My Nasser

It is now 43 years since the death of Egyptian President Nasser, and there is a revival underway. Nasser’s continuing popularity is proof that in Egyptian eyes a failed project is better than none. Many see him as the embodiment of a “proud” Egypt that stood for “resistance” and “social justice”. It was that, and much more, and it is the “more” that has a sour taste in the mouth. A brief boyhood under Nasser leaves many impressions beyond the stirring speeches, massive rallies and official mendacity.

Nasser frequently visited everyday places, elementary schools included. The memory stands of his handlers arriving a couple of hours before him and instructing every student to address him as “Baba”. It was an overt and expensive act of defiance for a boy to use the more traditional “Siadat El Rais” as a greeting, even if beaming while shaking the nicotine-stained fingers. This small incidence looms large because it encapsulates the many qualities that made Nasser a tyrant beloved by his people. There is the sense of ownership of Egypt’s direction, the all-enveloping and oppressive patriarchy of a country boy who made good, and the persistent dissembling, usually meant to save face, but ultimately becoming state policy.  More than anything else, the age of Nasser was the age of lying. To live in his over-extended shadow was to live inside the lie, to paraphrase Vaclav Havel.

A boyhood under Nasser was invariably a fractured self. The official history taught in school was a lie, and one learned to keep several versions of history concurrently while passing exams by putting down as answers the properly approved lies of the day. Everything was contingent. Today’s approved lies can quickly change and the public is asked to believe the new lies with equal fervor, and frequently it did. There was insouciance about official lying that betrayed a certain psychopathy. The first days of the June 1967 war were ones of great success for the Arab armies who were valiantly marching toward Tel Aviv. God may have rested on the seventh day, but Nasser stopped lying on the fourth and resigned on the seventh. It was on the fourth day of the war that the infamous “Voice of the Arabs” nonchalantly pointed out that there had been “reversals” and the Israelis were now near the Canal. It remained a theoretical exercise for the listeners to figure out how the Egyptian army made a several hundred mile retreat from the gates of Tel Aviv to the banks of the Canal in the blink of an eye. Yet when Nasser tendered his resignation, massive crowds rushed to the streets to demand his return. By then the accumulated acts of incompetence, dissembling and dereliction of duty were no longer cause for dismissal. Few could imagine Egypt not led by Nasser, nor of the great man paying for his errors in any way. His errors had become synonymous with the nation’s hopes. Nasser was back at the helm after a couple of hours. Three years later the nation would be offered his final departure without the possibility of further negotiations. And again, the masses rushed to the streets. By now, thousands of miles away, it was possible to see the disheveled crowds filling a neglected city with less anger, as the product of a pained history.

In any revival of Nasser we need to see a face-saving device to hide Egypt’s troubles. His photograph is held aloft, and occasionally kissed, in the manner of a saint. But only a damaged nation will see fit to canonize a con man.

— Maged Atiya

Orientalism Upended

Next week will be the tenth anniversary of the passing of Edward Said, the American-Palestinian intellectual most noted for his book “Orientalism” published 35 years ago. Few books regarding the troubled history of Western-Arab interaction have had as many worshipers and detractors.  There is little that can be added to the controversy at this point, except perhaps a look at it from a rarely considered point of view; that of those who look at the Arabs not as victims of Western imperialism, but as imperialists themselves.

I was familiar with Edward Said’s work long before I read “Orientalism”, due to an interest in Joseph Conrad, on which he wrote an elegant and penetrating study. Conrad is a beguiling figure to those who speak English as a second or third language, and who can no longer write with facility in their mother tongue. His work transcends what he continually felt to be his limitations with English, if only because it offered insights of a sympathetic outsider.

I read “Orientalism” at the recommendation of a friend who jokingly noted that Said wouldn’t approve of my reading of Flaubert’s “Salammbo”, an entertaining, high calorie, low nutrition work. It is difficult not to admire the erudition and passion of Said, yet I could never muster enough interest to either like or dislike the work, and certainly not with any passion. Several things seemed troubling about the work, and I attributed these to Said’s sad predicament as a dislocated Palestinian.

First there was the thesis that scholarship is the handmaiden of imperialism.  Certainly imperialists, or at least serious ones with claim to a moral purpose, will consult scholarship on the conquered regions. But scholarship can also use imperial power to further such studies, both in terms of access to location and resources, and in securing support as a relevant and not merely esoteric pursuit. Western support for academic studies is often most generous for regions deemed dangerous or critical to Western interests.

Second was the idea that studying such regions involves reducing them to the infantile status of the “other”.  Just as easily these scholars become captive to their passion and end up as partisans of  the worst impulses of the “natives”. Said never gave these “natives” enough credit for agency in exploiting and using Western interest in them. He displayed a peculiarly Western attitude in seeing them as lacking in evils of the West.

