The Children of the Promise
Life was getting back to normal, except for the news of fresh fighting at Port Fouad. School was out and the upcoming summer promised to be less cordial than previous ones. Word passed around that the annual vacation in Alexandria is unwise this year. This would mean a long hot summer in Cairo, with the Liddo pool as the only relief. Sunday July 9 was to be like many other Sundays during school holidays. A morning liturgy in the Church followed by an afternoon of Sunday School. But at the last minute there was a change. The favorite Sunday School teacher was not at the Church and a rumor drifted among some of the boys that he could be found at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Qubba Street. Later a few of the boys headed there to find him.
When the boys found their teacher he was volunteering to repair the electrical works in the basement of that Church. Still he decided to hold a impromptu teaching session, which proved to be first of many before the Adventists wised up to his doings and asked him to cease. The chairs were arrayed in a circle as they usually were, and the half dozen boys listened to him explain the meaning of Romans 9:8 “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” He began conventionally enough with a simple assertion, that God’s chosen people were no longer just the physical descendants of the Jews, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Displacing the Jews from a favored status seemed in tune with much of Egypt a month after the war. But he did not stop there. Soon he was encouraging the boys to look beyond what their parents teach them and what their country asks of them. Those who love Christ should love no nation above his message. What you must love above your nation is each other, he insisted. The message must have had a special resonance for him, for within a few months he would reveal his plans to leave for America. He ended the lesson with a wink. “I have a present from America”. On the record player which the Church normally reserved for imported sermons and carols he played a rare and precious commodity, a copy of the “The Doors” recently released album. The boys sat and listened quietly without a sound, as if in prayer. Nearly an hour passed between the first urging to “Break on through to the other side” and the final “This is the End”. For some of them it was a time of precious freedom.
— Maged Atiya
The immigrant’s first reading of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was aloud to an eager child nearly two decades after arriving in America. It struck him immediately that the book, with a minor but critical tweak, could be made a tale of his immigration. The boy in the wolf suit, feeling constrained by his home rules, travels to a land far away. He runs with the Wild Things, roars like them, is terrified and thrilled by them. But in this tale he never becomes homesick, but grows even fonder of the place and stays.
Sometime in the late 1960s when Egypt was a far different place, a man came back from Canada where he had immigrated some years before to speak of his new home and its advantages. He first started by pointing out its flaws. It was devilishly cold at times. Aside from that, it was a great place; tolerant, prosperous, peaceful, decent and full of promise. But his excitement about Canada rose when he began to compare it to the United States. A visit to New York City convinced him that America is unfit for any Egyptians. The streets were patrolled by rats. A trip to experience the Metropolitan Museum was disrupted by the sight of youth cavorting near naked in the fountains in front of it; and even worse, the park behind it was the scene of sexual licentiousness set to music nearly indistinguishable from noise to his ears. The list of horrors grew until the speaker exhausted himself in describing the ills of America compared to Canada. One boy in the audience listened anxiously. His fear was that the account would persuade his parents to change the destination of their impending immigration from America to Canada. As luck would have it, they kept to the plan. It must be said that America lived up to the man’s account, and more. The “more” is a shorthand for all the freedom that America promises in exchange for its madness.
Every 4th of July is a time to celebrate American “exceptionalism”. What is exceptional is not always good or even desirable. What is desirable is often not exceptional, as others too wish it for themselves. What remains astounding about America is that is has survived its contradictions, even if at times it paid for them dearly. Sendak’s land of the “Wild Things” was meant to be eternal, a place of chaos and delight that manages to hold together and beckon to others. Most critics have seen the entire story as a psychological allegory. It may very well be. But so is America. It is a state of mind made actual by everyone’s participation in it. Its flaws are advertised in the most visible fashion and yet it continues to attract. Just to the north of it stands Canada as a reprimand to what America could have been if it had not unreasonably revolted against a relatively mild rule by England (by the standards of the time), and if it had not nearly immolated itself in a violent civil war fought for great ideals. But somehow against great odds the country continued to exist and expand its franchise of freedom. Somehow America brought order out of wildness, decency out of the basest feelings of many of its citizens, common prosperity out of individual selfishness, and reason out of madness. This is something to celebrate and feel uneasy about in equal measures.
