Averting Disaster

For the second week in a row Steven Cook has urged urgent help to Egypt . His arguments must be taken seriously on account of both his keen scholarship and genuine affection for Egypt. No sensible person would want Egypt to fail. But the nature and timing of help depends on the view of current Egypt and on the likelihood of the emergence of a stable and tolerant political order. We should proceed by looking closely at Cook’s arguments, identifying any flaws before suggesting an alternate recommendation.

Steven Cook is exceptional among Western experts on Egypt in that he never bought the view that the Muslim Brotherhood is tolerant or democratic. His analysis, however, displays a certain fatalism about the lack of an alternative to the woeful Brothers. He rightly dismisses a return to Army rule as both undesirable and unrealistic. He then runs through a list of possible alternative to President Morsi, finding all of them wanting. The list includes one notorious non-candidate (El Baradei) and three candidates who never made it into the final round (Aboul Foutoh, Moussa and Sabahi). Curiously, he omits the man who did make it into the final round and almost into office, Ahmed Shafiq. Failure to appreciate the Shafiq phenomena is a major blind spot in the conventional view of Egypt today, second only to hagiography of the January 25 revolution. Prior to the first round of voting, all the smart money followed Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Foutoh. The first was a familiar face from the old regime, while the second, with his telegenic orange-clad youthful followers,  promised a replay of the Eugene McCarthy 1968 campaign in the US. But the reality was far different and more “political”.

In any large country, presidential politics comes to down to Man and Machine. The Brotherhood had the machine to put a hectoring hothead into the final round, regardless of the the justifiable jokes about him. But even the most modest reading of Egyptian voices would have selected Shafiq as the “Man“. Those who cast Shafiq as “Mubarak 2.0” blinded themselves to his campaign and what light it sheds on Egypt today. His kind words about the disgraced Mubarak appealed to those who still genuinely supported Mubarak, and to a basic Egyptian view that holds grateful men in high esteem. He put together a remarkable coalition of business people, Copts and conservative non-Islamist countryside notables. Perhaps more importantly he offered his vision of Egypt through his staff and tactics. He empowered sober young people as campaign staff, who are revolutionary in their own way of wanting a progressive and prosperous Egypt with no apology or tetchiness toward the West. Watching Shafiq’s campaign was a lesson for how future “liberal” politics might be conducted in Egypt. Clever tongues could joke about Terminal 3, but to many average Egyptians the new airport that Shafiq built was a symbol of the country they wanted. In the waning days of his campaign he offered a vision of a more diverse Egypt and warned of the dire consequences of unfettered Brotherhood rule. Even his most dire warnings underestimated the future. Shafiq would have been dismissed if he warned that Morsi would attempt to grab unfettered power, or ram a venal constitution through, or bus Brotherhood hooligan to Heliopolis to bust heads, or tolerate and justify a sustained day-long attack by thugs and the police on a Cathedral holding the relics of St. Mark the Apostle and the oldest continuous Christian archives.

We need to be careful about what constitutes “liberal” in Egypt. Egypt is conservative and religious and is unlikely to produce an “Olof Palmer” who can win. The man in fine German horn-rimmed glasses and British tweeds appeals to the West, but perhaps not to the voters. The revolutionaries are often too sincere for their own good. Their opposition to Shafiq, and joining in the Brotherhood campaign to tarnish him, was a massive error. Shafiq is unlikely to make a comeback, but the lessons of his campaign must be learned if a tolerant liberal order is to emerge in Egypt. It is telling that only the Brothers recognized the danger of Shafiq’s campaign, and telegraphed their future intentions by Al Shater’s threat to have “blood in the streets” if Morsi doesn’t win.

But what of the role of the United States? Policy makers need to arm themselves with a thorough understanding of Egypt’s history and the tactics of hostage negotiations. For this is Egypt’s predicament today. The Brothers believe that they can hold out for their demands from the weak West because they hold all the cards. After all, who would want Egypt to collapse? But giving in to this threat will endanger the long-term interests of both Egypt and the US, without any discernible short term gain.  If practical steps are sought, then a short list will do:

1- Stop pushing the IMF to lend to Egypt. The dalliance between the Brothers and Madame Lagarde is amusing but unlikely to be consummated. The loan was once a good idea, but like fresh bread left out too long, it is now nearly poisonous. The government has managed the purchase and pricing of wheat ineptly. If Egypt does run out of funds to import wheat, then the US can provide wheat directly, emblazoned with American flags. Certainly there is no point in providing aid implicitly to the Brothers to dispose of as they wish. In any case, fuel subsidies are a bigger ( and more soluble) issue, and one where the government refuses to tackle for its narrow political ends.

