On the Egyptian Democratic Transition – Review of David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of the Soldiers”Posted: August 9, 2018
Once upon a time a US Democratic administration dedicated itself to a policy of freedom and prosperity around the world. In Egypt it placed its bets on young men who would reform the country’s corrupt social and political order and bring back greatness to the land, always described with the hackneyed phrase of “ancient”. The time was the summer of 1952 and the young men, almost all younger than 40, had thrown out the the young king, just 32, who had ruled for 16 years, growing fat, ridiculous and old beyond his age. A few weeks after the coup the New York Times sent its star reporter and chief London correspondent to Cairo to get a read on where Egypt is going. Clifton Daniel was no stranger to the country, having lived there and reported on the region and the turbulent events in Egypt after World War II. Daniel, an urbane mandarin and future husband to the US President’s daughter, knew everyone of note, and had even dined with King Farouk who criticized his table manners. In the late summer of 1952 he connected with many of his Egyptian friends including the young men of the liberal elite, politicians, diplomats, and a host of other academics and intellectuals. All seem to support the coup and hope that the men in uniform would reform the political system and establish Egyptian democracy on a firmer ground. The Times had reasons to expect Daniel to write a definitive article, or even a book, on the new Egypt. He never did. A quarter century later, recently retired as editor of the Times, he gave an extended talk to journalism students at Columbia University. A older woman in the audience asked him where he would go to report today if he could pick any spot. He did not hesitate; the Middle East and Egypt. Many of the men who supported the coup in 1952 reflected on what it had brought the country decades later and still insisted that their support was no error. “It was either the army or the Brotherhood”, many insisted.
The events of 2011 serve as an antipode to those of 1952. The 1952 coup turned into a revolution, while the revolution of 2011 turned into a coup. Improved communications and a radically changed America meant that an entirely different situation existed in 2011 than in 1952 for US reporters. Communism, the major concern in 1952 was dead in 2011, replaced by terrorism as the major threat. The US had changed radically as well; its President was a black man, the marriage of his parents would have been illegal in most of the US in 1952. The US continues to see itself as a force for freedom and prosperity, but with some hesitation and uncertainty, the result of failed wars and a creeping imperial order. And the New York Times continues to send its star reporters to the region, especially Egypt. The man who happened to start his tenure on the threshold of these events has now written his version of them. David Kirkpatrick “Into the Hands of Soldiers” is a gripping book, cinematic and fast-paced as befits a first hand account of seismic shifts in a big country. The book is also a hard-boiled bildungsroman of a newly arrived reporter excited at the events he witnesses but ultimately growing jaded about the ways of the (and here is that word again) “ancient” land. Although that alone is worth the price of the book, there is much more to it than the disillusionment of David. Foreign correspondents will sometimes write the first draft of historical events based on eyewitness accounts. On occasions they will also deliver a nuanced understanding of the land they report on. The book is clearly an attempt at both, succeeding in the first task more clearly than in the second. The fearless and dedicated reporter in him will go anywhere and report on any event even at considerable personal risk. But Egypt leaves him at times surprised and perplexed. Any failure in the task of bridging understanding is less the fault of Kirkpatrick than in the rigid constraints imposed on him by his own culture, and more importantly the Egyptians’ culture. Late in the book he notes that his employer banned the use of the word “secular” about any Egyptian. This is a regrettable form of cultural determinism more than matched by the unfortunate habit among Egyptians of regarding any outside reporter not aping their favorite views as either a spy or an idiot. In reporting the events Kirkpatrick had to cut through the fog of tear gas. In reporting the intent behind the events the fog of misunderstandings proves much harder to wave away. The book has to be read and evaluated on the merits of three threads that run through it; the first hand accounts of the events, the representations of the back room maneuvers among many Egyptian and non-Egyptian actors that the reporter had access to by virtue of his position, and finally the broader lesson that these events leave with us. It is a tall order. Comparable to trying to understand plate tectonics using data from a single or a few earthquakes.
In the years of living madly between 2011 and 2014 Egypt seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Kirkpatrick was there in every major news event to report first hand. We come away with sympathy for a man who craved to do his job, however dangerous, while still trying to maintain a semi-orderly normal life with family, friends and colleagues. At dangerous moments his concern is often for his colleagues or interpreters, whom he sees sharing in the dangers but unlikely to share in the glory, and who will be in Egypt to experience the fallout long after he has gone onto other assignments. This concern adds texture to his reporting beyond what was already published in his dispatches. It is impossible not to feel sympathy, admiration, and perhaps a bit of envy, for the experiences he reports with sparse and rapid prose. He is eager to report on the events without becoming part of them or, when the bullets fly, a victim of them. The task is made harder by the Egyptians; some clearly wish to enlist a major Western paper as a witness for their cause, while others are certain that the reporters for these papers are misguided dupes or ill-intentioned meddlers. The degree of venom heaped on such publications, and on individual reporters, is a reflection of the polarized pathology of Egypt at the moment and also of how the events in Egypt became an element in the larger Western discourse about its attitudes and values. Still we have to be grateful for the record Kirkpatrick leaves us, even if at times one is aware of its limitations or of alternate versions. His first hand accounts are vastly superior to many other reporters in Egypt at the time, when some of them were so taken by the thrill of the barricades and the camaraderie with Egyptian actors, some of whom have suspect causes, that their dispatches become indistinguishable from agitprop.
Some things in Egypt never change, like the sun and the sand. Many of the actors in Kirkpatrick’s reporting are back on the stage to reprise roles they had previously played. One of the stars of his reporting is the police, who seem to delight, indeed take pride, in their culture of persistent impunity. In February 1968 a clutch of young boys from a private school in Heliopolis demonstrated against the light verdict for the officers responsible for the 1967 debacle. With voices not yet changed they screeched “Feen Al Qanoun” (Where is the law?). They were arrested and taken to the police station for the customary beating. One by one the boys were led into the captain’s office and made to recite their refrain. A young conscript, barely out of his teens, slapped each one around declaring “Ha Howa Al Qanoun” (This is the law). When done, each boy was asked a question “enta eh?” (what are you?) to which the expected answer is “Ana Masry” (I am an Egyptian). Kirkpatrick describes nearly identical events, only now more brutal. The Egyptian state, decades after Nasser, kept his fist but lost his smile, energy and charm. In his retelling of how Egyptian leaders view their fellow citizens we hear echoes of Nasser’s famous sad refrain “letting Egyptians participate in politics is like letting children play in traffic”. Even the title of the book echoes a phrase first made popular by Aziz Al Masry, head of the Egyptian army in the 1930s and a spiritual father to the Free Officers “The country is held together by the hand of the Army”. A seasoning in Egyptian history would have made the events of these years, however unpalatable, easily predictable. Kirkpatrick seems slightly aware that he too is a participant in the drama, his role having been played by many eminent actors before him. Egyptians crave outsiders to witness their spats and are keen to enlist them to favor one side or another. There is some comfort in that the author has done considerably better in his allotted role than many others before him. Kirkpatrick describes in vivid terms the chasm between different classes of Egyptian, symbolized by his two Arabic tutors. The reality is that every Egyptian contains a bit of each; a flammable combination of pride and a sense of inferiority and lost greatness. The narrative of loss is as old as Egypt; how the great land has declined and fallen. Westerners have sometimes contributed to that narrative, and Kirkpatrick does as well. But the remedies that the Egyptians and the outsiders recommend vary greatly. The Egyptians invariably look for the great man who will lead the country from the current intermediate period of chaos and into a new kingdom of greatness. The outsiders cannot fathom such an attitude and are invariably flummoxed by its manifestation. The disillusionment of David owes a great deal to that seemingly unchanged fact of this, yes again, ancient land.
