A Traffic Jam
Peter M., then a young attache at the US Embassy in Cairo, woke up early on Monday 22 1967 to head to work expecting a flurry of instructions from a Washington DC returning from the weekend. He recalled the events of the day more than a decade later. His normal drive from his house in Ma’adi to work was less than 20 minutes. On that day, however, the roads were clogged and it took him the better part of 2 hours. The traffic jam was caused by the “whole bloody Egyptian Army traveling across Cairo”. The next morning he read about the events as reported by a number of Western journalists. He recalled the reporting of the highly regarded Eric Pace of the New York Times. Mr Pace asserted that the five Egyptian divisions deployed in the Sinai would “prevent any sudden humiliating defeat, like that of the offensive of 1956“. Pace also noted how the official press promoted the image of Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, a “mainstay of the regime“. In Pace’s considered judgement “In short, by his belligerence, Mr. Nasser has created an atmosphere in which military dictatorship thrives best“.
Later that evening at the Heliopolis Sporting Club, members gathered at their usual spots on tables below Sycamore trees ordering rounds of Stella beer and Termis (pickled Lupini beans). The adult conversation centered on quotidian subjects, especially the upcoming Thanawya examinations for college entrance. At one point a man pointed out the radio announcement of the calling of the reserves. Few took much heed, or give any insights on an impending war. Nor did anyone notice the absence of a sometime guest, General Medhat Fahmy. He had been ordered to speed to the Sinai at the head of his tank division. His mission was to wait near Gaza, and when ordered to make a dash north toward Haifa. Three weeks later he was indeed in Haifa, as a prisoner of war. In an interview he gave to French reporters he spoke admiringly of the skill of both his soldiers and their Israeli opponents. He said he harbored no hate toward Israel, and that he was treated with respect since his capture. More noted was the absence of Ahmed, the young roustabout who did a variety of tasks around the club. He had received a notice of mobilization at the tiny basement apartment he shared with his father, a doorman, his mother and a brother and a sister. Ahmed was never seen again at the club. More than two months later his name appeared on a list of those presumed dead. A fellow private in his unit insisted that he was taken prisoner, and that the “the Jews shot him”. It is certainly possible that this was his fate. It is also possible that the charge stemmed from anger and humiliation. The world may never know the truth. What some know for certain is that on a hot day in August 1967 a piercing shriek issued from a tiny basement window in Heliopolis. For a long time after, whenever Um Ahmed appeared in public she was clad in black and wordless, and occasionally in tears.
— Maged Atiya
The Cost of Dignity
On that day President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader who renamed a once and future Egypt as the United Arab Republic, made the decision to ask the United Nations to withdraw its peace keeping mission. We will never be able to assess his true reasons, but they are likely to have originated from the peculiarly Egyptian sin of seeking dignity at all costs. Shortly after the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser signed a memorandum with Dag Hammarskjold, then UN Secretary General, to de-militarize the Sinai and give the UN veto power over the withdrawal of its peace keepers. Nasser must have suffered this indignity only because the agreement was kept a secret. Anything less would have shattered the myth of the successful resistance to the Tripartite attack on Egypt. The Rotem Crisis of 1960 may have encouraged Nasser to think that the the memo has lost force and that there is room to give. The hot days of late May 1967 were a giant exercise in restoring his dignity, now tarnished by the costs of Yemen and poor economic planning. No one could pull him back from the brink, as any such effort amounted to an attack on his dignity, and by extension all of Egypt, which loved him for illusion of dignity he offered.
— Maged Atiya
One of the most amusing scenes of the events of January 2011 in Egypt was the image of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper cowering in an apartment in Cairo, curtains drawn, whispering into the microphone from an “undisclosed location” for fear that Mubarak’s “thugs” would come and drag him away by the scruff of his t-shirt. The location was well-known, even if it was undisclosed. Those who knew Egypt also knew that life went on normally just a short distance from Cooper’s location. This was a hint of what was to come, when the world reported on the “Arab Revolutions” as nearly a TV serial without much examination of of what was truly happening. Steven Cook opens his new book “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East ” with a nod to all that, listing the “characters”, “timeline” and “places”, as well as provide personal experiences of living through those days in January in Egypt as a historian and a sympathetic foreigner who studies Egypt’s convulsions. But that early start is a feint, for the book launches as a serious and occasionally gloomy examination of the events of the last 6 years in four countries, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and Egypt. The author has clearly come to many important insights, and one central conclusion; that the “revolutions” of 2011 were no revolutions at all. If a Hollywood agent had read only the cinematic first few pages and tried to option the book he would be advised to choose the music of “The Who” as the film’s soundtrack. The credits would play to the searing strings of “We Won’t get Fooled Again”. Cook concludes that to meet the new boss(es) is to meet the old boss(es).