But these two points are minor compared to a third angle which strips the work of much of its value, regardless of accuracy. When it comes to Arabs, many native Christians, especially Egyptians,  view them not as a conquered people, but as conquerors. Said’s point of view is entirely upended. From the lens of increasingly culturally aware Copts, for example, Arab imperialism has tended to view them as weak, cowardly and not possessing of virtues common to great cultures and empires. Western views of the region as the sexualized and infantile “other” are wholly irrelevant. In fact, in the view of many proponents of “Egyptianism” connection should be made to Western culture directly by bypassing the Arab experience entirely.  They see  Egypt as the “source” of Western civilization, primarily through a Hellenic connection. Why Said did not consider this point of view is still unknown. This is, after all, a man who grew up in Egypt. Perhaps his sense of grievance towards the horrors visited on Palestinians blinkered his view. It could also be that he grew up as a wealthy and Westernized Levantine Protestant, which isolated him from much of Egypt. His lambasting of Renan, for example, will generally fall on deaf ears among Copts, who regard Maspero, a student of Renan, as a cultural hero. What he regards as Western appropriation of native cultural artifacts, is regarded by many Copts, who fashioned an ancient Egyptian identity in the last century, as worthy preservation.

In the end “Orientalism”, seen from an Egyptian point of view, remains oddly flat. It fails to either inspire or outrage. This is not merely an academic issue, but of practical interest in the current turmoil in Egypt. Egypt is stymied by political and economic stagnation, often lumped together as “crisis of modernity”. The stagnation manifests itself in hostility toward the West masking a desire to emulate and join it. “Orientalism” is the voices in this schizophrenic head. The search goes on for a model or pattern of development in Egypt while the one closest at hand, that of Copts, remains ignored. In a deeply polarized country the narrative of the Copts on both sides is that of a “problem”. On one side is the “problem” of discrimination and sectarian attacks. On the other side is the “problem” of the Copts’ constant desire to thwart political Islam. Even with truth on both sides it is important to raise the narrative from that of a minority problem to exploration of the Copts’ tale as quintessentially Egyptian one. The Coptic Orthodox faith is as conservative as many of the Islamist currents. But the errors and successes of the Copts differ significantly from those of the Islamists.  On the negative side, they have withdrawn from the public sphere, especially politics, and have shown marked wariness of the ballot box. On the positive side they have managed an uneasy truce between their ancient authenticity and modern sentiments, and faced down the challenge of the West without resort to either violence or exceptional hostility. In the 1850s the Orthodox Church faced an existential challenge from Protestant missionaries, who attracted its flock threatening to turn it into a marginal force in Egyptian Christianity. After an initial short period of bewilderment and outrage some in the community appropriated the very symbol of Protestantism, the Sunday School, to face its challenges in a clever tactic of cultural jujitsu. A century later the Church felt secure enough to join other world Churches in a dialog of equals, making connections with Protestant and even Catholic churches in the West.

“Orientalism” is apparently a canon of thought at many elite Egyptian universities. It is probably pointless to either study it obsessively or attack it passionately. The best view is that of a cultural artifice or a curiosity wholly irrelevant to the Egyptian problems of the day.


— Maged Atiya


The Dilemma of American Copts

The Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris tweeted : “The world is in God’s hands but Egypt is in his heart”. This attitude of near certainty about God’s affection is exceedingly common in Egypt.  The Coptic Church regularly conflates geography and religion. The biblical verse “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” is often quoted as integral to a Christian tale of fall and redemption, where the hospitality Egypt gave to the Holy Family erases its guilt of cruelty to the Israelites. For the better part of Egypt’s modern history, Copts, both Church and laity, have been enthusiastic producers and disseminators of Egyptian exceptionalism.

That exceptionalism is not alien to American ears, although the American variety is significantly different. The latter rests not on America being a favorite of God, but of God being a favorite of Americans.  It declares America and Americans as different, a brand new world both more moral and less cynical than the tired old world. The interplay, and occasional collision, of these two exceptionalisms is at the heart of the current dilemma of American Copts; a dilemma most are only dimly aware of.

As an immigrant tale, American Copts are a success story, both materially and spiritually. The majority has achieved Middle Class status, and many have done even better in the professions and business. Spiritually they have kept their ancient faith. In four decades the number of Churches increased a hundred-fold, from 2 in 1970 to over 200 today. There is little “return migration”, all are in the US to stay. Increasingly they display “ethnic” pride in much the same fashion as most Americans, with the symbols of the old and the new country linked together. The Cross, the Ankh and the American flag seem to mix easily in their various demonstrations. In America they have declared themselves exclusive bearers of the Egyptian identity, and kept their distance from the wider regional identities, whether Arab or Muslim.

