Selfies with Disaster

The farcical hijacking of an EgyptAir flight to Cyprus is made more so by various “selfie” photographs that a passenger and a stewardess took with the hijacker wearing an improvised and clearly fake belt. A friend posted on Facebook that “our beoble are not serious hijackers”. That is true enough in this case, but it is uncertain whether this represents Egypt’s saving grace or its persistent problem.

The run up to the Suez crisis of 1956 was accompanied by British politicians comparing Nasser to Hitler. Many Egyptians noted at the time that this is a wild exaggeration. Egyptian concentration camps would likely feature major gaps in the barbed wire and guards with a weakness for bribes. They would still be deadly, but not in an efficient and industrial fashion. This is not pure speculation. A grizzled old Sicilian man described to me, decades after World War II, how his service in the Italian army during that war was the best time of his life. His unit engaged the British in combat and was quickly surrounded and taken prisoner. The British handed them to a prison camp run by the Egyptian army. In time, some of the prisoners made friends with the guards and with suitable exchange of currency were allowed to roam out and even work as waiters in Alexandria, as long as they never informed the British or did anything to draw suspicion.We might be tempted to think of such episodes as evidence of the warmth, humor and humanity of Egyptians. And we would be only partly right. The chaotic aftermath of the 2011 revolution clearly hints at darker costs for lack of seriousness.

The world poured out its warm emotions toward Egypt in the 18 photogenic days that heralded the end of Mubarak’s time as President. But the follow up was a dangerous farce, in time turning the irrational joy of outsiders to equally irrational anger. None of the contending forces made a plan for governing a large country with structural problems. In fact the entire process, called “Arab Spring” and “Egyptian transition” by those hopeful outside actors, amounted to a Beckett-like pantomime of politics and governance. At least three American friends recently expressed nostalgia for Mubarak, a man they long reviled but are now tempted to compare favorably to the current leaders. This raises the question of whether Mubarak’s derision toward his opponents indicated arrogance or understanding.

Egypt faces an array of problems, with some rising to the level of existential threats. Yet, the country, or at least its elite, is pre-occupied with issues of religion, identity and other vaguer concepts. Like the passengers on the plane who, faced with a potentially deadly threat, chose to mug for the camera. Perhaps they knew better, or perhaps they were lucky. But luck is not a good long term plan for Egypt.

— Maged Atiya


July 3 in the GOP

Donald Trump has earned the GOP nomination. Many will attempt to deny it to him, and in so doing will violate the rules of the nomination process. These violations will be as difficult to condemn as they are to condone. Rules matter, and changing them midstream brings unforeseen and often dangerous consequences. I was asked if a country that flirts with authoritarian populism can ever go back to being “normal”, or will the political system always carry these scars. That there is no ready counter-example leaves one with chilling thoughts. But the question remains, should the rules be violated now to prevent future violations?

Trump is the best American practitioner of the “stab in the back” politics. Such thoughts rarely lead a people to a happy end. The leader promises to restore greatness after the country has been undone by those enemies, internal and external, who stabbed it in the back. The plans are vague, the crowds large and howling, and the Thomases are pointed and cast out. America, as a whole, has escaped such predicament by a dint of constant prosperity and the resulting optimism. “As a whole” of course to hide the fact that the South, once defeated and faced with its moral culpability, has sometimes created its own sub-genre, but almost never conveyed it to national leadership. Yes, Trump must be stopped. But the rules might stand in the way.

This is a moment of humility for America that preached democracy to a sometimes skeptical world. A student of authoritarian populism must view Trump with both admiration and trepidation. Such a student must have no anger toward his supporters; most are decent men and women who saw economic opportunity evaporate in their lifetime (even if many are prosperous), their cherished faiths and prejudices denigrated by the cosseted few, and their unquestioned patriotism sent men and women to grievous harm in places with names echoing with guttural sounds, and in the service of nothing more identifiable than vague illusions and unworthy “allies”.  The 2016 election is now their moment, less for their effort than for the fumbling of others.

The election started out badly. American Presidential elections are now staged as entertainment events, with voters as consumers of such matter. The producers of this entertainment, the political donors, were persuaded or arm-twisted early to stage a sequel to the 1992 election. On one side we had Jeb! Bush  a decent retiree who ambled back onto the field with all the enthusiasm of a man leaving the comforts of home to manage a rough-and-tumble chicken farm passed from father and brother. On the other side, the capable and exceptionally smart Hillary Clinton thrilled a selected few on a windy Island in the East River with the novelty of electing a female President and persuaded them that her known performances are worthy of further trust.  As elections began to resemble episodes of the World Wrestling Federation, the voters can be excused for opting for the original. America had a decent enough President in Barack Obama, a man who expressed its best hopes. But he had been flayed politically; by the cynicism of GOP leaders who smirked when he was called a “liar” to his face in the halls of Congress, and whose birth and earned American accomplishments were challenged against all facts. When hope produced no tangible progress for the ruled, nor reticence among the ruling class, it was time for change.

