Free Officers, Bound Men

Much is made of the “cult of Sisi”, or the excessive adulation given to the General who was behind the ejection of President Morsi from his elected post. Comparisons are invariably drawn to President Nasser, the last man to receive the booby-trapped gift of his countrymen’s affection. But the comparison is at best forced. Nasser was half a dozen years younger than Sisi when he passed away in 1970 after nearly two decades as Egypt’s helmsman. The country he left behind was stricken with grief over his passing, even if his navigational skills left it retching from the turbulent journey he led. What is often ignored in this comparison is just how young Nasser was at the time he assumed the leadership and how utterly dedicated he was to the task of charming every single Egyptian. Nasser became President at an age (36) comparable to the “kids” at Tahrir that President Obama spoke fondly of. He had already been a convert to many of the doleful movements that dotted Egypt’s intra-war history. It was not only his youth and energy that shaped Egypt but also these of his cohorts, the Free Officers. Many were exceptional men in their own right, but they were always eclipsed by Nasser. Years after Nasser passed away, Khaled Mohieddin would remark that it was impossible to leave a room still disagreeing with Nasser. It was not so much coercion, although there was always some of that, but something akin to voluntary bondage. Nasser extracted much from his fellow officers, often willingly, but always to the cause of enhancing his standing. This was not a trivial point, and it has had a major impact on the course of Egypt’s history for over 60 years. With the exception of the Mohieddin cousins, and the posh Ali Sabry, most were of modest means. In them Nasser found men willing to go up against the aristocratic ruling class, and when necessary humiliate it.  More importantly, he set them up to mold the Egyptian bureaucracy to suit his project, leaving a long historical legacy of a military tinge to most important positions in Egypt.  Egypt’s erotic fascination with its army began with a love of the young men who swept away the monarchy without having a full plan of what to do next. The list of officers used by Nasser to charm. and occasionally coerce, the nation is long.

The energetic and capable Abdel Latif Boghdadi led the “revolutionary court” that tried the powerful Wafd chieftain Fouad Serageddin and other pre-1952 politicians. Nasser rewarded him by a long series of semi-humiliations. He was put in charge of paving the Nile Corniche, only to be known as “Abdel Rassif Boghdadi” (Rassif is Arabic for sidewalk), a cruel joke that allegedly left Nasser amused, while constantly denying the Vice-Presidential position to Boghdadi who felt it was owed to him.   Abdel Hakim Amer kept the army loyal for more than a dozen years, only to be made the scapegoat of the 1967 defeat, when in reality he was a junior partner in Nasser’s failure of leadership. Zakaria Mohieddin built the paranoid national security state, remained loyal beyond reproach to Nasser, and yet found himself eventually on the outs with him. He died a year after the 2011 revolution, his lips sealed forever to history. Kamal Eldin Hussein oversaw the re-writing of Egyptian school curricula, creating myths that echo to this very same day. Yet, when he pointed out the obvious, that the Yemen conflict is a disaster, he was quickly sidelined.  And there is of course Anwar El Sadat, whose complicated relationship with Nasser would largely color the remainder of his life, living under his considerable shadow, in both life and death.

Six decades after the 1952 coup there is still no comprehensive history of the men who laid the foundation for much of what ails Egypt today. Their record is not of cruelty or evil deeds. Most were patriots and broadly dedicated to Egypt. It is just that they never evolved beyond young men in thrall to their troop leader. They burst on the stage as Free Officers and remained there bound to Nasser, forever their El Rais.

— Maged Atiya

Egypt And The American Left

For half a century the New York Review of Books has been the sensible voice of the American left-of-center educated elite. Its coverage of Egypt in the last three eventful years has been equally sensible. Its frequent voice is that of Yasmine El Rashidi whose dispatches from Cairo are invariably worth reading, echoing the view of broadly secular and liberal Egyptians. A critique of her dispatches came in the fiftieth anniversary issue of the magazine from none other than Tom Hayden, who came out of hibernation to challenge her latest article. We can not fathom the motives of the man whose last sensible, if transient, action was to become the second Mr. Barbarella. But we can focus on his words.