One of the interesting aspects of the book is the access Kirkpatrick had, as a star reporter for a major Western paper, to the inside players in the Egyptian serial drama of 2011 to 2014. Egyptian officials and powerful players were always eager to reach out and shape the narrative, even while cursing out the reporter as naive, bumbling or worse. US diplomats and government officials did as well, displaying an astounding combination of keen insights, deep understanding, wishful thinking and utter cluelessness. It almost never occurs to American officials that there is little the US can do about or to Egypt. After all, how can that be with a $70 Billion investment in Egypt’s military and the clear and unmistakable indications that its officers listen and heed the advice of the US? A young Obama assistant, Ben Rhodes, gives flesh to these thoughts in carefully worded leaks to Kirkpatrick. But Rhodes knows little of Egypt, and in his constant banging about the clearly dead Egyptian democratic transition appears like the foolish characters in the Monty Python skit about a dead parrot. Older men and women, such as Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Joe Biden and Robert Gates have deeper knowledge and keener instincts. Yet Egypt disappoints them as well. Twenty five centuries ago a Greek warned that everything is backwards in Egypt. But neither he, nor the men and women who followed him took heed of that advice. In fact, even when fully in control of Egypt, well-meaning outsiders found it difficult to impose their will on the Egyptians. As both Augustus Caesar and Lord Cromer noted, the Egyptians often say “Yes” when they mean “No” and at times say “No” when they are sure that “Yes” is the right answer. The Egyptian air is thick with talks of meddling outside hands and conspiracies. Kirkpatrick provides a blow-by-blow of the various outside actors in the Egyptian drama, from top leaders to walk-on extras. From America, Obama is too distant in the narrative, even if his government officials are deeply involved. His ultimate detachment reflects a new reality; the US is a lesser player in Egypt than many other regional actors, such as the Gulf countries. Many will take the account in the book as proof that the US is not serious about democracy in Egypt. But the fact remains that the US can be no more serious about it than the Egyptians. In the first election since 1938 where the government did not tilt the scales, they narrowly elected a fool for president, rigged up an electoral system to give majorities to minorities, hold no one accountable, provide no checks and balances, and write constitutions in the manner of minor litigants at a traffic court. It is unfair to ask the US to support such a ramshackle structure. A solid Egyptian democracy, built on decent laws and ideas, needs no outside support. An Egyptian democracy needing an American ambassador to do shuttle diplomacy between political actors will collapse regardless of the words and actions of the most well meaning outsiders.
Kirkpatrick attempts to understand what the events he witnessed mean for Egypt and its future. This is the weakest part of the book, in part because he was denied access to many major sectors of Egyptian society and their views. The fault is largely with these sections of the society who locked him out as hopelessly biased. Many will read his thoughts as forgiving of, even favoring, the Islamists and their intentions. His sympathies are largely in the right places, such as reporting on the travails of women and the Copts, and in some cases with the right people, such as Mozn Hassan or Hossam Bahgat. In other cases, he fails to discern the motives or the seriousness of his native informants. Some of the throwaway comments in the book will give fodder to his critics. For example, he mentions that there was more freedom of speech during President Morsi’s tenure. It is true, but mostly as a reflection of his ineptitude at suppressing it than his belief in its value. He insists that more Copts were killed during Sisi’s tenure than during Morsi’s. This is also true, but only because they were targeted specifically because of their broad sympathies. Yet such matters are minor compared to a larger point Kirkpatrick makes which Egyptians should engage, however painful it might be. He asks an implicit question, “What about the blood?”. The events of 2011 to 2014 are bloody enough, but are bookended with two horrific massacres when the state turned against some of its people. The deaths at Maspero in 2011 are a precursor to those at Rab’a, although in very different ways. No one seems eager to understand how either event came about. Many Egyptians will insist that Egypt is different, that it lacks the blood letting capacity of a Syria or an Algeria. On a percentage basis, this is clearly true. But it is an observation designed to obscure their failure to engage their history from a moral perspective. Obama quoted Nelson Mandela to urge Morsi to be more inclusive. Morsi’s followers called him their Mandela without even a hint at adopting Mandela’s moral and historic stance. The word “martyr” flows easily from Egyptian tongues, but what are these unfortunate victims standing witness to? Every faction in Egypt celebrates its martyrs as leading the way to a happier future. The Army, the police, the Islamists, the Copts, the revolutionaries and even Kirkpatrick in a moment of weakness, insist that the sacrifices of martyrs will not go in vain. But what if the way forward is not through spectacular sacrifice but a more mundane process of compromise? What if the witnesses that the country needs are not those who die for a cause, but a wider collection of voices who live to see their predictions proven wrong, their favored biases made less certain and their fears remain unrealized? Egyptians would do well to engage accounts such as these in the book, however limited in focus and duration, and regardless of world views and biases they might represent, as corrections to their certainties and realities. At end of reading this book one comes away with the realization that Egypt has not so much slipped back into the hands of soldiers, as the soldiers of Egypt having become again hostages to its sorrows. Perhaps the way out of this moment is for the people to focus less on the actions of their soldiers than on the causes of their sorrows.
— Maged Atiya
“Lo, the desert claims the land.Towns are ravaged, Upper Egypt became a wasteland Lo, everyone’s hair has fallen out Lo, great and small say, ‘I wish I were dead’ Lo, children of nobles are dashed against walls Infants are put on high ground Food is lacking Wearers of fine linen are beaten with sticks Ladies suffer like maidservants Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds Men stir up strife unopposed Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with laments See now the land deprived of kingship What the pyramid hid is empty The People are diminished.”
Lamentations of Ipuwer 2200 BCE
“The temples of the gods and goddesses from Elephantine down to the marshes of the Delta had gone to pieces. Their shrines had become desolate, had become mounds overgrown with weeds. Their sanctuaries were as if they had never been. Their halls were a footpath. The land was topsy-turvy and the gods turned their backs upon this land. If an army was sent to Syria to extend the frontiers of Egypt, no success of theirs came at all. If one prayed to a god to seek counsel from him, he would never come at all. If one made supplication to a goddess similarly, she would never come at all.”
Tutankhamun’s Restoration Stela 1334 BCE
In his reign, for what cause I know not, a blast of God smote us; and unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force they easily overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others.
Manetho 300 BCE
The country feels trapped, cheated, and shortchanged in the battle between an inept, authoritarian state and a theocratic fringe.
Fouad Ajami 1995
Travel across the Arabic-speaking world and a common theme emerges. It is encountered in the pitiful eye of strangers and in the questioning eye of the academic: what has happened to Egypt and the Egyptians?
Samuel Tadros 2018
On August 4 1958 the Egyptian writer Salama Moussa took his last breath. Half a century earlier, as a young man in Europe, he discovered how little he knows about the history of his land, or the culture of the West that he observed with fascination and admiration. The shy and introverted young man was not short on self-confidence or anger. Like his namesake he resolved to come back to his people with commandments on how to live their lives. Over the course of five decades he wrote books at the rate of one a year and published articles at the rate of one a week. He became known, indeed notorious, for the trouble he kicked up, and for his ability, in the words of Wadi’ Filistin, to make enemies and admirers. His hectoring on freedom of thought, sexual freedom, the rights of women, evolution, psychoanalysis, language and secularism came in jumbled but pointed streams. His people listened (when they did) and ignored most of his recommendations. They chose the certainty of what is known to fail over the uncertainty of what might succeed. He did not help matters by his own conduct. He urged strict birth control, but fathered eight children. He advocated sexual freedom and open marriage, but lived a conventional middle class life. He simultaneously urged people to build businesses and the government to control the economy. He railed against religious superstition, but found himself embroiled in matters of church governance. He insisted that Arabic was retarding the growth of his country but wrote exclusively in it. He insisted that freedom of thought was paramount in any cultural project, yet supported the 1952 coup and participated in the Third Arab writers conference a few months before his death, an event that Albert Hourani defined as the moment of death for the liberal age that Moussa had championed for most of his life. Yet all his contradictions did not stop his contemporaries from admiring him or hating him, and on occasions both. The list of those who called him a mentor is long, so is the list of those who found him insufferable. ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad, once a friend, became a bitter enemy and they continued to battle to old age, when a year or so before Moussa’s death ‘Aqqad swore never to argue again with this “despicable communist”. Taha Hussein admired his passion in defense of shared opinions, but was stung by his attacks on Arabic, and his wholesale condemnation of all Egyptian ‘Udaba’ (intellectual) as mere servants of the rulers. His death came roughly half way between two events that symbolized the demise of his project; the conference mentioned above and the January 1 1959 wholesale arrest of many of Egypt’s leftist intellectuals as “communists”. He thundered that the Egyptians deserve a “literature of the people” rather than the fare imposed on them by their intellectuals. But when the people chose, it was not fine literature but religious hectoring and political conspiracies that carried the day. He dreamt of the day when hundreds of outlets would cater to the people without elite intervention. The day has arrived and he would be aghast at what the people choose to consume. Egypt, two generations after his passing, stands in reprimand of all that he dreamt for it. Yet, were he alive today, he would likely insist that all is not lost.
