The Years Of Hope And Despair

Rushdi Said labeled the years 1968-1981 as “years of hope and despair”. The well-known geologist and occasional government minister described the following:

After the 1967 defeat the political leadership ended its dependency on the army and the intelligence apparatus because of their failure to defend the regime, and instead reached out for the support of the people. This shift was reflected in the measures that the leadership took to help modernize and democratize government administration. It streamlined the work of the government and made it accountable. It made sure that the government and public sector appointments were made in accordance with the merit system. These reforms of the government administration were strictly adhered to until the war of October 1973, a war that would have had no chance of success without these reforms. The reforms were abandoned after the 1973 war. (Science & Politics in Egypt, P 171)

The post-1967 years are often described as years of defeat and breakdown. There was that. The daily bread was often corrupted with saw dust. Staples were hard to come by. Oranges, for example, once plentiful, were in short supply, as they were used to pay the Soviet Union for weapons. The country suffered the effects of Israeli raids and occasional forays. But the years had a certain luminosity, as Said noted. Something felt very different in Egypt. There was an air of anticipation and possibilities. Economic growth, for the first time in several years, picked up. Students, some as young as 8 or 9, could demonstrate and even criticize the government openly. Al Azhar admitted women to its schools for the first time, and many came wearing short skirts. There was attention to merit; the commander of a major army was a Copt, for example. Government contracts were bid out fairly. Even the notorious Cairo traffic flowed smoothly, aided by newly constructed tunnels and bridges. How do we square these undeniable feelings and observations with the reality of defeat and the ever-present anxiety of  failure?

Egypt between the wars, 1967 to 1973, was free of two influences that haunted it for nearly two decades prior to 1967. Nasser smashed the Muslim Brotherhood to bits. Israel smashed the army. Free from both the Brotherhood and the army, Egyptians glimpsed a vision of Egypt unchained by these two authoritarian and hectoring groups.  After 1973 things changed rapidly, and not for the better. Sadat empowered the Brotherhood, initially on university campuses to counter the liberals and the left, but ultimately throughout society, and the army had its honor restored, although the best and most successful of its generals were booted out. Six days of war were followed by six years of hope and forty years of despair.

The fading year of 2013 has been one of despair in Egypt. Every week brought fresh horrors and searing images of pain. Who can forget the Port Said deaths, the lynching of Shi’a citizens, the attack on St Mark’s Cathedral, the horror of death at Rab’a, and the daily demonstrations  often accompanied by injuries and deaths. The polarized country is left feeling that it must choose between one of two tormentors. That would be a false feeling. There is luminosity in Egypt, which only a third way will uncover, and chart a path forward unchained by the forces that gave the land forty years of despair.

— Maged Atiya

Authoritarianism, If You Can keep It

A sense of gloom surrounds the upcoming third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution . There is a feeling that the gyre has turned back to the starting point of familiar authoritarianism. It would be an error to ignore Egypt’s long history of revolt and assume that the current trend is long lasting. Those who have been waiting for an answer of what system the revolution will produce seem to be getting a grotesque variation of the famous Benjamin Franklin quip: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”. The great fear is not that Egypt will keep a new-found authoritarianism, but rather that it will lose it without finding a superior substitute. Too little is written about the weakness of the Egyptian state, primarily because its habits of public and blunt coercion hide its underlying fragility. The closest analogy is a bully with a glass jaw. In a thousand schoolyard tales a bully reigns supreme until that moment when a punch sends him to the ground sniffling. After that it is always nearly impossible to regain the top dog status.

Much attention has been placed on promoting democracy in Egypt, and too little on identifying the rough outline of what constitutes “Egypt”. There is a strongly-held romantic view of the square-shaped desert land surrounding the Nile valley as integral and eternal. But the land has been labile for the better part of two hundred years as it tries to find an identity beyond that of an exploited province of great empires. That identity has been so strong and familiar that long after all empires have vanished exploitation continues at the hands of self-selected few. Politics in modern Egypt has sometimes been nothing more than an economically extractive process. Those who do not seek to enrich themselves instead have often brought up fantastic tales of hidden meddling by external forces. The rough outlines of a people’s soul are often defined by their collective mythology. When Egyptians from all walks of life, from the mighty Sadat to the earnest Muslim Brotherhood cadre to the hyper-nationalist Copt, whisper tales of external powers wishing to partition Egypt they betray their fear about the uncertainty of the Egyptian identity. The current polarization is between two camps favoring mobilization along familiar but largely mythological lines, nationalism and religion. Both camps are authoritarian in character, for they favor the collective over the individual, even if their definitions of the collective are radically different. Yet it would be false to assume equivalence between the two. Only the nationalist mobilization has the DNA to evolve into something resembling a liberal system that works for the benefit of the average man or woman.

As the noise of revolution dies down the real work must begin of building a national narrative and a working contract between the state and the people. It is difficult and uncertain work, with many likely reverses. But it is not without precedent in Egypt as there is much intellectual capital to start with. No other country in the region, except possibly Israel, has worried so long and wrote so extensively about what it means to be a “native”. The accusation of “unEgyptianness”, or worse of working for a foreign agenda, is a familiar one; hurled with poor aim both in the public sphere and occasionally across the dinner table.  Nevertheless, it should not slow down those who wish to construct a rational order based on exchange of rights for protection. Being an Egyptian should not be a one-sided deal of constant sacrifice for “Egypt”, but also of the country giving back dignity and prosperity for its citizens.

There is no durable retreat to authoritarianism, the end will be either chaos or a better and more liberal system. The outcome will depend on the work done in the shadow of authoritarianism and on the manner by which it is brought to heel.