From nine time zones away, Mr. Hayden opens his letter by accusing Cairo-resident Ms. El Rashidi of “ignoring or denying” Egyptian evidence. He closes his letter by a prediction that the US is being swept into “another sectarian civil war” in the Middle East. In between he quotes a jumble of semi-facts, including some by his erstwhile co-star in the Vietnam drama, John McCain. And all under the guise of defending democracy. Nor is he alone. Similar views were recently echoed by Stephen McInerney and Cole Bockenfeld who work at the ironically named “Project on Middle East Democracy”.

How did it come to this? How did the American left, especially the aging New Left, come to be advocates of the Muslim Brotherhood. How did a group with elastic views of social and sexual limits come to defend a religiously narrow, socially coercive, oppressively puritanical and decidedly misogynistic cult ? The reader would be wrong to assume that there is a long and complex answer to this question. The reasons are simple, and basically come down to two factors : ignorance of Egyptian history and adherence to outmoded templates of thinking inculcated by long decades in the trenches of the cold war.

To many on the left the current situation in Egypt echoes that of Chile 40 years ago, where the military removed a democratically elected but dangerously delusional man from power. No sensible man can praise Pinochet. But the Left has never forgiven him for three acts that violate their world view : removing the communist Allende and brutally cracking down on the left while retaining popular support, improving Chile’s economy by non-socialist means, and giving up power peacefully after losing a referendum. The Left does not fear that Egypt might descend into chaos; that would only prove their view of the perfidious behavior of the “Imperialist West”. What they must deeply fear is that Egypt would actually emerge in a better shape, dealing yet another blow to long-held views.

Another factor contributing to the confused analysis of current Egyptian events is a broad ignorance of Egyptian history. The Left retains a belief in the goodness of “authentic” national movements, especially when they espouse anti-Western rhetoric. Often the “authenticity” is one of form and mere convenience, for these movements are clearly modern products and are heavily influenced by Western thought, especially the anti-liberal Communist and Fascist ideologies. The Brotherhood is simply the latest beneficiary of Putumayo chic.

All these facts would be amusing if they didn’t threaten to confuse and derail sensible American policy in the region, especially toward Egypt. The current hyper-nationalism is irritatingly off-key and potentially lethal. But Egypt will not be pulled back from it by either angry words or sulking inaction. There is little the US can do for Egypt aside from being a sensible friend and an occasional supporter of an improved economy and a more liberal society. And we can start by ditching bad ideas and feverish words, for improvement will take time and demands a focus on Egypt as it is today, rather than a construct of the cold and cultural wars.

— Maged Atiya

Liturgy Of The Dead

We still do not know the cause of the shooting at the wedding in the St. Mary Coptic Church in Cairo. Until we do it is best to withhold all speculations, although the odds-on favorite is a hate crime. It is difficult to get angry at the killers. Anyone that far gone into the pit of hate that they willingly spray bullets into a Church wedding is beyond our anger. In fact, anger is always best reserved for those from whom we have the highest expectations. There is little value in anger at the Egyptian police or the various organs of the state.

The day after the wedding the same church saw the prayers for the dead, which are also meant to comfort the living. It was a wrenching affair that achieved half of its purpose, if barely. The living, it seemed, were beyond consolation. There was little the officiating Priest or Bishops could do to comfort the congregation, some of whom jeered at the thanks offered to the police. In the last decades the Coptic Church assumed the leadership of the community in all aspects; the spiritual which is its duty; the social which was thrust on it by the failure of the state; and the political which it occasionally sought and ultimately bore as the secular leaders were made irrelevant by the death of politics in Egypt. The Copts, especially the poorer ones, gladly accepted that leadership, for which there was no realistic alternative. All this begs the question of whether the Church hierarchy is now tasked with doing the impossible, and of what relief can it be offered.

