Nahda and its Ills (Part 2)

A previous post discussed the use of Nahda as a slogan by the Muslim Brotherhood and the roots of that word ( This post expands on the Nahda as a guide to cultural and foreign policy and the dangers it would pose to any country who espouses it as a vision for governance.

The fathers of the Nahda were all men who came into adulthood during and after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of the Ottomans upended a decaying, but still functioning system of governance. It was for the Middle East as major an upheaval as the French Revolution . For the average man, it brought agony on a massive scale. Think of the Armenian slaughters, the expulsion of Greeks from Asia minor, the famines in Syria and Lebanon, and the tribal and sectarian massacres in what is today Iraq. The Sykes-Picot accord was a diplomatic sleight of hand that caused much bloodshed and was never implementable. The Zionist project was in full bloom, having benefited from a legal loophole opened by the fall of Ottoman authority. Egypt, paradoxically, seemed to come out OK. The fall of the Empire granted it a full-fledged Monarchy (Fouad followed by his son Farouk) and hegemony over the Sudan. Although still under the thumb of the British, it nominally had borders that extended from the Mediterranean to Lake Victoria. Nationalist sentiments were rising, culminating in the 1919 revolt and the 1923 constitution.  These sentiments were pro-Independence but not anti-Western. Many of the leaders of the movements where either Anglophiles or Francophiles in attitude. They wanted to set Egypt on a course to be competitive with the West, not necessarily antagonistic.

But there was another darker side represented by Rida and Al-Banna. They saw the fall of the Caliphate as catastrophic and the Zionist project as less a Jewish issue than a Western plot. Rashid Rida was the first to attack Zionism in theological terms, starting in 1898. His intellectual progress can be seen as providing justifications for his innate rejection of the “other”. First he wanted the modern Muslims to engage in Ijtihad, or fresh interpretation of religious subjects. While this can be lauded as a “rational” and “progressive”, in fact it had the opposite effect, by draining intellectual effort from secular subjects to arcane religious minutiae.  Furthermore, it allowed a re-interpertation of settled Islamic practices to suit modern radical ideas. For example, he started labeling certain practices that he considered defective as “Israylia”, or deriving from corruptions from Jewish practices common in the Arabian Peninsula around the time of the Prophet. In effect, he was re-interpreting Islam to suit his modern views against the establishment of the state of Israel. Even if you agree that the establishment of Israel was a mistake, putting it in religious terms was bound to be inflammatory and dangerous. Even small events, such as Ataturk’s use of Latin script, became subject for full scale religious and inflammatory preaching. Today’s TV Salafis are all children of Rida.

The practical effects of Rida’s rantings were profound. First, the anti-Western tirades were bound to be destructive of any cosmopolitan culture, and ineffective by merely highlighting the weakness of Arab countries relative to the more developed West. Second, it gave rise to a belief that foreign policy is religiously, not nationally, determined. It allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, to buddy up to Nazi powers, and then stockpile weapons for a campaign in Palestine. Their campaign was ineffective at best, disastrous at worst, as it pushed Arab countries to a war they were ill prepared for, and were to lose, causing a bigger catastrophe to Palestinians. These weapons were also turned against the local “enemy”.  In placing ideology above law or national interest, they saw no reason not to encourage military officers to rise up. The 1952 coup in Egypt set the stage for 60 years of adventurism and  stagnant military rule. Ironically the MB were victims of that rule when it became apparent that they regarded themselves as master not servants of the military regime.

Almost every dolorous moment in the sad history of the last 80 years has its roots in this volatile mixture of religion, politics and foreign policy that Rida and his disciplines cooked up through their renewed Ijtihad. Once reinterpretation of religion became possible by any newcomer on the scene, concepts such as Takfir, Jahalyia and others became possible. The human costs in lost lives, blocked dreams, failed policies and cruel counter-reactions, mounted as every failure became a reason for re-doubling the effort rather than changing direction.

