My Heikal

The immigrant boy filled out the school enrollment forms in block letters. The form labeled “ESL” had a space for declaration of the native language. He left it vacant. It is tempting to paint a dramatic scene of a profession of faith where the boy declares English to be his true mother tongue and thrice insists “I do not know this language” about Arabic. But the reality was that he was simply eager to move on quietly. Many hands participated in this linguistic matricide, but chief among them was Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, who passed away a few days ago. Many have tried to locate Heikal as a journalist, or an opinion maker or a government official. He was all three, but mostly he was a writer of fiction made believable by his own fervid faith in it.

For a boy coming to grips with literacy in 1960s Egypt Al Ahram was required reading, and its editor, the aforementioned Heikal, held court several times a week with an opinion column. A memory, in a Proustian knock-off way, is of the smell of freshly baked cookies with date filling wafting from the neighbor’s apartment. The generous patriarch took a liking to the boy and often invited him to share. On the invariably sunny days of Egypt the man sat in the balcony reading Al Ahram and commenting on Heikal’s column with a red pencil. But that was Egypt then, and one could not be sure that a discarded newspaper will not be picked up by a Zabal who moonlighted for the secret police. So uncle Thabet made his comments in his own secret code; daggers, double crosses, circles with arrows and triangles with bars. Every edition was a palimpsest of Quotidian Egypt with the red cuneiforms of honestly felt views laid over the black print of the newspaper. And so it went as Arabic was inseparably linked to the lie called Arabism. Arabic became a language reflexively understood, reluctantly spoken and on occasions even harshly denounced.

A decade later the young college student trying to navigate the treacherous and alien currents of America’s 1970s experiment in all manners of freedom, both laudable and dangerous, still found time to obtain a copy of Al Ahram to jeer at Heikal’s column, only to leave unsatisfied. His opinions came out less frequently, and the new boss was a one-man theatrical troupe who needed no bard. It is embarrassing to say that when news of Heikal’s arrest came in the fall of 1981 one strove to think of him as an Edmond Dantes deprived of pen and paper and furtively writing on the cell walls with whatever implements or excretions on hand. In fact he was released quickly and continued to ply his trade with great energy and to great fame.

Obituaries for Heikal describe him, in one way or another, as Poet Laureate of Nasser world. But Heikal, who was a few years younger than Nasser, lived nearly twice as long. He had an entire lifetime to show otherwise, and failed to do so. We must then judge Nasser as the smiling enforcer of Heikal world. This author professes no attraction to eulogies, nor faith in the afterlife. But if there is an afterlife we must hope that Heikal is consigned to heaven, for there he will be condemned to the eternal company of those that the presumed creator has deemed to be truth tellers.

— Maged Atiya


Terry Gilliam’s Egypt

Let us say you are a Hollywood executive when a writer approaches you with the following script. In a country where the government is both inept and aspirationally oppressive a bureaucratic snafu, due to a mix up of names and birth certificates, has a four-year toddler sentenced to life in prison for a crime committed several years earlier, while still an infant. No one seems to notice the anomaly and “justice” proceeds as normal. If you were that executive you would reject the script, not as improbable, but as too close to the script of the 1985 film “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam, one of the brains behind the British comedy troupe “Monty Python”.

Well it seems that Egypt is aspiring to be the next Brazil. Not the actual Brazil, but the Terry Gilliam version.

— Maged Atiya


On the Passing of Boutros Boutros Ghali


Much has been written about the “Coptic Problem” in Egypt. But the parable of the life of Boutros Boutros Ghali is more telling. A capable and prickly man, he is remembered as the only UN Secretary General to stand up to the great powers and refuse to play house boy to their designs or indifference, and paying for it by the spectacle of Madeleine Albright vetoing his reappointment with a public display of vengeful glee. His courage seemed to stop at Egypt’s shore.

