“Motherland Lost”

The Egyptian writer and intellectual Salama Moussa wrote toward the end of his life “I returned to the Coptic Orthodox Church with affection, finding in her our tormented and broken history“. It is an odd statement from a man who was a confirmed atheist, a believer in scientific progress, a frequent castigator of superstition in all religions, and one who espoused the “National” project of the intra-war years which sought to downplay religious identity in favor of a larger Egyptian identity. But we need not see this statement as an expression of regret, nor a conversion, nor even a tragic thought, but rather as a succinct definition of the existential realities of Copts in Egypt, of the inevitability of ending up a Copt even if a larger and more universal identity is sought and seemingly achieved.

Nor were such sentiments limited to an intellectual such as Moussa. Rushdi Said (1920-2013), the eminent Egyptian geologist, who took up geology at the recommendation of Salama Moussa, and who did much to map Egypt’s natural resources in the 20th century, also expressed similar feelings.  A thoroughly secular Copt who rose high in government service in the 1960s and 1970s (but never as high as his talents would warrant) wrote in his autobiography “Science and Politics in Egypt” of how he always felt as “the other”, and how in the terrible summer of 1981, at age 61, he was forced to immigrate to the US because Sadat accused him of agitating for a Coptic state. In the last three decades of his life he began to come to grips with his Coptic identity, even as he and his family became ever more estranged from Egypt. In a moving episode that only real life can provide, Rushdi Said’s favorite and close brother was a convert to Islam.

Samuel Tadros’  “Motherland Lost, The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity” is in many ways a restatement of Moussa’s declaration. It is an excellent book, but one that is difficult to classify. It warrants multiple readings on account of its kaleidoscopic nature. It is not a history of the Copts, although it provides a precise and scholarly thumbnail of 2000 years of their unique history. It is not a work of political science, although any scholar of Egypt’s recent turbulent history would benefit enormously from reading it. It is a work of intellectual history of Egypt’s struggle with modernity, and although claiming to focus on the Copts, it in fact provides great many insights into the nature and origin of political Islamism. Its most powerful appeal is more universal than just the “Coptic question”, as it is a meditation on identity from a young scholar who remains in search of an ultimate destination, having made the arc from the political left to the right and yet retained a principled belief in liberalism. He is of that generation of young Egyptians who were born after the last Egyptian-Israeli war when Egypt was exhausted by wars and grandiose projects and ready to settle for long decades of dull authoritarian governance. These Egyptians grew in the monochrome decades when all presidents were Mubarak, all political opposition was frivolous or Islamist and all Popes were named Shenouda. It is heartening that there are young Egyptians such as Tadros, and many others, who look beyond the facade and try an understanding of Egypt’s painful history.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first deals with the rise of Christianity in Egypt and the second of how Copts fared under Islam. In 47 pages the author provides a readable summary of these monumental events which, although it breaks no new grounds, is useful for the general reader who is unfamiliar with the pre-modern history of Egypt. The next four chapters (chapters three through six) deal with Egypt’s modernization project and form the heart of the book. Tadros restates this history in a fresh way, and one that will guarantee years of discussion and attempts at rebuttal. Such rebuttals will have to face the thorough research and solid reasoning of these chapters.

The chapters describe the four features of the modernization project that has condemned it to failure leaving Egypt slipping further behind the advanced West. First, the project was imposed on the mass of Egyptians by the ruler’s fiat, leaving them unconvinced and suspicious of its motives. Second, the propagators of the project were never independent actors but always relied on the ruler’s vision of modernity thus creating an elite class that justified authoritarianism in the service of development. Third, the search for modernity demanded a new “Egyptian” identity that transcended the religious divide between Muslim and Copts. That attempt, while laudable in goal, did in fact back fire, thus allowing the project of political Islam to seize both the initiative and the imagination of many in the country, yet provide no blue print for governance and development. Fourth, that those identified as “liberals” in Egypt lack a commitment to liberal principles and, in fact, are always ready to sacrifice such principles for immediate gains. Tadros attacks the myth of the “liberal age” in Egypt head on, insisting that it was never as liberal as it is often described, and that the ills of military rule and political Islamism were in fact its progeny as well as it enemies. Even for those not inclined to agree with this thesis, the rich details in those chapters represent an enlightening exposition of Egypt’s modern history.

