled struggle.

The 99.9% Solution

It is likely that Nasser would never have lost an election in Egypt. Yet every referendum he every proposed or starred in had results that would be the envy of the six-sigma preachers of corporate America . The final figure always had a profusion of the digit “9″, as if the government printing press had no other digits at hand. The 1956 referendum was won by a margin of 99.9%, other referendums featured additional nines.  Nasser wore his nines with elegance as he was always assured of the people’s love, less can be said about the garish and bloody imitators in the region.

Historians have generally accepted this as the expected behavior of dictators. Yet Nasser was hardly a vicious dictator in the mold of Saddam, for example. His power rested on a wide acceptance by many forces in Egypt, although with stiff resistance as well. Nor can it be said that it was born of his early association as a callow youth with various totalitarian groups in Egypt. He managed to outgrow all of these associations, and in time crack down on most of them. Also, we should note that this practice set the stage for other imitators (primarily Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt), who lived and governed differently and in different circumstances. There may yet be another explanation for that obsession with overwhelming and ridiculous winning margins.

Nasser may have realized early on the fragility of the Egyptian state. From the outside, the structure of the Egyptian state seems mighty and oppressive. But its oppression might owe less to might than weakness. He, and subsequent rulers, maybe have been in touch with the anarchist streak in the Egyptian soul (traffic patterns are the best hint there), and feared its eruptions. Anything less than an overwhelming, even silly, win might spark a protest that will quickly mushroom into outright rebellion. Subsequent history does not show them entirely wrong. In fact, stare long enough at the three nines and the current situation in Egypt becomes clearer. 2011 was the year that the brittleness of the seemingly mighty state was laid bare for all to see.  2012 was the year it became absolutely clear that the Muslim brotherhood sees elections as the means to acquire power, rather than the method for safely alternating it among different hands. Neither winning power by peaceful means nor losing it by extra-legal ones is likely to alter the Brotherhood view of governance as simply a means to repress and eliminate opponents. Pundits who talked knowingly of the “moderate Brotherhood” now intone about the “return of the regime”. 2013 is the year it also became clear that the “regime” can never return, as one of its components was the presence of the Brotherhood as peaceful and beaten opposition, useful to narrow the social and intellectual space and as a convenient patsy in the ring.

The notion of dissent as rebellion has taken hold in Egypt with dangerous consequences. It is not merely those in power that view dissent as a rebellion. More alarmingly, dissidents also see dissent as a means to overturn the political order. Much of the confusion in the reaction of Western observers to the current protest law lies in the different understanding of “dissent”. In a functioning liberal and plural system dissent is a means to alter the behavior, rather than affect the removal,  of leaders. Yet listen to all factions in Egypt and you will see that dissent is seen as simply a way toward radical change of leaders and even rules. This sets a dangerous feedback loop of repression and dissent that must be broken in some fashion or a more open system can never be established in Egypt. The intellectual sphere in Egypt has narrowed considerably under the onslaught of religious fundamentalism and societal disrespect for differences. It is not surprising that in such an environment there is an obsession with total approval, for that indicates total control as well.

The best contribution toward stability in Egypt is to further the understanding that a regime is not illegitimate if it has the approval of only 51% of the people, or even if it has the approval of a minority. A regime is legitimate because it acquired power by the rules and maintains power by strict observation of these rules. The rules need to include respect for the natural rights of the individual and communal need for law and order. Until that understanding animates the politics of Egypt, look forward to further repressions fueled by the belief that anything short of total approval constitutes a loss of legitimacy. The 99.9% solution is Egypt’s millstone.


– Maged Atiya


Thanksgiving 1969

There is a rich history of immigrant tales about the first Thanksgiving in America. It is never too much to add more. This tale dates to 1969 in the picture-perfect snowy Rockies.

The Thanksgiving menu, clipped from a newspaper, was spread on the kitchen table and the family hunched over it like the general staff of a beleaguered army.  If one of the boys had doubts about the upcoming enterprise he did not voice them. There were reasons for skepticism, as Mother’s years of commanding others in the kitchen made her a Field Marshal bereft of troops to man the trenches, and ready to draft the entire family to her aid. The exoticism of the menu meant that she would fight on unfamiliar terrain. Turkey is not unknown in Egypt, but its name (Deek Roumi or Thracian Rooster*) hints at its less than fulsome acceptance by the population. It did not help that a frozen one was obtained late in the game, with its innards hard and solid inside it. The youngest boy was sat on a stool in the kitchen with a hair dryer to defrost it. For hours he pointed the dryer at the bird like a gun, staring at it with the grim determination of a hostage taker. There was a hearty debate as to whether yams, a favorite of the working-class fair goers in Egypt, should be included. In the end they were allowed reluctantly, but as a step-child  largely ignored in the oven till they burned to a crisp. Cranberry sauce was attempted with the skill honed with handling chemistry sets, and occasional cherry bomb making. But in the last minute adults intervened adding more sugar to the tart brew which simply made it boil over in a volcanic eruption that left a Jackson Pollock on the kitchen wall. With things going badly, it was finally decided to fight with known tactics. A large tray of macaroni with Bechamel sauce was brought to the battle. One would like to credit this event as starting the peculiar practice of Egyptian immigrants serving baked macaroni at Thanksgiving. But it is possible that great minds arrive at the same end independently. The recommended desserts, Pumpkin and Pecan pie, were abandoned in favor of native Egyptian versions. The entire battle  necessitated the presence of two large fans to clear the house of smoke.

The last part of the American menu featured a large family gathering, something exceedingly difficult to find at that moment and in that place. Finally a young doctor and his wife were obtained for the requisite role. Father would give detailed street directions on the phone, alerting them to the presence of black ice and snow mounds as it had snowed a couple of days before. He concluded by saying “we are the green house a few meters behind the Bar-Lev line of snow”. The couple arrived on time, their VW Beetle wheezing up the hill.  The young wife took one look at the set table and began to cry. It reminded her of how much she missed her family. She spent the meal fighting back tears and discreetly blowing her nose at opportune moments. But before the meal can start, a long-distance call was placed to Egypt. These calls were arranged in advance then , and timed to last 3 minutes, hardly enough time for the copious Egyptian greetings. At the 2:59 mark the gruff voice of the male operator barged in yelling “kefaya ya effendi“.  That was simply the occasion for Father’s show of power and diplomatic skill to stretch the call to nearly twice its length, enough time for all to yell their greetings and best wishes.

The meal came to an unexpected end. A few American acquaintances stopped in for dessert. They came bearing Pecan and Pumpkin pies, whose color and consistency made the Egyptians discreetly avoid them, at least until the next day when the first tentative forks started a lifetime of love with the native staples. But the Americans were not bashful. After a quick prayer, including a mention of the Latter Day Saints Church, they took heartily to the Egyptian desserts and polished them off.  Their uninvited, but not unwelcome, arrival set the tone for how the strange new land will be made home.

– Maged Atiya

* Grateful to Hussein Omar for the correction.


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