He was buried with military honors. President Sisi walked in his funeral. Pope Tawadros II read liturgies for his soul in an elegant church built by his family. The flood of obituaries noted that he came from a “prominent Coptic Family”. None have noted how his family traced the rise and fall of modern Egypt, nor of the Copts who punch above their numerical weight in that historical tale. A distant ancestor was strangled by Muhammad Ali for pointing out a budget shortfall in the early 19th century. More than fifty years later his great grandfather would come to great wealth serving Khedive Isma’el. His grandfather would be the first Coptic Prime Minister, and only the second Christian to be so, and next to last one. His uncle was a powerful minister. He could never attain the rank of full minister, contenting himself at times to serve under Amr Moussa. In two centuries the Copts of Egypt rose from wretched misery and ignorance to dreams of being full citizens, or at least demand that Sunday be recognized as a day of rest, but finally watch young boys sent to court for making a video lampooning ISIS, the criminal gang that beheaded 21 of their poor coreligionists in a pornographic display of hate and violence. The Egyptian Council on Human Rights, which he established, seems to have little to say about such judicial proceedings.

Here is the eminent sociologist Sana Hasan describing a conversation with the diplomat.

“I questioned Boutrous Ghali, the grandson of the prime minister by the same name, on the difficulty Coptic candidates had in gaining admission to the Foreign Service, an elite corps. He replied that as one who had sat on the board of examiners of the Foreign Service for eleven years he could testify that there were very few qualified Christians. Besides, he added after a moment’s reflection, the number of Christian ambassadors had been increased to four under Sadat. When I pointed out to him that none of them occupied the weightier posts, in North American or Europe, he tried in all earnestness to argue that an ambassadorial post in Addis Ababa was more important than one in Washington. He also said that Sadat had appointed three Coptic ministers to the cabinet. To my objection that there were merely token Copts, technocrats appointed to posts without any power, he retorted that if they had not been awarded any of the major portfolios, it was simply because they did not have the personalities for them.

“Name me ten Copts with personality!” he burst out, before my silent skepticism.  And he clinched the argument by giving himself as an example of a Copt who had been assigned a significant post. It would have untactful to mention that he was merely “minister of state” for foreign affairs, while the post foreign minister, as such, was reserved for a Muslim. Everyone knew that he had been passed over three times for promotion to that post, despite his brilliance and savvy- not to mention his command of foreign languages- in favor of Muslim foreign ministers of inferior  talents.

When I tried to steer away from this touchy subject to safer grounds and brought the general situation of the Coptic minority, he dismissed their grievances with a disdainful wave of the hand. ‘Believe me. These are nothing but exaggerations. You have been listening to too many frightened, hostile Copts. Besides, instead of whining and lamenting they should do something about their problems. Let us face it, the Copts just don’t have balls!’”

From “Christians vs Muslims in Modern Egypt”

His words came to mind a year before his death, when a Ghanaian and 20 poor Copts, who had left Egypt to work in Libya, silently recited the Lord’s Prayer as the blade fell on their necks. Perhaps Copts are incapable of having balls except on the point of death.

— Maged Atiya




Napoleon’s Balfour Declaration

Bonaparte, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the French Republic, in Africa and in Asia, to the rightful heirs of Palestine – the unique nation of the Jews, who have been deprived of the land of your fathers by thousands of years of lust for conquest and tyranny, which even so has never been able to destroy your name of your existence as a nation ……

Rightful heirs of Palestine!

My great nation, which does not trade in human beings or in countries, as did those who sold your fathers into slavery in other nations, herewith calls upon you, not to conquer your inheritance, but to receive only that which has already been conquered, so that you can remain there as ruler, under our guarantee, and will defend it against all foreigners”(1)