— Maged Atiya
The year 1954 saw the establishment of a new state model in Egypt, and one that ran into trouble almost in its infancy. It was a remarkable year. Nasser assumed sole power as President and began a pattern of concentration of decision making at the very top that still holds today. He rose to his position by a combination of public appeals and negotiations among the top leaders of the Army; a template that every leader that followed found to be the necessary means of holding, or in the case of Morsi of losing power. It was the year the Muslim Brotherhood took a lurch toward grabbing power and failed miserably. Nasser started an economic movement based on native production and centralized government planning and system of ever larger public sector and creeping subsidies. Development was to be made with gigantic projects of prestige, such as the High Dam. It was also the year that the government began a massive reprogramming of education, ironically with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood that cashiered the elite of Egyptian university professors from their positions and pensioned off their leader Taha Hussein. It was also the year Nasser started to project Egyptian power onto the local and international scene. The last British soldiers evacuated from the Canal. Egypt was to be a leader of both the Arabs and the “third” and “non-aligned” world.
The failures of the 1954 state were many. Governance in Egypt remains problematic with centralization and repression as its most obvious flaws. Education is in shambles, risking future generations and economic prosperity. The public sector grew larger and more ineffective after the 1961 and 1964 waves of nationalizations. It remains a drag on economic development. Subsidies have created dependence but no prosperity. Egypt still relies unhealthily on foreign aid. It is nearly a rentier state which relies on its “strategic” value to extract support without economic production. Egypt’s bid to lead the Arabs ended in a series of failures: the demise of the union with Syria in 1961, the Yemen war with Saudi Arabia from 1961 to 1967, and finally the shattering defeat in 1967. Its prestige in the wider world is nominal more than real, like an old dowager that everyone respects in spite of her bizarre manner and tatty clothing. Many agreed with this observer’s rather obvious conclusion that President Sisi must pivot away from the 1954 or risk failure. The surprise, if it can be called that, is how the wider Egyptian public seems reluctant to let go of that failing model.
The late Mubarak years were an attempt to shift away from that model, albeit in a clumsy and ultimately unsuccessful manner. While the events of 2011 are always cast as a revolt against authoritarian governance, the reality is that it brought back the two most repressive forces in the Egyptian society, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, setting the stage for an even nastier clash between them than in 1954. The Army was called to power twice by the street in January 2011 and again on June 30 2013. The demand for “social justice” was a thinly veiled reprimand for any sensible effort to free the economy from the shackles of the public sector and ruinous subsidies. Attempts to wean the country from poor economic models are inevitably painful, but are often attacked not based on their merits but as a “cave-in” to the evil foreign bankers at the IMF. Prestige and projection of Egyptian power abroad remain popular no matter how ruinous. The left still tweaks Israel without any visible gain, following the model set by the DMNL since it became a patsy of Nasser in 1952. The “sacredness” of Egyptian land is proclaimed with scant attention to history or fact, most notably in the Tiran and Sanafir islands affair. Little effort is dedicated to cultural and economic progress that can lift the majority from misery and set the stage for civilian government based on civilian politics. Faced with the failures of the 1954 state, many Egyptians seem to yearn for its proclaimed promises without attention to its demonstrated failures.
— Maged Atiya
Faith and Anger
Sunday was a work day but the Cleopatra Church was packed beyond the usual Sunday complement of women and old men. Somber parishioners packed the pews and streamed out the back door. Pope Kyrillous had ordered that special liturgies be read for the souls of the dead and the deliverance of Egypt from under the heel of the Jews. Two men who had not been in Church for decades lingered in the back. Ustaz Fouad and Ustaz Magdy were both communists who were arrested together on January 1 1959 and spent time in the Al Kharga concentration camp in the Western desert. These were men accustomed to speaking about “Affyioun Al Sha’ab“, but during these days of pain even communists could use a dose of Opium. Magdy had additional reasons to be in pain. His beloved sister Aida departed this earth in the early hours of June 5, all too early on account of her emphysema.
The priest gave a short homily. These are difficult days and we need faith. Just as Jesus miraculously drove devils from the souls of stricken men, faith will drive out anger. Faith and anger can not coexist in one soul. We must choose between faith and anger. A row of Altar boys sat behind the priest in white smocks and blood red sashes. One of them stared at the back of the priest and the faces of the congregation. He felt he was not free to disagree with the priest. All things being equal he would choose anger.