This is a damning and somewhat pessimistic picture. The trouble is that it is difficult to dismiss. Tadros wrote his book well before the removal of President Morsi, so now much of it appears prophetic. He provides an accurate diagnosis of the disease but no ready remedy. The January 2011 revolution was, for him, doomed by its lack of solid ideas and a plan, yet the regime it attempted to overthrow was also doomed by its contradictions and sclerosis. Tadros is not the man to seek for a rosy prognosis. But again, perhaps a rosy prognosis is not what Egypt most needs today.

The last chapter deals with the Coptic modernization movements, especially the Sunday School movement, and how the Copts fared in Egypt as Islamists began to set the social agenda. Egyptians are constantly looking for external models of authentic development. For example, the so-called “Turkish model” was popular for a bit of time before it showed its cracks. Ironically the most relevant modernization effort might exist immediately at hand with the example of the Copts who have managed an imperfect but more or less workable modernization effort. The trouble is that through these efforts the Copts acquired, in a fit of absent-mindedness as it were, a national identity. That identity is so closely linked with the historical ancient Egyptian identity that it remains both a beacon and a threat. Almost every demonstration by Copts today includes the intertwining of the pagan Ankh with the Christian Cross, which makes it easy for Islamist to paint a sinister picture of their demands for religious freedom and respect for their identity as an attempt at “forming their own state”. The increased immigration has created a large number of non-Egyptian Copts who have a strong attachment to both this identity as well as loyalty to their newly adopted countries. The agitation of these immigrant Copts is particularly galling for Islamists, who have singled these “Aqbat Al Mahgar” for special abuse and as the targets of ludicrous conspiracy theories. Egyptians have yet to accept something resembling the always-evolving American settlement of identity issues. The Islamist are especially keen to prevent Egyptians from assuming multiple overlapping identities. It is easy to conclude after reading that the chapter that the problems Copts face in Egypt today are manifestations of a larger national problem, acting, in effect, as “canaries in the mine”. It is easy for “experts” to get Egypt wrong if the country is viewed solely through the lens of strategic relationships and larger Middle Eastern issues.

The conclusion of the book “The Bitterness of leaving, The Peril of staying” provides no easy resolution. It anticipates a day when the center of gravity of the Coptic Church might shift outside Egypt, yet the Copts’ identity remains firmly Egyptian. It is inconceivable that they might replicate the fate of Jews, but immigration always beckons with the pull of opportunity and the push of persecution. The reality of course is that Egypt is not about to become empty of Copts, especially as political Islam does not seek their physical elimination. More painful than contemplating how Copts might fare when shorn of Egypt is the thought of how Egypt might fare when shorn of the Copts.

— Maged Atiya


It Is Not 1954

The current standoff between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)  is evoking tempting comparison with the last such confrontation in 1954. But the temptation should be resisted as superficial, for four fundamental reasons:

1- The Army is not the same as 1954. The army of 1954 was a much smaller body, dominated by charismatic officers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was itching to sideline his commander General Mohammed Naguib. The army also lacked a doctrine, which it does have now, and one that is largely Western-oriented, built with decades of American assistance. The army also lacked advanced weapons in 1954, and in many ways was closer to a small militia. Today’s Egyptian army would be crippled without a constant supply of American spare parts and other less tangible assistance. The US is unlikely to allow full scale suppression of the MB and still retain close relationship with the army. The army also has far more considerable economic interests which it will not want to risk in a protracted confrontation with the MB.

