The great American playwright Edward Albee has acquired a richly deserved reputation for minutely painting long and intimate relationships that go sour when partners grow deaf to each other and the nuances of their mutual concerns. His work could easily be applied to the last week, or indeed the last decade, of Egyptian-American relations.
The precipitating event of the last week was the release of an ISIS video detailing the beheading of 21 Egyptians, all from the poor province of Minya, and all belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. From the moment the tape was released it was clear that both parties had grown insensitive to each other’s pains.
In Egypt, a popular, and inflammatory, news show host, Ahmed Moussa, declared that the US is in league with ISIS. This is a particularly cruel and heinous charge to make against a country that has welcomed both Muslims and Copts and suffered thousands of deaths by one of the most prominent of the Islamist terror groups. The trouble with that charge is that no one reprimanded him, and many may have believed him. It was a sad moment for Egypt. His charges come on top of the daily barrage of odd theories speculating on whether the White House has been captured by the partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood, or is in fact plotting the demise of Egypt.
On the US side the response to the video was bungled in many ways, and subsequent turns have not improved things. Almost all world leaders denounced the barbarity of ISIS and recognized the multiple identities of the victims, as Egyptians and Copts. The latter is important because in the video ISIS made no reference to policies, or grievances; it simply stated that the 21 men are killed on account of their faith, before threatening more mayhem toward Catholics in Rome. The statements of both the White House and the State Department were generic, almost perfunctory, and purposely ignored the religious confession of the victims. This may have been part of a standing policy not to aggravate sectarian tensions, or recognize religion instead of nationality. Both are laudable goals, but they hardly fit the occasion. The reaction from the nearly 1 Million Egyptian-American Copts was swift and exceptionally negative. In time, a day or two later, the White House spokesman did recognize the victims as Copts, and the President did so in an op-ed in the LA Times, but much of the damage had been done.
The next set of events in Egypt was remarkable, and the US should have recognized that and reacted accordingly. President Sisi made a televised address in which he reserved Egypt’s right to respond to the death of its citizens. A few hours later a number of Egyptian Air Force sorties hit ISIS sites outside Derna in Eastern Libya. There are two ways to tell this tale. The first is of an Egyptian leader who took offense at the killing of Egyptian citizens by foreign elements and sent the Egyptian Army in pursuit, wisely or impulsively. The second, and this was a favorite among some Islamists, was that a Muslim leader sent a Muslim Army to kill Muslims on behalf of Christians. One commentator on a Muslim Brotherhood Channel even indicated that the killing was an appropriate retaliation for the Copts’ participation in politics through their Church. If one favors a future Middle East where the nation-state holds sway and sectarian and religious divisions are dampened down by the forces of national unity, then it is clear which narrative is favored. The US indicated disapproval of the strikes, on account of the danger they posed to the moribund political process in Libya. Perhaps the real reason is that the US does not wish to see Egypt bogged in Libya, which is a sensible concern. But love and concern expressed clumsily and inarticulately can seem like cruelty.
Memorial services for the 21 men were being organized around the US as President Obama spoke at the conference on “Countering Violent Extremism”. As usual, the President was cool, rational and analytical. But his remarks about the need to counter ISIS by promoting political inclusiveness and jobs were too cool by two degrees. The slain men were from Minya, one of the poorest provinces in Egypt. Poverty and unemployment pushed them to risk their lives in Libya, not as terrorists but as construction workers who remitted their wages to buy textbooks for their children. The men were also no strangers to political marginalization. Supporters of President Morsi burned more Christian property in Minya in 2013 than mobs had done in Egypt for the last few centuries. In 2012, as President Morsi exhorted his followers to approve the Islamist Constitution he staked his rule on, flyers circulated in Minya threatening Copts not to Vote. There is no doubt that the American President would laud these men, but the timing and wording of his remarks generated endless jokes about “Jobs for Jihadis”. As in an Albee play, words which are fine in isolation can hurt deeply in the confines of close relation.