The eulogies came quickly after his passing and continued for decades, with all of them predicting, in one way or another, that he will consigned to obscurity. Immediately after his death, Hussein Fawzy gloomily noted that “When Salama Moussa realizes his rightful place in the country’s history, and when his country prizes him, then I will feel that my country acknowledges the rightful place of free thought, intellectual courage and scientific inquiry”. In a set of reflections on intellectual history of Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz noted that “Salama Moussa was a man of the future, always committed to social justice, industrialization, scientific knowledge and democracy. He stood against all superstitions. I am his student and affected by all his thoughts, except his dedication to the West”. The Lebanese academic Khalil Bitar noted in 2007, with his country’s civil war in the rearview mirror, that Moussa was unlike intellectuals of his generation in “refusing to blame others for the failures of their society, and largely forgotten for insisting that sectarianism is the ruin of all societies, Eastern or Western”. Even Mohamed Hassanein Heikal lamented that “he was an important intellectual but never given his due”. It is hardly surprising that Moussa would be forgotten, given how Egypt has drifted away from his vision in the past six decades. Religion has not become a private pursuit, but a matter of contentious, even lethal, public policy. Women experience the patriarchal oppression with more not less force. Freedom of thought and expression are mythical, less for the heavy hand of the state than the oppressive nature of the society. Almost everything the man has wished for his countrymen has been rejected by them. Yet he is not totally forgotten; every few years one thinker or another brings up his memory, attempts a resurrection before consigning him to forgetfulness again. A retrospective of the man, published by Fikry Andrawous and available only in Arabic, continues to fly off the shelves in Cairo. Young men continue to discover this writings and be profoundly, and largely privately, affected by them. Andrawous dedicates nearly 70 pages to such testimony. A typical one comes from Maged Moustapha Ibrahim. As a young college student in the early 1980s he was stricken with a serious case of boredom by the decrepit intellectual atmosphere around him. One day he came upon the “The Education of Salama Moussa”, and within days he was traveling with a book bag full of Moussa’s writings and reading nothing else. The implicit question in such tales is “what happened to us? what happened to our brain?”. This is the cry of the Egyptians at an “intermediate period”; what historians label centuries of chaos sandwiched between bursts of glory and brilliance.
Living in the intermediate age while empowered by easy communication tools has generated a peculiar sort of non-verbal laments. Dozens of social media and other accounts are dedicated to evidence of how Egypt once looked. The women went about in fetching sun dresses. Men kept their hands off them. The beaches were free and the people frolicked in flimsy swimsuits. The streets were orderly and clean. People from all around the region flocked to Egypt as a beacon and a destination. People fear “state failure”, but Egypt in the current intermediate period is a not a failure. It is a joke. The remedy, all insist, is to reject the current false idols and go back to the true gods. This has always been the recipe for any intermediate age. Psalm 115, pinched by the Jews from an ancient Egyptian hymn, makes the point.
Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?
But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
For all his errors and peculiarities, Moussa understood one important insight about Egypt, and hammered the point home with his signature inelegance. It is a point made in a very different manner by Freud about the mythical founder of his people in “Moses and Monotheism”. The root of Egypt is the root of Western civilization. If the Egyptians were to take the current salafism to its logical end they would find themselves deeply attached to the West they admire, hate, attack and court its favor. It is perhaps why the peculiar and difficult man experiences a cycle of resurrection and burial, an ancient habit of his kin, the people who ushered in the Axial age and then proceeded to smash it to bits.
— Maged Atiya
During the waning days of 2011, when the dwindling revolutionary left engaged in pointless and futile street battles with the Egyptian security services, retired Colonel Ahmed Hamroush , age 90, breathed his last. It had been a fabulous life. He was a member of the Egyptian army and a second tier “Free Officer”. But he was also a communist and a member of the “Haraka”, Democratic Movement for National Liberation, a far left organization, ecumenical in every sense. It numbered among its members committed democrats and Stalinists. It included intellectuals and street activists. It had Muslims, Jews and Copts. It garnered support from Egyptian citizens and foreign residents. It proclaimed itself uniquely Egyptian but kept far flung connections in Baghdad, Damascus and Paris. At its largest, the DMNL numbered fewer than 1000 members, but they were committed to the cause and punched above their weight, at least until they were punched down by the young officers. The first blood was drawn in September 1952, barely a few weeks after the coup. Additional blows came in 1954 and on New Year’s day 1959. The officers who were members of the movement were all sidelined. Youssef Siddiq, the man most responsible for the success of the coup, was arrested and then released into pointless idleness. Khaled Mohieddin drifted in and out of Nasser’s favor. Other less known officers saw their careers stagnate or worse. But Ahmed Hambroush thrived. His task during the coup was to secure the person of the King. Afterwards, he assigned himself the task of the historian of the revolution. At first, it was journalism that attracted his attention, but ultimately Nasser detailed him to the task of running Egypt’s theater productions. The announcement of the 1952 coup promised that once the nation’s politics were cleaned up the men in uniform would return to the barracks. They never did, and in many cases they took over jobs that had been normally the province of civilians. It was this phenomenon that prompted Anouar Abdel Malak, a colleague of Hamroush in the DMNL, to write his famous book “Egypt: Military Society”. The two men were typical of the denouement of the Egyptian leftists. Some became dissidents, in prison or exiles, while others became officials and indirectly the jailers of their erstwhile colleagues.
Hamroush was to lead a life closely linked to fables – first in official journalism, then as the man in charge of most of the theatrical productions, and finally as a self-appointed historian of the revolution. Hamroush was an energetic producer – in a different world he would have had a corner table at Sardi’s. His productions were always well attended. He favored realism and avoided modernist work. The productions were drills by another name. School children, some as young as 7 were brought to matinees during the 1960s. The children were instructed to sit patiently while the actors played out Brecht or some other such fare. There is no question Hamroush cared about the wretched of the earth, and like many in his generation, felt that a strong hand at the top was necessary to accomplish the desired transformations. At his death he was largely unknown to most Egyptians, including revolutionaries, the majority of whom favored talking over listening and protest over culture. But it was the discipline and commitment of men such as Ahmed that turned the 1952 coup into a revolution by reorganizing the power relationships in Egypt. In contrast, the 2011 events, which proclaimed themselves as a “revolution”, quickly became a coup against a sitting president. Hamroush thus represents an intermediate stage in Egyptian governance, when authoritarianism was purposeful and instrumental before it turned into an end onto itself, a tick of the ruling class.
— Maged Atiya
On February 18 1978 members of the Palestinian Abu-Nidal gang shot and killed Egyptian writer and government minister Yusuf Al Siba’i while in Cyprus. In response, the Egyptian government dispatched a squadron of special forces to the island, violating its sovereignty and engaging in various bloody encounters there. This incursion was a rare and uncharacteristic response from the Egyptian state. The mess did not end on the tarmac in Cyprus. Sadat, visibly angry, cut diplomatic relations with Cyprus and called its leader a”pygmy”. That resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the Central African republic. It was heavy price to pay for the life of a writer, especially given the general value of such lives in Egypt. But Yusuf was more than just a writer who produced dozens of novels and short stories. In fact, too little attention is paid to his life and what it symbolized. He deserves a closer look, and perhaps an entire work centered around his career. That career started in earnest three decades before his death at age 60. The arc of it was rather unusual but prophetic. Yusuf was a military man; he was of the same age as the Free Officers and joined the military at the same time as all of them and served with distinction until he retired as a Brigadier General. His subsequent career as a writer and intellectual was not a departure from his military service but a continuation of it by other means. Egypt after 1952 featured many military men who officially retired and then were assigned to manage commercial enterprises, state entities, provinces, political parties and even the presidency. Siba’i’s assignment was culture. He was an intimate of Nasser and wrote many of his speeches. If Mohamed Hassanein Heikal spoke for Nasser, then Yusuf Al Siba’i thought like him.