There is a lot to like in Cook’s book, and a few things to quibble with. The author weaves events in all four countries into one tapestry. Most of the events are well-documented in the public record, but those who do not know the four countries, or know only one or two of them will appreciate and benefit from the summary. We should also note and be thankful for what is absent. There is no discussion of the “Arab mind” or “Islam’s encounter with Modernity” or any of the other similar crutches. There is no hint that the author read the seminal works of Orientalism and postcolonial theory, although he undoubtedly did. Cook assumes that Arabs, Turks, Egyptians and the other motley occupants of the region want what all humans want, a secure, prosperous and dignified life. The early part of the book marshals many economic facts and figures noting that the countries made many advances, but not enough. The people were neither so miserable as to hope for nothing, nor so satisfied as to offer loyalty to their governing schemas. Three countries were run by authoritarian structures, while Libya was not run at all, but simply managed for the benefit of the boss. Cook’s indictment of the ruling elites is indirect, summarizing what they failed to do, and what opportunities they missed, rather than detailing a record of specific perfidies. This is also a welcome departure from the literature of outrage common to studies of the region.
The central point of the book will no doubt arose arguments. The author leans on the theories of Theda Skocpol and others to demonstrate that the “revolutions” were hardly revolutions at all since they did not result in the fundamental alteration of social and political power relations. But those who argue against it will be doing so under the influence of the romance of revolution rather than the sober analysis of what actually took place. Whoever coined the term “Arab Spring” made the cardinal error in Skocpol’s world of using the events of a previous convulsion (fall of the Soviet Union) to analyze a new one. To see this argument advanced by a well-regarded voice on the region is worth the price of the book. It is not surprising that the author in two chapters (“Unraveling” and “What Went Wrong?”) does not countenance the idea of a well-planned “counter-revolution”. Instead he sees a multitude of actors responding in random and mostly predictable ways to new events and conditions. The descent into despotism in Turkey, repression in Egypt and Tunisia, and chaos in Libya were all improvised events, according to Cook, who describes them in some detail. The powers-that-be are not evil Chess masters, but hapless tossers of dice in a wild game of Backgammon. They may be deaf, dumb and blind to the subtle charms of good governance, but they sure play a mean game of pinball.
Cook also takes up a point often ignored in discourses about the region, identity crisis. (The sound editor should cue in “Who are You?”) Recently, Egyptian-American historian Samuel Tadros noted that the ills of the region stem from a refusal to accept, let alone celebrate, diversity. Cook is in broad agreement with that. Many people in the region refuse to acknowledge that it is normal for individuals to assume different, and sometimes overlapping, identities. To refuse to acknowledge that reality is at the root of collapse. Arabism did not die at the hands of Israel, but at the urging of Sati’ Al Husri to tolerate no other identity for an “Arab”, who may foolishly not know that he is one and must be coerced into that acceptance. Similarly, Islamism’s insistence on the supremacy of a “Muslim” identity, something unfortunately is increasingly accepted even in the West, is at the root of its failure to deliver anything more than coercion in the social norms. This is a point on which a direct comparison between Egypt and Turkey (two countries that Cook studies regularly) would have been valuable. Kemalism in Turkey and Egyptianism in Egypt tracked each other closely, and Islamism was a counter-reaction to both. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began to agitate for recreating the Caliphate as soon as Kemal dismissed it in post-Ottoman Turkey. A longer discussion of this would clarify to readers the reason for the ferocity of the suppression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, as the author points out how the Brotherhood is made non-Egyptian by its opponents. A longer discussion of the identity crisis in a place such as Egypt, which retains much of its pre-Islamic identity, would show that at the present moment any true revolution is likely to be Islamist and non-democratic and any liberal outcome is likely to come by evolutionary means. This subtle argument is understood by many Egyptians at a subliminal level, which explains why many supported the July 3 2013 removal of Morsi, while certain that the outcome in the short term will not be a freer politics. Cook hints at that when he points out that had the events become a true revolution, their outcome would not necessarily have been liberal or democratic. This is an accurate observation that runs counter to the conventional wisdom of 2011, which remains popular even if discredited by events.