Three months after the July 3 events it is still impossible to criticize Pope Tawadros II presence on the stage with General Sisi and Sheikh Al Azhar. It is, however, possible to think of an alternative history. In that history the Pope would have indicated his support privately but refrained from the public display to lessen his political burden, one that he insisted he did not want in the first place. He could have also indicated privately that while disapproving of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, and not wishing them an exclusive role in running Egypt, he could not sanction the killing of either the innocent or the guilty. In doing so he would have assumed the role of a father to the Muslim Brothers, of whose behavior he surely disapproves, but whom he must love as children of God. It is a tough task, fit only for a Patriarch. Would such a stance have lessened the attacks against the Copts?  Probably not. Would it have made the state serve them less? Possibly. The current feeble efforts can still be weaker. It would have placed the Pope among the ranks of the most exceptional men of the new century, and possibly given a template for reconciliation to the hardened hearts of the Egyptian political class. There is no doubt of the risk of such actions toward the Copts of Egypt, but maybe it is time for the Coptic Church to aim wider than just Egypt, and higher than just its needs. It would also have been Christian in the literal sense; the sense that Christ’s ministry aimed for the fallen and deluded.

Lurking under such a fantasy is the question of the Coptic Church near mystical attachment to Egypt. It is from such attachment that the Pope must have felt compelled to stand on the stage on July 3. Except for the 5% or 10% of the Copts who immigrated, and even for most of those, the love for Egypt, a country that regularly kicks them in the teeth, is unalloyed. It is churlish to question that love, but not unseemly to try to direct it to better ends.

These are difficult words, and perhaps lesser courage is necessary to utter them from a distance. But what conquers anger except hope, and what can we ask from those we trust and respect but the most difficult.  And how can we comfort the living when their pain seems senseless and unearned, other than with the will to prevent future suffering.


— Maged Atiya

Amreeka The Essential

The relationship between the United States and Egypt has been on autopilot for three or four decades. It is a measure of its confusion that the present turbulence is not forcing the controls back into sensible human hands. Egypt can be safely ignored in Washington, or used for cheap partisan shots; meanwhile in Cairo anti-Americanism is available in a variety of lurid forms, both tragic and comic. it seems no one is willing to either bury or praise the long cherished strategic alliance between the two countries.  The fraying relationship is a victim of American inattention and Egyptian misconstruction.

Egypt’s geopolitical location has generated a variety of suitors, occupiers and near-occupiers among world powers.  None have been as helpful to Egypt as the United States. It is true that the US has gotten its money’s worth for the aid provided, but it is also irrelevant. There is nothing wrong with a friend who is prudent in pursuit of self-interest. Twice in 25 years the United States has assisted in restoring Egyptian territorial integrity; in 1956 by opposing the tripartite incursion and in 1978 by dogged negotiations at Camp David. That much of the Egyptian ruling elite found the agreement “humiliating” is a reflection of deluded nationalism and insouciance about the economic fate of poorer countrymen. They failed to capitalize on the 1982 withdrawal and achieve stability and prosperity for the Sinai, as they have failed to use the loan forgiveness in 1991 to launch a project of liberalization and economic advancement for Egypt.

But to focus only on the last half-century is to ignore the older and deeper roots of the Egyptian-American relations. In the 1870s the fight against slavery in the Sudan was assisted by ex-confederate officers, ironically left jobless by their failure to defend slavery in the American South.  American research and education has benefited Egypt for over a century. American missionaries arrived in middle of the 19th century causing panic among the Copts. But their presence, and example, accelerated a nascent movement to reform the Church and community. A century later the US (along with Canada) would open its doors to waves of Coptic immigrants large enough to make North American second only to Egypt in the number of Copts. Neither has the US welcome been sectarian. Today the average Egyptian-American Muslim is less disadvantaged in the US than in Egypt, especially if he or she belongs to an Islamist current.