Two countries which need each other, and where bonds of affection have existed in both strong and frayed forms, are now at an unhappy impasse in their relationship. Egypt is, or more accurately the Egyptians are, behaving oddly, seeming to regard the US as an enemy rather than understand its concerns as a great power, and seeing in its liberal polity both a hopeful example and a potential hedge against the chaos in the region. The US seems to believe the fiction that Egypt is no longer important, and perhaps deals with it through the prism of the difficult relationship with Islamist terrorism, rather than uniquely in its own right. The quicker the US recognizes that Egypt is not a regional issue, but that the region is a replay of many Egyptian ills, the more likely it is to salvage something from this fraught relationship.
— Maged Atiya
The White House conference on “Countering Violent Extremism” represented an expected response. In the face of gruesome killings the gathering asserted the American values of openness, tolerance and faith in the healing power of bureaucratic acronyms. There is much to admire there. It came amid an intellectual debate on whether ISIS represents or subverts Islamic values. Much of the debate seemed like neo-Scholasticism. First we need to define “Islam”, which is as difficult as defining any religion that has more than a handful of faithful and has lasted more than a few years. A report in the New York Times is typical of the current debate. It presents the tale of a young man from Middle Class Heliopolis in Cairo who has recently joined ISIS. He was motivated by many difficulties and frustrations, including the inability to get a decent job as a physical trainer in a good gym. It has the air of the standard morality tale, which is to say that it contains more than a hefty dose of instruction. This kind of “there but for the grace of God go I” story is a bit like Chocolate Cake, enticing to sample and impossible to digest. We can find equal or better instruction in another tale from the Heliopolis of decades ago.
In the month before the 1967 war Egypt was whipping itself into war frenzy. A physical trainer at the Heliopolis Sporting Club decided to join in by turning his platoon of unruly boys into a “Kata’b Salah-Ed-Din”, or the Divisions of Saladin. He told the boys they will forgo the usual pushups and weight lifting in favor of battle training, with swords. He asked that they come dressed in historically appropriate uniforms as well. They had for guidance a hoary Egyptian epic of recent vintage (by the great director Youssef Shaheen), the story of how Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. The boys suddenly came face to face with the difficult art of historical costume design. At the next meeting most came in a random array of ill-fitting Galabyyias. One boy showed up in his older sister’s sun dress. The coach equipped them with sticks for swords, and when he ran out, threw in a couple of golf clubs. At the end of training he gave a short pep talk and asked for questions. The most difficult of boys inquired “Ustaz, where do we find the Yahood”. The coach gave no answer (years later the boy was to find his first Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where they proved unexpectedly likable and more disputatious than violent). In any case, the irritated parents quickly ended the farce. They had paid to have their boys’ energies drained, and possibly ward off bullying. Weeks later the boys would learn that success in modern warfare demanded more than courage and a uniform, it required advanced technical training, organization and close connection to higher cultural values. It is a lesson that most of the surviving members have not forgotten.
The same cannot be said about the various inheritors of that mantle. In the decades hence, excepting possibly Egypt’s credible performance in 1973, many regional military efforts have been deadly farcical. We can tick off all the various battles that should have instructed the participants in the above lessons, but never did. In fact, the most potent of efforts still seemed to lean toward that poor coach’s perception of how to succeed in modern warfare. They are cargo-cult historical re-enactments. Whether it is a Pediatrician from Ma’adi who dresses up as a Pashtun tribesman, or a Saddam army general who imagines himself a reincarnation of a seventh century warrior, the aspiration has been to retrieve greatness by imitation of form, rather than the progress of culture. Like any bankrupt ideology, every failure causes a doubling down on the original premise. The result is ISIS. When that fails, we should expect a worse incarnation, unless the entire ideology is ditched.