What the MB Nahda, and its remote branch offices in Tunis, Ankara, Khartoum and Gaza, promise is a long dark period of anti-western confrontation that is bound to end in failure and suffering. Everyone seems eager to “engage” the Islamists, few seem willing to call them to task on the disasters their thinking inflicted on the people of the Middle East. While they think of fantasies of renaissance and glory, the average Muslim is sinking into ignorance and poverty in Egypt and elsewhere. The Palestinians are no better off for all the chest-thumbing of Hamas and the grotesque and ineffective efforts at terrorism. The agony of the Sudan is beyond human bearing. Once a prosperous and promising fertile country of large resources, it has been decimated by two decades of Islamist governance into two starving and failed states. The vibrant marriage of Arab and African culture is now a bitter divorce mired in race and religion. The tolerance, temporarily won by the Blood of Chinese Gordon and countless Sudanese, Egyptians and Englishmen, disappeared.  And all the others that have made the region an exceptional mosaic of culture and warmth are feeling the bitter winds of Islamism. The Egyptians who remained as Copts now think of the unthinkable; an Egypt without Egyptian Christians.  The heterogeneous culture of Alexandria now replaced by a monochrome of bearded men. The rich female culture of Egypt,  North Africa and the Levant reduced to servitude by a combination of legal stricture and an oppressive social atmosphere. Tunis, supposedly ruled by the “moderate” Ennhada party, now has to look over it shoulder at the Salafis ever ready to raise the black flag.

The Nahda is darkness promised. Men and women of goodwill need to expose it and fight it. Regardless of nationality or creed, unity is necessary to prevent further erosion of the common and varied cultures of the Middle East.

Nahda and Its Ills

It is curious that when the MB declared its executive vision for Egypt “Mashrou’ El-Nahda” no one has bothered to look closely at that word, but rather it was accepted through its generic meaning : “Renaissance”. “Nahda” is a word with a history and its choice by the MB is the most flagrant of their  “dog whistles”. It is useful to view the evolution of the word and contemplate what the MB has in mind.

The first person to use that word in a political sense was Rifa’a el-Tahtawy, who in the mid 19th century used it as a generic reference to an improvement of education and culture to match European standards. After his visit to Paris he remained a Francophile to the end of his life.  The word was hijacked by Gamal-El-Din El-Afghani, who reduced its meaning to a revival of Islamic power to oppose Western  power. His Nahda was a response to the Ottoman reforms of the 1850’s, specifically the replacement of religious affiliation by citizenship. He clearly and unequivocally viewed Nahda as an Islamic effort. He downplayed national references in favor of a pan-Islamic identity. But it was Rashid Rida who gave the word its full meaning in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His Nahda was explicitly an Islamic state, achieved through gradual effort and across national boundaries. Rashid Rida, a Syrian, worked mostly in Egypt. He had no sympathy for any innate national character. He saw the world through the lens of the tribal and fractured Levant. The unique Egyptian character, so strongly espoused by Saad Zaghloul and most of the liberal Egyptians of the time, was anathema to him. El-Banna knew Rida from the 1920’s to the end of his life. It is clear from reading them side-by-side how much the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood owes to Rida. While Rida claimed Muhammad Abdu as a mentor, he lacked Abdu’s open mind and sense of intellectual exploration and limits. Rida was a Salafi in the narrowest sense of the word. In the handful of books he wrote, and on the pages of his magazine El-Manar, he outlined a clear and unambiguous vision which the MB has yet to unequivocally repudiate.He spent the last few years of his life promoting Saudi Wahabism. In 1935 he went to Suez to meet a Saudi delegation that included Al Wahab, He died on his return trip to Cairo. Rida’s Nahda is an uncompromising philosophy that would deny full citizenship to non-Muslims, dis-empower women and liberal Muslims and place the interests of any specific state as secondary to the interests of the movement.

Whether it is sincere belief or rank opportunism that made the MB adopt Nahda as its reigning slogan and philosophy, the result is disastrous for the political discourse. Effective governance requires flexibility and the Nahda is an ideological straight jacket. For a long time communists and fellow travelers argued that  communism, properly implemented, is a perfect system. The only ills of communism resulted from “improper implementation”.  With hind sight we now see that communism was an inherently totalitarian vision with no possibility of a democratic implementation.  Likewise, Nahda is a failed governing philosophy that makes no room for differing visions, creativity, dissent or the useful human enterprise of trial and error. As with any all-encompassing systems that promise paradise, Nahda will deliver repression and failure. Its opponents are placed in the curious position of trying to build a democracy with partners who are fundamentally anti-democratic.

Let it not be said that the MB did not make its intentions clear. Rida’s vision is currently on full display in Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Nahda is a one way ticket to a failed state.

Disqualifications and the Rule of Law

The rule of law is more important than any one election. Mubarak’s corruption was rooted in the misuse of law. It is disheartening to see people reflexively reject the disqualification of candidates as “rigging” without examination of the merits of the cases.