Or so went the declaration by the Corsican General, not yet 30 years of age, allegedly made in Jerusalem on Passover day 1799.  Historians have never been able to confirm the authenticity of this claim. The original declaration in French was never found, and Napoleon was never in Jerusalem. On the other hand, many other substantiating documents exist, including discussions in the Directory. There is, most famously, a German translation smuggled to England just prior to WWII, as the Viennese rabbinical family that owned it was set to escape Hitler. That has been alleged to be a forgery. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rumor in Egypt that a Jewish family owned a Hebrew copy signed by Napoleon himself. But the source of the rumor could have been many of the Nazi fugitives who lived in Egypt then. Yet a number of historians have concluded that something like this document could have easily been in Napoleon’s mind as he marched from Egypt to punish the ruler of Acre, Ahmed Pasha Al Jazzar (The Butcher). The bloody and cantankerous man had smuggled an Ottoman firman to Egypt a few months prior which caused the Cairo riots of October 1798. Ahmed Pasha was known to be partial to sectarian killings, having started his reign in the Levant by sealing Christians into the walls of Beirut. When the French approached his walls he rounded up all the Christians of Acre, killed them and tossed their bodies over the wall. His reasons were not entirely murderous. The Christians, Jews, Druze and Shi’a of the Levant were collaborating with Napoleon in his effort to topple the Ottoman Empire. There is plenty of documented evidence that the French General promised small independent Cantons to all the diverse religious groups of the region. Napoleon landed in Egypt with a clear dream. He would build a new oriental empire on the ashes of the Ottoman shambles. Egypt would be its vanguard, Islam its ideology, and the Levant pacified by subdivision into vassal states.  “Little Europe” was too small for him. A century before the Ottoman demise, the Frenchman had in mind a “post-Ottoman” order. Napoleon’s vision was a less democratic version of the nascent United States. A constellation of states which would emerge independently from a French culture, but still owe more than a passing resemblance to it. His dreams of an oriental empire faded before the walls of Acre, and as his army swept back to Egypt, a multitude of Levantine Christian refugees joined it to escape the revenge of the Butcher. The scene of the “Shawam” escaping the chaos of their homeland to Egypt would be repeated many times in the next two centuries.  By a cruel irony, the French army entered Egypt on June 5 1799, and upon this occasion and on this date  the great General declared his loss a victory.

There was another vision for the region, one rarely taken up by recent historians. It starts with an equally talented and remarkable, but lesser known, General Louis Desaix, Almost the same age as Napoleon, and possibly more original and daring. Desaix had all of Napoleon’s skill and energy, but little of his near mystical ambition and self-regard. He accompanied Napoleon on the expedition to Egypt, before dying in Italy in 1800. In late 1798 he set out from Cairo to chase one of the previous rulers of Egypt, Murad Bey, whom he had defeated at the battle of Imbaba. Desaix was to travel as far south as the first cataract, at the head of the first European army to do so since the Romans. The Mamlukes outnumbered and outgunned Desaix, and knew the country better. Yet he won every encounter with brilliant military tactics and the unswerving dedication and love of his troops. His feats of generalship remain little noted.  It was during this campaign that he made the acquaintance of another remarkable man, Mu’allam Ya’qub. Ya’qub was Murad’s deputy and tax collector; not an unusual profession for a Copt at the time. Murad was “Sheik Al Hajj”, but it was Ya’qub who managed the complex task of organizing the caravans to Mecca, some from as far away as West Africa. It was Desaix who persuaded Ya’qub to switch sides, and he proved a great asset. He ran an intelligence network on the movements and location of the Mamluke armies. He sealed the Red Sea ports against the influx of warriors from Arabia, who flocked to the promise of killing infidels, but stayed to pillage Egyptians of all religions. Sometime between 1799 and 1801 Ya’qub cooked up a daring and wholly new idea; creating a nation-state out of Egypt, totally unconnected to any empire and lacking any affiliation to a larger Muslim or Arab identity. He formed a “Coptic Legion”, boarded a ship for Europe in 1801 to argue for an independant Egypt in the courts of Europe, but died soon after. His legion would distinguish itself in the Napoleonic wars and its descendants would continue to live in France to this day.

Ya’qub’s friend Desaix made three seminal contributions to Egypt, a country he seemed to like well-enough but without the hysterical passions of Napoleon. First he thinned the ranks of the Mamluke warlords and their militias, making it possible for Muhammad Ali to eradicate them a little more than a decade later. The credit for ridding Egypt of the vicious military caste that ruled over it for over 500 years and nearly brought total destruction on it, goes to both the French soldier and the Albanian Wali. Second, he brought forth a vision of governance unknown to Egyptians at the time. Napoleon enjoyed the title of “Al Sultan Al Kebir” (the Great Ruler), while the peasants of the countryside gave Desaix the title “Al Sultan Al ‘Adil” (The Just Ruler). Desaix’ vision of capable government and justice administered without regard to wealth or religion remains an elusive but inviting reality in today’s Egypt. Finally Desaix gave protection and support to many Savants, especially the artist Vivant Denon, who made the first reliable and extensive sketches of Egyptian antiquities. When he arrived back in Cairo in the heat of July 1799, the Savant could do little but speak of the greatness of what he saw and the fact that it preceded European civilization by centuries. In Denon and Ya’qub we detect the first stirrings of an Egyptian nationalism that held the nation to be an exceptional phenomenon, and the visible and indelible markings of religion and language as merely superficial aspects of a deeper essential self (2). That vision holds some promise but also a dark underbelly, and to this date it remains neither able to fulfill the promise nor capable of totally riding itself of its sense of injury and anger.