Yusuf’s rise was symbolized by his role in the Third Conference of Arab Writers organized by the Egyptian state in December 1957. The previous two conferences were modest academic affairs. But this one was an entirely different beast. Albert Hourani described it as the moment of death for Arab liberal thought. Siba’i wrote the opening talk, it is rumored, but Nasser read it. He welcomed the writers to Egypt and identified their task as “create Arab literature that is free”. He went on to describe that freedom as “freedom from foreign control and foreign direction”. He assigned them the task of “realizing our goals” and bid them God’s protection. The speech reads closer to what a commander might give to a graduating class of cadets. The attending writers, by and large, competed in showing their dedication to the task of pan Arabism and their devotion to their assignment. There were a few dissenting voices, notably that of the Tunisian Mahmoud Al Mas’adi, who spoke of individual freedom and autonomy, and was denounced as a traitor to the corp and the imaginary uniform. Taha Hussein spoke elliptically about the necessity for thought as the foundation of writing, but few listened. In the next decade he delivered a series of valedictory speeches and interviews to rebut this vision of the intellectual as a servant of the state but few listened. In a TV interview with Layla Rustum he lamented that “the problem with Arab writers is that they write more than they read”. Without mentioning names he was castigating the entire group and its leader, Yusuf Al Siba’i.
It is sometimes said that Nasser served as a bookend to Muhammad Ali, and there is truth to that. Ali attempted to build a state without a nation, while Nasser, who ended Ali’s dynasty, attempted to build a nation as an arm of the state. He had the assistance of many in that task, none more effectively than the men in uniform and those who took up the pen as their special weapon. Levantine writers were especially enamored with Nasser, for much the same reason as young men are attracted to uniforms and military service; belonging, adventure and purpose. As with these young men, the writers and intellectuals were to realize all too soon the dangerous and tragic nature of their calling. Mas’adi predicted the likely failure of this project decades in advance. He also castigated the practice of conflating anti-Colonialism with anti-Western intellectual thought. The common wisdom today is that the poverty of Arab thought and intellectual discourse is the result of authoritarian governance. But there is a darker explanation. It was perhaps the willingness of Arab intellectuals to be drafted to the cause of the state that ultimately gave rise and support to these authoritarian regimes. It was the exceptional figure, such as Adonis or Nazik Al Malai’ka, who denied that the intellectual’s primary obligation is to serve a national vision, or the state that often articulated it in violent thoughts and actions.
In many ways, Yusuf Al Siba’i was the genteel face of the intellectual as the state’s servant. At the height of his fame, during the 1960s and 1970s Al Siba’i was ever present on the Egyptian scene. He headed many of the the cultural institutions and publications, including Al Ahram, and thus was technically Heikal’s boss. His novels were assigned reading in Egyptian schools, especially the 1952 “Al Saghamat”, always hailed as a work of Egyptian realism, but in fact it was largely political fiction. Siba’i mastered political fiction as thoroughly as Nasser mastered political theater. An elegant man with careful diction he faithfully represented the state. His political views were always subject to trimming by his service. He was a soldier at heart; his mission was not to ask why, but to do or die. For decades he lionized the Palestinian Fedayeen, only to turn against them when they attacked Sadat for visiting Israel. He published paeans to socialism in the 1960s and defended its dismantling in the 1970s. Siba’i was the epitome of the writer as a civil servant. Under his tutelage a generation of Egyptian writers grew up not to write the great Egyptian novel but to become the head of its writers’ union. Many who opposed the state still invested in Siba’i’s vision of the writer as a servant of a cause.
Half a dozen years before his death the ideology of Siba’i’s career claimed one of its victims in a horrific but little examined assassination. On July 8 1972 Ghassan Kanafani, an extraordinarily talented Palestinian writer, indeed possibly the Kafka of Acre, was blown up in his car. He had loudly, but largely without participation, supported the Lod airport massacre. To this day it is not fully known if his murder was a retaliation by Israel or part of an internecine fight within the Palestinian militant groups. Regardless of the truth, it was a terrible waste of a life and a talent. A futile demonstration of the Arab insistence that the artist represent not his individual beliefs, but his people, right or wrong. That was the message of the life and death of Brigadier General Yusuf Al Siba’i, soldier and writer.
— Maged Atiya
Comments made at the second Coptic Canadian History Project, slightly corrected and amended for clarity.
Unlike everyone here, I am not a scholar, or at least not a scholar in the areas represented by this conference. So I am way out on a limb and thus tempted to ask you to join me on that limb by listening to some uncomfortable questions. Nothing I say here is scholarly, but simply notes from the field. I will start with an anecdote, move to a thumbnail history and finish with questions. The anecdote is that of a child observing adults, and the questions are those of an adult still observing adults.
One of my early childhood memories was being in a room at the old Batrakhana to see Pope Kyrillous. The room was sparse, with no luxury except for nice rugs everywhere. The adults waited on one side and the children on the other. The children were to told to behave and be silent or else, the “else” delivered with a menacing stare. After what seemed to be an eternity standing there, but was probably only just a few minutes, the door flung open and what seemed to be a giant of a man stepped in. In fact, later in life I learned that he was of average height and build. Perhaps it was the beard or the attitude of the people that made him seem larger. He wore a black galabiyya, nothing special, and no shoes, just heavy socks. The adults rushed toward him but a monk waved them away. He made a beeline toward the children, and as with a politician working the rope line systematically greeted them, gave each one a gentle pat on the head and a sign of the Cross on the forehead. He smelled of incense, which is fitting for he is now officially a saint. After he was done with the children he moved toward the adults who rushed in, kissed his hand and spoke into his ear. One man, an acquaintance of our family, said something to him and the Patriarch’s face became stern and his body language issued disapproval. A few months later we found out that our friend left for Canada. I never found out what the man said to the Pope, but it left me with a sense to this day of immigration as a rebellion. Some months ago, Pope Tawadros made some comments to a newspaper also disapproving of immigration. All of us here are, in some sense, rebels, collaborators in this rebellion. But who are we, exactly? In the end what makes a “people” is a combination of real shared experiences and just as importantly, imagined shared experiences. So I move to the thumbnail history, what did the first rebels make of their experience, and then of what we need to make of this rebellion now. I need not remind you that rebellion is central to the Christian experience, which started with Adam’s rebellion. But we Copts were traditionally raised to be accountants not rebels, and that maybe why immigration is forcing a reinvention of the Coptic identity here, perhaps.