— Maged Atiya
The True Nakba
For a few in Egypt who had access to external information, the June 5 1967 rapid success of Israel came as no surprise. The Jews had in less than two decades built a functioning state that acquired the underpinning of Western culture that many Egyptians envied. The claims and exhortation of “Voice of the Arabs” radio were hollow, and even for a young boy the Arabic language had acquired such a patina of empty bravado that it seemed less a native tongue than imposition by an evil step-mother. In any case, the evidence of defeat came rapidly with news that all military aircrafts around Cairo had been destroyed in less than one hour.
The true disaster began to unfold four days later as Nasser tendered his resignation in a short speech on Television. For a few minutes some imagined an escape under Zakaria Mohieddin; a silent man whom many in Egypt believed to be friendly to the West and hostile to the failing economic policies of the preceding few years. But those who listened closely to the speech heard a father’s assumption of responsibility for the failures of his children; a profoundly damaging and cruel sentence to inflict on those who worshipped him, and those who loved him, even when they feared him. It was also an effective one, for crowds rushed into the streets to demand the immediate return of the “Ra’is”. There has never been an evidence of orchestration on the part of Nasser, and Egypt’s trajectory since that day provides plenty of evidence that the reaction may have been genuine. But a genuine reaction is far more troubling than a coerced one. And indeed, subsequent history would reproduce its lamentable features.
We should note Rushdi Sa’id’s description of the 1967-1973 years as those of “Hope and Despair”. There were genuine openings and an attempt to bring the country together in a spirit of cooperation and “can-do”, but the presence of Nasser, and the “Free Officers”, at the helm meant that little of fundamental change could come to pass. The February revolution of 1968 was at attempt at genuine and liberal change, and it was snuffed out quickly by the wily Nasser who came to its aid as if he had not governed the country for 15 years.
There were bound to be introspection on “what went wrong”. The first, and probably least known, was a panel talk in early July 1967 at Cairo University, organized outside official supervision and thus sparsely attended. A professor of Engineering (later forced to emigrate) boldly suggested that the defeat had two underpinnings. First, Israel had a more educated population, skilled in science and technology which are the tools of modern warfare. Second, it effectively mobilized its population because they were free to voice their views and believed in the goal for which they might give up their lives. The myth of “little Israel” had blotted out the reality that on June 5 Israel had a fraction of the population but more troops, armor and aircrafts than the combined forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Both points were to make it to the official and social conscience, but in grotesquely corrupted forms.
The official propaganda in Egypt began a campaign of promotion of “Science and Technology”, as a quick magic potion to overcome the defeat. But few were willing, even if able, to assert that science rested on the pursuit of truth, and to promote it, one had to rid Egyptian education of lies. In fact, the opposite came to pass. Commentators claimed that Science was an Arab contribution that the West has since appropriated and now it was time to claim it back in “authentic” form. The Israelis, understandably cocky, strutted on the world stage aided by admiring Western press. The psychic damage was severe, leading to a claim that the West had a fundamental aversion to Arab progress and an innate desire to keep the “East” under heel. This flammable discourse had existed since the 1920s and the days of the “Eastern League “in Egypt. (As an aside, the virus having acquired a systematic vector would eventually jump its host to settle in Western discourse of “post-colonialism”) This handicap meant that even the rise of impressively educated technical elite would not rid the country of habits of thinking that anchor authoritarianism deep into the social structure. A prime case is that of Dr. Mohammad Morsi, an American-educated rocket scientist, politician, and briefly a President of the Republic, who would issue bizarre and clearly incorrect speculations with a straight face. Nor is he an exception. Among his opponents there are many (in the acid words of an Egyptian scientist) “back-street obscurantists”.
The second corruption was even more dangerous. The observation that in 1967 Israeli troops were more willing to die for their cause than the Arab troops was twisted horribly toward a culture of death rather than freedom. What the professor meant was that the average Israeli soldier was a citizen with a stake and a voice in his polity, while the Arab soldiers felt coerced, intimidated and ultimately not valued as either citizens or free men. The resurgence of political Islam post 1967 twisted this logic into building a desire to protect and die for Islam. It was but a short step to the grotesque and alien world of suicide vests and decapitation videos.
Many will correctly try to link the setback of June 5 1967 to the current disasters in the Arab world. The hinge remains June 9 1967, when reality, having shone a light on profound deficiency, caused a retreat to the comfort of myths and repose of death within them.