This brings us to the question of whether the ideology will be ditched. It is the relevant and difficult question, and history gives no easy answers. It is possible that the current Salafism rampant in the region will render it a vast recreation of the Aborigines in Van Diemen’s land, who, under the influence of religious thought, willed themselves into extinction by ratcheted atavism. If so, it will be an expensively deadly denouement. Alternatively, the region could dust itself out of this religion-besotted state and decide to chart a different path. If it were to do so, it will not be by consensus or pluralistic decision making. It will be at the behest of tough leadership with a clear vision, and little patience for drivel. If that leadership exists, it is currently in some disguise.
— Maged Atiya
The policy makers of the Bush administration, secure in the wisdom lodged behind rimless glasses, argued that unless Saddam is brought to heel Al Qaeda will seek his protection. We now know the opposite to be true; the henchmen of Saddam have sought the protection of Al Qaeda and have become a significant part of the leadership of its bloody successor, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). While the US worked to endow Iraq with the laudable gifts of representative democracy and free markets, its opponents diligently pursued the task of starting a religious war. Al Qaeda, is at root wedded to a variant of Salafi Jihadi ideology, and therefore an implacable enemy of Shi’a Islam. In the empowerment of the Shi’a, it found a casus belli in Iraq. The US adventure there was meant to provide a shining example of how good governance can lift the fortunes of Arabs and Muslims and “drain the swamp of terrorism”. But Iraq was too far gone, a victim of its history of brutal coups and social fissures but mostly a casualty of the Iranian revolution. The revolutionary regime in Iran sought to export an eschatological revolution, thus firing the first shot in a broad religious war. Iraq was the first, and not the last, victim.
Even if one accepts the logic of creating an example of good governance in the region, one must question the choice of Iraq as the test bed. A far more hospitable place would have been Libya. Its dictator was as brutal as Saddam, but with less cunning and more insanity. It is further removed from Iran, and its religious makeup would have avoided the thorny issue of Shi’a empowerment, Sunni resentment, and the dodgy fact of having many of its potential leaders in bed with the likes of Hizboallah. If the spread of nuclear weapons was a factor, then certainly Libya was a more provable case. Instead, Saddam was attacked and Qaddafi offered a sweetheart deal.
But now, a dozen years after the invasion of Iraq, and with the Levant in a crucible of horrors, there is a chance for a makeover. Rarely does history offer great powers a chance not to make the same mistake twice. Libya is in chaos. Its chaos is empowering the worst elements to flood in. The number of its insurgents is small, and their nature is rag tag. This may seem to be a reason for inattention, but actually it is not. Actors such as ISIS are likely to see in Libya a low lying fruit. It has a long coastline close to Europe, it has oil, and it is close enough to Egypt, with many smuggling routes across a 1000 mile border, offering a tantalizing base of operation to destabilize the largest and most influential Arab country. The revolution against Qaddafi was likely supported from Qatar and Turkey, but NATO acted as tactical air power for actors it little understood. The resulting chaos offers a reprimand and a chance to redeem the original mistake.
If the original intervention was based on the legal theory of the “Right to Protect”, then that same theory demands further intervention. At risk then were the lives of rebels and the civilians under their control. At risk today are the lives of millions of Libyans, and potentially others in the surrounding countries. ISIS is a death cult, and it is hell-bent on extermination of Christians. The largest pool of native Christianity is next door in Egypt. The brutal execution, if proven, of 21 Copts in Libya and the accompanying document leaves no doubt as to the intentions of ISIS. Numbers make a chilling case. There are as many Copts in Egypt as there were Jews in Europe in 1933.
What is advocated here is an extension of the earlier intervention, via a small expeditionary force, mostly of European and other countries, to restore a functioning government to Libya, disarm all militias and eradicate any foreign fighters from the ISIS group. There are many reasons to think this will succeed. The ethnic and religious make up of Libya is such that a fair distribution of oil revenue (Libya has the same population and oil production as Norway) will keep them all happy and agreeable. A decent and mild man, King Idris, managed as much before. The proximity of Egypt and Algeria will mean that potential recruits to the insurgency will need to arrive by sea. Naval interdiction is something that the US excels at. Keeping the southern rim of the Mediterranean free of chaos used to be an American strategic objective. It ought to be again.