Yet the fault does not rest entirely with the distorted Egyptian view of the West. After the accomplishments of Kissinger and Carter, American policy toward Egypt became part-and-parcel of the “Middle East” policy. Thus the complex tapestry of a diverse Egypt was reduced to a single thread of a policy toward a region, whose very name is a fiction invented by a 19th century American Admiral. In the ugly decade following the 2001 terrorist attack, the US policy makers broke into two camps, those who waged war without reason and those who sought reconciliation without sense. The American policy toward Egypt oscillated between passive inattention, romantic enchantment with “moderate Islamism” and fervid “Democracy promotion”. It failed to see that what Egypt needs is liberalism with a heavy dose of anti-democratic measures to counter-balance toxic populism. Rarely did the US hold up its example where a strict separation between state and religion allowed a liberal polity with a vigorous and diverse religious society, and where the system retards rather than responds to popular passions. When the revolution of 2011 broke, the US was left with a handful of platitudes, labels and slogans. Instead of supporting an “Egyptian solution”, it could have plainly recommended that the Army get out of government and government get out of the economy. Twice it was given golden opportunities to exert its influence as a moderating friend and break the fever of the revolution, and twice it failed to act on it. The US could have supported a negotiated and systemic transition in February 2011 and instead opted for adoption of street revolutionary slogans. And again in November 2012 the US could have spoken against an ugly constitution that violated American values and a clumsy grab at power by a novice President. Instead it passively stood by , enamored by some other “Middle East” success in Gaza, and sealed the fate of both President Morsi and many of his followers. Missed opportunities beget lost options. The events of July 3 and August 14 2013 left the US confused of language and bereft of action.

Is a divorce now in order? Perhaps, but it is one that will not benefit either country. The righting of the relationship demands rebuilding on entirely different basis, one focused more on the needs of the average Egyptians than their ruling elite. When a marriage fails, the second best can be a respectful friendship.

— Maged Atiya

Maspero – Two Years After

The commemorations of the second anniversary of Maspero will likely be few and muted. The change in political atmosphere in Egypt is but one factor. The events of October 9 2011, shocking when fresh and sad to recall on the first anniversary, have been overtaken by new horrors. For the Copts, the April 7 attack on the Papal seat and the burning of some 40 Churches and other properties on August 14 seem to portend different and more ominous dangers. Let us not also forget those who died since the July 3 removal of President Morsi.  Regardless of what we make of their motives and methods, we can’t deny their humanity or their suffering. Death unites every one; the innocent and the guilty, the foolish and the cunning as well as those who died to uplift and those who died to oppress. I wrote two years ago that the saddest aspect of these events was not that the Army killed Copts, but that it killed its own citizens. The title of the post “Canaries in the Mine” held less prescience than foreboding. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, then recently freed from persecution, failed to stand up for justice and in that failure hardened many hearts, most critically their own. There is a lesson to be heeded; that we can only honor those who died in Maspero by extending the same condolences to those who died at Rab’a, and many other places, whether their cause was honorable or oppressive, and whether their methods were peaceful or violent.

Two pillars of the Orthodox faith are the knowledge of sin and the hope for salvation. One need not be a Christian or even a believer to see the wisdom in embracing these values. The first serves as a bracing antidote to certainty and hubris, forcing us to consider our actions, the burdens of our history, as well as our biases and fears. The second prods us to find a path illuminated by universal values that couple mercy with justice and empathy with reason. Tales of salvation often feature the removal of blindness and lifting of despair, denoting that its pillars include understanding and hope. Salvation in Egypt will begin by understanding the futility of death. The Maspero marchers meant to protest the burning of a Church, but since then dozens more have been torched. Those who camped and died at Rab’a wanted the return of Morsi, a goal more elusive today. In revolutionary Egypt death is offered in place of a plan. Hope is nurtured by plans and positive leadership, both absent. What remains for the average man is to simply reject death, its promoters and those who see it as a political tactic. While longing for a plan, the average man could at least reject false prophets.

It would be foolish to predict that Egypt will quickly pull back from the current course of violence. But if it does it will be because the majority of people will have decided to reject death.  Short of a wholesale rejection of violence as a tool Egypt will continue to accumulate deadly anniversaries faster than it can commemorate them.


Fouad Serageddin (1911-2000) , the cigar-chomping Egyptian aristocrat and wily machine politician, known to one and all as Fouad Basha, was reputed to have described Nasser and Sadat a few days after the July 1952 coup as “Al Zabit wa al Suffragi”, or “The Officer and the Butler”. This cruel remark was characteristic of the pain Sadat endured at the hands of his fellow Egyptians for most of his long career in public life. In return, Sadat sought to woe, rule, serve and occasionally terrify the country that bore him but never unconditionally loved him. A consummate actor given to the grand gesture, he was easy to anger and easy to appease. He thought of Egyptians as “his children”, and especially so of the political Islamists, of whom he was once a member and occasionally a sympathizer. In his last moments he stood up in surprise, resplendent in an operatic uniform, to see his children commit an act of oedipal rage.

