In the late 1930s and early 1940s Naguib Mahfouz penned a trilogy of novels set in ancient Egypt but with contemporary themes relating to political succession, legitimacy, social mores and struggle against foreign domination. “’Abath Al Aqdar”, “Radubis” and “KefahTeba” (Play of Fates, Radubis and Thebes’ Struggle) all sold well and were received with some acclaim, even if they lacked the mature Mahfouz style of psychological insight and realism. Mostly they were wooden set pieces designed to carry forward Mahfouz’s ideas. Two critics stood out in their fulsome praise of the novels. One was Salama Moussa, Mahfouz’s mentor and one-time employer. This is not surprising given Moussa’s lifetime espousal of Pharaonism. He was past his prime by then, and the remaining two decades of his life would be dedicated to retrospective reflections, score-setting, ideological agitation against the Muslim Brotherhood and occasional stints as a safe journalist for the 1952 coup makers. But Moussa’s praise was exceeded by that of Sayyd Qutb, who went further to suggest that the books be made mandatory readings for Egyptian schools, insisting that ancient Egypt should be a guide post for future development in the country. Within two decades Qutb would walk to the gallows for peripheral participation in farcical seditions, but his influence would continue to grow within Egypt and eventually outside it. His final works found new guide posts in a romanticized version of early Islam, and saw in ancient Egypt a warning tale about ignorance, cruelty, and dictatorship. Moussa’s descent to obscurity and Qutb’s rise to fame both reflect the fate of Pharaonism in Egypt, and outside it as well. The Western obsession with ancient Egypt has never truly faded, but it has been superseded in many quarters with fascination with Islamism, driven largely by its threats to the West, as well as how it neatly fits with “post-colonial” discourse currently in vogue among academics. Moussa, who respected the West and favored a constructive engagement with its heritage, is rarely studied, considered “safe” and therefore safely ignored. Qutb’s flammable narrative of grievance towards the West, the loss of imagined greatness and the promise of eventual triumph is deemed more worthy of study. When Sadat’s assassin screamed “I killed the Pharaoh”, 15 years after Qutb’s death, he was a witness to the damage Qutb’s ideas inflicted on the nation that damaged him. Pharaonism, one of the main engines of Egyptian nationalism, has been largely ignored and discounted, and when its effects come to the forefront on occasions, they evoke a puzzled response.
Pharaonism has assumed a variety of forms and as a result escapes easy definitions. At the core of it is a view that Egypt has a unique and integral history, from its earliest moments to its present day. The variety of historical forces, cultural transformations and religious shifts in Egypt are seen as mere surface ripples, a superficial reorganization of unique native features. There is more than a passing resemblance to various European forms of nationalism, especially those inclined to romanticism, such as German nationalism. It is a unifying force with a dark underside. Mahfouz’s third novel, “KefahTeba”, is laced with no small amount of xenophobia. The Asiatic invaders, the Hyksos, are sometimes described as “pale”, “flabby” and “treacherous”, in contrast to the dark, lean and honest Egyptians. Surf through Egyptian cable channels today and you will find echoes of that among the low grade peddlers of incitement, who frequently call Hamas, or even the very Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, “Hyksos”.
What are we to make of Qutb’s about-face regarding ancient Egypt? It would not be wholly correct to see it as part-and-parcel of his transformation from a liberal esthete to an Islamic “Fundamentalist”. Qutb’s rabid hostility to ancient Egypt seems more modern than atavistic. Early Arab invaders and subsequent Muslim historians generally lacked this level of hostility. Many (Al Mutannabi, Al Baghdadi) saw in the puzzling and silent massive monuments a witness to God’s wrath against pagans; that such a mighty empire can disappear without a trace. Others, such as Ibn Wahshyia or Abu ‘Ubayd Al Bakri, , were closer to later Western observers, marveling at these wonders and insisting they were built by a superior race of men (“they begat children who spoke at birth”). Islamic iconoclasm was never deployed towards the systemic destruction of the ancient Egyptian Atlals. They were certainly plundered, neglected and occasionally used as a quarry, but in only very few isolated instances did the rulers direct actual destruction. Qutb’s anger is closer to the attempt by various totalitarian systems to erase the past and create a “new man”. It was also motivated by his alienation from the ruling elites, which often employed ancient Egyptian history as a legitimizing tool (Nasser’s partisans claimed he was the first true Egyptian to rule the country since ancient times).