The benefits reach beyond what is purely good for Libya. Defeat of the Jihadis there will protect Egypt’s back ,allowing it to focus on defeating the Sinai branch of ISIS. Tunisia will no doubt rest better knowing that its Eastern neighbor is not in chaos, especially as it has become a major provider of fighters to Syria and potentially ISIS. A win in Libya might even encourage nations such as Mali and Nigeria to clamp down on their religious warriors.
But the major win in Libya is to hand ISIS a major defeat. The West has suffered its own brutal religious wars, and has come through them with an understanding that the only way out is to empower nation-states as agents of governance based on citizenship rights. The Christian West, which increasingly has a major Muslim minority, must reassert that principle in the Middle East. Syria may seem intractable, but Libya is not; and a solution there may radically alter the course of events elsewhere in the region.
— Maged Atiya
The Christians of Egypt are indistinguishable from their Muslim Brethren. Both belong to the land and are bound by close historical ties that transcend the patterns of religious confession. It was this simple fact that made the foreign rulers of Egypt in the 1300s demand that Copts wear only black, otherwise there would be no way to mark them as targets for mob violence. Clothing color as a social signifier is hardly unique to medieval Egypt. Armies, sports teams, company workers and others choose distinctive colors to emphasize unity and differentiation from others.
Orange is the color of the American prison system, and consequently of captured terrorists. The deluded souls at ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant) have adopted it as the distinctive dress of the innocent victims of their barbarity. Such is the depth of their confusion that they see parity between those who committed no wrong and those who sought to kill and maim. They are unable to distinguish between human rights and human vice.
The chilling sight of 21 Copts captured in Libya by ISIS, paraded in orange jumpsuits, reminds us of what is at stake today. The document issued along with the photographs reeks of the incitement that was, and still is, common to many of the supporters of former President Morsi. The colors have changed, but the hate lingers. Cries of “Crusader” betray ignorance and malice, whether issued from the mouths of fighters in Libya or Television announcers from Istanbul.
The 14th century was noted not only for its intolerance in Egypt, but also for the beginning of a gradual civilizational decline in both Egypt and many Muslim-majority countries. As always, the fate of the Copts prefigured that of all others. In the dejected faces of 21 innocent victims we should see less their Christian faith than their common humanity. Soon the affliction will know of no religion.
If orange becomes the new black, then surely further decline awaits everyone.
— Maged Atiya
The early Ninth Century CE was a terrible time for Egyptians, a concluding time of a sequence of revolts. The Arab armies arrived in the middle of the Seventh Century, and Egypt became a province of the rising empire governed from the Levant. A hundred years later the center of the Islamic empire moved east, and the occupation was closer to the Persian invasion of more than a century earlier, rapacious and intolerant. Faith, and to a lesser extent money, moved the mostly Christian population of Egypt to revolt. In a series of encounters known as the “Bashmuric Revolts”, the overlords from Baghdad sent in central Asian mercenaries to put down the revolts with predicable violence; killing, enslavement and mass burning of Churches and Monasteries followed. By the middle of the Ninth Century the native Copts had given up all armed resistance. Never again would Copts resort to force to defend themselves, no matter how great the oppression. The scale of the physical damage would only be rivaled by the riots of the 14th Century, and 2013, in the wake of the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood President, Morsi.
Some of these events paint a fascinating miniature of the complex relationships between faiths and their histories in Egypt. One burnt Church, St Michael in old Fustat, was either bought or appropriated by a group of local Jews around 880 CE. It became the Ezra Synagogue, a center of Jewish life in Egypt for more than a thousand years thereafter. Rarely have Churches been forcibly changed to Synagogues; Ezra is an unusual specimen. The Synagogue contained a “Genizah”, or a store room for discarded documents carrying the name of God, and hence not candidates for destruction. The accumulated treasure paints a picture of Jewish life in Egypt and the region throughout the Crusades and Middle Ages. The Jews of Egypt were globalists. The community was in the hub of trade from Andalusia in the West to India in the East. Equally telling is the absence of Copts in these documents, for although Egypt remained mostly Christians for centuries afterward, the Christians of Egypt closed in on themselves, hemmed in by Muslim rulers and a West that regarded them as heretics. The Genizah records were “discovered” in the 1890s, and the events around that are telling of the varying fortunes of Jews and Copts for the next century.