The earliest cultural activity among immigrants, who were numerically a tiny group, was to translate the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of Hours, into English. It is curious indeed for people to translate their prayers into a language they had yet to fully master. But that was an act of rebellion, declaring for all to see their un-Arabness. Building Churches was also an act of both belonging and rebellion, something hereto difficult in Egypt. Agitating for the Copts of Egypt in Canada and America took on an air of rebellion. Few tried to negotiate anything; it was mostly demonstrations and words of anger. There was delight, as with many teenagers, when these symbolic acts of rebellion set the leader of Egypt aflame with rage at what Sadat called “his children”. The Church worried incessantly about its “sons and daughters abroad”. It feared their rebellion, and it still does. Pope Shenouda confided in Sadat that some of his children in America might have emotional problems but they could be managed and brought back to love him. But the acts of rebellion were not always negative. Cultural activism was sometimes positive, an assertion of a newly formed self. In the interest of time I will focus only on two acts of cultural activism that stand out. Both started out in the Spring of 1980, but their roots are deeper in Egypt. Dr Rodolph Yanney began to publish the Coptic Church Review in March 1980. Almost at the same moment, in early April 1980, Aziz Atiya convened the editorial board of the Coptic Encyclopedia. Both efforts reflect a desire to define a Coptic cultural narrative; one broader than Egypt. But beyond a common goal, they could not be more different. Yanney’s quarterly publication cost a few dollars and focused almost entirely on devotional subjects. It never had more than a few contributors, with some from the West (John Watson, Tim Vivian, Otto Meinardus,etc). Atiya’s effort was broader, eventually having more than 250 contributors. It was held at the Rockefeller foundation center at Lake Como. The attendees were a “who is who” of the old Coptic intellectual elite (Mirrit Ghali, Fouad Megally, etc). The final set of volumes, 8 in total, leather bound, cost $1100. Yanney was a devout and intensely religious man. Atiya, was far more secular. Yanney finished college in 1952, and became heavily involved in the day-to-day Sunday school work of specific churches; he was literally and figuratively the man in the church basement. Atiya completed college in 1919, and then embarked on graduate studies and a long career as a historian in prestigious universities, and rarely attended church, but was usually found in the company of bishops and popes. The two men approached their solution to the Coptic identity from different angles. Yanney wanted to render the West more acceptable to the Copts, utilizing Western authors to show their interest in the Copts, and convince his fellow immigrants that this place could be home. Atiya wanted to render the Copts more acceptable to the West, securing a place for them as major creators of Christianity through the efforts of their church Fathers. In their own very different ways, both projects were broadly patristic. I do not want to overplay the duality, but they were different efforts by two men, a generation apart, physically outside of Egypt yet still psychically anchored in it. While both efforts generated a great deal of scholarly output, they did not make considerable inroads among immigrants. I suspect that the reason neither effort found ready inheritors was the bitter communal divisions of the 1980s that accompanied Shenouda’s exile at the hands of Sadat, and the return of Shenouda to full command and mastery over his “children” abroad. I was dismayed to visit a church in the late 1990s where the basement reading room once held copies of many interesting books, and several issues of the Coptic Church Review, to find only “Al Keraza” magazine. But things are changing now, evidenced by many gatherings and efforts such as this (CCHP), and of the new churches and groups, some taking on frankly foundational and pioneering attitudes, such as dedicating a Princeton, New Jersey church to St Anianus. Others are aiming to reconcile Western cultural attitudes, such as feminism, with entrenched patterns. There is a chance to change the misconception, only partially false, that the Copts have no culture beyond prayer.
So I finish with my questions, which I will limit to three, and for which I have no answers.
Can we survive toleration? This may seem to be an odd question when everyone is worried about Eastern Christians surviving terrible persecutions these days. But for the Copts of Egypt the question of whether they can survive persecution is a settled one; Yes. The entire social and psychic apparatus of the Copts was built to resist persecution, and we have not until recently existed in a place that fully welcomed us. Can the Copts of immigration survive the magnificent freedom and tolerance we see here with York University giving space and support for our cultural efforts? We stand between two risks. First of failure to retain any cultural distinctiveness as we melt into the larger Christian culture around us. That would not be a disaster for individuals, but a loss of a unique culture nonetheless. The second, and perhaps larger risk, is that we develop a culture of exile. To make the point I will quote from an article from by Magdi Khalil of Coptic Solidarity. He quotes Aziz Atiya about the keys to Babylon given to the Arabs on Good Friday, April 6 641. Magdi, in effect, ties the Crucification of Jesus to the Arab occupation of Egypt. Egypt is the literal and sacred place, at once Eden and Golgotha, a singular reference point. He is attempting a reinvention of the Coptic identity, in this case a Judaization of that identity. There is nothing wrong with the Jewish narrative, except that it is not ours to adopt. Few Copts gather to say “Next year in Egypt”. Unlike the Jews we have not experienced the killing ferocity of the West at its most bigoted manifestation. We can not borrow this outfit, as we will look silly in it. Besides, the comparison invites an expectation of resurrection, thus anchoring immigrants to an Egypt they can little affect. Magdi’s destinations are a dead end. We need to fashion our own cultural outfit in immigration. So the question remains without an answer.
Can we de-conflate religious and ethnic identity? Endogamy was a critical tool in the Egyptian Copts’ arsenal of survival. It is partly responsible for the narrative of the “Copts as the true Egyptians”, which is quaint and reassuring for immigrants, but of little practical value. Endogamy is not sustainable in the immigrant countries with the inevitable phenomenon of intermarriage (itself a rebellion within a rebellion). It is further complicated by the church’s theologically incoherent position on cross-denominational baptisms, and its preference for a sexual morality rooted in specific cultural contexts. The net result will be a drain of potential members who are culturally not Egyptian, and ethnically only partially Egyptian, as well as inability to retain new converts. The contradictions go beyond the personal and into the institutional. The Egyptian church will have to contend with a paradox it is ill-suited to resolve. “Copt”, which once meant Egyptian, is now declared on the name of new churches which strive to be explicitly not so. Yet another question without an easy answer.
What about the Church? The Egyptian church has been the backbone of the Copts, and the tent that sheltered them from all manners of storms. But it has not yet understood the subtleties of immigration, and may never be able to fully do so. At a time when many Western churches are suffering from the indifference of their flock, the passion of immigrant laity should be seen as a net positive to the church. But the Egyptian church has a huge burden dealing with the flock in Egypt and it is unfair to expect it to tailor itself to the wishes of the non-Egyptian Copts. On the other hand, immigrant churches cannot realistically be mere outposts or reception centers for new immigrants. I don’t have the exact numbers, but the second generation and beyond of immigrants now likely exceed the number of new arrivals and first generation immigrants. Absent a catastrophe in Egypt that will cause a larger flood of immigration, the demographic trend will remain the same. We know it is not impossible to be a universal church with multiple cultural influences, but we also know that the Egyptian church, since the fifth century, has chosen a different road. The arc of communal history for the past 50 years has seen a steady consolidation for church control over the laity. Although this is a function of the demise of civil society in Egypt, it has also affected immigrant churches. How will the church handle the inevitable diversity of views in an environment where lack of persecution does not provide a ready means of social cohesion. Yet another question to ponder.
I want to thank you for indulging me and allowing me to make my reflections on what is an epochal change within an ancient people, who just happen to be us. In 33 years, the life of one generation, it will be 2051. Perhaps then we might look back on immigration as a providential event that ended 1600 years of solitude.
— Maged Atiya
A previous post dealt with the rise of Coptic political activism early in immigrant communities, especially in the US. The early activism was marked by the success of Pope Shenouda in winning over its leaders and subsequently enlisting it as a component of his project of placing the clerical hierarchy as the central leadership of the Copts. The passing of Shenouda and the changing conditions in Egypt signal a change of circumstances. The failure of activism to affect the official policies of the Egyptian state is part and parcel of a larger failure of all outside forces to influence the ponderous state. As with all political movements, failure will result in either disappearing into irrelevance or an internal struggle to assess the means, methods and goals of the movement. This was amply demonstrated by one of the largest groups, Coptic Solidarity, around its recent conference in June 2017. The conference title “Egypt: Combating Terrorism Without Sacrificing Civil Rights” is laudable and sensible enough. The organization attempted to reach out beyond immigrant Copts, inviting various US political figures, academics, intellectuals and even a Shi’a Imam. Yet somehow, the entire proceeding was hijacked by the now notorious “Zogby affair”. James Zogby, a leader of the Arab American community and a political operative within the Democratic party, ostentatiously rescinded his acceptance to chair a panel over what he called “individuals spreading …hurtful anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda”. A spokesman for Coptic Solidarity further inflamed the issue by leveling a charge of “Dhimmitude” against Zogby. Although the author of the charge was unnamed, many in the know felt that it bore the mark of Magdi Khalil, one of Coptic Solidarity’s founder and a leading thinker and writer. This charge would be unknown to most Christians in the world, and indeed to many in the East, but is a uniquely familiar one to Egyptians*. This was the Coptic id lashing out at what it perceives to be collaborators in its oppression. Here was an American organization reverting to its Egyptian core when it views itself under attack. Any temptation to ignore the meaning of the Zogby affair would later be undercut by a little noted article. Tectonic shifts are seldom noticed until they break out in spectacular forms, while the attention is invariably focused on surface ripples.
