Incitement III

It brings no pleasure to have been right twice. In December of 2012 I first warned that anti-Copt incitement will bring a fresh wave of attacks, not by small extremist groups, but by their very neighbors.  In February 2013 I warned that media incitement will eventually bring untold deaths on Egypt.  The situation today, after the crashing fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, remains no better.

The Brotherhood chief incitement agent Safwat Hegazy has allegedly turned turn-coat in custody.  This is not surprising. Perhaps a sudden turn to salvation made him change his mind, more likely is simply cowardice at work. Still this ugly little tale of Hegazy should remind us that history’s wheel continues to turn and the wise would do well to step above its gyrations.

We can’t get teary-eyed about the predicament of the Brothers, not because it is not sad, but because emotions will do little to help any one. But the least we can do is not get caught up in a third wave of incitement against them. For all their faults, and they are aplenty, they are still our brothers well before they became Brothers.

Let us remember that no man is beyond salvation, and none is immune to a fall. Today’s incitement is just as low as yesterday’s. Perhaps this time we can step away from the ledge, before we discover that being right a third time will not cushion the moral or physical fall.

— Maged Atiya


August 14 in Egypt

August 14 in Egypt brought about the unhappy necessity of hundreds of condolences.  A common condolence in Egypt is “al baqia fi hayatak“, literally translated as “may your life take up the remainder“, but loosely hoping that the living would take up the mantle of the unfulfilled life of the dead. It is an imprecise condolence. It is there for the funeral of man who died in advanced age after years of struggling with dementia, when arguably there is little mantle to pick up from a life extinguished long before the body gave out. It is there for the funeral of a young girl, when it is impossible to know what joys or sorrows she would have endured and what generations would have sprung from her womb. It is even there for the funeral of a brutal man when no one would want to assume the mantle of what disfigured his life. But beyond condolences what do we really owe the dead, who are well beyond our emotions? Perhaps a stab at the truth,  illusive as that may be.

There is much confusion, most of it willful, about what happened, and how it could have been avoided. We should remain steadfast in condemning the extra-legal removal of an elected official, in this case President Morsi. But that removal is at best a distant cause for the violence of the day. The chilling phrase “rivers of blood” has been on the lips of many for too long. Khairat El Shater, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, threatened such an outcome if Ahmed Shafiq had won the Presidency in June 2012. Safwat Hegazy, a man Morsi saw fit to honor with a seat at the Egyptian commission on human rights, threatened such an outcome if the Constitution was prevented from passing by any means in December 2012. With so many threats the only unknowns were simply dates and numbers. Why has the Brotherhood, which made no such threats for 30 years under Mubarak, resorted to them in 30 months since his removal is an interesting question. Many Egyptians, probably including many in uniform, concluded that it was brought about by relative freedom. Morsi’s removal and August 14 were but a short step from that realization.

Then there are those who argued that a peaceful resolution for the large sit-ins was possible. Vice President Baradaei resigned in support of his belief. Then again, he believed in January 2011 that the Brotherhood was a minority conservative group that could be trusted to be a democratic partner, only to appear on stage on July 3 with those who removed Morsi by force. No one who observed the Brothers since January 2011 can have certainty that any deal they cut is more than a provisional measure designed to buy them time to violate it.

Others have insisted that the dispersal of the sit-in used “disproportionate force”. The numbers do support that. It seems four dozen policemen died in the melee, but more than five times that number died among the demonstrators. But would it have been desirable to use “proportionate” means and have a running battle go on for hours or days in a residential neighborhood? A feeble resort to violence is in many ways worse than a decisive outcome. The outcome was about what you would expect from the Egyptian police, perhaps slightly better than their historic norm.

Yet others argued that the sit-ins should have been allowed to linger and die out a natural death. But what empirical evidence do we have that such an outcome was probable? The Brotherhood convinced its members that steadfastness, similar to that of January 2011 which argued for immediate removal of Mubarak, will work. The sit-in could have continued for months or years. But at what cost to the residents, who were subjected to searches by Brotherhood “security teams”? And to what cost to the idea of a functioning government?  We can echo Burke’s famous statement “nothing is so oppressive as a feeble government”.

The reality of course is that many Egyptians cheered the men in arms on January 2011, including most of the Brotherhood. They cheered them again on July 3, this time without the Brothers. In the topsy-turvy world of Egyptian politics disfigured by religion  what is halal and what is haram switch roles with alarming regularity. Men with guns are bound to use guns. And let us not forget that the Brotherhood seems keen on possessing guns, so most Egyptians were left with the choice between those uniformed and armed, and those merely armed.

People attributed an urge for freedom to many actions in Egypt, often without defining what “freedom” means. Sensible people have correctly lamented the dearth of true liberals in the Egyptian public sphere. But how do you grow liberals in the shadow of the gun and the holy book, or worse in the shadow of the holy book armed with a gun, or the gun legitimized by a holy book?