2- The Brotherhood is not the same as 1954. The MB of 1954 was a far wilder affair. It was less than a dozen years since it assassinated a Prime Minister and sent armed gangs to fight the nascent Jewish state in Palestine. Today’s MB is grayer, more scarred, richer and has tasted power, and the pain of its loss. It will find it difficult to fight the army without losing much of the support it has built among Egyptians. One of Morsi’s singular mistakes was appointing a member of the Gama’a Islamiya (GI) as governor of Luxor, incurring the wrath of most Egyptians who remember the terrorist acts of the GI in the 1990’s, even though it has since abandoned violence. The MB also sees itself more as a regional and even global actor, with much of its financing depending on smooth operation of its business sectors. If it were to be declared a terrorist organization by the major Western powers its finances will be irreparably damaged.

3- Egypt is not the same as 1954. The Egypt of 1954 stood idly while the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which morphed into the Nasser presidency, arrested a good number of the MB and even executed a few of its members. Today’s Egypt is far more mobilized, and although polarized, will likely reject wholesale suppression of any group. Political mobilization in 1954 was still along nationalist lines, the result of 30 years of Wafd politics and the presence of the British in the Suez Canal. This gave the army an advantage over the MB. In Egypt of 2013 mobilization is largely along pro and anti Islamist lines, making the army think twice before initiating a wholesale purge of the MB.

4- The world is not the same as 1954. In the 1954 the world was largely a spectator in the fight between the army and the MB. Even the US, which viewed the MB as potential allies against communism, and even hosted them to a meeting with Eisenhower, stayed out of the fray, and instead kept solid intelligence contacts with Nasser. The US today is concerned about the Muslim world in ways un-imagined in 1954. It will not want to see a brutal suppression in Egypt that will back fire on the West. Europe will say “me too”. Even other rising powers, such as China, will wince at such suppression.  Other regional powers have also risen since 1954, especially Turkey and some Gulf countries. These countries will try to moderate any crackdown on the MB.

Having stated the four reasons why 2013 is not 1954, let me state one reason that might negate all of the above. The strong hostility that certain sectors of the Egyptian society now have toward the MB, especially after one year of their rule. Some, otherwise sensible people talk of how “Tienanmen Square led to China’s economic rise”. It is a frightening prospect for Egypt, and one that we hope will not take hold.


July 3 In Egypt

Of the events of July 3, 2013 in Egypt, their nature and what they portend for Egypt.

The unseating of former President Morsi is as difficult to condemn as it is to condone. It is a paradox with no easy resolution. An elected president was unseated by extra-legal means; yet on the other hand the current Egyptian constitution, which he rushed through,  also by extra-legal means, provides no workable way of removing a dangerously incompetent and increasingly isolated man.  Democracy would normally demand that we wait for the next election to vote him out; yet on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood was moving rapidly to alter the election law to make it impossible to challenge them at the polls and to gut the judiciary to remove any semblance of a rule of law. The street is a dangerous substitute for electoral politics; yet on the other hand the Brotherhood foolishly excluded all others, even other Islamists.  One can go on in this vein, but it would not help make the events easier to justify.  No understanding is possible without some searing honesty about where Egypt is today. Nor will the future be brighter, nor the plans better thought out, without learning the lessons of the last 30 months.

Twice in two and a half years, the Egyptian street ejected presidents from office with scant regard for due process.  Both presidents had overstayed their welcome, Mubarak after 30 years and Morsi after just one, the latter exhibiting exceptional and precocious ineptitude. The Muslim Brotherhood, to which former President Morsi belonged, is right to cry foul that it was robbed of the fruits of its electoral victory.  It is also right to point out that this electoral victory was the result of a chaotic transition process which left the country with no constitutional checks and balances to ward against ineptitude or tyranny, other than the roar of the street and the discipline of the Army. If July 3 2013 was a sin, it was begat from another sin, that of February 11, 2011. This sorrowful cycle must end or it will ruin the nation. Sin will beget sin until redemption is achieved through understanding.