Many studies of the region urge that considerable effort should go into “building institutions”. Cook finds no dearth of institutions in the countries he studies, excepting Libya. The trouble is less the lack of institutions than in their nature and function. Cook notes that these institutions were built long ago by founding figures (Nasser, Ataturk and Bourguiba). Younger generations have largely failed to supplant them. By day young “revolutionaries” risk their lives to oppose armed power, but at night they repair to the homes of their parents, where they fail to offer a modicum of rebellion against stifling tradition. Many surveys indicate that young Egyptians are as conservative in matters of gender and religion as their Mamas and Babas, and more so than their Tatas and Gidos. If true then this is an unhappy wasteland for social reform. Anecdotes abound. In the revolutionary year of 2011, many who manned the barricades tsked tsked a young woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who displayed her bare breasts in a tasteful photograph. To hear their attacks on her one would think that Egypt is unraveling, not through senseless riots and the burning of important libraries, but through the display of nipples. In contrast to the unveiling revolution of 1919 and the rock and roll events of 1968 , the 2011 edition seemed to be characterized by sexual harassment rather than sexual revolution. While the outside world talked about a “youth” revolution in the region, there was little direct evidence that the youth were engaged in a major revamping of national institutions in either Egypt or Tunisia. When it came to running elections or offering platforms, old men stepped forward. The youth seemed more intent on street action and oblivious to its limitations. Cook takes the nihilistic riots in late 2011 in Egypt to task, but that nihilism was what filled the vacuum left by the lack of serious attempts at cultural and political transformation. This was not always the case. The region was once transformed radically by young men. Nasser made fundamental changes to Egypt before he was 40. King Hussein invented a new Jordan while short of 30. Ataturk invented and built a nation in his 40s. This is no longer the case. A recent meeting of the League of Arab States featured two dozen very old men dozing in their seats. The youngest and most dynamic of the men were Sisi, in his early 60s, and Abdullah in his mid 50s. “I hope I die before I get old”, is not their sound track.
One of the more amusing sections of the book is an insider report of how the US foreign policy Mandarins have been trying to understand the region and “get it right”. This “establishment” is a loose circuit of current, former and would be policy makers who commiserate on panels and in seminars powered by coffee, bagels and a firm belief in the power of the US. Like the Who’s “The Seeker”, they look under chairs and tables trying to vainly find the key to fifty million fables. The reality, asserts Cook, is that the US influence is limited at best, its actions are just as likely to hurt as help, and that detailed studies to divine the intentions of actors in the region and anticipate the course of future events are often about as accurate as a coin toss. He simply urges that the US should stand by its values and refuse to be drawn into foolish escapades. This is the right course for a liberal American republic, but not for a military empire. The Middle East, sometimes incorrectly regarded as the graveyard of empires, holds up an unhappy mirror to America. What is notable about America’s involvement in the region, compared to other areas around the world, is the lack of positive outcomes. America’s involvement in East Asia produced economic tigers (even including Vietnam). Its involvement in Europe produced two generations of peace and prosperity. By contrast, every American effort in the Middle East seems to be an attempt to rectify earlier mistakes and is usually fraught with new mistakes. Still, one suspects that Cook’s recommendation of upholding our values and restraining the impulse to re-engineer the region will fall on deaf ears.
Another good aspect of the book is that it does not end with a laundry list of recommended actions, as many studies of the region often do. Again, we have to be thankful for that absence. The author notes that the region is what it is because of a confluence of historical events and actors rather through any grand design that can be altered or improved. Cook avoids any discussion of what should have been, except in a few places where he notes how the failure to offer a vision has robbed the people of much needed leadership. To have done so would have had him wade into deep and perhaps contentious waters. This book on revolutions is notable for the author’s skeptical attitude toward the efficacy of revolutionary change. Without explicitly stating so, the book seems to favor evolutionary change, or mild Fabianism. The central point of the book is also a paradox. The countries it studies experience plenty of upheavals but no change. The revolutions in these places are literally that, a full turn of events 360 degrees back to where they started. It is as if change is preordained not to happen.