One can drag out an endless jeremiad against identity politics and the ills it brings on the land. Political leaders of all stripes have engaged in it as a cheap substitute for substance, which in the modern world amounts to economic security. When Madeleine Albright reserved a special place in hell for women who do not “help” other women, she practiced a Trump-like form of identity politics, but with less elan and venom. It escaped no one’s attention that Trump-lite is merely a less tasty version of the original. Trump’s destruction of language and logic in airport hangars mirrors a similar one in campus lecture halls. In America of 2016 any candidate without an identity narrative is deemed too boring for consideration; boredom being the cardinal sin of entertainment. And so we find that all imitators have been bested by the most skilled of infotainers.

And we are now back to the GOP moment of truth. Nominate Trump and respect the rules, or deny him the nomination for high minded reasons that lead to low actions. Conventions are meant to be sausage factories, but the Republican 2016 recipe may be alarmingly similar to Egyptian Kofta.

— Maged Atiya



Obama and Trump – Middle East Fatigue Twins

No two men could be more different than President Obama and GOP candidate Donald Trump. “Superego” and “Id” seem to have been invented to describe the two men. One is given to cerebral reflections and restrained behavior, the other to verbal emissions and tantrums. Yet remarkably when it comes to the Middle East, they seem to converge. The reader who doubts this should answer the following questions. Which of the two men complained about erstwhile Gulf allies as “free riders” or “they don’t pay their share”? Which of the two men called the Libyan engagement a “shit show” or “a disaster”? Which of the two men felt that Putin’s Russian adventure is Syria will “exhaust them” or “let them do the fighting”? Which of the two men confesses support for Israel but would like “to consider the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians” or “be even handed”?

As far as Middle East policy, the current US field of aspiring Presidents divides neatly into two camps. Those who echo the conventional wisdom of the “foreign policy establishment” and those who view its recommendations with deep suspicion and unease. Obama and Trump belong to the latter camp. To the mind of this observer this is an overdue correction. As a matter of empirical evidence, the US attempted a variety of policies in the region, and all came to bitter ends. It supported authoritarian leaders and revolutions and is left with the theoretical argument as which of these two groups are responsible for state collapse. It placed a massive army in Iraq to remove a hated dictator and democratize it. It did no such thing in Syria. It split the difference in Libya. It let allies handle the situation in Yemen. None of the above are examples of success. What is a super power to do with region that abhors both its involvement and indifference?

There is fatigue in the land with the intractable problems of the Middle East, and perhaps a desire to forget or ignore such problems. The Republic has been intimately involved with the region since its very founding. The involvement was always dual-natured and at times contradictory. The elite force of the US military, the Marines, was created in part to deal with the North African piracy. American missionaries, armed with the Protestant zeal and affection for the “Holy Land”, came to the region in the 1850s and built schools and universities that educated generations of intellectuals, journalists, and political leaders. Most exhibited a baffling combination of admiration, attraction, resentment, anger and hostility to America. The theorists of both Arabism and post-colonialism are closer to their American object of derision than to their own people. American soldiers and spies have been even less successful than teachers and preachers in building anything of lasting value. Most Americans are not well versed in the details of Middle East history and policy, but they do recognize a bad deal when they see one. Few are as upset by Obama’s distant shrug and are unlikely to be moved by arguments from the usual Middle East experts. Trump’s policy of a slammed door is harsh, yet more than a few are willing to give it a try. Middle East governments spend handsomely to affect American policy, and are likely to have a return as impressive as that of Jeb Bush’s donors. Whether good or bad, fair or unfair does not matter. While Obama and Trump advise these governments to take up the mantle and clean up the mess in their backyards, one suspects that they are unable and unwilling to do so.

There is no resolution or cure for this fatigue. Maybe it will pass, or maybe it will not. If the next President is from the “ignore them” camp then he will not pay a steep political price for that view. If the next President is from the “engaged and involved” camp, she will likely find no political rewards in that path. In that sense, Obama and Trump, in their very different ways, point to the future.

— Maged Atiya