Pharaonism had its heyday from the late 1800s to the 1940s. It became closely associated with the Egyptian national struggle for modernization and independence, as can be seen from works such as Sa’ad Zaghloul’s tomb (attacked as un-Islamic) and Mahmoud Mokhtar famous statue outside Cairo University. Starting in the 1940s the struggle against the British took on less national and more religious tones, as the Brotherhood formed armed groups and agitated less for Egyptian independence than for a broad rejection of the West, including the newly formed state of Israel. From that point on, Pharaonism fought what seemed to be a losing rear guard action against Islamism. Mahfouz, for example, never renounced it, but never completed his project of additional novels set in ancient Egypt. Political repression post-1952 further weakened Pharaonism, draining vitality out of nationalist parties and channeling much of the political discourse toward Arabism, and since the 1970s, Islamism. The revolution of 2011 was notable for its lack of Pharaonic symbolism, aside from the odd demonstration by Copts, who clung ever closer to the Pharaonic past as the public sphere became more Islamicized ( we should note here with some amusement what the 12th century Al Baghdadi wrote “Copts continue to preserve a great preference for the worship of the nation of their origin and suffer themselves readily to the customs of their ancestors“) . In fact, many of the young revolutionaries, purposely or otherwise, adopted the Islamist narrative of oppressive rulers as “Pharaohs”. This narrative, which seems natural to our ears today, would have been off-key in the 1930s when Mahfouz began his novels. In his trilogy the Pharaoh is a symbol of the nation, a manifestation of its hopes and an expression of its health. Oppression is associated with foreign influences; the Asiatic invaders and the marauding Bedouins. It would have been easy to think that Pharaonism is a quaint but irrelevant relic.
There is little question that the Muslim Brotherhood has been instrumental in shaping Egyptian social attitudes since the 1940s, even under repression. It is telling that Nasser, as Prime Minister prior to becoming President, took the reins of education from one Hussein (Taha) and handed it to another (Kamal El Din), almost certainly a Brotherhood sympathizer or perhaps a secret member. The Arabization program of the 1950s and 1960s was at its root Islamism-lite. Historians have yet to write a full account of the spectacular fall of the Brotherhood. But the warning signs were present at their moment of triumph. The organization wrapped itself tightly in the 2011 revolution that it would never have started. As the balance sheet of the revolution began to dip into negative territory, the public soured on those associated with it. The parliamentary elections of 2011 seemed a triumph for the tactics of the group. But there were troubling signs as well. Their slogan “Bringing prosperity to Egypt” displayed a tin ear; opening them to a backlash once the promise faded, and to the accusation by their opponents of behaving as if they were an external group to the country. They seemed to conclude that they have more to fear from their religious right than anywhere else in the political spectrum, thus fostering many more political miscalculations, such as putting up two candidates for President. Epistemological closure, a euphemism for stubbornness, served the Brotherhood well in opposition, and brought them down when in power. We do not know what finally tipped the balance against Morsi. As late as April 2013, Sisi warned that Army intervention in politics would set the country back decades and might be bloody. One suspects that Morsi’s support for sending fighters to Syria panicked the military, which saw dangers on three sides; terrorism in the Sinai, chaos in Libya and a collapsed state in the Sudan. The Brotherhood could not imagine that the country that gave it its votes would stand by and witness a brutal suppression. Ironically the events have a faint echo in 1952. The Wafd party, which dominated Egyptian politics on the premise that independence would bring dignity and prosperity, saw its stalwart voters flee in the early 1950s and watch as the Army and the Brotherhood disassembled its apparatus from 1952 to 1954.
The many, perhaps the majority, of Egyptians who supported the removal of Morsi face the paradox of removing an elected President to safeguard democracy. We can ignore the most unhinged voices in Egypt, usually the loudest and most entertaining. But we should heed saner voices that see the events of July 3 as necessary, not as a road to progress but as a last ditch rescue mission. These voices need a framework to manage the obvious contradiction. The new regime also recognizes that a return to the Mubarak formula will not work, and seeks an ideology to counter Islamism. It seems that Pharaonism 2.0 is being dusted up and offered as a possible solution to such issues. It has potential advantages. Its less attractive features of extreme nationalism and reverence for titular authority offer a good tool kit, especially in a region with collapsing states. Its association with the brief liberal era offers hope for many Egyptians that democracy might not be so far off. Also, as Egypt seeks approval from a global audience that views July 3 with some disdain, the “old Egypt” might be an attractive product for a world grown skeptical about “moderate political Islam” and fearful of the darker manifestations of Islamism. It is no accident that Sisi’s visit to the UN featured a flurry of kitsch Pharaonic ads (the Nile flowing by the Pyramids, etc.). The only gambit left off the menu was a parade of Tutankhamen’s mask down Broadway.
