Up Against the Wall in Egypt

A recent conversation with an Egyptian businessman sheds light on the current situation in the country. He is a young man who started his own technology business and continues to try to grow it against all odds.  Such entrepreneurs can lead Egypt out of the economic doldrums.  His small business is not beholden to the state and employs dozens of people at decent wages. It is not unduly romantic to see such business as a microcosm of a desirable Egypt, as it employs both men and women, of different faiths and political views. In time a burgeoning Middle Class would demand, and ultimately find, respect for its freedom and property.  Up until 2011 the picture was bright. He was able to attract many foreign contracts by a combination of a good product at lower prices. Furthermore, Egypt was considered an upcoming “tiger” and an attractive destination.

The first hit came in January 2011. The idiot who turned off the internet to thwart foreign plotters probably had no thought, or little cared, that it would also irritate foreign clients. There was an uptick of good will during the short after-glow of the revolution. But by the summer of 2011 there was further turmoil, which continues to this day. For a man trying to sell his wares abroad, Egypt’s current reputation is a nasty head wind. The narrative is one of protests, sexual harassment, religious zealotry, intolerance, repression, violence and a near insurgency. Few Egyptians have read H.L. Mencken on Journalism, and they see dark plots where there is only the natural inclination to report the most stirring news. To be fair, Egypt has handed reporters plenty of rich yarn to weave a dark tapestry. Any attempt to find hope, or balance the picture, is often rejected as justifying government repression. There is even the occasional esteemed academic who rejects any warm feelings toward the country with unhelpful snark.

It goes without saying that the political and cultural elites of Egypt have failed it. This is of little comfort to someone trying to meet a payroll. Yet there is little concern for such men, or for the people who are on the receiving end of the payroll. They are squeezed on all sides. There is the Army, which is traditionally statist and has little understanding of the environment necessary to promote entrepreneurship. The Brotherhood respected the market place, but its eyes were always on a higher goal, and its aging leaders are willing to bring down the house. Many supporters of the former regime are smarmy, and a few are outright crony capitalists. Many of the activists agitating for political freedom lean heavily left, and have little sympathy for business or the role it might play in cementing actual freedoms. The population at large is suspicious of those who prosper and maintain foreign connections. The most damaging binary dynamic is that of protest and the government’s ham-fisted response to it.

Protesting to achieve social or political reform is now considered praise-worthy. The canonization of men such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King has obscured their real achievements. Their success is due less to their saintly character, or the purity of their goals, but more to their political acumen. In the struggle against injustice they chose their weapons well, and wielded them with deftness in selective battles. Above all, they were realistic political men. Even in the best of cases protest is an uncertain business. Indian independence was a bloody affair, and would have been far bloodier without the leadership of Nehru, who was not overly fond of Gandhi, and because of his readiness to cut deals, and if rumors are right, fall into bed with his opponents. Yet in Egypt people seek a narrative without shades, of right and wrong, good people and bad ones. It is a mirage. Questions must be asked about protest; such as who are the protestors, what is their program for governance, how do they see the rest of the world and society, do they relate to the average man, and most importantly, has protest worked or landed Egypt in deeper straights. Yet to ask these is to invite accusations of collaboration with the regime, indifference or even cruelty. These accusations must be received with equanimity and returned with affection. But they do little to further understanding or show a way out of the current mess. Protesters often have the enormous courage to face jail or worse, but not to subject their views and tactics to criticism. As an enterprise, the goals of protests are laudable, but  their balance sheet is increasingly negative.

