Gamal Abdel Nasser – Destroyer of the Arabs

Egyptian President Nasser (1918-1970) is frequently hailed as the epitome of the great Arab leader. His nemesis for much of the 1960s, Faisal Ibn Abdel Aziz, not so secretly believed that Nasser was an unscrupulous Egyptian out to swindle many of the Arab lands out of their natural resources. Nasser’s desire to unify the Arabs under his leadership, and by extension Egypt’s, would have greatly helped Egypt and disadvantaged the Arabs, as the union with Syria amply demonstrated. Yet in this season of Arab state collapse few are advancing the thesis that Nasser is the man who struck the first blow that led to today’s horrors. Let us remember four elements, all of his creation, that arguably cooked up today’s toxic brew.

Creation of the Security State. Between 1952 and 1954 Nasser created a template for state structure that would be followed by several other Arab nations. The rough outline of it is simple. Overthrow a monarchy; declare a populist Republic; base its institutions on the primacy of the military and security services; and finally proclaim such an entity as a forward-looking and revolutionary. If the formula barely held in Egypt, it is because of its history of cohesion and Statism. The other Arab countries that emulated this model, Libya, the Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have all collapsed.

Adoption of trans-national goals. Arab nationalism gave Nasser a justification for meddling in the affairs of other Arab states. His real reasons were probably base (vanity) and narrowly nationalistic (advantaging Egypt). But the formula became a handy tool for more principled, and far more dangerous, true believers, namely the Islamists. His diatribes against the Sykes-Picot accord, most of which were nonsense, have been adopted by a wide range of wild Jihadis, who sing his lyrics but to a very different tune.

The demonization of Israel.  Nasser’s trial-by-fire in the Faluja enclave convinced him that the Arab armies are no match for Israel. He never really wanted to fight Israel, and at one point even sought a reapproachment with Ben-Gurion.  He was forced into one war, 1956, and bumbled into another, 1967, both verifying his hunch and destroying his dreams and ultimately his life. Yet, his constant taunting of Israel, and the demonization of the country, did little to help the true victims of the Jewish national dream, the Palestinians, and much to embroil the Arabs in failing enterprises.

The corruption of Education. Within a month of the 1952 coup, Nasser had taken Sayed Qutb’s advice to radically alter the educational system. The result was a drop in the intellectual output in Egypt, and as its teachers traveled into the Arab countries, they carried the virus along. Today the entire Arab world publishes fewer books than a decent size University Press in the US.

The Arab masses, and their leaders, are the authors of this collapse. But they were also willing students of a capable tutor. Nations have no epitaphs, but states do. When that of the Arab states is written Nasser should be accorded the dubious title of the “Destroyer of the Arabs”.

— Maged Atiya


Tawadros Agonistes

Pope Tawadros II became Bishop of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark the Apostle less than 30 months ago. On his ascension he insisted that he would devote himself to his ecclesiastical duties and avoid politics. He has delivered on the first with robust changes in Church policy and pointedly changed his mind on the second. The Pope has become a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and effectively a contestant in them, an “agonist”. The assumption of such a role makes it necessary to subject the Pope to careful and well-reasoned critique, if only to forestall potential errors and pitfalls. While the vast majority of the Pope’s flock almost certainly supports his stands, he has faced criticism. Much of this criticism misses the point and little hits the target.

One criticism is that it is unseemly for the Pope to be so close to the President. We do not know the real nature of the relationship between the two men, beyond the public expressions of support and respect. But more to the point, all Popes in modern Egyptian history found it necessary to build a close relationship with the ruler. Strong or public disagreement can be dangerous, and does not always rebound to the benefit of the community, regardless of the merits of the case. Kyrillous IV (The Great Reformer) found that out to be true in the 1850s, so did Kyrillous V in the 1890s, and so did Shenouda in the 1970s. In any case, is it really the responsibility of a religious Patriarch to be a throaty supporter of democracy in a land with few democrats?