But the failure of the region was not preordained. A woman who went to sleep in 1917 and woke up in 2017 would be shocked by the turn of events. India has a better balance of payment and freer press than Egypt. Singapore, once the scene of another of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” episodes, now rivals Europe in wealth. The four countries Cook studies were in fact lucky by comparison, and yet they remain underachievers. Egypt and Tunisia were not colonized in the exploitative and deforming manner of India or Africa. Turkey was not colonized at all. Libya sits atop a pool of oil with a tiny population. None of the four countries have a history of long and troubled social relations, such as the caste system in India or the deadly friction between Hindus and Muslims, or between Chinese and Malay in Singapore. None of them experienced the natural disasters, rampant plagues and famines of India, for example. Nature endowed them with both mildness and favor. Egypt has a long history of native Christian and Islamic cultures, and has once sustained a polyglot population that remained firmly loyal to it, yet it turned nastily nativist to its disadvantage. Turkey’s Kurdish “problem” is no more intractable than India’s divisions, but is far more destabilizing to the state. So really what went wrong? Here we would do well to follow Cook’s method of looking not to systemic reasons but accidents of fate. Both India and Singapore were lucky to have two remarkable men lead them to independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew were not easy men to like. Neither was a true democrat. Both were deeply suspicious of the West, even if they spent formative years in England. Both displayed a healthy understanding of the shortcomings of their nascent nations and their people. They also shared some common characteristics. For all their resentment of Western colonial powers, they remained in a productive intellectual discourse with them (and in the case of Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, perhaps a carnal discourse as well). They displayed a veneer of authenticity without ever falling into the ugly nativism common to the Near East. Nehru, clad in signature suits, still had no truck with Gandhi’s daffy authenticity, and Lee only affected a certain Confucian hauteur. Both were sly men who realized that their nations needed to emulate Western success, and in doing so can not avoid some of the ills of the West, but the pill can be made sweeter with a bit of theatrical charades. Both men were also students, and to a great degree followers, of English Fabianism. It was not so much the manifestation of it in the early Labor party, but the belief in the efficacy of gradual change, of the necessity of immediate actions to treat the problems most troubling to the most people, and avoidance of single engagements meant to affect profound change. They were, in short, anti-revolutionaries. Their success has not convinced many in the Middle East to emulate them. Revolution still rings alluring and desirable to all too many. The region actually produced some Fabians, most notably the namesake of this blog, who alone among Egyptian national thinkers, opposed the 1919 revolution. Yet despite his wide influence during the interwar years, his personal limitations and that of his country consigned him to ineffectiveness. There is an apocryphal tale of how he was asked, toward the end of his life, of “what he got wrong?”. He answered with one word “religion”. We do not know if the tale is true, or even if it is, what he meant by his response. Religion is one subject that weaves through Cook’s book but is never confronted directly. This is a hint at both its centrality and volatility for the region and any potential transformation. Religion is meant to provide man with hope. It remains with man to make that true or false hope.
Buy the book.
— Maged Atiya
Pope Francis I is due to visit Egypt for two days this week. The visit is generally covered as yet another chapter in the anxious serial of the life of Christianity in the Middle East. These anxieties are heightened by the desire of the so-called Islamic State, and a few other Jihadi groups, to eradicate the Copts from Egypt. It would be a historical mistake if the sole purpose of the visit is to give another expression to such anxieties.
The first Francis to visit Egypt was the original one, St Francis of Assisi. He came to Egypt in 1219, during the waning days of violent religious wars generally branded as “Crusades”. He hoped that his strong faith and golden tongue would persuade the Muslim rulers of Egypt of the truth of Christian doctrine and thus “restore” Egypt to Christianity. Surprisingly enough, St Francis made little contact with Egyptian Christians. Had he done so he would have found out that the country was still substantially Christian. St Francis is not the first Westerner to confuse the rulers of the Egyptians for the natives of the land. He was but an interlude in a long history that runs from the Roman Emperors to French Generals to British Proconsuls to American Senators. Nor was he the first Westerner to attempt to introduce the Gospel of Christ to the Egyptians who had known of it and believed in it as early as any people. He was also not the first Westerner to feel that lecturing Egyptians is the way to guide them out of their troubles. In fact, had he made substantial contact with the Copts he would have found that his oratorical skills, which worked with birds and beasts, to have little efficacy beyond arousing the habitual suspicion of Egyptians about foreign motives. St Francis left Egypt with kind words from its rulers and nothing else.