To be among the few who predicted the fall of the Brotherhood as it achieved the pinnacle of power is of little satisfaction. Their fall is not a rejection of their narrow ideology for an alternative liberal attitude. And it came at a heavy price. There is the faint hope that form might create function; that the superficial trappings of a more inclusive nationalism might create such reality. It would require everyone to accept less than full vindication. This dangerous moment can cause Egyptians to pull back from the brink and accept a diverse public sphere. It can also cause them to double down and insist on a narrower definition of what constitutes acceptable national dialog, condemning the nation to decades of strife. There is little in the current environment to inspire optimism, yet Egypt has a capacity to surprise.
— Maged Atiya
A photograph circulated on social media shows a group of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in prison laughing and displaying the Rab’a four-finger salute. The first temptation is to respect their willingness to uphold their beliefs in face of extreme coercion. But a deeper look into the faces in the photograph highlights the troubles in the Egyptian soul.
Every young Copt is indoctrinated into the virtues of “Martyrdom”. The Church, probably the most Egyptian of institutions, calls itself the “Church of Martyrs”, and dates its calendar from time of one of the worst bouts of repression. It is tempting to find an analogy in the Brotherhood narrative. But we need to look deeper, first by looking into the troubling concept of “Martyrdom”. There were two kinds of Christians martyrs, broadly speaking. Those who were asked to renounce their faith, and were persecuted, tortured or killed for it. Then there were those who actively and defiantly professed their faith and challenged the authorities. The first group has to have our admiration. The second group is more troubling. There is an air of moral exhibitionism about such acts, and an underlying assumption of superiority and a desire to coerce others into the individual’s belief. Our attitude toward such “martyrdom” must be very wary.
The now famous call of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” stands as one of the clearest moral declarations in history. The sequencing is very important. Sometimes we need to sacrifice our happiness to pursue liberty. Sometimes we need to sacrifice liberty to protect our lives. But our highest duty, individually, familially and socially is to preserve life. If a man is inclined to faith, he may phrase it as honoring God’s gift. If such sequencing is kept at the center of our attention, then we can find a path in the thicket of the current Egyptian sad repression.
The Brotherhood members who defy authority, and as a result are jailed or killed for it, are indeed brave. We can offer empathy, but not approval. At the core of their actions is a belief that they are right, and that the rest of society must conform to their views. The Brotherhood ideology, from Al Banna, to Qutb, to today, displays a desire to radically alter the society. Theirs is a historic mission to make a “new man”, one that conforms to their views of godliness. They have actively, and largely successfully, altered the social landscape to their views; making it narrower and more coercive. They were aided by the rest of society; which rarely values individuality, and strongly disapproves of those who forge a different path. This is Egypt’s illness to cure, if progress is to be made.
We can respect the Brotherhood for its courage in standing up to society when it finally hit back. But we cannot list its members among admirable “martyrs”. They have long assaulted the two virtues necessary for a free society; respect for individual rights and defense of diversity. The courage to stand up for one’s beliefs does not lessen the odiousness of such beliefs. The willingness to throw lives away in pursuit of less personal liberty is not happiness.