— Maged Atiya


For much of its troubled history Pakistan has been a nominal, and occasionally a treaty, ally of the United States. It has alternated elected civilian government with military regimes aiming to correct the errors of the civilians. It has enjoyed the financial support of the Saudi royal regime. Its large and ponderous army fared badly against India whenever conflict came, and now is doing rather poorly against a home-grown insurgency by retrograde religious fundamentalists in a wild desert bad land. The reader who thinks this is an attempt to draw parallels with present-day Egypt would only be partly right. It is also important to call attention to the differences which, if rapidly erased, would spell disaster for both Egypt and the neighboring West.

Egypt is not Pakistan for one primary reason; the trenchant Egyptian historic identity, embraced most strongly today by the native Egyptian Christians, the Copts. Intellectuals will rush in at this point to elaborate that identity is largely manufactured and is in no way an integral and organic part of any polity. That could very well be true, and also irrelevant. This identity, utterly lacking in shallow-rooted Pakistan when it split from historic India, is the last vestigial protection against an array of familiar horrors. The horrors include a large country with a failing economy drenched in daily senseless violence. They also include a massive brain-drain that leaves it at the mercy of the worst among the confused citizens. More relevant to the West is the possibility that the Suez Canal, Sinai and the border with Israel may soon become the equivalent of the Pakistani Northwest Frontier. The economic plum of the Sinai will instead be a heartless land, a present-day Mad Max landscape where machines roam the air to hunt men below.

Egypt is not there yet, and all reason tells us to stop this slide. The current struggle between the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood is a struggle between two occasional allies, neither having strong liberal, democratic or economic management track record. It is tempting to say “pox on both”. That would also be pox on Egypt, and ultimately on the West. There is a view in the West that political Islamism is an integral component of Muslim-majority countries and can not be defeated. There is nothing in history to support this view, and its adoption could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ultimate defeat of political Islamism is as critical to the liberal order in the West as was the defeat of home-grown totalitarian systems. There is no better place to start that process than Egypt. The strong historic identity, the existence of a large, native and patriotic Christian minority, as well as a significant fraction of Egyptian Muslims who wish to see a prosperous and diverse country devoid of religious bigotry, are all good portents. But only so with a commitment to a long and principled struggle.

The 99.9% Solution

It is likely that Nasser would never have lost an election in Egypt. Yet every referendum he ever proposed or starred in had results that would be the envy of the six-sigma preachers of corporate America . The final figure always had a profusion of the digit “9”, as if the government printing press had no other digits at hand. The 1956 referendum was won by a margin of 99.9%, other referendums featured additional nines.  Nasser wore his nines with elegance as he was always assured of the people’s love, less can be said about the garish and bloody imitators in the region.

Historians have generally accepted this as the expected behavior of dictators. Yet Nasser was hardly a vicious dictator in the mold of Saddam, for example. His power rested on a wide acceptance by many forces in Egypt, although with stiff resistance as well. Nor can it be said that it was born of his early association as a callow youth with various totalitarian groups in Egypt. He managed to outgrow all of these associations, and in time crack down on most of them. Also, we should note that this practice set the stage for other imitators (primarily Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt), who lived and governed differently and in different circumstances. There may yet be another explanation for that obsession with overwhelming and ridiculous winning margins.

Nasser may have realized early on the fragility of the Egyptian state. From the outside, the structure of the Egyptian state seems mighty and oppressive. But its oppression might owe less to might than weakness. He, and subsequent rulers, maybe have been in touch with the anarchist streak in the Egyptian soul (traffic patterns are the best hint there), and feared its eruptions. Anything less than an overwhelming, even silly, win might spark a protest that will quickly mushroom into outright rebellion. Subsequent history does not show them entirely wrong. In fact, stare long enough at the three nines and the current situation in Egypt becomes clearer. 2011 was the year that the brittleness of the seemingly mighty state was laid bare for all to see.  2012 was the year it became absolutely clear that the Muslim brotherhood sees elections as the means to acquire power, rather than the method for safely alternating it among different hands. Neither winning power by peaceful means nor losing it by extra-legal ones is likely to alter the Brotherhood view of governance as simply a means to repress and eliminate opponents. Pundits who talked knowingly of the “moderate Brotherhood” now intone about the “return of the regime”. 2013 is the year it also became clear that the “regime” can never return, as one of its components was the presence of the Brotherhood as peaceful and beaten opposition, useful to narrow the social and intellectual space and as a convenient patsy in the ring.

The notion of dissent as rebellion has taken hold in Egypt with dangerous consequences. It is not merely those in power that view dissent as a rebellion. More alarmingly, dissidents also see dissent as a means to overturn the political order. Much of the confusion in the reaction of Western observers to the current protest law lies in the different understanding of “dissent”. In a functioning liberal and plural system dissent is a means to alter the behavior, rather than affect the removal,  of leaders. Yet listen to all factions in Egypt and you will see that dissent is seen as simply a way toward radical change of leaders and even rules. This sets a dangerous feedback loop of repression and dissent that must be broken in some fashion or a more open system can never be established in Egypt. The intellectual sphere in Egypt has narrowed considerably under the onslaught of religious fundamentalism and societal disrespect for differences. It is not surprising that in such an environment there is an obsession with total approval, for that indicates total control as well.

The best contribution toward stability in Egypt is to further the understanding that a regime is not illegitimate if it has the approval of only 51% of the people, or even if it has the approval of a minority. A regime is legitimate because it acquired power by the rules and maintains power by strict observation of these rules. The rules need to include respect for the natural rights of the individual and communal need for law and order. Until that understanding animates the politics of Egypt, look forward to further repressions fueled by the belief that anything short of total approval constitutes a loss of legitimacy. The 99.9% solution is Egypt’s millstone.


— Maged Atiya