Pope Francis shows an early promise to avoid such errors. He is genuine about the power of hope and faith to overcome fear and violence. But if the trip is to leave a lasting effect beyond a few days of headlines, it must recognize two centralities. The first is the centrality of Eastern Christianity to the Western and Global Christian culture. Western attitudes toward Eastern Christianity have sometimes been confused and confusing; whether viewed as heretics or souls lost behind enemy lines or as an opportunity to exercise missionary zeal. Pope Francis displays a more subtle and understanding attitude, seeing them as authentic brothers and their struggles as integral to the larger Christian world. The second centrality is one that Egyptians, rather than Pope Francis, must recognize. This is the centrality of Christianity to Egypt’s identity. Christianity is tattooed on Egypt’s soul as indelibly as the small Crosses many Copts tattoo on their wrists. Egypt’s establishment, including Pope Tawadros II, is keen to label attacks targeting Copts specifically as attacks on all Egyptians. If so, then any diminution of the rights of Copts, whether by Jihadis, frenzied mobs, or indolent policemen, is an attack on all of Egypt. If such claims are anything but an attempt to avoid dealing with a difficult issue, then Egypt’s political and spiritual leadership must preach a message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. This can begin by viewing the visit of Pope Francis as that of a Christian to a land that is and will remain both Muslim and Christian.
— Maged Atiya
A French Jesuit by the name of Sicard remarked in 1723 that “the Copts in Egypt are a strange people far removed from the kingdom of God. Indeed many of them are so odd that outside their physical form scarcely anything human can be detected in them” and “in any event we should not omit to teach the ignorant Copts in the faith as incapable as they always are of learning its mysteries without incontestable effort”.
Less than two centuries later, in 1911, a British Assyriologist and Egyptologist, Archibald Sayce, remarked in an introduction to a pamphlet by a Copt, Kyriakos Mikhail, that “ They [Copts] alone trace an unadulterated descent from the race to whom the civilization and culture of the ancient world so largely due. Thanks to their religion, they have kept their blood pure from admixture with the semi-barbarous Arabs and savage Kurds, or other foreign elements whom the licentiousness of Mohammedan family life has introduced into the country.”
What is remarkable about these two accounts, different as they are, is how little they seem to focus on the Copts, except as a means of confirming preconceived notions, or as ancillary tools to support other endeavors. Little is said of individual men and women, or their joys and sufferings, of their triumphs and tribulations. They are simply “Copts”. Of course, the accounts contain kernels of truth wrapped in layers of cultural and racial prejudices. We would like to believe that we live in more enlightened times. Things have indeed changed, for both the West and the Copts. The West is far more open to diversity, and the Copts are acquiring new identities, beyond that of Egyptians, as many are born and raised in the West. Egypt, where 90% of the Copts reside, has changed too. Islamism has weakened the notion of an Egyptian national identity, to which Coptic thinkers contributed heavily. The Copts are targets of both extremists and political opportunists. At some point they may need to abandon the idea that they can love Egypt hard enough to stop the majority from kicking them in the teeth. One thing, oddly enough, has not changed, which is how Western eyes -or the majority of them- view Copts. They are still seen as “others”, victims and thus scarcely human. When atrocities occur, horror and grief are expressed in profusion. In between atrocities little thought is given to what really matters to Egyptian Copts. In fact, recommendations are made out with a healthy dose of confidence of what is good for them and for Egypt. Few pundits today would approve of Sicard or Sayce; yet many regularly provide cleaned up versions of their ideas. When Western eyes are cast on the Copts, they see what they wish to see and disregard the rest.