As the region remakes itself it is worth considering the lessons of more than two centuries ago, although we should gird ourselves for a likely disappointment.

— Maged Atiya

1- As collated by Paul Strathern in “Napoleon in Egypt

2- Louis ‘Awad did much to revive Ya’qub’s reputation. Islamists are fond of pointing out his defense of the Coptic quarter of Cairo against the mob as evidence of his “sectarian agenda”.

Obama at the Mosque

President Obama’s visit to a Baltimore mosque on February 3 2016, and his speech there, were meant to set him and his party apart from the ugly political rhetoric circulating in America. But like his equally well-intentioned Cairo speech on June 4 2009, the result has not lived up to the desired goal. One of his Republican critics, Governor Jeb Bush, praised his visit. Another, the intellect-starved Senator Marco Rubio, denounced it in incoherent terms. One American Muslim, Asra Nomani, who waged a struggle to liberalize her Muslim congregation, pointed out the implicit endorsement of gender asymmetry in the President’s visit; a stark departure from his stated objectives for American women. One newspaper gave lurid but cherry-picked details of the Mosque’s association with radicalism. The possible involvement of the unctuous organization CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations), as well the one-time Obama aide, Dalia Mogahed, in the selection of the venue, cast a shadow over the entire event.

It is possible that President Obama could have chosen a different mosque. All possibilities would have raised one objection or another. He could have a chosen a Shi’a mosque with an Iranian-American congregation, most of whom escaped the Iranian revolution and had since proven to be model immigrants. But that likely would have drawn fire from the usual anti-Iran channels. He could have sought, with some difficulty, to find a liberal mosque with a less visible signifier of social differences than little girls in head scarves. But again, the choice would have been criticized as unrepresentative. As any venue would have been a target of criticism, we need to move past focusing on the venue to look at the speech itself.

There is much to like in the speech, if read in isolation from actual events. Like the Cairo speech it is heavy on optimism, on declarations of belief in liberal values and tolerance, and on deep faith that fundamental forces will force a happy outcome. In short, that we are destined by the arc of history to a fair, just and tolerant outcome in any struggle. The trouble with that view is that it offers no guidance to short-term policy that will actually lead to such outcomes in the long run. Even worse, he drew invalid analogies between the status of American Muslims, and the problems they face, and that of other religious groups such as Mormons, Catholics or Jews. Inasmuch as the Cairo speech hinted at a future policy that would not be able to deal with the dissolution of countries and communities in the Middle East, the Baltimore speech does American Muslims injustice by lack of acknowledgement of real barriers that stand between their desire to conform to a conservative version of their faith and yet integrate effectively into American society. Obama is capable of giving a searing, honest and direct speech on such matters, as he did in the aftermath of the Reverend Wright controversy in 2008. His speech on race then stands as a unique guide post to race relations in America, with all their pain and promise. Here he seems far less passionate about, or desiring of, a similar engagement. This oversight is incomprehensible from a man who values the complex interactions between public policy and Christian belief enough to value the thoughts and advice of Marilynne Robinson. She is the author of profound essays reconciling American Calvinism and liberalism, and one admired enough by Obama to travel to her hometown to interview her in September 2015.

Had the President been willing to be as honest and direct about the status of Muslim Americans in 2016 as he did about race in 2008, he would have asked difficult questions from the conservative congregation. There are major differences between the ethos of conservative Islam with its backward glances and emphasis on community sovereignty and the liberalizing trend of American society with its emphasis on the liberation and autonomy of the individual. Glossing over these differences leaves all exposed when the conflicts inevitably come to the surface. Bigots among American non-Muslims will insist that Muslims can never be “full Americans”, while bigots among American Muslims will insist that such differences are merely manifestations of irrational hatred of Islam. This is a disservice to any effective understanding and outreach between faiths. Like the Cairo speech, the Baltimore speech was a feel-good moment that provides no guidance to navigate the roiled seas ahead. On the important matter of creating and sustaining a respectful, inclusive and healthy community of Western Muslims, the Baltimore speech will be counted as yet another missed opportunity.
— Maged Atiya