2- Don’t be overly concerned about the “hard interests”. Point out (only slightly incorrectly) that US is bi-coastal and does not need the Suez Canal, and in any case global warming is opening a Northwest passage between Asia and Europe. Relationship with the Egyptian Army will remain strong, as their tactics and training leave them no choice but to get their support from the US.

3- Provide loan guarantees and direct assistance directly to businesses in Egypt, and not to the government. Also, exclude businesses controlled by the Brothers or their supporters. They should seek their money from places other than the decadent West. The US embassy should reach out to experienced young Egyptian entrepreneurs, even if they make less colorful guests than bearded Salafis.

4- Make a clear and unambiguous statement that any future support to any government is tied to the repeal of major sections of the current venal constitution. This document is tearing Egypt apart and no order favorable to US interest will emerge from it. Changes to the constitution will force a healthy internecine struggle among Islamists.

5- Don’t be shy or reticent about supporting future Shafiq-like candidates (many are in the wings, invisible to pundits). There are many ways to do so, including support for modifications to the peace agreement with Israel under the leadership of such a candidate.

The current struggle in Egypt is far from over, even if the country is on the verge of anarchy. US support is most effective when coupled with a realistic and clear statement of its values and hopes for Egypt. The US quickly withdrew support from Mubarak after a week of sustained protests. What lessons will be learned if it offers continued and sustained support to the Brothers after nearly a year of increasing resistance from a significant fraction of the population?

– Maged Atiya


Bi-National Egypt

If you Google the phrase “Egyptian sectarianism” or some variant thereof, you are likely to get over a million hits. The narrative of Egyptian sectarianism is as popular as it is misleading. Egypt’s sectarian tensions are a manifestation of a deeper identity crisis. The key to understanding Egypt today, and possibly any future salvation, is in understanding its evolving bi-nationalism. The first half of the 20th century is often called the “liberal era” in Egypt, and Egypt today is shaped by the failures of that era, which was hardly “liberal”. The era generated the two currents that dominate Egypt today. The first, best known and most studied, is political Islamism; the attempt to infuse political discourse with religion.  Yet there is a second, countervailing current of infusing religion with a national identity. This is a far less discussed current, yet as critical to Egypt as political Islamism. It is worth a slight detour to understand this current, one adopted largely, but not solely, by Copts.

A few months ago I watched a parish priest of an American Coptic church give a tour of the church building to some neighborhood leaders. He started with a summary common to most Copts, especially immigrants. His words, almost verbatim, were “ We American Copts are immigrants from Egypt. We follow the rites of the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church. We are modern people who never lost touch with our ancient roots, which go thousands of years back to the earliest history of the Nile valley”. These words are notable for what they emphasize and what they lightly skip over. Taken together they are a declaration of national identity as much as a religious one.

National identities are created and are constantly revised to reflect social and historical forces. What they provide is a mental template for each member of the nation to identify with others that will never be met; present, past and future. Any phrase that starts with “We [substitute any national identity here] are …” involves dearly held generalizations. How the Copts became a nation is a complex and winding story, linked closely with Egyptian history, their attempts to come to an uneasy peace with modernity, the tumultuous history of their Muslim brethrens in Egypt, the halting attempts to modernize Islam and the rejection of modernity by an influential fraction of Egyptian Muslims. To recognize this national identity is neither to praise it nor condemn it, but to attempt to come to terms with what exists. Identity is never exclusive as the many “hyphenated” people attest. And in a global world it is often possible to have multiple identities struggling to coexist within a single individual. But invariably in critical moments, when choices must be made, one identity will claim more loyalty than others.

