After The Wreckage

Egypt has become the land of zero learning curve. Events seem to harden rather than alter the positions of all sides. The standoff between the two great illiberal forces in the country, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, is not heading to an obvious resolution. A year ago the Army adopted the statesman’s position of “warning” the Brotherhood and its civilian opponents to compromise for the sake of the country. The Brotherhood responded by further digging in. In time the Army called their bluff and removed President Morsi. The shock of this event was insufficient to penetrate the epistemological shell of a cult-like organization endowed with legendary Egyptian stubbornness. They refused to recognize the popular sentiment against their dominance and saw minor events as portents for the return of President Morsi. Outside powers encouraged their delusions and cynically left their people in harm’s way. Even the terrible slaughter at Rab’a was simply evidence that things cannot continue that way. They did not, they got worse. In the meantime, those who supported the removal of Morsi refuse to recognize that injustice is rife and that it feeds its twin, chaos. They are also unwilling to face the reality that the Gulf financial aid will end sooner or later and that a systematic focus on economic recovery requires more than “ending terrorism”.

This is a classic stalemate. One side cannot lose but unable to pacify; the other cannot win but able to disrupt. Stalemates in politics are often convenient and constructive, but in violent struggles debilitating and disastrous. The situation is in many ways similar to the aftermath of the 1967 war. Israel could not lose a war against the Arabs but could not forge peace with them. The stalemate was ended when a faction on one side found the psychological strength to make a sullen peace, and those who refused to go along left to their fate. It was not just; but it was not war. It also helped that a major power, the United States, made its goals clearly and unequivocally and then invested sufficient efforts to achieve them. The goals were the survival of Israel and the removal of Egypt from the battle. The methods varied, ranging from Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” to Carter’s “Camp David” strong-arming, but the goal remained the same.

Is a similar outcome possible today in Egypt? The best answer is that “we do not know”. It is disheartening to see otherwise sober statesman such as Senator Patrick Leahy burst out in red-faced frustration about Egypt and its relations with the US. It is also ineffectual. To clean up after the current wreckage requires a clarification of the goals, rather than a focus on methods. The task of US policy makers is unenviable. They need to preserve US interests, which requires making clear choices. Refusal to make choices led to the current situation where all sides seem hostile to the US. But can a country such as the US make a choice between two sides, one offering injustice and the other chaos? This requires subtle understanding and imagination to see the contours of what is possible and what might emerge in time. It is a long term, occasionally frustrating task; probably more so than the decade spent diffusing the Israel-Egypt standoff.

Absolute policy goals are best when they are few and easily articulated. At the moment the only logical goals for the US should be a clear support for the preservation of the integrity of the Egyptian state and the continuation of its support for furthering the development of an open globalized and prosperous world. It will mean that the official policy and the public pressure might need to go in different directions. This is a tough act for a noisy democracy, and requires leaders able to buck the public pressure on occasions. Let us hope they exist in Washington.


— Maged Atiya


April 1968 in Egypt

That April was not the cruelest month of the year, but the most disappointing month of an entire generation. The day after it ended Egyptians went to the polls to vote for a “Constitutional Declaration”, the first, but alas not the last time, such a term was used. It was, like much else of the improvised regime, an invention of President Nasser. Out of 7,450,478 eligible voters 7,317,419 chose to vote (98.2%), and of those 7,315,743 (99.97%) approved of the declarations. It is possible that the vote was rigged, but equally possible that it was not. Egyptians had a developed a habit of agreeing with the ruler, especially when the alternatives are uncertain.

The trouble with April began in February. The judgment of a court martial on officers held responsible for the 1967 war debacle was passed on February 21 1968, and most deemed it nothing more than a severe slap on the wrist. Suddenly all of Egypt seemed to be on the brink of revolution. Workers walked out at army factories. Cairo University students walked out onto the streets of Giza. Across the city in Heliopolis new students at the elite Al Tabari school, boys not yet into their teens, burst out of the gates screeching slogans they barely understood in sympathy with the older students. As luck would have it they immediately ran into a surprised platoon of new police recruits on their lunch break, smooth-faced country boys of high school age. What followed was less of the police disbursing demonstrators than a school yard melee. All the students were home before supper, sullen and bruised, having learned that voice in Egypt is often found at the painful end of a policeman’s nightstick.

March was a month of excitement. Teach-ins in Giza featured young men with liberal political views, young women with wild hair and the leering informers. Middle-aged men, who imagined themselves in the know, speculated that this is the end of Nasser’s time, and that his second, Zakaria Moheiddin, the US man in Egypt, will soon take over. In time Nasser joined the revolution, for he was not a man who ever missed a revolt, including one directed at him. By the end of March, his efforts resulted in a new revolutionary document, “The March 30” declaration, which aimed to put the defeated Egyptian state on an even keel. Again, the cynics should note that he believed his words, and for the remainder of his life he was a changed man. He had taken off his Army uniform 14 years earlier, but now he seemed free of Army thinking as well. The country actually picked up some vigor, enough to allow it to coast to a face-saving battle in 1973. But March 30 was the end of any real improvement in Egyptian governance for at least a generation, possibly more.

As March ended, April featured the usual media barrage to support the keen vision of “El Ra’is”. April also featured something more celestial than TV appearances by tired sycophants. Early in the month people began to claim visions of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in a Zeitoun Church. In a pleasantly cool late April night a crowd assembled outside the Church. Wicker chairs were set up cinema style. The front rows, reserved for the VIPs featured upholstered cushions. The inevitable seller of salted Lupini beans plied his trade. As the night wore on the crowd stilled and finally slept. A couple of hours ahead of dawn there was a sudden stir, followed by cheers and applause. The one boy who stayed up intently looking at the sky saw nothing but blackness. He kept his silence out of respect for the crowd’s feelings, or in fear of its wrath. Perhaps the cheering crowds obscured his view. The rest of Egypt, the vast majority that did not assemble in Zeitoun, still held strong opinions about what they did not see.  Some saw it as a heavenly sign favoring Egypt; others dismissed it as hallucinations of the religiously deluded. Few suspended belief awaiting firm evidence.

Among the skeptics was a charismatic Sunday school teacher in the Cleopatra Church, barely a mile away from Zeitoun. By June he had left his position without an explanation. The summer found him running bootleg Sunday school in the basement of the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Qubba Street. It was never clear whether boys flocked to the weekly meeting out of loyalty, need or the desire to hear bootleg records of “The Doors”. It did not hurt that he turned a blind eye to the pile of banana and Guava thought to cover the smell of Cigarettes and Alcohol. In time he was turned out of there as well, and eventually out of Egypt. In 1970s he was an enthusiastic builder of a Houston congregation, and an occasional demonstrator for democracy in Egypt. But the habits of an inquisitive mind also distanced him from his new Church. A chance encounter in April 1993, at Houston Airport, found him a portly shadow of his former self. He recognized but refused to acknowledge a former student.

— Maged Atiya