The majority of Western experts on Egypt treat the country as part of the “Middle East” (an invention of an American Admiral), the “Arab World” (an invention of wacky Englishmen) or the “Muslim World”. It is the rare few who see Egypt as unique, a diverse culture, a country as much Christian as Muslim, as much African as Arab, as much Mediterranean as Middle Eastern. Most do not know individual Copts, even if the majority of Westerners of Egyptian descent are Copts. In the rush to study the region, identify its problems and recommend solutions, the Western experts on the region have disappeared the Copts, except when inconveniently their dead bodies call their attention, and perhaps complicate their neat theories. In between massacres, many Western pundits lecture Copts about “support for dictators”, recommend free elections that will bring bigots to power, demur when asked about support for true liberalism that will actually protect those few in number or different in belief. They might even employ those who advertise love for “illiberal democracy”. Others find it easy to use the difficulty of being a Copt in Egypt to buttress simple bigotry toward Muslims. Their arguments float better on the blood of Copts. And so it goes, on every ideological side, the “Copts” remain a powerful tool to use or put away as need be.
Those of us who know Copts can not romanticize them. “The Coptic mind can have a sharp edge”, in the words of John Watson, an English clergyman who knows them. But at least he views them more than victims or tools for arguments. To have a mind, and occasionally express anger, justified or not, is to be human. Humanity is precisely what is often denied the Copts, by their killers and their self-identified defenders.
Instead of condolences, please get to know us.
— Maged Atiya
Empress Catherine the Great fancied herself a ruler of a mighty empire. It is said that when she traveled to the rustic Crimean countryside her aide, Count Potemkin, put up facades of fake villages to shield her eyes from the brutal reality of poverty and underdevelopment. The same can be said of the several dozen cruise missiles, Tomahawks, fired by the US at a Syrian airbase near Homs. They are a distraction from a more difficult reality.
The cause for firing the missiles was a chemical gas attack on a village north of Homs which killed dozens of people, mostly civilians. It is likely that elements of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad were behind the attack. It is also possible, but less likely, that the regime airplanes hit depots of such weapons held by the rebels. There was widespread applause for the missile attack among the American policy elites. Most argued that it is a fitting punishment for Assad, and perhaps a deterrence against future attacks. Few provided evidence of how the attack which destroyed a few replaceable planes and killed a number of enlisted men actually “punishes” Assad personally, or those who made the decision to use these weapons. None can confirm with any certainty the likelihood of deterring future attacks. There have been two instances of use of these weapons, killing a number of civilians. But the people killed by chemical attacks are a drop in the torrential downpour of blood unleashed on the Syrians by Assad and his opponents, and indirectly by earlier American actions. No leader or pundit has offered a workable solution for ending this bloodshed. Even if the Tomahawks restrain further use of chemical weapons, the death and agony will continue. The attack set back the US taxpayers some 100 to 200 Million Dollars, enough to feed a million refugee Syrian families for a month. It is doubtful that the US Congress would have appropriated such amounts for refugee aid in the matter of the few minutes it took the missiles to reach their target. In fact the very man who allegedly ordered the attack has insisted on slamming the door in the face of these refugees and occasionally using the boot to affect their removal rather than their assistance. What the Tomahawks did was provide a teeny evidence of manliness for the man with small hands. But more urgently, they distract us from the crushing reality of the failure of American policy in the region, and more broadly of the decline of American good sense as the once venerable Republic breathes its last and morphs into a full fledged Empire.
There is an American folk saying that when in a hole one must retire the shovel. The men and women who manage the American Empire have retired the shovel, but instead brought in massive backhoes to digger faster and better. Every military intervention in the Middle East is billed as a more vigorous attempt to curb the disastrous consequences begat by earlier efforts. A rare few have noted that American imperial efforts in the Middle East have coincided with abandonment of the virtues of a limited Republic, and have noted the dangers they create for it. That nightmare seems to be coming true. The country that sponsored many a “regime change” to affect lofty ideals seems to have fallen victim to a regime change scheme by one of its bitter enemies. We may not know for sometime if that effort will permanently succeed or fortune will somehow favor the American Republic, if only because of the many decent qualities it has exhibited over time. The Tomahawk peccadillo may temporarily obscure the larger issue here, as much as Potemkin’s facades hid poverty from the royal eyes. The spectacle of blaze and smoke in the night was meant for American eyes, not to edify but to obscure. It will do little to help the suffering Syrians. In fact, short of sending a massive army to put down all the combatants, and ruling the country for decades thereafter, all our efforts will prolong the suffering by providing temporary incentives for the multitude of participants in the Syrian bloodshed. Of course that idea on sending an army was tried before, but patience ran short, as well it might. America can rule and reform the Middle East or preserve its liberal society. It can not do both, however well-intentioned we wish to be.