Another frequent charge is that the Pope’s support for the regime has not improved conditions for the Copts. It is true that many of the coercive measures against Coptic identity persist, and there is much tolerance for mob behavior against Copts. The trouble is that many, if not most Copts, feel that conditions are better now than under the Muslim Brotherhood regime. To persist in this charge is to assume the mantle of uncomfortable arrogance. Also, conditions are such that most Copts are grateful when things are not significantly worse off, which Papal disapproval of the regime might have triggered.

A third charge is that the Pope’s stand is risky for the Copts, should the political winds shift. The reality, of course, is that the Islamists’ hostility toward the Copts has little to do with their positions or preferences. And even if the regime were to attempt reconciliation with a more docile version of political Islam, the Pope’s support for the regime will either be a minor positive or a negligible negative.

The real question is whether the Pope’s stands and statements elevate the Copts as a community and thus enhance the chances for both survival and continued progress, which depend entirely on their own efforts, for it is unrealistic to look for help elsewhere. We should recognize, but not be discouraged, by the grim realities. Egypt retains a nasty religious discourse; witness the mobs that greet any attempt to build a Church or a cultural center, even to honor those slain in Libya. The region beyond is in free fall with much of Eastern Christianity trying to evade the wrath of competing Islamic forces.  The larger world is of little help. While the West frets over the fate of Eastern Christianity, it lacks both the will and the means, and in some cases even the desire, to affect it. Numerically, the fate of the Copts and the fate of Eastern Christianity are nearly synonymous. The Copts must shoulder this responsibility as they have always done, alone or with the uncertain support of some of their fellow Egyptians. In that regard some aspects of the Pope’s public stands leave a lot to be desired.

First, there is the constant echoing of national propaganda about the conspiracies against Egypt. This is unnecessary as the Pope is in no position to combat these conspiracies, even if real. But more importantly, they place him, and by extension the community where he is the leader by default, in a rather sorry camp. He has a responsibility to represent the Copts as the better part of the national consciousness, not its common denominator. This is also important in building external support, however meager the returns might be.

Second, there is the dismissive attitude toward members of the community who do not fall in line with the Church official positions. Even if those positions are sound, regurgitating attitudes and arguments of decades long gone, which were mostly won by the Clerical establishment anyway, is of little value. Many who contributed to the cultural and social resurgence of the Copts in the last two centuries did so in opposition to this very same Clerical establishment. They were motivated by deeper reasons, often little articulated; of a sense of historical duty and obligation to a nation with no topography and one that transcends the exact details of belief and faith.

Third there must be recognition that the future of the Copts, while tied closely to that of Egypt, is not synonymous with it. They have become the largest group of Eastern Christians while never taking up arms, and often facing daunting odds in the country they intensely love but rarely loves them back with similar intensity. At critical moments, cultural progress, initiated by the laity, and more often than not without the whole-hearted approval of the Clergy, has made the difference. This cultural progress is increasingly a phenomenon removed from Egypt, both because of the strength of the immigrant community and the cultural weakness of Egypt. The current media profile of the Pope, unfortunately, does not make him the representative of a resurgent Eastern Christianity that bridges the gap with between East and West and attempts a larger and more embracing definition of both culture and faith. And it is in that role that Copts will have the better chance of not only survival, but more importantly, of growth and progress.

The Church always echoes Egyptian and Coptic exceptionalism, sometimes with good reasons. The deeper question is the exact contour of the “exception”. Is it in the pedestrian facts of history and geography, or in a more profound grounding in attitude and culture? Should the Pope, in his capacity as “father”,  encourage his flock to embrace the more hopeful message of Isaiah 60:3 rather than the narrowly exclusive one of Hosea 11:1? That in a nutshell is the contest.

— Maged Atiya


French Gothic New York (Church of the Holy Trinity)

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Does it belong to the urban fabric? Well, yes and no. Consecrated in 1899, Church of the Holy Trinity is Episcopalian. It is sunk back off of E.88th Street between First and Second Avenues in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan.  Occupying half a city block, it used to be a mission site in what was then a working class neighborhood. There is a little historical sketch and architectural information on the church website, which you can read here.