In the beginning of the 19th Century Egypt began to attract new Jews and Christians. In the case of Jews, it was Ottoman and European Jews who came to work with Egypt’s modernization efforts. They arrived with substantial social capital, far above their impoverished Egyptian relatives. The removal of the Genizah records to Europe was the occasion for protests by Egyptian Jews, who resented the newcomers’ high handed ways. In time, however, Egyptian Jews became absorbed into the new elite, by both marriage and business. When the Jewish exodus from Egypt began in 1948, there was little difference between those whose roots ran back decades or centuries. All left together.
The fortunes of the Copts took a radically different road. The arrival of the British Church Missionary Society (CMS) had a largely positive impact on the Copts. But fifty years later, in the 1850s, came a new breed of missionaries, American Evangelicals. They viewed the Orthodox Copts as derelict Christians and sought to convert all of them to Protestantism. The Orthodox Church faced a threat as great as the Asian armies of centuries ago. It was entirely possible to imagine the Orthodox creed becoming an antique and vanishing vestige, as Copts saw the superior benefits of Protestant education and advancement. In fact, that did not happen. The Protestant threat became an occasion for reform, the vast majority of Egyptian Christians remained in the Orthodox creed, and the Church tied its fortunes closely to the rising Egyptian nationalism. It is not an exaggeration to state that Copts sacralize the land of Egypt as much as the Jews do the Holy Land. The Evangelical Christians became a part of native Egyptian Christianity rather than the other way around.
The establishment of Israel was the proximate cause for the departure of the Jews from Egypt, but the ultimate causes were both nativism and political Islam. The majority of Copts engaged in one and rejected the other, without noting the contradiction involved. It was left to another migration, that of Copts to North America and Australia, to highlight those contradictions. In an odd twist of fate, a term normally associated with Jews, “Diaspora”, is now contested among Copts. Some accept it, others reject it. Both positions freighted with historical and social consequences.
When it comes to faith, land and history, peoples invariably find themselves as threads in a wider weave. Hegemony and exceptionalism do little but rend the fabric.
— Maged Atiya
Throughout the 1960s the Egyptian government sponsored a special celebration every July 23 in honor of the children born on that day. In Cairo, the celebration was at the old Rivoli Cinema. The routine was set and unchanging from year to year. It started with the 1 year olds, brought to the stage by their beaming mothers, then 2 year olds, and so on in increasing order of age. The grand finale was the march of those born exactly on July 23 1952, who dashed up to the stage to receive their certificates. By the time of the last such celebration in 1967, those “sons of the revolution” were surly 15 year old adolescents and no longer charming young boys. The affair was sad and ramshackle, like the city outside steeped in defeat. The cinema had a half-built brick blast wall that seemed to do little but obscure the once grand entrance. Revolutions, like boys, grow older, and without effort or accretion of knowledge, promise inevitably turns to disappointment.
On the fourth anniversary of the January 2011 uprising many have mourned the fact that the young revolutionaries were largely sidelined, with some even in jail. They advanced the dreams of an alternative path where the young would now be ruling, the country free, the old regime entirely upended, and the vigor of youth leading Egypt forward. None have noted that Egypt had experienced one such outcome, in 1952, where young men came to power, upended the old regime, and attempted to govern by the dent of a spirit of revolution and without any discernible program. The young men who came to power brandished promises of Ishtirakiya, Hurreyia, Demokratia (Socialism, Freedom, and Democracy). In fact they brought forth a repressive regime where mouthing these slogans in the wrong order earned one a beating. The repression and paranoia of the Free Officers regime was rooted in a variety of societal factors, but also in the lack of a governing vision. The 1952 revolution had no defining document such as the 1776 American declaration which put forth a concise definition of appropriate governance and a legal case for revolt. The best 1952 could do was the flowery words of Anwar El Sadat, who sonorously intoned a mixture of platitudes and intimations of conspiracies. There was more than a faint echo in 2011.