1- Abu Ismael. This is pretty straight case. It is a silly law, but the time to challenge it was last March, not after its application. And in any case, the man supported that law, and would have supported its application against anyone but himself. No rigging there. Just a poorly reasoned law that needs change in the future.

2- Omar Suleiman. Again, if he missed the legal number, then it is a pretty straightforward case. Before complaining, critics should count the signatures.

3- Khairat El-Shater. This is less clear, as his conviction was under the Mubarak regime which could have subverted the law. He was convicted for money laundering and forming a Militia. I have seen no serious examination of the evidence one way or other. The burden of proof is on the prosecution before conviction and on the defendant after conviction. And in any case, plenty of MB members complain about the secretive way the MB runs its finances. El-Shater may have been tainted by that. The man tried to run for president with murky financial background (including a secretive arrangement with a Turkish company, itself owned by a shadowy group), and did not lift a finger to clean up a conviction of money laundering.

In short, the hysteria about the disqualifications seems unwarranted by the hard evidence. There is not a single iota of evidence openly presented that the process was rigged. Egyptian economic prosperity and political freedom hinges on cleansing the past habits of seeing conspiracies everywhere. Habits that were fostered by nearly a century of opaque politics, both by the rulers and the opposition. Egyptians are cynics not only because Mubarak and his predecessors were opaque, but also because the opposition (largely MB) was also opaque.

Strategic Voting in Egypt

Strategic voting is fairly common in mature democracies. A US voter might vote for the Democratic presidential nominee because they worry about the Supreme Court appointments. Or a voter might vote for a Republican Senator and a Democratic president to keep the control of government split between two parties. There is nothing really wrong with that. In fact, it is a sure sign of a mature electorate.

Egyptian voters have a chance to do just that in voting for president; and they might. Voters in Egypt are far more wily than they are given credit for. The short election cycle and the opaqueness of most candidate programs make it difficult to pick a candidate based on personal quality alone. In that environment strategic voting is a smarter option.

A vote for Amr Moussa is a relatively safe choice, given his long track record and personality. He is not likely to push charged religious issues or bumble into foreign adventures, even for all the pan-Arab rhetoric.  On the other hand, it would give the MB a strong argument that the election is rigged. The MB has never shown any inclination to participate in the political life as anything but the dominant, and perhaps exclusive, player. The election of either Moussa or Shafik would given them rhetorical ammunition.

A vote for Mursi is a vote for a long period of authoritarian Islamic rule and sectarian conflict. The MB has shown by placing him in the race that they care first and foremost about power and will use any tactics to acquire it. A vote for Mursi is a vote for domination by the MB.

A vote for Aboul Fotouh is a risk vote. He has been slippery about how far he has moved from the MB ideology. On the other hand, it would be impossible for the MB (much less the loud Salafi factions) to claim that the vote was rigged by the old regime. And with luck, Aboul Fotouh might play a role in Egyptian politics that center-left parties played in Europe 50 years ago. There the social democrats de-fanged the communists by addressing valid issues that the communists raised without the authoritarianism of Moscow fellow-travelers. Essentially they turned out to be less “useful idiots” than many had supposed. Again, emphasize with luck, since Aboul Fotouh is far from an ideal candidate. This is especially risky for Copts, but it maybe a worthwhile gamble to reverse the MB dominated Islamic current by addressing its cultural roots without bringing to power mini-Lenins, such as El-Shater. They might even enhance their identity as citizens rather than an apprehensive  “protected minority”. For Muslim seculars and liberals Aboul Fotouh might be a good chance to learn street politics and develop a credible set of followers beyond the narrow confines of Heliopolis or Zamalek. Aboul Fotouh could a transformative president for Egypt or a total disappointment, but such is the risk of transformative candidates.

Strategic voting might be the way to break the country free from the outmoded polarization of old regime vs. MB. It was disheartening today to see Tahrir square, the site of self-empowerment and idealism a year ago, become a space for intolerance and cheap political tricks. After the uplifting sight of Egyptian flags in the cool February nights, it is disappointing to see the Black Salafi flags fluttering in the Khamaseen winds of April. The happy Egyptian faces of that winter are replaced by hard angry Salafi faces encased in Saudi garb. Egypt needs to step back from that cliff.

The Circus is Here, What About the Bread?

The entertainment value of the current Egyptian scene is obvious. Whether by design or accident the current people in charge (if any?) have provided the circus (see Abu Ismael’s Mother). But can they provide the bread?