Leaders of the world walked behind Sadat’s casket, but few Egyptians bothered to look up. Many writers attuned to Egypt’s peculiarities, such as Naguib Mahfouz and Foud Ajami, have struggled to understand Sadat. All have found it difficult to come to anything more than ambiguous conclusions about the man. Sadat passed through life playing ever larger roles, and strove to deliver what the audience demanded. The sonorous voice, the fine Arabic diction, the well-cut suits, the thoughtful puffing on a pipe, the days in the countryside clad in a Galabyia were all tools of the trade. What outraged him was that the frequent applause of the Egyptians was never heartfelt.  He would always languish in the shadow of Nasser, who could effortlessly woe the Egyptians even as he oppressed them. He probably understood the reasons behind that, but would never own up to them, for he too was complicit in them. In 1958 he wrote, in a rare moment of transparency, that “In Egypt, personalities have always been more important than political programs“. He lived his life by those words. He had become a master improviser, and with protean talent he could produce master performances, as well as occasional duds.

In late August 1981, a short visit to Egypt found a twitchy country on edge. The master performer had run out of tricks. Peace produced no prosperity. The Americans, once thrilled with his act, had found their own actor as President and moved on. The Israelis showed no appreciation, but were their usual prickly and bumptious selves. His own people were at each other’s throats, in part because of his own incitement. The air was thick with impending rumors of arrests and “purges”. Everyone waited to see what the denouement of a decade of magic would be. They did not wait long.

Egypt has yet to come to grips with Sadat’s assassins. Neither giving them a place of honor on a dais, as we done last year, nor gunning them down in the streets, will work in favor of the country. If there is any hope it would be in upending Sadat’s words and finally putting political programs ahead of personalities.

— Maged Atiya


The removal of President Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has invited comparisons with 1954,  a year that convulsed Egypt with violence and conspiracies. I argued last July that the comparison maybe deeply flawed. Events subsequent to that post may render this judgement inaccurate, although in unexpected ways. The progress of events in Egypt since last August invites a different comparison; to 1952.

The July 23 1952 coup was a transformative moment in Egyptian history.  Yet for a variety of reasons the history of that event remains both examined and elusive. Nasser was determined to control the narrative of that time and present the “revolution” in the hoary language of heroic propaganda. Most of the Free Officers, all young men except for their leader General Muhammad Naguib, remained largely silent about the events for the subsequent half century. Naguib was silenced through house arrest, Nasser and Sadat died suddenly in office with no chance to write reflective or honest memoirs, even if they wished. Other prominent figures fared badly as well. Abdel Hakim Amer committed suicide after the 1967 debacle. The man who created the “intelligence state”, Zakaria Mohy el Din, kept his silence till his recent death. His surviving cousin, Khalid, wrote a sensational memoir of suspect accuracy.

There are a number of excellent histories of 1952 by both Egyptian and non-Egyptian historians. They all have to fight the headwind of accumulated propaganda. In the Nasser-inspired hagiography, Egypt woke up on that summer day to realize that it has been made free and was now entering a brand new era. In fact, that was not the case. To listen to those who experienced those events as average citizens, the true significance of 1952 dawned slowly on them.  The progress of events was rapid enough to be sure, but it was a few more years before most Egyptians saw that day as a rupture in their history.

The regime that the 1952 coup put in place resembled nothing that Egypt experienced before, yet it became a template for much of the Arab speaking world, and beyond. After the demise of the Egyptian monarchy, the oldest and most venerable in the region, a few more fell, but eventually the fever broke and no other monarchies have fallen to date. The 1952 coup was both the natural child and inevitable assassin of the age that produced it, the century between the 1850s and 1950s when the Ottoman empire, already in decline, slowly gave up authority over its provinces to the West.