In the 1850s the Copts were freed from the formal strictures of “dhimmitude” and let loose to face societal prejudice, both subtle and coarse, and the waves of Protestant missionaries who sought to convert them from their ancient ways. Some of these missionaries were well-meaning; others were the soft end of the colonial spear. Regardless, the Church saw them as a threat and made various attempts to change and modernize. The most powerful of these attempts, and the most successful, was the “Sunday School” movement. As its name indicates, it borrowed the Protestant concept of Sunday School instruction to reform the flock, purge the clergy of ignorance and venality and make the average Copt as literate as any Christian in his theology. Many of the leaders were remarkable men; well-educated, resourceful and dedicated. They joined monasteries and rose as Bishops until they finally took control of the Church. But the requirement of celibacy for Church leaders meant that many others worked on the periphery of the Church, contributing in other ways. These were men and women of varying skills and inclinations; some pious, some secular, and even a few non-believers. Yet they created the discipline of “Coptology” in the 20th Century along with many in the West. They researched languages, wrote histories, transcribed ancient hymns into modern musical notation, built museums and established institutes of learning. Consciously or otherwise they came to resemble the German intellectuals of the early 19th century who created German nationalism through literature, the arts and sciences. More than a few were educated abroad and had other “lives” before settling into their roles as Coptic intellectuals. They were driven by a combination of factors: the persistent discrimination against Copts by state and society, the rise of militant Islamism that saw no place for Copts in the body politic or even the nation, the rise and fall of Arabism which the Copts never bought into, and the failure of the Egyptian “liberal” nationalist movement of men such as Lutfi El Sayed, which, in spite of its emphasis on secularism, quickly adopted anti-Coptic views for electoral gains.

While the initial focus of the cultural renaissance was on a religious group, it quickly acquired a secular tinge. Some of that was simply the result of the long-standing tension between the clergy and laity within the Coptic community. But there were also other motivations. The secular intellectual Salama Moussa spoke in his autobiography of the shame he felt when he realized that he knows less about ancient Egyptian history than many Europeans. Similarly, many of these thinkers did not want the study of the Copts to be an entirely Western occupation. Others joined in the Western passion for studying and classifying cultures. Where Edward Said saw ill-intent in such efforts, calling them “Orientalism”, these intellectuals saw an opportunity and a way to hedge their cultural bets. This explains why the Copts’ attitude toward the West lacks the militancy of “Arabism” or “Islamism”, even when the British administrators of Egypt detested them or the West seemed indifferent to their concerns. Almost always these efforts made a common link with ancient Egyptian culture, entwining the Christian and Pagan strains in a single identity. Few Coptic demonstrations today fail to conjoin the Cross and the ancient Egyptian “Ankh”.

Any doubt that Copts are a “nation” today can be removed by a close observation of both the Church and the laity. The Coptic Church has a well-defined theology, which it guards jealously against syncretism. It is conservative, and as disapproving of agnosticism and atheism as any Church. Yet it does not make a point to force out those with less than firm faith, and lacks the desire, or perhaps the means, to enforce orthodoxy via coercive methods. Those who wear their faith lightly, or have none, can generally expect the Church to marry them, baptize their children in due course, and observe funeral services at the end of their lives, as long as decorum is observed. But beyond that, those lay people who have drifted from strict belief and observation of theology and practice still identify as Copts. Immigration, while trimming their numbers in Egypt, strengthened their national identity in the melting pots of North America and Australia.

Egypt has endured and enjoyed four elections in the last two years. A small cottage industry arose to interpret these results, almost always along the lines of “Islamists” vs. “non-Islamists” polarization. But there is simpler and more likely explanation. There are three basic blocks of Egyptian voters. The first block consists of those voters who adhere closely to the Egyptian identity, perhaps a quarter or a third of the voters, including all Copts. This block sees Egypt’s problems in a national sense and views religious harmony as both desirable and necessary. The second block is that of committed Islamists, also a quarter to a third of the vote. They view Egypt’s destiny in fulfilling the discourse of political Islam across national lines. They range from the mildly Islamists on the fringe of such movements as the Brotherhood to extreme Jihadists willing to join any fight anywhere where Islam is perceived to be under threat and parade in medieval garb in a willful act of self deracination.  The third block, somewhere between a third and half of the voters are the “swing Egyptians”. The elections for the Parliament had the swing voters going overwhelmingly to the Islamists block because they offered a coherent-sounding program of pious prosperity. In the presidential final round the swing voters split between the Islamists and Egyptian blocks. Ahmed Shafiq was perhaps the least understood phenomena of post-revolution Egypt. Many pundits bayed for a “liberal” Egyptian alternative, one which is able to organize and put forth a popular program, and is neither Islamists nor “Mubarak”. Yet Egypt is unlikely to produce a liberal in the Western mold. Shafiq was as authentic a liberal as Egypt could produce at the moment and still manage to win elections. He has a track record of favoring open markets and open religious atmosphere. He was also a capable political organizer, delegating to a young campaign staff, and displayed the aging open-shirt masculinity that many in Egypt thought would bring order back to the unruly streets. When pitted against Morsi, the generic Brotherhood man, the battle was nearly a draw. Shafiq maybe history, but his campaign and tactics could be the future in Egypt.

