Backward !

The first few weeks after the revolution saw many  prominent Egyptian scientists and thinkers, mostly from the United States, working toward a revival of Egyptian education.  It is, of course, a worthy project and perhaps the only way to guarantee economic progress and social mobility for all Egyptians. Today, the picture is gloomier. The parliamentary committee on Education is chaired by a member of the Nour party, a conservative Salafi. If Education is to become the Salafis plum then let us not expect too much from Egypt in the near future. In fact, we can look at Afghanistan or Pakistan as a possible model.

Egypt does not have oil and can not prosper as a “rentier” economy. The education imagined by the Salafis will hobble Egyptians for decades to come, if not centuries. We can expect education that is narrow in more ways than one. Narrow in the sense that the glorious history of Egyptian prior to the Arab invasion will be marginalized and ignored. Narrow in the sense that modern scientific theories will be ignored or given a short shrift. Narrow in the sense that literature and the arts will be limited to the narrowest and most radical vision of Islam. Narrow in that sense that Egyptian youth will be indoctrinated in arcane minutia and given few tools to compete in the modern world.  Narrow in the sense that the well-off will seek advanced private education while the majority will suffer the mediocre fare doled out by the narrow minds of the Salafis further condemning them to economic marginalization. And soon this marginalization will give rise to the basest form of politics, driving most productive members of the society away. Giving this committee to the Salafis is an act of pure folly and calls into question the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, who make all the right noises, but whose actions speak louder. Giving this committee to the Salafis is an act of base vandalism.

Egypt for the Egyptians

This rallying cry has so often been co-opted for narrow political purposes, often xenophobic.  The assumption has always been that the country needs to be wrestled back from foreign domination. But the last year saw a different hue to this cry, and one that is profoundly positive.  The country is being wrestled back from the lethargic and corrupt rulers who have wasted its energy and potential.

On this day a year ago, the Egyptians have begun the difficult process of reclaiming their country for themselves. They can now be the owners of their land and their fate, and hopefully wise enough to be careful custodians of its great heritage for all of humanity.

Through the inevitable doubt that comes from decades of shame, failure and under-achievement, a firmer sense of self and place will emerge.

Interfering in Egypt (4)

It is fair to say that all modern communication technology owes a fundamental debt to the 19th Century French mathematician Fourier. A lesser known fact about the great Fourier is that he was an “Egypt Lover”. He supported and championed Champollion in his efforts to decipher the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

Over the last six decades of failing rule by the Military Egyptians have come to view the West with suspicion.  A major reason is, of course Israel, as Egyptians have adopted the cause of the Palestinians as their own. Another major reason is the unceasing paranoia flamed by Nasser and sustained by the lesser autocrats who followed him. In this haze of paranoia Egyptians have lost the vision of how many in the West are true “Egypt Lovers”. The 18 days in January 2011 brought that back in stark relief as the world cheered the Egyptians on.

If the Egyptians were to rekindle the lost love affair with the West, but perhaps on a surer footing and with less feelings of humiliation and inferiority, it would be a benefit to Egypt and humanity at large.

On this day

Today is Martin Luther King’s Day in the United States. On this day it worth remembering that what will happen to the Copts in Egypt in the next few years will test the souls of all involved. Mostly it will test the Copts who will come under severe pressure, and these hardy resilient Egyptian people will undoubtedly show their mettle. But it will be also a test of the souls of others: the well-meaning Muslims who will realize that defeating the narrow agendas of self-professed guardians of Islam will in fact strengthen Islam and Muslims. It will test the souls of people outside the region, mainly American and Europeans who need to engage with belief and passion on behalf of freedom of conscience in a manner that bridges any ideological or partisan divisions.

Tourism brings corruption

Yes.. that is true. No, not the relatively benign European and American tourists who bare their mid-rif while guzzling beer.  The corrupt tourism is from the Gulf & Arabian Peninsula.  These tourists, unaccompanied men, account for almost all the traffic in prostitution, as well as for a serious percentage of secret and heavy drinking. The stories are horrific. The women, mostly victims of circumstance, have no recourse in a corrupt system of justice that will further victimize them, and will not press their cases.