The 1952 revolutionaries detested politics. They strove to destroy the old political elite, on the correct charges that they were inept and sometime corrupt. But in the absence of politicians what rose was leadership by charisma and unchecked power; by men who insisted they are too pure for politics, and that their purity justified coercing others to their views. Anyone who challenged their methods or actions belonged to the discredited “feudal” classes. Nasser may have lifted land reform policies from Mirrit Ghali, but he could not tolerate the man in his cabinet. This propensity to demonize politics and refusal to honor differing views is also apparent in the 2011 edition of revolution. The grating word “felool” was hurled easily, and after July 3 the preferred term was “coup supporter” or “Fascist”.
Egypt of course experienced many “revolutions” in the past two centuries. All have failed to bridge the economic and social gap between the country and the global world, and even within Egypt, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The death of revolutions comes in many forms. The ‘Urabi revolution died in the quick defeat of his forces at the hands of a British expedition, in his humiliating barefoot surrender, and his ultimate disillusion with his actions. The 1919 revolution died at the hands of anti-liberal forces, as well as the paradox of the slogan “Egypt for Egyptians” mouthed by an elite that had little trust in the people (perhaps with good reasons). The 1952 revolution was in deep trouble by the mid-1960s, but got a quick shove from the 1967 defeat. The 2011 revolution died many deaths; by the anarchic violence in the fall of 2011, by the farcical Parliament brought forth by free elections, by the chaotic and rule-free Presidential elections of 2012, the lack of a constitution, and by the loss of nerve on part of the people who could not detect in Morsi’s rule the end-game of Islamism’s profound lack of a workable governing philosophy.
Cromer hurled the withering, and incorrect, charge against Egyptians as incapable of organized planning. Mirrit Ghali refined that by focusing it on the ruling elite. Actually, the appropriate analogy comes from the American film “Cool Hand Luke”, where the protagonist, Paul Newman, resists an oppressive order with nothing more than his courage. He builds no rapport with other prisoners, even when they profess admiration for him, and does not negotiate for any tangible improvement in the prison camp. The alpha prisoner, George Kennedy, admires Luke, insisting that “nothing can be a cool hand”. In the end, however, nothing can’t beat the established oppressive order. Luke is broken by the repeated brutality of the guards and pleads for mercy on the promise of never attempting to revolt. The other prisoners walk away from him. Luke, it seems, wasted his courage and the trust of others by his utter lack of discipline. He came at them with nothing.
Nasser always insisted that 1952 revolution continues, especially during difficult days. The wily Egyptians largely chalked that up to brave talk, and walked away. Something like this is happening today. Whether wisdom or additional suffering will emerge from this chaos remains unknown.
— Maged Atiya
Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is Dead” is an ambiguous meditation on how modernity may have killed Man’s connection to the sacred and the source of absolute ethical principles. More than a century later it seems that the sacred has returned to unleash vengeance on modernity. Nowhere is this more visible than in the dramatic rise in the use of the quaint term “blasphemy”.
“Blasphemy” was first used as Europe was emerging into the Renaissance. “Pheme” is the Greek word for utterance, while the meaning of “blas” remains uncertain, probably a derivation of “hurt”. It seems fitting to define blasphemy as hurtful speech. But to whom?
The faithful of many religions will insist that blasphemy is the act of insulting God. And here we must again quote Nietzsche, “is not the greatness of the deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods to appear worthy of it?” There is simply no way to reconcile the belief that mere human words can insult God with faith in his power. Leveling accusations of blasphemy remains, paradoxically, the greatest of all blasphemies.
— Maged Atiya