— Maged Atiya
Rumors work passably well as an antidote to lies when facts are not close at hand. June 8 1967 in the United Arab Republic, nee Egypt, was the zero hour, the singularity, the big bang for a universe of rumors that over half a century has expanded inexorably into an unshaken world view. The day started acceptably enough with a trip downtown. Four men and a boy in a 1962 Ford Falcon, the car with saucer taillights. As the car headed toward Shawarby street, past Ain Shams and Abbasyyia, the men rolled down the windows to catch a bit of air and watch the buildings pass by. There was no evidence of war. No bombed our buildings, no craters, no sirens or cowering people. In fact little indicated a country at war beyond the conversation of the men.
The men possessed mismatched temperaments, yet they all offered various rumors, all with impeccable provenance, to attempt an understanding of what they could not yet name, or perhaps dare not name. Many of these rumors would be offered the next day by the President of the Republic in lieu of accountability. The great man was a supreme conjurer who could tease hopes and dreams out of thin air and then let the people watch them flutter away as doves do in a magic act. The rumors were ramparts against reality, building an air tight case for collusion and a massive stab in the back by external forces. The number of planes in the air was three times the size of the Israeli air force, so where did the additional planes come from? And what about the attack from the west, where only the American airbase in Libya could support such a venture? Didn’t some farmer find American insignia below the hastily painted Israeli star on a downed airplane? The men were not all supporters of Nasser, but in a moment of crisis they could no more part with him than accept the undiluted humiliation of the day. One of the men spoke forcefully to the dashboard. “Bas Kedda. El Zubat Kharabo El Balad“. “Enough. The army officers have ruined the country”. Another felt safe to raise a point in the company of friends and in the privacy of an automobile. What if the price of defeat is the removal of Nasser? No one could not imagine a different leader, or one that was not an army officer. In fact, there seemed to be no alternative to the great man. They started the journey certain about past events they did not know and were now coming to its end unsure of what future events they wished to see. The Egyptians, in their hurt pride, had conjured their great conjurer out of their own pain and sense of underachievement. His errors had become synonymous with the nation’s hopes.
The day was not a moment of crisis or understanding for the boy, and in any case we should distrust such sudden conversions. It did begin a process of departure. He could neither follow nor rebel against his men folk. He seasoned affection with skepticism and dislike with understanding. Ultimately he would build an abiding faith in the redeeming power of doubt.
— Maged Atiya
It was a restless night. Blackout was instituted and block wardens, both official and self-appointed, intermittently yelled “Tafi El Nour” (cut the light) all night. Only some of the groggy residents were preparing to go to work. Thabet and Hosny started to set up the short wave radio at about 7 AM. They did not expect to be able to tune to the BBC service as it was usually jammed. But that morning they managed to hear it clearly. Either the government was letting it through to soften the few who receive it for the inevitable news, or it was simply incompetence. But regardless, neighbors quickly gathered in the hallway to listen in. Abba Eban was holding forth, announcing the transition from “serious danger to successful resistance”. But his words were not known to most of those listening, as they waited for the Arabic translation. Anyone who did not understand English received one or more filtered versions. All seemed to suggest that things were not going well for our side. No one seemed ready to believe the worst. In fact, it was a calmer and kinder day than most.
Sometime in the early afternoon the radio broke from the usual exhortations to air a long discussion on the history of the World War II Russian front. The rapid retreat of the Soviet armies set them up nicely for a decisive win, the radio claimed. Those familiar with the ways of the government information campaigns saw trouble ahead. That premonition proved true when the radio announced that troops in Sharm El Sheikh were retreating to combine forces with other troops. As darkness approached the rumors grew. Adults introduced unfamiliar terms; “open city”, “sealed trains”, and “government in exile”. People discussed these as they sat on their verandas, sometimes arguing across gaps between buildings. One man, feeling particularly gloomy, insisted that Israel will occupy Cairo using its female troops to add further humiliation. That set up the amusing prospect of armed young Israeli women in sandals swarming west on Gisr El Swais.
The remainder of the night passed in darkness with small news. The complete annihilation of a squadron of Israeli paratroopers, the death of an enemy pilot in Zagazig, and vague reports of exceptional bravery on the front. Still people found comfort in such news and their enhanced patriotism.
— Maged Atiya