— Maged Atiya
Copts have hundreds of liturgies throughout the year. Few are as moving as the Good Friday liturgies and one of its center pieces is a hymn called “Pek-ethronos” or “Your Throne”. The hymn is a single sentence from Psalm 45 “Your Throne, God, is Forever”. But the hymn typically lasts close to 20 minutes of praise on the darkest day of the Christian liturgical calendar. It is less a song than an audible play of opposites, death and resurrection, suffering and redemption, tragedy and joy, defeat and victory. Strange as it may sound to Western ears (Herodotus’ claim about the strangeness of the Egyptians comes to mind), to most Copts it is a full encapsulation of their history, which is hardly surprising. Except for its early history, and recent times, the Church encoded its theology in hymns and liturgies, rather than commit it to scholarly books. Such thoughts come to mind on hearing liturgies read for the first time in a new Church. This particular one, nearly the 250th Church in 50 years of immigration, is located the East Side of Manhattan, in the heart of the so-called “Silk Stocking District”. The genesis of that single Church is a reflection, writ small, of Christianity as it enters its third millenia.
The Church, a designated landmark, was built in 1886 for the prosperous burghers of German descent in what was rapidly becoming the home of the wealthy of New York, less than 3 square miles dense with museums, schools, cultural centers, Churches and elegant mansions and apartments. As new waves of immigrants came, the Church changed its character, becoming home to Irish and then Italian Catholics, as our “Lady of Peace” Church. Aging population and declining attendance forced the Catholic Church to merge the parish into another and lease the Church to the Copts, while negotiations are ongoing for outright purchase (on occasion involving both Pope Francis I and Tawadros II). All New York stories, as they say, are about real estate. The celebration of the Copts was a stark contrast to the previous image of the Church as a hushed place of worship sometimes sparsely attended by the older faithful. The Copts overflowed the pews with entire families, mostly young, many with children adding what the parish priest, Father Gregory, called the “sound, not of noise, but of growth”. But the deeper backstory to this small event is a large one, about the destinies of Eastern and Western Christianity, the differing threats they face, their changing relationship, and finally the fortunes of the Copts both in Egypt and outside it.
No Coptic Church event in America these days fails to reference the suffering of Egyptian Copts, especially those events that tell of the dynamism and good fortune of the American Church. The most recent instance was symbolized by seven killings and a funeral. The killings were brutal door-to-door murders that successfully removed all Copts from the North of Sinai. The funeral was that of the “Blind Sheikh”, a man who dedicated his life to hate and mayhem, first of his fellow Egyptians, Muslims but especially Copts, and finally Americans who had given him refuge in their country. He died in prison of old age, but his funeral in Egypt was a raucous celebration and chilling reminder of the hold his angry and murderous vision still has on many Egyptians. Meanwhile in the Church on the East side of Manhattan, the presiding Bishop, Anba David, gave the assembled throng a brief sketch of how this new Church came to be. His friendship with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan, was forged two years ago in the aftermath of the horrific beheading of 21 Copts in Libya. The idea of obtaining a Catholic Church building for the use of Manhattan Copts germinated at a memorial service for the murdered men. In this case, the blood of the Martyrs was indeed the seed of the Church. Further assistance came from Pope Francis I, who waved aside the usual theological and historical differences between the Catholic and Orthodox rites to claim a unity and “ecumenism of blood”. It is possible to see the actions of Francis as that of a powerful Church lending support to a persecuted one. It is also possible to see it differently, that Francis wishes to revive his Church by reminding its members of the power of faith and hope as demonstrated by the persecuted Eastern Christians, as indeed he did by quoting the Coptic monk and theologian, Matta el Meskin (Matthew the Poor) to the Curia on December 22 2016.
The event at the Coptic Church ended with a short speech by an early immigrant, a member of the “Class of 1969”, who reminded those attending it of how, less than fifty years ago when liturgies were usually heard in private homes, this event would have seemed exceedingly unlikely. Those not attending it, however, can also use such a reminder. The 21th Century, still young, has already delivered plenty of carnage, hate and reasons to fear that established good orders are at risk from negligence, malice or indolence. As with the message of the Good Friday hymn, hope, however naive in the presence of adversity, remains the most potent force to overcome it.
— Maged Atiya