— Maged Atiya
The codicils of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot led to the creation of five states in the Levant, four by commission (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan) and one by omission (Israel). A century ago three states looked promising. Lebanon and Syria contained the urban centers, the commercial and cultural elites and the closest connections to the West. Iraq had plenty of arable land, two ancient flowing rivers and sat atop a vast pool of oil. Israel and Jordan were the runt of that litter of states. Israel faced the hostility of its neighbors and murderous European anti-Semitism. Jordan was an oddly shaped strip of desert with little going for it. Its ruling house, the Hashemites, had just been ejected from the Hijaz by their neighbors to the south, the House of Ibn Saud. Their kinsmen in Iraq faced a cycle of coups until the last one, in 1958, dispatched with the king in a surge of blood lust. Its King, Abdullah I, was widely reviled by other Arabs for dealing with Israel. The one-time Mufti of Jerusalem, and a Hitler chum, sentenced him to being a “Yahudi”, a Jew. The sentence was carried out by an assassin’s bullet in 1951. Even worse, his son was mentally unstable and his grandson was a mere boy. Jordan’s luck began to turn when the boy grew up to be a substantial statesman. Today, the picture could not be more different. This brings us, by a roundabout way, to the events of September 1970, which constitute the opening shot in the long Arab civil wars, still raging 44 years after that fateful month.
Hussein did not have an easy reign. He kept a cool head, even when others sought to dispatch with it. He was not immune to mistakes, the worst of which was embracing Nasser in May 1967 after more than a decade of cool, occasionally hostile, relationship. The embrace was deadly. Jordan lost the West Bank, nearly its entire army and was flooded by refugees. Palestinian militants sought in Jordan a base of operation against Israel. The decorum of Arab Nationalism meant that Hussein should say “Yes”, even if he meant “No”, while expecting little help from fellow Arabs when the inevitable reprisals would come. But Hussein did not follow the Arab script. He behaved as a standard national statesman, placing Jordan’s interests first, and realizing that no functioning state can tolerate independent armed militias, however misty-eyed the cause might be. In September 1970 he led his Bedouin troops, clad in checkered Kaffiyahs, against Yasser Arafat’s men. When Hafez Al Assad of Syria threatened to intervene, Hussein sought Israel’s help. The Arab civil wars had begun.
The nominal, and largely self-appointed, leader of the Arabs called a conference in his hometown, Cairo. News photographs show Nasser sitting between Arafat and Hussein, urging a truce. The calendar had him at a young 52, but his temples were graying, his pallor showed the tell-tale signs of heart disease and diabetes. He was a man working, and smoking, himself to death in order to contain the demons he had unleased. That intervention was Nasser’s last act. His weepy successor, Anwar El Sadat, would take a page from Hussein’s tale and place Egypt’s interest ahead of that of the Palestinians. When Arab leaders raged at him, including the diminutive Hussein who always secretly dealt with the Israelis, he simply dismissed them as “pygmies”, earning him the enmity of the leaders, as well as the Pygmies.
Back to the tale of September 1970. Arafat and his men were routed. They sought a new home. Only Egypt and Lebanon seemed promising. These were countries that sang from very different hymn books. If Oum Kalthoum symbolized matronly Egypt, Salacious Sabah and moody Fairouz symbolized Lebanon. Beirut of 1970 was a freewheeling cosmopolitan of many factions, most in the pay of outsiders. Arafat moved there, carrying the virus of civil war to a country with a weakened immunity to it. In less than five years, Lebanon would erupt into civil war.
Another September, five years later, would see armed men take over hotels to begin the landmark battles of Beirut, which were to last for more than a decade. The flames from that conflict would erupt in another far away corner, Iraq, in September of 1980. Sunni powers, seared by the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian revolution, urged, and occasionally paid, Saddam Hussein to start a bloody war that lasted a decade to no effect. Two years after that, in September 1982, the world would witness the first instance of a massacre now frequently repeated throughout the Levant. On September 16 and 18 armed men slaughtered civilians for the mere crime of being Palestinians, under the watchful eyes of Israel, the West and Arab countries.
The dominos of September continue to fall. September 2014 is yet another in this sad streak. History, like a good actor, rarely repeats itself. But it often reads from the same text. Today’s Levant recalls that of a century ago. Then as now, Imperial powers, aided by Peninsular Arabs, fought over the Levant. Then as now, Egypt stayed aloof, attempting to sort out its identity crisis, albeit with more blood today. Then as now, the Western powers meant well and bumbled badly. Now as then, it will end with ravaged lands, uncertain politics, dark memories, brutal divisions and fragile borders. Proponents of the “Arab Nation” will see conspiracies where there are open plans, enemies where there are self-interested actors, truth where there are lies and lies and betrayals where there are truths.
There is little to learn from the dominos of September, at least little than can be learned by those that matter. But the least we can do is fail to be certain, strive to understand, and struggle to empathize. All else is bound to be irrelevant.
— Maged Atiya