The poet Qabbani wrote : “for daring to approach your deaf walls I was beaten with my own shoes”.  The lines are meant to evoke anger at the cruel ruler.  But we can read them in a different way; as a cautionary tale about the futility of approaching the crumbling walls and seeking redress from the fearful men within. Better to keep the shoes firmly on, march forward, and build a different edifice; perhaps not a shining city on a hill, but a sturdier structure on less shifting sand.  It is not that Egypt has lacked for dissidents who withdrew from society to build a different one. Islamists, Salafis, and to a lesser extent Copts have all done so. Yet what they have built is either too small to matter or too grotesque to fathom. Neither the protesters, nor those seeking to silence them, have advanced a workable vision of governance, prompting one Egyptian historian to borrow from Kolakowski, and Baudelaire, to describe the conflict as between lovers of clouds and lovers of prostitutes. To describe a private business that makes a healthy profit from foreign exports as “non-governmental organization with foreign funding” is to provoke nervous laughter. In Egypt’s current koftesque stage what is literally true is also undeniably false.

In the end both protests and the attempts to suppress them have to be mindful of not crossing the line that binds people into a cohesive society, a test that Egypt currently fails. The authorities will not calculate the cost of success, nor the protesters the cost of failure. The vision remains of raging against a wall, rather than building a bridge. Few are willing to either co-opt or be co-opted.

Another conversation closes this post. It is with a veteran of the student protests at Columbia. The aging man, still inordinately fond of his younger, slimmer and hairier self, recalls a heady moment of protest. He had taunted and jeered the police for two days before finally lobbing a rock in their general direction. He was charged by a policeman who pinned him with the hackneyed scream “Spread’em .. against the wall M*F*”. He shot back “can we discuss this over a slice of Pizza?”. The policeman softened slightly, “maybe, but after I bust you and get off shift”. The exchange did not save him from arrest, a night in jail, and a misdemeanor fine, nor change his persistently idealistic and radical politics. Still, even to his resolutely unsentimental listener, and one who harbors considerable doubt about the details, the fable has resonance.

 

— Maged Atiya


Sadat Reconsidered

Labor Day 1981 was the latest it could be, tacking on a few additional days to the summer and making a quick side trip to Egypt possible. The Egypt of late August 1981 was a troubled and troubling place. The entire country, or at least what could be glimpsed of it, was in a grumpy and sour mood. The victory of 1973 seemed a distant memory. The expected peace dividend was not at hand. President Anwar El Sadat was dancing faster on the high wire, leaving the country dizzy and confused. Everywhere there was evidence of dissatisfaction and signs of trouble ahead. Little united people beyond dislike for Sadat. The owner of a newspaper Kiosk, once thought to be kindly and avuncular, lashed out at the President in vituperative words. He was a “Pharaoh”, a “black donkey”, who played the fool to the admiring West. His closeness to the Jews and the Americans had split Egypt. He complained bitterly about the Copts, stopping suddenly at the realization of his listener’s religion. Further up the social ladder, people were also angry. Corruption among Sadat’s favorites was fierce. The country’s economy was in shambles. The agreement with Israel was a humiliation. The litany of complaints went on and on. Sectarian clashes had roiled Cairo that summer, and some neighborhoods were practically sealed off. “This would never have happened under Nasser”, huffed a man who suffered a few months in jail for his criticism of the great leader. There was menace in the air. An attempted courtesy call on Bishop Samuel was aborted; he was “exceptionally pre-occupied with important matters”. A priest hinted, sotto voce, that a quick exit from Egypt is wise, in case airports are suddenly closed. As the airplane lifted off the runway, Cairo, and the surrounding verdant valley, suddenly disappeared from view in a yellow haze. There was nothing but enveloping sand, leaving an uncomfortable feeling that a certain Egypt had completely disappeared; or perhaps, more ominously, that it had never existed beyond a cherished imagination.