The events of July 3 were a setback for democracy. We need to recognize everyone’s role in this setback, especially that of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has delivered two serious setbacks to democracy in recent Egyptian history. Born after World War I, it adopted the outlook and tactics of intra-war European fascists. After World War II, it conspired repeatedly with the Monarchy and the Army against the imperfect, but relatively open Parliamentary system.  Half of the “Free Officers” who led the 1952 coup were members of the Brotherhood. Nasser used to attend lectures by Sayyd Qutb, soon to be appointed the Brotherhood theoretician. When coup leaders banned all political parties in Egypt in 1953, they exempted the Brotherhood.  But Nasser grew quickly disenchanted with the Brotherhood maximalist approach. In the dozen years between the attempt on his life in 1954 and the trial and execution of Sayyd Qutb for treason in 1966, Nasser brutally and effectively eradicated the Brotherhood.

The current Brotherhood is a product of the 1970s under Sadat. The second time the Brothers conspired against Egyptian attempts at democracy was during the 2011 revolution. They were in constant negotiation with the Mubarak regime as it was falling, then worked hand-in-glove with the military to pass a disastrous constitutional declaration created by an Islamist lawyer, Tarek El Bishry, that set the stage for the chaotic Egyptian transition that led to their rise and control over all branches of the Egyptian state, save the courts and the Army.  Throughout the course of former President Morsi’s tenure they exhibited the full pathology of determined totalitarians, but fortunately ineffectually.

The current setback to democracy will only be rectified by the determined action of many parties including, and especially, the liberal political class. This group needs to assume responsibility for digging Egypt out of this hole and providing capable leadership that can talk to the street in an effective manner. It also needs to hold the Army to its promise of promoting democracy in a measured and inclusive fashion, as well as righting the ship of state left listing by the revolution and the disastrous mismanagement of Morsi and the Brothers.

Most importantly we must temper our expectations of the time scale for development of full democratic institutions. The last 30 months have shown that democratic forms do not necessarily bring freedom. The agenda today should focus on freedom rather than only democracy. What Egyptians really want is the freedom to prosper, the freedom to live in peace, the freedom not to be lynched for their religious beliefs, the freedom to develop their own authentic version of a modern nation.  The nation will also have to balance this freedom with a sense of personal responsibility, something that has grown weak during decades of authoritarian rule.

Egypt needs economic assistance to prevent yet more unrest due to the dire economic situation. Much of that might be assumed by the Gulf countries, but it would wise for the US to abandon the fecklessness of the last few years and add its weight to the rescue package. We should not expect, nor hope for, a Marshall plan. What Egypt needs today is a functioning free market system to unleash the coiled entrepreneurial energy.  Improved security is necessary for return of tourism and foreign direct investment (FDI), and responsible people cannot shrink from what is necessary to maintain law and order.

The next constitution should recognize the need to build an effective and representative political class through decentralization of the state. Local council and governor election is critical and should be a prime objective for the upcoming stage. The military will likely resist, but the liberals must insist.

Finally and most importantly, there is a need to guard against a recurrence of 1954 and 2013. Two painful lessons are enough. The Army and interim government now have a window to incorporate the Muslim Brotherhood into the political system in a manner that does not allow it to subvert democracy yet again. The Brotherhood should be made to declare itself a NGO or legal charity or have to disband.  Once legal, it should submit to the letter of the law, as with all other such organizations, and make its finances public. If the Brotherhood refuses, it is a telling clue as to its intentions. Egypt cannot be held hostage by a secretive group. The idea that the Brotherhood can blackmail the country via threats of violence should be tackled head on.  Egypt needs to exorcise the demons of its soul.

Affection for Egypt and understanding of its recent history prevent blithe optimism regarding the outcome of the next stage. The events of July 3 were a clear win for progressive and tolerant thinking bought at the price of a setback to democratic rules. The threat to social peace is real, posed by Islamists who view open revolt as the only alternative to absolute rule achieved through one-time use of the ballot box. Egypt must face that threat down and, in conquering it, she will set yet another historical precedent for how the yearning of a people can set the course of their history.

— Maged Atiya