The question is, will the right and honorable MB & Salafi politicians do something to curb the behavior of the Gulf Arabs or turn a blind eye. Or worse, blame the victims. If their reaction to the Army’s brutal treatment of women protesters recently is any guide, do not hold your breath. These men will not stand up for Egypt’s women.

Are they good at their job?

The torrent of talk about Egypt’s “Supreme Council of Armed Forces” seems to be missing a strand. The question is simple : are these generals good at war-making?

They seem to be into everything else. Business, journalism and politics, of course. But are they good as military leaders?  We have no way of knowing, since they seem to have abandoned that vocation as too difficult since 1973.  Egypt’s location in the world makes a bit vulnerable, yet it is cursed with an army that is unable to defend it properly. Egyptians are good at denial. But they must know that in an all out war against Israel, the army would lose badly. In fact, a small regional conflict with the Sudan or Ethiopia over the Nile resources would tax it heavily.

Yes, they are liars. But most damning, they are bad at their job.


The case against Naguib Sawiris

The news that a Salafi lawyer is suing Naguib Sawiris for “insulting Islam” as a result of a cartoon he tweeted some time ago is distressing. The cartoon had a bearded Mickey Mouse and Veiled Mini Mouse. Many Muslims have found it funny and tweeted it. They are not being sued. There are three disturbing factors:

1- The cartoon made fun of the Salafis, not Muslims in general or Islam as a religion. The Salafis seem to equate their habits with Islam as a whole. This is clearly their mindset: narrow and intolerant. Any protestations from the Nur party that they are “normal” should be ignored unless they come out against the suit.

2- No Muslim who tweeted the cartoon is being sued. In the mind of the Salafis,  Copts have inherently less rights than Muslims. This is exactly what Copts fear, the reduction to a second rate form of citizenship.. in their own country no less.

3- Thundering silence from the FJP & MB. They make all sorts of tolerant noises when it suits them, but they can not be bothered to live up to these promises, even in words.

If the courts do indeed rule against Sawiris it will be a thunderous decision. It will set Egypt back decades in economic and cultural progress.

We should all watch this one.

The Four Wrongs of 1954

2011 was a epochal year for Egypt. At the conclusion of that year it is worthwhile to reflect on another epochal year, 1954, in the hope that its wrongs will not be repeated. Egypt is still suffering the wrongs of 1954. It can not stand a repeat. So what were these wrongs?

1- Tossing out Muhammad Neguib.

2- Suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood.

3- The “Lavon Affair”.

4- Granting the Sudan full independence.

Tossing out Muhammad Neguib. The 1952 coup and the removal of the Monarchy can be viewed as revolutionary moments, with their own logic and internal coherence. But tossing out President Muhammad Neguib, and the manner in which it was done, started a habit of ad-hoc illegality that still haunts the Egyptian political scene to this day. Neguib was duly elected and with a fixed term. He was arbitrarily removed by officers who conspired against him. They suspected, perhaps correctly, that he meant to bring back the liberal parliamentary system and bring in the Muslim Brotherhood from the cold.  The officers would have to go back to the barracks, a much smaller theater for ambitious men like Nasser. As damaging as the attempt to remove him was (and it almost failed when a legion of unionists supported him. There is a moving black and white photograph of a union delegation visiting him in support at his house, with Neguib in stripped Pajamas), even more damaging was the success of the maneuver. Nasser learned the lesson of how rocky the top spot can be unless all ambitious officers are removed. The Military was plagued from that point on with leaders chosen for loyalty rather than competence. Even after the 1967 war made it clear that the Military needs competent leaders it was still customary to remove any capable officer with false pretexts (ref. Sadat’s treatment of Shazli). The pathetic crew currently at the top of the Egyptian Military are a testimony to nearly six decades of punishing competence. It was critical for the nascent republic that transitions occur regularly and transparently. The removal of Neguib killed off such a possibility. The next 3 presidents were all removed from office by death, assassination and mass revolution. Economic and social stability will be regained, nor prosperity achieved, unless this track record is reversed.

Suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood.  The alleged reason for the suppression of the Brotherhood was the “attempt” on Nasser’s life and the discovery of a “plot” to seize control of the country by force. The Brotherhood did have a militia, the Tanzimat,  and it certainly was possible that such plots were hatched. However, the proper course was to bring charges in the judicial realm, not apply draconian security measures without any accountability. These measures, precisely because they succeeded, became the norm. Egypt has been living under martial law pretty much for six decades. the national security state became a cancer within the country, unaccountable, paranoid and prone to ham-fisted repression. Today’s Egypt still bears these scars. There is a large “security” apparatus that remains unaccountable which arose precisely to achieve such ends. It found further usefulness and power in the “Lavon affair”.

The Lavon Affair. This was a botched (and hare-brained) destabilization operation by Israel.  As bad as the plot was, Nasser’s response to it was even more damaging to Egypt. Had Israel succeeded, perhaps a few buildings would have burned down but nothing much more of consequence would have occurred.  Nasser instead used the plot to whip up a toxic brew of paranoia and xenophobia which costed Egypt dearly in creative and economic activity.  The first targets were Egyptian Jews, who then left in droves. But subsequent waves of similar paranoia affected others as well, Levantines, Armenians, European expatriates, even upper class Copts, who, of course, were as Egyptian as anyone can claim to be. Nasser knew how to exploit the Egyptian “Khawaga” complex to the hilt. It worked for him, but it robbed the country of a great deal of its cultural and economic force. These same tactics are used today against any one who dares to question the Military. Talk of “hidden hands”, “third countries” and other dark forces abounds. Perhaps worse, it has been taken up by many political and cultural forces to justify a narrowing of horizons and diminution of tolerance. It is difficult to walk the streets of Cairo without a sense of sadness at places, once vibrant, now merely a testament to lost vitality. Nasser and Israel have, throughout the fifties and sixties, helped each other to the detriment of Egypt.

Granting the Sudan full independence. This may seem paradoxical at first, since self-determination is an article of faith these days. The problem is that it was not clear that this was self-determination. A free referendum was never undertaken, precisely because the result was not easily known. The Sudan contained many social elements, and had it remained in an autonomous union with Egypt it would have altered the Egyptian and Sudanese political landscape to the betterment of both. The motives were also murky on the Egyptian side, as Nasser perceived that Neguib had strong support in the Sudan. The subsequent fate of the Sudan after “independence” was poor indeed. Nasser lorded over many of its leaders, especially regarding the issue of the High Dam and the resulting flooding of Nubia. Many Sudanese opted to stay in Egypt proper, and suffered subsequent discrimination, which also extended to Nubians. The Sudanese governance was poor at best, alternating between military and narrowly religious governments that never allowed the country to reach its full potential. These governments cultivated social tensions that led to multiple disasters, from the horrors of Darfur to the loss of Southern Sudan. A well-governed Egyptian-Sudanese confederation would have been better for Egypt, drawing it away from the messy and catastrophic Arab politics, and for the Sudan, allowing it to utilize its natural resources to prosper. It would also have forced Egypt to deal closely with Africa in a constructive way, most likely to the benefit of both African countries and Egypt/Sudan. Instead of economic and cultural involvement, Egypt dealt with Africa from a political and revolutionary vantage to the harm of both. Ghana or Kenya would have been both much richer if Nkruma or Kenyatta had not engaged in the empty theater of the “revolution” that Nasser excelled at. On a different plane, the arbitrary decision regarding the Sudan presaged a foreign policy for Egypt made arbitrarily and recklessly by one or few men without planning or thorough vetting. The fruits of these policies would ripen in the decades to come.

Almost all the disasters that befell Egypt in the subsequent decades started with these four decisions made in 1954. All indications are that the strongest political forces have yet to face 1954 and reverse its errors. Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood is attuned to that year, one of catastrophic sadness for them. Perhaps the Army leadership sub-consciously assumes its power will continue in the manner that started in 1954. But that does not mean that any party is really committed to reversing its grievous errors.