Nine months after the 2017 conference, Magdi Khalil, published an article titled “The Copts as Lord Cromer saw them”. The article is in Arabic making it clear that its intended audience is in Egypt, even if its tone and lineage is American. The few in Egypt who do not choose to ignore it will read it as a plea, or a threat, or more ominously as a pink slip. To gaze upon the Copts from Cromer’s imperial eyes is by itself an unsettling statement. Cromer, the man who effectively ruled Egypt for a quarter century, was known for his dislike of the Copts. He denounced “their habits of servitude”, and resented their resistance to his administrative modernization, which lessened the Copts’ traditional control of the state’s administrative apparatus. Khalil uses Cromer as a pretext to level 17 questions to the Coptic church and community. None of these questions are really new, as most have been around for a while, but they were never considered suitable to be asked aloud in polite company. All the questions are backward looking and Egypt focused, but Khalil contends that answering them is essential for the future progress of the Copts, especially outside Egypt. In effect, Khalil expands the charge of “Dhimmitude” to include many Copts and the clerical hierarchy. It is strong and uncomfortable stuff, but it should not be ignored or dismissed lightly. Those who are not tapped into the Egyptian and Coptic history and psyche may find the entire set of questions odd, but that does not render them irrelevant. If others follow suit and ask the same questions then they may have the weight of theses nailed to a door.
Khalil’s first question relates to what he perceives to be the Copts’s original sin. “How could we have allowed a few thousand Bedouins to occupy and rule our country [in 641 C.E.]?”. From that question the remaining sixteen cascade along similar lines. “Why did we not connect with Nubia and Ethiopia?”, in effect asking why there was no project of Reconquista similar to Spain. Why has the church resisted Byzantium far more vigorously than the Muslim rulers, Khalil asks. He also takes the clerical hierarchy to task for becoming willing collaborators in the oppression of the Copts under Muslim rule for centuries. The clerics are weak, he asserts, because they lent no support to the rebels of the Pashmuric revolts of the 9th century C.E. or the current activists in immigration. He widens his scope to accuse the community at large of being slavish to priests, subservient to Muslims in general, while ferocious toward each other in their internecine fights. Finally he indicts the entire community for becoming “prisoners” of the church walls and the monks who man them, and refusing to have fruitful interactions with Western Christianity. He strikes at the core of the old Coptic identity by accusing the Church of developing a theology of submission, humiliation and martyrdom, rather than of liberation, justice and revolution. Khalil’s hammer spares no pillar of traditional Coptic thought. It is tempting to think that Khalil’s arguments will have few listeners, but it would be wrong. It is also tempting to think that the historic longevity, as well as the institutional strength of the church and its leaders will render them immune to his criticism. But the leaders of the church should make no such assumption,at least not without a careful listening to many outside Egypt. On a personal level, this blogger can attest to the resonance of Khalil’s questions among many young Copts born and bred in the US, and who grew up without acculturation to the “habits of servitude”. The new Copt does not look like the old Copt. It remains to be seen whether that new Copt will look on the old with understanding, or cast a gimlet eye on the deficiencies. That said, we can level a modest charge of historic inexactitude, even revisionism, against Khalil. As with many nationalist retelling, history is sanctified by a division of its actors to patriots and traitors. But the reality is less neat. Khalil is a smart observer and has demonstrated a keen grasp of Egyptian and Coptic history. His questions can only arise from a polemical plan rather than simple historic ignorance. They fit neatly, although far more discordantly, in a line of thought that threads through recent Egyptian and Coptic history. Why are the people such willing slaves to their rulers? Many an Egyptian intellectual has asked in despair about the persistence of authoritarianism and clientism in the country’s governance. Passionate young men of the Society of Coptic Nationalists would kidnap a Pope in 1954 in equal despair over the communal inability to rid itself of a weak and unqualified man at the top of the clerical hierarchy. One of these men would thunder to this author, a quarter century after the events, that the Copts are “weak, weak, and therefore undeserving of respect”, while pounding his fist on the table in a dingy basement restaurant near Dupont circle in Washington DC, to the point where he was nearly ejected. Magdi Khalil’s words tap into an existing but largely hidden vein, but to what end?
Many nationalist narratives have a familiar arc. First there is a statement of the “fall”, the once proud people who have fallen into a disgraceful state, unable to unite or improve their lot. The fall must be followed by redemption, where proper leadership and individual sacrifices will lead to a greater collective good. This is the narrative of Egyptian nationalism, and also the narrative of the Copts. Once they were able to meld their story and that of Egypt into a single thread, but that is becoming increasingly more difficult. Too many Copts are not Egyptian, and too much of Egypt has drifted into Islamism. While the Egyptian church and the few lay Coptic leaders in Egypt extol the benefits of a unified nation, many Copts outside Egypt see the entire narrative as a farce. In some ways, the current situation among immigrant Copts bears a striking resemblance to that of European Armenians at the end of the 19th century who increasingly saw the promise of citizenship within the Ottoman Empire as unrealistic, if only because others, including Turks, had also come to the same conclusion. Khalil challenges the notion that what made Copts survive for 1400 years will enable them to do so in the future, and more radically, he challenges the notion that a similar survival is even worth the effort. The Egyptian church, and also the lay community, are busy with the difficulties and travails of life in Egypt and have little time to engage in such thoughts. They would likely see Khalil’s ideas as disruptive, even dangerous. They simply want their old Egypt back. But whether today, or at some future date, a reckoning is bound to happen between these two divergent lines of thought. Once again, as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s, the numerically smaller Copts in immigration are leveraging their more fortunate position for a louder voice within the community. In immigration their christian identity is not sufficient to distinguish them from the larger community around them. Neither their orthodoxy, nor their non-Chalcedonian theology which few truly understand, are sufficient for a distinctive identity. Agitating for the good of Egyptian Copts is however their unique burden and identity. The real question is whether newer generations will take up the burden with equal vigor or abandon it as quixotic. Either way, the Egyptian church can not long remain Janus faced, able to satisfy two very divergent groups of faithful follower. There are passionate arguments that insist that the only future for the Copts is out of Egypt, while other, equally passionate arguments, insist that the only hope for Egypt is to be a country where the Copts can remain an integral part of its fabric. Nothing at the moment seems to favor either view.
When Bishop Bishoy, a senior conservative leader of the Egyptian church, remarked in 2010 that Islam is a “guest in Egypt”, he created a firestorm. By his very same reasoning Christianity is also a “guest in Egypt’, having arrived a mere 600 years earlier. Such views are bound to seem odd to Copts born in places such as the US or Canada or Australia, where any one can become a full-fledged citizen within a few years. These countries have no “guests”, or more accurately, have nothing but guests. From that vantage, Magdi Khalil’s questions are paradoxes; on one hand they imply that Copts have a special responsibility toward Egypt, while insisting that they need to consider their communal health first and foremost. But these are the paradoxes of an identity in formation. For what it is worth, the church in Egypt, and indeed the wider world, needs to listen carefully to the discourse of immigrant Copts. As Buffalo Springfield would have it; something is happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
— Maged Atiya
* The notion of “Dhimmitude” was introduced into common Western lexicon by Gisele Littman, writing under the name of Bat Ye’or. She was born in Egypt and left it at age 23 under the difficult circumstances of 1956.
This is the half-century mark of the large scale immigration of the Copts from Egypt, which began to gather steam in 1968. It is a good time to reflect on this historic phenomenon and its implication for the ancient people, even if it is still ongoing and its impact remains fluid. As always with the Copts, their predicament is a microcosm, a test case, of the larger Egyptian problem. Their evolution in immigration, although interesting for its own sake, contains clues about Egypt at large. We can begin to understand how Egypt might fare if its political and social systems were freer by understanding what happened when Egyptians were suddenly placed in a freer society.
