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

AIDS Cure As Metaphor

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

Curing AIDS In Egypt

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

Egypt, Washington Post And Magical Thinking

For the past 3 years Egypt has inspired a great deal of magical thinking, no where more so than the Washington Post. Typical of both its editorials and op-ed opinions is a recent piece by Emad Shahin, a thoughtful man unfairly targeted by the current Egyptian regime. The piece combines justified anger at the regime with unprovable and unrealistic assertions, such as “The key to stability is upholding essential democratic values and restoring civilian control over the political process.”  Clearly the year of Morsi’s rule does not prove that civilian control, if it was ever that, is a key to stability. Nor is there any indication that Egypt on June 30 2013 had a constitution or a political process that upholds essential democratic values. The op-ed also does not address why the military, with its experience of civilian politicians over the past three years, would feel that they are fit for anything other than leading the nation to disaster. In fact, the very title of the op-ed which threatens “radicalization” unless the Army bows out is likely to inspire increased resistance from the Army leaders who see their job as the preservation of the integrity of the state.

The reality of Egypt three years after the January 2011 events is that it is under a military dictatorship. Realistic thinking requires this simple recognition. It also requires recognizing that while this is hardly a good outcome, realistic alternatives are not demonstrably better. Any workable plan must not “demand” return to civilian politics, but rather define the stable means of doing so, given that legitimacy through Army supermacy has been the norm since the victory of the illiberal forces in the late 1940s.  It is especially important for those opposed to military rule to understand the thinking of the Army. It sees itself as a national institution since the Urabi revoluton of 1882. It sees that it has been coerced into politics by the imminent collapse of the country in 1952, 2011 and 2013. To simply label it as  “putschist” is not the beginning of a process, but the end of an argument.  To convince the Army to bow out of politics one must present civilian politicians who are able to inspire respect among those in uniform, convince the Army that they can rule, that they can make the hard decisions when necessary; in short that their well-cut suits do not cloth weaklings, nor that they are dismissive of those in uniform.

Arguably the Muslim Brotherhood fit that that description in March 2011. This may be precisely the reason why it seemed that the Army was in “collusion” with the Brotherhood. In fact, it was doing what was logical for what it saw as national interests. Had President Morsi been a cunning man, and one dedicated to civilian as opposed to Brotherhood rule, he would have seen that his highest duty was to finish his term in office and hand over that office to the next elected civilian politician as a way of establishing a continuous and legitimate process. All else is secondary, and he would have done whatever it takes to focus on the primary mission. But Morsi was neither cunning nor dedicated to civilian rule. So the generals are back, this time with less tolerance for the weak and griping civilian politicians.

To escape the land of magical outcomes, it is important to recognize that the civilians who wish to govern Egypt need to demonstrate the capability to do so. The first step in that process is to be able to negotiate with the Army leaders from a position of strength and in a manner that warrants respect.

– Maged Atiya

The Republic Of Civil Servants

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


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