As one watches the events in Egypt in the past few weeks there is a sense that these events may well augur an entirely different age. Some have argued that the July 3 events were a counter-revolution, but it is hard to believe that the decaying state that ended with Mubarak’s departure will be recreated in whole. Others see the inevitable return of the Muslim Brotherhood to relevance and power, but there is nothing convincing in their actions as future political actors. Then there is the sense that Egyptians have a lower level of discomfort over public violence which will lead to wide ramifications, including a demand for return of law and order.  And we can’t be sure if the new age will be better or worse.

The post-1952 Egypt was remade by two forces. First was the failure of the political elite to stand up to the Free Officers, and specifically Nasser, as well as the collusion of some in the subsequent course of events. Second was the fact that the outside world, already weary from World War II, radically altered its expectations and policies toward a newly emerging Egypt. The Suez crisis marked the moment when the British lion, once feared in Egypt, tried to muster one last roar only to let out a squeal. There is something akin to that at the moment, both with regards to the failure of the political class and the incoherence of the outside actors.

The Egypt emerging from July 2013 is an odd and disconcerting place. It is hard to shake the feeling that the familiar names from just a few years ago, Mubarak, Morsi, and others, will all seem quaintly irrelevant in a country that will be less recognizable to those who knew it for the past few decades.

— Maged Atiya

Their Nasser

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is how the prolific Dickens chose to remember the time of revolution in Europe. The same can be said about the age of Nasser in Egypt, where now there is a great yearning for at least a partial and selective return. It is not impossible to point out Nasser’s failures to Egyptians, merely useless. Their Nasser is not a man in their history, rather their history in a man. And who can blame them. Looking around the regions it is easy to get nostalgic. Nasser promised dignity where now there is failure and humiliation. He promised one unified “Arab Nation”, where now the Sudan has split into two, Iraq and Libya on the verge of splitting into three, and Syria into four. Never mind pointing Nasser’s failures to the Egyptians. It will not work, at least not now. Like all great conjurers Nasser demanded both absolute faith and suspension of disbelief. And also like all great con men, he sold the Egyptians their repackaged hopes in stirring language and vivid visions.

The trouble with Nasser is the trouble with Egypt. A country steeped in history retains a problematic approach to it. History is not a social science subjected to the rigor of facts, but a collection of myths constantly reworked on the lathe of current vanities. It is common for outsiders to make the contrast between current Egypt and the greatness of its past. An American  touring two years ago will echo the sentiment of a French general invading two centuries ago, who in turn echoes a Greek historian visiting two millenniums before. Ever conscious of how outsiders perceive them, Egyptians have responded to these claims. They have seen their future as the process of uncovering and recreating the glorious past. Many have sold them this vision. The Islamists have promised glory by return to a proud empire that once stood aggressively against the West. The proponents of “Egyptianism” promised a place among the advanced West by a return to ancient Egyptian glories. These promises are both new and ancient. Pharaoh Ahmose I, 3500 years ago, premised his new kingdom on a refurbishing of pyramids already ancient in his time.

The trouble is that anything resembling a factual study of Egyptian history will reveal an ambiguous picture of ever shifting national identity, and even religions. Yet it is the accepted myth in Egypt that there is a single unchanging identity, something akin to a rare metal which may tarnish but never adulterate, or a great temple, which can be covered in sand but never dissolve into it. Inevitably there will be an argument over which identity is the “true one”. Nasser played those strings masterfully. His propagandists made the expansive, and frankly silly, claim that he is the first “true Egyptian” to govern the country since the Pharaohs. The matinee idol looks made him every Egyptian’s brother, son, and more importantly father, whose protection is occasionally invoked.

The “father card” is played by all politicians in Egypt. A country that values the filial over the truthful is invariably prone to such talk. A culture that sees honor in extolling the hidden virtues of ancestors while covering their obvious nakedness will respond readily to such claims. Nasser was a master practitioner. Mubarak tried to play the same tune, with the added overtones of self-pity, in his last speeches as President. Even the hectoring Morsi made a clumsy and fat-fingered stab at it. The current phase of hyper-nationalism is but another manifestation.

It is doubtful that Egyptians will unshackle themselves from their history. The best we can hope for is that,with some sense,  history will be merely an anchor rather than a millstone, and that they can honor their fathers while seeing the flaws with each father, Nasser included.


— Maged Atiya