Immigration involves a departure and an arrival, or a “push” and a “pull”. In the case of the Copts, conditions in Egypt provided the push, where both the successes and failures of the Nasserist project were problematic for them. America, Canada and Australia provided the pull through social changes that made these places more hospitable to non-Westerners and changed their laws to allow more immigrants from outside Europe. For example, the Civil Rights revolution in America overturned the emergency quotas of 1921 through the Hart-Celler act of 1965. Canada and Australia underwent similar changes. Immigrants usually undergo a transformation that leaves them with a hyphenated identity to serve their new needs and the circumstances of their new countries. These identities are marked by various levels and types of activism; social, cultural and political. In the case of the Copts these forms of activism took different paths and were marked by differences in acceptance and success. Social and charitable activism proved most successful, in part because it built on pre-existing norms and practices in Egypt. Cultural activism proved weakest reflecting the tragic history of the Copts since the schisms of the 5th century, and more so in the aftermath of the Arab invasion in the 7th century. To keep their faith, the Copts have surrendered every facet of their native culture, language, music, literature, and all arts except icon painting and liturgical music. But it was political activism which proved most flammable and discordant, and in the end was to deeply mark their interaction with their ancestral home, and their evolution in their new homes. This post will attempt a summary of its earliest evolutions and its current uncertain role.
Political activism is usually grounded in some past, at times mythic, and is forged by the present and articulates a vision for a desirable future. For the immigrant-led activism that rose in the early 1970s, the past was a history of loss and dispossession, while the present was a crucible of conflict, and future was an imagined Egypt where the Copts were finally equal citizens. Fifty years later, its vision for Egypt remains unrealized, and perhaps further undermined. Political activism is still the province of a few leaders and with minimal participation from the larger community. It would not be harsh to declare it a failure by its measure of success, and yet influential in unanticipated ways. There are many causes for this outcome, none more vital that the decade-long conflict, from 1971 to 1981, between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda. Many books and articles have described and examined that conflict reliably and credibly. In almost all of them “immigrant Copts” play a role, often portrayed as secondary to the conflict. In fact, they were essential to the conflict, and in many ways served to aggravate it and drive its course. Immigrant Cops played the role of children in a bitter divorce, where the two parents play to the audience of their children for acceptance, support, approval and on occasions even emotional vengeance. This conclusion is not radical when the facts are looked at afresh. A question that can never be answered, but important to ask, is whether the Sadat-Shenouda conflict would have played out in the same manner, or to have occured at all, had there been no vocal immigrant community. “Aqbat Al Mahgar” (Immigrant Copts) is the term coined by many Islamists, and government officials, as a derogatory shorthand for the critics from afar. This is the clearest sign that immigrant political activism represented more than a passing nuisance, and that its message, and perhaps more importantly its methods, struck a nerve.
Sadat arrived to the President’s office a year before Shenouda rose to be Patriarch of all the Copts. By 1972, and certainly after the 1973 war, both men were comfortable and secure in their new offices and engaged in a punishing match of wills. The two men possessed similar temperaments but occupied different vantage points; indeed different planets. Yet the conflict between them was ahistorical by Egypt’s modern standards. Since the waning of Ottoman power in the 17th century, the rulers of Egypt largely avoided open conflicts with the Copts, regardless of how they felt about them or their degree of tolerance for religious differences. On the other side, Popes never saw fit to adopt a policy of open defiance toward the ruler. These two men, however, were different and came to conflict with unequal powers. Sadat possessed a strong grip on the instruments of the Egyptian state, including the army, police, civil service and propaganda channels, and after 1977, the appreciation of the West and most of the world at large. Against that Shenouda had only a grip on his shepherd’s staff, the symbol of his office. Those who knew Egypt intimately felt that the two men were headed for serious trouble, with more in store for Sadat. The Egyptian papacy is the oldest continuous institution in the country’s history, nearly 2000 years old. It has been headed by 117 men as successors of St Mark the Apostle. They possessed the full range of human characteristics, including saints and thieves, wise men and simpletons, reformers and dolts, and every shade in-between. Yet the office endowed them with power and a form of innate historical wisdom, so none could be touched or easily removed even by the most tyrannical of rulers. Byzantine emperors, Abbasid Caliphs, marauding soldiers of fortunes, European colonialists, and especially powerful lay Copts, found that going up against the Pope, even when their cause is right or just, to be a daunting prospect. At the height of the conflict between the two men in 1980, a man who disapproved of Shenouda’s handling of the relationship with Sadat summarized the grim prospects for the President. “Sadat can ignore Shenouda and appear weak, imprison him and thus become his prisoner, or kill him and be hounded on earth and in the afterlife”. Shenouda’s unyielding stand was perhaps understandable, but Sadat’s escalation of the conflict seemed to be a foolish gambit from a man who displayed a survivor’s wit, keen political instincts and on many occasions a daring ability to change course. Indeed there were many times when the relationship seemed to be taking a better course, only to have outside events inflame it again. For Sadat, it was always the fixation on “immigrant Copts”, a tiny group of little influence that raised his ire beyond reason. Abdel Latif El-Menawy, who once headed the News division of the Egyptian Radio and Television Organization, catalogues the times Sadat blew his top over small provocations from New Jersey or Washington DC. “Why do these Copts want to turn the Christians of the World against me and Egypt”, Sadat complained over and over again. Of course, the immigrants could no such thing; their tiny newspaper ads were little noticed, and the police kept their small demonstrations politely but firmly out of Sadat’s earshot or line of sight. El-Menawy, who knew Shenouda well and interviewed him often, relates a remarkable 1977 exchange between the two men. “How could our children abroad speak against us … they are complaining about me to Carter”, ranted Sadat. Shenouda cuts him off, rising to say “The first thing I want to say is that some Copts might have emotional problems.” He continues on to insist that these emotional problems are the results of discrimination in their past lives in Egypt. He then pivots to deliver a counter punch.”Our children abroad have done a great deal for Egypt. They served us during the war of October 1973 and God knows how much effort they exerted … they are worried about the [new] laws, … should we comfort them it will be over and you won’t be so upset with them”. Shenouda seems to simultaneously disavow immigrant activists while using them to accomplish his desired goals. That encounter encapsulates the trouble with political activism among immigrant Copts. They can irritate the Egyptian state but not alter its behavior. They can provide stout support to the Church in Egypt, and at the same time find themselves in trouble with it. For half a century the activist leaders looked obsessively in the rear view mirror, or fixed their gaze on a very distant horizon, often missing what is directly in front of them. Like generations of Egyptian political activists, they excelled at stating the problems but rarely made an effort at compromise toward a solution. They found a home in the margins and could scarcely imagine themselves wielding any power. Today, with all the concern about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, new activist leaders are unable to formulate a workable set of realistic goals or “asks”. They remain the children of Shawky Karas, the man who kick started Coptic political activism in 1972 and became its prototypical leader, and warning example.