But events in Egypt continue to unsettle their new world, especially in the past 3 years. Initially the concerns were largely about the discrimination against Egyptian Copts and attacks on their persons, properties and Churches. These are concerns easily managed within the American identity, as reasons to advocate religious and personal rights and protections. But those clear cut issues are now crowded by new ones, more political and more complex to manage. The revolution of 2011, the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, have put most of them in opposition to American policy toward Egypt. In the last few weeks the Egyptian Church seemed to go along with the strident anti-American rhetoric in the country. This is not unexpected, as the Church does not wish to be seen as anything but a fully national force. Nor is the idea of Americans opposed to their government policy an unusual or even undesirable one. The problem is that this collision of loyalties and policies is forcing many into darker explanations that will do little to either assist their coreligionist in Egypt or to further the political and social development of Copts in the US.

The most logical course of action for American Copts is not to demonstrate outside the gates of power, but to push hard for admittance to its corridors, both to inform and shape policy. To do so effectively would involve keeping a certain distance from the Egyptian Church and its current attitudes. But the patterns of organizing and mobilizing are entirely along Church affiliations. For 2000 years Copts saw a constant alteration between laity and clergy for influence in the community. We live at a time when the clergy is ascendant in that balance. To affect American policy, American Copts must be seen as partisans of broad and desirable ideas, not specific political groups in Egypt. It is a sign of “failure to communicate” when an American newspaper describes American Copts as “pro-coup”. It is an even bigger sign of failure when the community seems to count on the support of the most deranged political elements in the US.

The Egyptian Church is now under strains of historic proportions. It is not an exaggeration to claim that dangers to the flock and the physical and cultural heritage exceed any since the 1300’s. It can not be expected to divert its attention, at this moment, to dealing with the consequences of becoming an international Church where more than a quarter of its flock is not Egyptian. The best American Copts can do now is to hold tighter onto their American values, and distance themselves from the paranoid discourse in Egypt. It would be ironic to fall into right-wing paranoia in the US in order to further a liberal outcome in Egypt.

Pope Shenouda was reputed to have quipped that “the only American thing about American Copts is their paperwork”. The most charitable thing you can say about this comment is that it lags behind the times, and reality. In fact the only hope forward for Copts is to turn this sentiment on its head by insisting on a cultural and religious identity that transcends the limited boundaries of ethnic identification. Were American Copts to start down that path, they will not only strengthen their own community, but perhaps provide a useful parable to Egyptians. There will be plenty of those who oppose such a path, but its ultimate success will sway all opponents, including those inside the Church.

— Maged Atiya

The Brittle State

The art of bridge building stagnated for centuries until builders realized that bridges can not be made stronger or longer by adding heft. There needs to be careful understanding of the stresses and forces on a bridge and these forces must be channeled along sinews just strong enough to withstand them with a reasonable margin for error. This revelation has resulted in bridges that are long, strong and ephemeral.

The same claim can be made about states, especially the Egyptian state. The arbitrary removal of President Morsi was justified on the grounds of prevention of state collapse. But the Egyptian state can not be made stronger by merely adding heft to it. An equally viable path would have been to leave Morsi in place to finish his term but with sharply reduced powers. Neither side wanted that, for both craved presidential power, rather than its limitation. The army’s intervention to protect a constitutional order would have had more receptive ears on November 22 2012 than July 3 2013.  The world would have appreciated and Egypt would have been spared an embarrassing and dangerous constitution.  But that now is muddy water under the collapsing bridge.

The narrative surrounding the January 2011 revolution has done damage to the goal of progress in Egypt. The accepted myth is that of an impossibly brave action against an exceptionally impregnable wall.  While there is no denying the bravery, the Mubarak state was less an impregnable wall than a pile of rubble.  Like a bridge with heft and no strength it awaited the first burst of wind under the right conditions to exhibit spectacular collapse. The Egyptian state will be made stronger and more durable by trimming rather than adding. Everything in Egypt today is the opposite of what it seems. The arbitrarily empowered policeman undermines law and order rather than enforce it. The hectoring Sheikh (or Abouna) does not promote morality, just false piety. The constantly declaiming politician does not enlighten, but obfuscates. The preening man in uniform does not protect, but menaces. The deeply patriarchal men do not hold the family together, just rob it of half of its strength. The Islamists are menacing not because they are the “other” but because they are a reflection of a damaged self. A country this deep in the rabbit hole has to consider doing the exact opposite of what its instincts demand.

The goals of the 2011 revolution, Bread-Freedom-Social Justice, are catchy, vague and contradictory. The country needs a chicken in every pot not more poorly-baked and subsidized bread. Only an unfettered market will guarantee that,  and such a market will initially run counter to social justice, although it will ultimately strengthen it in profound ways. Freedom is a vague concept, notable only by its absence. What will free Egypt from its current chaos is respect for the rules,which may seem initially counter to “Freedom”, but is ultimately its true servant and guardian.  Incremental progress, not revolutionary action,  may guarantee the most profound change in Egypt today.

The only open question is whether Egypt will be lucky enough to find leaders who can articulate this vision to its people in terms both understandable and respectful. It would run counter to the last decades of leadership, which has been alternately charismatic , theatrical , tedious , and stupid, but rarely effective.


— Maged Atiya