Insulting Islam

In the space of one day, in Egypt, a Copt was convicted of insulting Islam on the word of her pre-pubescent students while another is referred to trial based on the flimsiest of social media hints. Hundreds of miles to the East a gang of psychopaths executed hundreds of men in cold blood for being the wrong kind of Muslims, while shouting the Muslim profession of faith in exalted pride. No one accused them of insulting Islam.

– Maged Atiya


An Ugly Spectacle

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

Egypt And The Return Of The Old Time Religion


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

After The Wreckage

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


April 1968 in Egypt

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


Rattling The Monkey Cage – Ills of Democracy Promotion

The April 20 announcement that the Project on Middle East Political Science will have a forum at the Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog  was followed quickly by an article authored by its director, Prof. Marc Lynch of George Washington University. The article takes a dismayed look at upcoming elections in the region, from Algeria to Egypt to Syria and Iraq. The author concludes the article by asking “whether Egypt’s coup and regional turmoil have fatally wounded the very idea of democratic legitimacy in the region“. It is an odd conclusion given that legitimacy, democratic or otherwise, has had a difficult run in the region for the better part of two centuries. It is understandable, however, from an author who cheered the 2011 revolutions, often using, or perhaps coining, the term “Arab Spring”. 

There are a number of problems in the article, some of style, others of substance. What purports to be a detached “political science” view of recent events is in fact laden with judgments, most of which obscure the relevant issues. The author never tackles the 800 pound gorilla in the monkey cage, the fact that all such elections reflect a widespread popular resistance to political Islamism. All 2014 elections fall far short of being free and open, but the freer elections of 2011 & 2012, which the author admires, paved the way for coercive constitutions and near civil war. The countries in question suffer more from a deficit of liberal ideas than democratic practices. The article also criticizes elections as offering a safety valve for authoritarian leaders, something that sounds suspiciously similar to Chomsky’s critique of US democracy. This begs the difficult question of whether elections are admired only when they remove entrenched power structures. Faint praise is also reserved for Iraqi elections because the outcome is not predetermined, although by that standard US Congressional elections are far short of the ideal. The elections are also condemned because they might promote “competitive clientalism”, although it is not really clear how that differs, except in degrees of corruption, from pork barrel politics in a thriving democracy.  But all these are minor criticisms compared to the larger problem of Western “democracy promotion” in the region. To explore that, I will focus on Egypt, 

The best article about the 2012 Egyptian presidential election was penned by a rare genuine Egyptian liberal, Amr Bargisi. He held out little hope for these elections, concluding that the choice is between “Islamist Repression or Repression of Islamism”. These views were ignored then because they did not conform to the popular narrative, and are ignored now because they proved to be right. Bargisi takes a withering look at a country he loves, and concludes that much needs to change before giving voice to people can result in something happier than chaos. His views run orthogonal to much of the democracy promotion narrative in the region and outside it. His conclusions are that we must face and rectify the poverty of liberal ideas in the region, and in the meantime accept the least bad of options. These are genuinely humane ideas, and those who disagree need to provide better alternatives rather than blanket lugubrious condemnations.  Prof. Lynch penned an article Did We Get the Muslim Brotherhood Wrong?” in April of 2013, which offers less a mea culpa than a confused analysis of operational details of political Islamism, ignoring the very essence of its dangers; the fact that it is a collectivist movement that refuses to acknowledge fundamental natural rights. 

The blog “Monkey Cage” takes its title from a witticism by H.L. Mencken. “Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage”.  Mencken would probably agree that democracy is also the system of governing by the will of the 50% of the people who are, mathematically speaking, below average. This can only succeed by stringent rules protecting the rights of the individual against the will of the majority. It is a difficult juggling act, and one not mastered in much of the region, riven as it is by economic and sectarian tensions. The apt analogy today is not of a circus but of a zoo. The various revolutions and agitations are akin to rattling of the monkey cages, annoying to the zoo keepers but hardly of serious concern, unless and until the locks break open. But by then all will suffer, including the vicious victors. The real struggle is not to break open the cages, but to figure out how to turn the zoo into a circus. That is a slow and uncertain task which requires the measured wisdom of leaders as well as the cacophonous voice of the people.


– Maged Atiya


Salama Moussa – Forgotten Man

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


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