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On US Military Aid to Egypt

The restoration of US military aid to Egypt, with strings attached, came in the middle of a week of tumultuous events in the region. It is still worth a comment, even an unconventional one from a source normally skeptical of most conventional wisdoms.

Many argued that aid should not have been resumed at all since US law prohibits such aid in the case of “coups”. This is an eminently rational and defensible view, and an inconsistent one. If a “coup” is defined as the removal of an elected leader then both January 2011 and July 2013 were technically “coups”. To define only one as a “revolution” is to invite endless and pointless disputations and place one in a position of defending some indefensible actions. More to the point, we should ask how the US came to provide military aid to Egypt and why it should continue it, as well as in what manner.

US-Egyptian began to sour badly in the early 1960s due to Egypt’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Egypt was the revolutionary forward-looking power headed for a collision with Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the traditional regimes. The US sided with the latter due to unreasonable Cold War fears and reasonable concerns about the flow of oil. In reality Egypt’s bark was far worse than its bite; Nasser was no Napoleon, and Egypt was not about to topple regimes across the region. But siding with Saudi Arabia seemed sensible at that moment, even if it put the US in the camp of some retrograde opponents of the Egyptian regime; The Saudi monarchy, the Yemeni Imams, and the socially repressive Muslim Brotherhood. The strain lasted for over a decade, and through two major wars with Israel. The three wars of the 1963-1973 decade left Egypt broke and weakened. The creation of a US military semi-alliance with Egypt and flow of military aid were predicated on the country being no longer a threat to Israel or to the conservative Gulf monarchies, or any other regional power for that matter. That Egypt kept its part of the bargain is still no reason to continue aid; international politics is not a game of cricket and interests trump fairness. Even if aid is discontinued Egypt is unlikely to be a threat to Israel, with which it is enjoying a close relationship, nor to the Gulf countries who underwrite a significant portion of badly needed foreign investments. So why continue the aid; why not save the 1.6 Billion or so of loose change to repave downtown Detroit? The answer is simple; the upside of continuing the aid outweighs the downside of withholding it, slightly.

The optimistic view of the so-called Middle East is that today’s calamities will continue for some time to come. A more informed view sees far worse disasters around the corner. The most rational course of action is to minimize the number of countries and people thrown into the current cauldron. In that vein it is critical not to allow the ramshackle Egyptian state to collapse under the weight of both external factors and internal misadventures. But can military aid do that? Can it really affect the behavior of the country’s most dominant single institution, the military? That depends on the nature of the aid and the manner in which it is administered on an on-going basis. This is where the Obama grudging release offers fascinating possibilities, although one suspects unintentionally.

Altering the Egyptian military from a large tank-and-plane static army into a nimble fighting force will not be easy as it requires social as well as doctrinal changes. But it is a goal worth setting across the board, both in military aid and in other economic and social domains. But that goal cannot be pursued unless the questions are asked and the answers are sought away from the conventional and mostly self-defeating pious declarations about support for democracy and inclusiveness. Without aid there is no leverage, and aid wrongly administered will also have no leverage. The real question is whether the US takes Egypt sufficiently seriously to manage aid closely and with clear cut demands that reach across the entire spectrum of social and political issues. The readout of Obama’s conversation with Sisi hints at desire to see the military alter its ways. That is necessary but not sufficient. There is no reason not to go further and offer a full-throated demand to alter education, support liberal thought and free markets. The reason to do so extends beyond Egypt to the overall region, which remains perilously close to chaos that can draw in reluctant Western powers. The irony is that successful administration of aid will bring Egypt back to a version of itself similar to the 1963 edition, albeit with more economic and military power. Egypt may then become as truculent and difficult a friend of the US as Israel. But at least the region will have the nucleus of a third path away from Iran’s revolutionary Islam and Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Islam. If we are not sure that such path is possible, or that the US can play a role in its emergence, then by all means let us save the money and pave Detroit. But that scenario involves the eternal balancing between the current forces, a continuation of the current oddities where the US seems to be fighting with all sides and against all sides, neither effectively nor to any foreseeable end.

— Maged Atiya