Egypt lacks the economic prosperity and political openness to become a bi-national state such as Canada or Belgium. Dictatorial rule, by military or other entities such as the Brotherhood, will only aggravate and inflame the national identity crisis. The only way out is to fight a long and determined battle for the loyalty of the swing voters. Future elections may be close, but the trend lines could be dramatically radical. A few close wins by the Egyptians versus a few close wins by the Islamists will yield vastly different historical outcomes.

Ever since Napoleon, world powers saw Egypt as critical to their interests. The current world power, the United States, is no different. Its policy leaves a lot to be desired, however. The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli once quipped that “Chemistry is too hard for chemists”. Similarly, the US Egypt policy is too subtle for American diplomats. The policy has two faulty assumptions. First that buddying up to Islamists will moderate their behavior and make them friendly to the West. That assumption fails the empirical test as well as underestimating the degree to which Islamists are faithful to their Manichean ideology. The second faulty assumption is the belief that openly favoring any faction will tarnish it. This is an odd form of self-loathing, charming in waifs with guitars, but unseemly for a world power with unrivaled economic, cultural and military dominance. It is really very simple. The security of the world and the West is best served with the defeat of the trans-national Islamists in Egypt. Ditching these two assumptions will clarify and strengthen policy. Compared to other areas of concern, such as Syria or Iran, Egypt is not very complicated, at least if you recognize the existence of two Egypts rather than a single one.

– Maged Atiya


Jim Crow In Egypt

The US prospered in the relative isolation of a magnificent continent. When it began to assume its current role as a world power it did so with uneasy tension between its values and its interests. Such is the prickly perch of power. Egypt today is a happy exception in that the declared values of the United States coincide with its perceived interests. However, this coincidence seems to have escaped the attention of the current policy makers.

The US was silent while the Egyptian constitution was rushed through last fall. That constitution is a mediocre document, brined in ill-will, and put together by buffoonish men afflicted with bigotry both ancient and modern. But the bitter fruits of that document will haunt us for some time. As Americans we need to see that our government responds with clarity and strength, both to uphold our values and guard our interests.

The Egyptian constitution is designed to strangle the cultural and religious life of Christians (mostly Copts) , who will be expected to “know their place” in the new Egypt. One legal and effective means will be to charge any “uppity” Copt with “insulting Islam”. The victim can be hauled to prison and the dock on the mere testimony of a jealous neighbor, an aggrieved business partner, or even a student given a low mark. Even if freed after enduring the initial ordeal, the victim will have suffered enough to guarantee silence, and others will see an edifying spectacle, knowing that any expression of sympathy or strength will earn the attention of the state for “breathing while a Copt”.  Even worse, a supporting position by any one else, or the the Church for that matter, can cause a riot sure to inflict collective punishment on many for the perceived misdemeanor of one.

We have seen that in the US before. It is called “Jim Crow”.

The US needs to respond forcefully to every single such incident. There should be expression of outrage and shaming of the authorities. Better yet, the US can offer asylum for such victims. There is little downside to this and plenty of upside. On the upside, the US will be identified with freedom and dignity, even among its critics. If the price of speaking out against the religious bigots is a one-way ticket to the US, then surely more and more people will speak out, to the improvement of both countries. The Egyptian authorities may complain privately about “interference”. That should be brushed with the wave of the hand. They might even warn ominously that it is “unproductive” as it may empower worse bigots to take over. Again, the US can remind them of the fate of Mubarak who similarly warned, and that there is a downside for the current rulers as well, the least of which maybe breaking bread with Mubarak in jail. If Egyptian authorities publicly complain about US “meddling” they will seem weak as there is little they can do given their current need for foreign support. In any case, bullies will respond to strength better than to weakness. We will  be aligning our interests with those who support our values, with the clear recognition that the current bigots will eventually harm our interests as well as our values.

American Copts can assist by contacting their elected officials on every level, asking them to publicly acknowledge their  support for the civil rights of Copts and liberal Muslims in Egypt and their disapproval of religious Jim Crow laws. Those on the left side of the aisle seem to need special attention.

There is no easy solution to Egyptian intolerance, but inaction is the worst possible response.

Maged Atiya