In the 1980s the Egyptian newspaper, Al Ahram, was regularly available at a corner newspaper stand on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The edition appearing on Labor Day contained an account of President Sadat’s speech on September 5. The man, at least it seemed at the time, had come unhinged. Sadat Agonistes was at war with the rest of Egypt. He had ordered the entire elite of the country to march off to jail. Listening to the speech for the first time, decades later, but before the January 2011 events,  did not change that initial impression. Expounding for nearly two and half hours, Sadat poured out his frustrations and anger in loopy anecdotes, complicated grievances, remembrances of his great moments, and anger at the country that refused to embrace him. He lashed out at the Muslim Brotherhood leader, and the Coptic Pope. He accused the Brotherhood of sectarianism, but repeated their charges. The speech was high drama, one that would require an entire army of psychologists to unravel its layers. Through his mouth poured out all of Egypt’s darkness. The leader and the country had become one in anger. Exactly three years after his triumph at Camp David, all seemed to be going badly for him. A month later he was dead. In reality, Egypt had left Sadat well before she took his life.

The reports of his death made it obvious how Sadat was becoming a foot note. In the pre-Internet age news traveled leisurely, especially for those who owned neither a TV nor a Radio, nor cared much for newspapers. The news of Sadat’s assassination came in a terse phone call. The caller reported the sad news of Bishop Samuel’s assassination, and only later in the call, and after some pressing, did it become clear that Sadat was also among the victims. Three American Presidents walked in his funeral, but barely any Egyptians bothered to show the outpouring of grief that accompanied Nasser’s passing a decade earlier. It was easy to ignore Sadat in the subsequent decades, and hold onto the low esteem that had built up in the last few years of his life, at least until the recent events in Egypt.

Sadat’s short and turbulent term in office may deserve another look. The political stagnation that accompanied Mubarak’s three decades have dimmed the memory of the wild gyrations of the Sadat years, which occurred as regularly as the flooding of the Nile. The view had built up that his actions represented less of a plan and more of a high wire act by a politician seeking to survive, figuratively, and ultimately, alas, literally. His own actions made this uncharitable view plausible. Some never forgave him for dalliances with the Brotherhood, a move that he ultimately regretted anyway. Others saw in his frequent interviews with the likes of Barbara Walters an embarrassing spectacle. Even those who agreed with coming to terms with Israel felt that he had done so chaotically, perhaps embarrassing Egypt as a result.

Is there room for a revision of this view of Sadat? Watching his September 5 1981 speech a year after the removal of President Morsi brings out an interesting new view of him. It is possible that Sadat was a man more in touch with his country, for better or worse, than the legion of urbane elitists who derided him. His life is defined by his ambition to rise above his modest beginnings; and willingness to do so with any tool available at hand. He may have seen this scrappiness as a plan to push the country forward. He clearly wanted to lead, literally to be a few steps, but not too many, ahead of his people, and cajole them to follow. In that September speech there was the faintest of hints that perhaps he realized he had walked too far ahead, and in the process became a man exposed. If their is a single theme to that speech it is the role of religion in public life and its underside of sectarianism. Confessing to be the “believer President”, or the “Muslim President of a Muslim Egypt” did not close the arguments or silence the opposition. In fact, it opened fresh avenues of discord. Sadat may have realized he needed to address the issue directly. In his mind it was no longer possible to reason with these demons, but inevitable to confront them. He may have meant the speech as a public disquisition on religion and identity, instead it came out as a primal scream. In that the light Sadat’s actions appear more tragic than desperate or ill-intentioned. It was the last act and testament of a man who loved his country, but in understanding the pain of its history, expected no love back.

What would Egypt have been like had the assassins failed, and Sadat survived and reconciled back with his country? We will never know. The current troubles of Egypt reflect the utter hollowness of its political class, made infantile by long decades of stagnation under Mubarak. Would that class have developed differently under an extended Sadat leadership? Egypt has a history of fascination with totalitarianism, seeing in it a possible cure for backwardness. Yet, it has never managed to pull off a truly totalitarian system, one that would either lurch the country forward or finally cure it of this unhealthy fascination, or preferably both (although Russia serves as a sobering reminder that such outcome is not always guaranteed). Sadat’s death shortly after tossing the political class into prison allowed no satisfactory resolution, like a tragedy with a lost ending. The farce to this tragedy is that Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, thirty three years after his brief stint in jail, is said to be writing speeches for yet another president.

 

— Maged Atiya