The current economics situation of Egypt is precarious. While the long term prospects for Egypt are great, the short term situation is near disastrous.  A country that relies on imports for half its food can not be running out of foreign reserves without expecting a “bread revolution”. It seems to be a near deadly combination of no one minding the store and a whole array of forces looking out for their short term gains.

If there is going to be any hope of avoiding a nasty explosion whoever minding the store needs to :

1- Mount a massive effort to restore tourism to bolster currency reserves. This involves a clean up of the security situation and reduction in street protests and what the Egyptians aptly call “Kalam Fadi”, nonsense talk about Islamic dress and other tourism-inhibiting rules.

2- Convince the IMF that there are adults minding the store, that will bring short-term relief and also improve the investment environment. The current bickering between the Military and MB is a farce, except not a terribly funny one. Neither inspires confidence that they can manage anything resembling the size of Egypt. Even Mubarak did better!

3- Start talking seriously about long term economic development, and it is not the stuff El-Shater and his crew are currently peddling. Wealthy as they are, they seem like rank amateurs as economists.

There is a simple and quick solution to all that, if the so-called Egyptian patriots are willing to engage in it. Appoint a strong Prime Minister with broad powers for 6 months or so, someone like El-Baradei who has a record of un-compromised politics and an excellent image abroad. This will provide relief for a few months until a new President is elected and also provide a transitional period for the President to get a grip on the situation and also for the Constitution to be completed. The current crew of mysterious and inept generals, kindly Uncle Katatny, absent-minded Grandpa Ganzoury,  and the various shades of hirsute politicians just do not cut mustard with any serious body of economists.


Sham El-Nessim In Amreeka

For those of us who want to preserve something of Egypt decades after living abroad no day is better than the Monday after Coptic Easter, Sham El-Nessim. It is an ancient Egyptian spring festival. Of course, it is not a day off in the US, but you can celebrate just the same. Take a long leisurely lunch, and if the weather is helpful, which is a 50-50 proposition, sit outside on a sidewalk cafe. Choose a Spanish Tapas place or a Portuguese joint. Order salted fish and pretend it is Fesikh, and a pile of Arugula, which, in the US, is food for the well-off and sophisticated. Close your eyes and enjoy the thought that Egypt has survived a good 40 centuries and keeps reclaiming itself. For dinner, you can head to a fish place in any “little Egypt” neighborhood.

Happy Sham El-Nessim!

Is it true that 100,000 Copts emigrated in 2011?

A number of newspaper articles have suggested that over 100,000 Copts have emigrated to North America from Egypt in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution. Surprisingly no one has checked this number in any meaningful way. The Egyptian government is of no help in this matter and one must seek the answer in a combination of indirect numbers and mathematical models.

It is assumed that the vast majority of these immigrants left for the US. We can try to estimate the number of Egyptians arriving into the US as a lower bound on the number. We can use the US immigration figures and a set of simple models to estimate the numbers of potential Egyptian immigrants, which includes of course both Muslims and Copts. In the year 2011 the US awarded about 1 Million “green cards”.  Egyptian immigrants are about 10% of all African immigrants ( ).  The US census indicates that “others” ( account for 38% of all immigrants in the US. “Others” means countries outside Mexico,Central America and East Asia. That means the maximum number of African continent immigrants who obtained a green card in 2011 is 380,000, and the probable number is less than half of that, since South Asia and Europe typically have larger numbers than Africa.  If Africa contributed about 200,000 green cards in 2011, and if Egypt is typically 10% of Africa, then the number of Egyptians could not have exceeded 20,000. The number of Copts would have to be less than that. One of course can not rule out the possibility that many Copts immigrated using green cards awarded prior to 2011. However, US residency requirements are such that this number can not add more than a factor of 2.  The maximum number of Copts immigrating to the US in 2011 according to this model is 40,000.

There is also another measure of the size of this immigration. Most Copts upon arriving in the US join a local parish. The Coptic population is concentrated in a few states. A cursory survey of a few parishes in such areas as New York, New Jersey reveals no unusual number of new immigrants. If a 100,000 new Coptic immigrants arrived in the US, one would expect roughly 25% to be in the New York area, and a similar fraction in Southern California and other Southern states. There is simply no indication that Coptic parishes are receiving such a large influx of Copts.

In the absence of exact and reliable numbers one has to rely on models and extraoplated numbers. Even under the most generous estimates the number of 100,000 Copts arriving in North America during 2011 seems highly unlikely.