From thousands of miles away, Shawky Karas, an academic mathmatician, could raise Sadat’s blood pressure with a tiny ad or a letter to a Congressman or Senator. He reproduced many of these ads and letters in his self-published 1986 book “The Copts Since The Arab Invasion : Strangers in Their Land”. The book, with type written pages, poor editing and plain blue cover, feels like notes from the fringe. It is a remarkable combination, however, of keen insights placed side by side with wild accusations and barely believable conspiracies. The most powerful part of the book is a 20 page response to Sadat’s May 14 1980 speech in which he declared himself “The Islamic President of an Islamic State”. Karas’ counter arguments anticipate the suffering Egypt would eventually undergo as different men and factions tried to provide concrete realization of that claim. Yet Karas makes no mention of his role in raising Sadat’s ire, nor in precipitating the “Easter rebellion” of 1980. For nearly a decade Karas was propagating a redefinition of the Copts, not only as non-Arabs which the majority accepts, but as living victims of Arab imperialism. It is a flammable message, precisely because it contains sufficient truth to give it credibility, with just enough mythology to make it a powerful cudgel. His retelling of Egypt’s history in the first third of the book explains why he never made an outreach to immigrant Muslims, whose voice might have added weight to his message and demands, and just as importantly why they were unlikely to add their voice, even if he asked. He attempted to recruit other prominent Copts to his side, succeeding with some and failing with many others, who found him too combustible for comfort. His major success came in 1977 when he agitated to convince a church conclave to include the following in its January 17 1977 message “ .. the total sincerity [ of the Copts] for the beloved nation, of which the Copts are the oldest strain, so much so that no people of the world had been tied to its land and nationality like the Copts of Egypt”. While the statement may well be true, it also serves to “other” the majority of Egyptians, who are Muslims. In a meeting at the Jersey City church in February 1977 to plan an upcoming trip by Shenouda to the US, Karas claimed credit for the statement and unveiled what would become his signature message and program for two decades to come. He warned about the “Creeping adoption of Shari’a” in Egyptian law. He centered his message on a single verse from the Bible, Matthew 12:25 “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”, and he read from handwritten notes what he deemed to be a suitable template for every speech about Egypt’s predicament at that moment, “will it be unified by nationalism or divided by religion?”. He also advocated for the cancellation of religious celebrations as a form of passive resistance. Such measures were not unknown in Coptic history, but most in the church hierarchy considered them too extreme for the current situation. In time he began to gather support, most notably from men such as Dr Rodolph Yanney, a doctor and publisher of a cultural newsletter, and two “radical” priests from the US West, Fr. Ibrahim Aziz and Fr. Antonious Heinen, as well as the more mainstream Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed of Jersey City. Others proved cold to his message. Bishops Gregorious and Samuel found him too radical for their tastes, and his entreaties to Aziz Atiya went unanswered. Things seemed to change in early 1980 after the Christmas eve attacks on several churches in Egypt. Shenouda intimated to others that he was considering a cancellation of the Easter celebrations on April 6. The news travelled quickly to America and spread both delight and consternation. Karas praised the step and booked space in several newspapers to coincide with Sadat’s visit in early April and his state dinner at the White House. Others worried about the impact of such a step. Bishop Gregorious records in his memoirs a meeting on March 14 1980 with Aziz Atiya, his wife, and Ishaq Fanous, the noted artist and Icon painter. He states the purpose as “discussion of the Encyclopedia”. Curiously he neglects to mention the presence of another man, Mirrit Boutros Ghali. Nor does he mention that at the end of the meeting both Mirrit and Aziz asked him to intervene with Shenouda and warn against cancelling celebrations. In the end, Shenouda did not heed their advice. Both of these men, and Gregorious himself, represented a rare moment in Egypt’s history that was rapidly vanishing from view. On March 26 1980 the Pope gave a sermon that seemed to borrow heavily from Karas’ 1977 notes. He asked the same question of Sadat and demanded an answer. Sadat was too busy preparing for his trip to Washington DC, and provided his flammable reply during the May 14 1980 speech. El-Menawy in his book “The Copts”, tries to discern the influence of immigrant Copts on Shenouda’s sermon and finds him evasive on the subject. Karas tried to stage a demonstration in front of the White House during Sadat’s state dinner but was rebuffed by the DC police. A rally called by Karas on April 6, Easter Sunday, in New York City fizzled because of a transit strike. The New York Times showed Carter and Sadat talking amiably under a magnolia tree in the Rose Garden, with no hint of Sadat’s rising temper. But the mere attempts at rallies were enough to send Sadat into a frenzy, exactly as Karas predicted in February 1977. “He wants to be loved and obeyed”, Karas said of Sadat then, before issuing his version of the “3 Nos”. “We will not be silent, and we will not obey, and we will not love him”.
The 18 months between Sadat’s April 1980 visit to DC and the end of his life were marked by further strife and nasty sectarian attacks. Karas and his merry band of immigrant Copts were not silent, and did not cease from writing to Congressmen, Senators, Governors and anyone who would listen. They did not seem to realize that few Americans cared about the “Coptic issue”. Peace had broken out between Egypt and Israel, and war between Iran and Iraq, and between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. There was enough strife, and even diplomatic hostages, to divert the spot light. The death of Sadat, the exile of Shenouda and the appointment of a papal committee changed the conflict from one between immigrant Copts and the Egyptian state, to an internecine fight between different groups of Copts. What started out as a noble movement to enlarge the rights of Copts turned in on itself. A movement that started out narrowly Coptic, became ever narrower; indeed sub-Coptic. The entire focus of the activists from 1981 until 1985 was on the release of Shenouda from his desert exile. It can be said that the heat and noise from America did little to accomplish that. In the end it was insider negotiations, and Egypt’s usual reversion to the mean, that released Shenouda. But Karas became a Shenouda partisan, both agitating for his release from internal exile, and passionately ferreting out “enemies of Shenouda”. By 1985 all of Karas’ requests regarding the rights of Copts to politicians were regularly and politely rebuffed. On the other hand, he had won at least one internal battle. Those who opposed his methods, and had doubts about Shenouda’s, were now in retreat. Some walked away from their churches, others fell into silence. The “enemies” included many who might have formed a broader coalition for a broader good in Egypt. Karas’ group, the American Coptic Association, became unintentionally true to its name, having produced a larger impact on American rather than Egyptian Copts.The effect of the movement’s fading in the late 1980s was not to alter the nature of Coptic political activism, but to preserve it in the amber memory of those glory days when a single 2 inch newspaper ad could shake the walls of the presidential palace in Cairo. Soon enough, Shenouda asked the activists to pipe down, as Mubarak had a serious insurgency to deal with. The demonstrations were far and in-between, the demands as grandiose and vague as ever, and new organizations specialized in inside politics in DC, holding conferences and commissioning panels that would regularly identify the problems and not much else. The Copts’ demands became further subsumed within the general worry about terrorism and the demand for democratic reforms in the region. Few bothered to analyze or learn the lessons of the 1970s. The vast majority of immigrants got on with their lives, built their churches, prospered and lived contented lives without much involvement in Karas’ style of political activism, even if they were formed in some degree by it.
When Karas passed away in October 2003, age 75, condolences came by the hundreds from across the US, Canada and Australia. Many mentioned his activism, and more specifically his loyalty to Pope Shenouda. None called attention to his attacks on the Papal committee, or his involvement in the communal fights of the 1980s. While his activism failed to alter conditions for the Copts in Egypt, it did cement the loyalty of the vast majority of the immigrant community to Pope Shenouda. Many of the early immigrants were “children of Samuel”, the bishop who tended to their needs, helped them establish churches, and brought thoughtful discourse to the problems of immigration. In time that influence waned as a well, but not without considerable pain for many. Political activism originally meant to erect a barrier between state and religion in Egypt, brought forth a new immigrant identity that saw the church as a actor in every facet of the Copts’ life, both in Egypt and outside it. Immigrant Copts continued to embrace a cherished Egyptian identity, but one that rarely reached out for the other 90% of Egypt. New churches in the New World were being built at the rate of a handful a year, and all of them were becoming more than houses of worship; instead disciplined outposts for a nation without geography, as Sana Hasan aptly put it.
A generation later things are very different in America and Egypt, but Coptic political activism remains largely true to its older self. It has become vestigial. This is to be expected from a movement whose evolution is subject less to conditions in the new country than in the old one. Egypt has thrown a curve ball to these movements. Yes, sectarian attacks are more frequent, but bishops are not tossed in jail by the dozen, as in 1981. The rights of Copts in Egypt are further eroded, but so are the rights of many others as well. The Islamists who were once on the rise in Egypt in 1970s are now on the outside, themselves in America agitating for change in Egypt in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Copts’ agitation then, and equally likely to become vestigial as well. Protests in America against political oppression and sectarianism in Egypt are rarely cross-confessional, and sometimes even illiberal in character. If there are rays of hope they are usually among the young, those shaped by America, and not deformed by Egypt’s struggle with identity. The irony is that any possible emergence of a genuine “Egyptian-American” hyphenated identity might happen only among those who have far less to do with Egypt than their parents or grandparents.
— Maged Atiya