Those who died on August 14 were strangled by a poisonous vine that grew from the seeds of “democracy” planted in a hostile soil. Very few died for principle. Most died for their team, others trusted pious men and mistook piety for honesty. Many died for a vision they could not or would not subject to rigorous critiques. Others died for the perceived right to oppress “the other”. To all those we owe compassion and empathy, for their loss of life, for the terror and confusion of their last few moments. We also owe them clarity of vision so that others do not follow.

What killed hundreds in Egypt on August 14 was a deadly mix of religion, guns and politics. Chart a path for removing both the military and religion from politics and you will be more than half way there. Chart a course to favor prosperity and dampen the visions of holy Utopias and you might even arrive at a sensible outcome.  Short of that, expect plenty of mantles to be picked up by the unhappy living.

–Maged Atiya


The Pope And The Generals

In a private email, which was published in a public newsletter after a series of unintentional errors. I remarked that the sight of Pope Tawadros II at the July 3 2013 news conference announcing the removal of President Morsi made me ‘wince“. It is worth elaborating on that remark.

There is a rising current of incitement against the Copts by many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some supporters have gone to rather ugly lengths, accusing the Copts of “crusader conspiracy” to remove Morsi. There were many other religious leaders at the news conference, including Sheikh Al Azhar and several Salafi Da’wa leaders, so that singling out the Copts reflects more on the inherent attitudes of the Brothers than on the actions of the Pope. Incitement also predated the removal of Morsi and was in many ways a factor in the Egyptians’ rising fear about the direction the country was taking under the Brotherhood. Still the question remains, was Pope Tawadros wise in taking the public stage?

In a previous post I have indicated strong distaste for extra-legal means of removing elected officials and, specifically, ambivalence about the events of July 3. The reaction to the Pope’s distant embrace of the Generals is equally ambivalent.  One can argue that the Pope, through the intrinsic nature of his office,  should have sought the protection of heavenly rather than earthly powers. One can also argue that as a man of God he should remain above the political fray. One can question the wisdom of an open embrace of the removal of President Morsi and the effective disenfranchisement of the Muslim Brotherhood given their history of incitement and occasional violence. Those and many other questions can trouble the mind. But in the end can we really fault the Pope?

To fault a man requires a certain amount of empathy to place one in his shoes. That empathy, however, prevents a clear judgement on the Pope’s decision. He must be privy to the daily acts of harassment and attack that his flock experiences.  He can not remain indifferent to these, even if he urges peaceful responses and saintly patience. The day before his investiture he told a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that he wants to stay out of politics and expects only two things from them: freedom and justice. They delivered neither. The attack on the Papal seat and Cathedral on April 7 was a terrible shock, amplified by the indifferent reaction of the Morsi government. It is doubtful that he urged the military to intervene, as officers are not in the habit of consulting Popes, least of all in Egypt. He did not join the American ambassador in supporting Morsi. But then again, it was unwise of her to speak on the matter with him. We can assume he was not coerced into showing up at the news conference, as Coptic Popes are generally immune to coercion. We must assume that he saw it as his duty as an Egyptian. As best we can tell, Pope Tawadros behaved as many  average Egyptians would.  There is of course a catch, he is the head of an increasingly international, rather than a national, Church, and many of those who wish his flock ill refuse to countenance the notion of an Egyptian polity, preferring a more international Islamic “Umma”.

At the heart of the matter is a question posed decades ago and remains unanswered; what are Copts to do about the increasingly Islamicized public sphere ? To Western observers Copts are often lumped in with “liberals”. But the community as a whole is socially conservative, and like much of Egypt, is not yet invested in what we might call “classic liberalism”.  Their reaction so far has been to create their own social space, or immigrate. Neither has worked to stem the tide of attacks against them. No Coptic social space is immune to attack now, regardless of how discreet it might be. Immigrant Copts (“Aqbat Al Mahgar“) are singled out for special abuse among many Islamists, attributing to them exceptional and unrealistic abilities to move Western governments. Those governments are at best indifferent to the Copts’ predicament, seeing it as a lesser disaster than others in the region.

If Ghettos and immigration are unrealistic options, then what is left? Wisely the Copts have refrained from solutions favored by their neighbors, such as forming militias or building Statelets. One hopes they will continue to display such wisdom.  Another option, asking for foreign protection, is also something that the Copts have consistently refused, although ironically, it is now the Brotherhood that is asking for such protection.

Given these meager options it is possible to see the appeal of embracing the Generals, especially with their ultra-nationalistic pronouncements.  The only remaining realistic option is for the Copts to convince the rest of Egypt that their predicament is also Egypt’s predicament, and hope they will manage to sway enough people to preserve a united nation. It is in light of what Egypt is, not what we wish it to be, that we should judge the Pope’s actions. The flock is fond of seeking the Pope’s prayers, but in this instance it maybe the Pope who needs their prayers.

Tarik Ramadan, the grandson of the Brotherhood founder, said it best in a recent post

In the face of this tissue of lies, the non-violent demonstrators—women and men, secularists and Islamists, Copts and Muslims, agnostics and atheists—are the true expression of the Egyptian awakening. They must stand upright, unarmed; reject lies, propaganda and manipulation; they must become masters of their destiny

May his friends listen to him.

— Maged Atiya