Eastern Christianity – Notes on a Good Friday

As the Ottoman armies prepared to scale the walls of Constantinople, almost exactly 563 years ago, the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, looked west. He effectively severed Venice from Byzantium after a millennium of close relations. Further westward, the campaign for the capture of Grenada was already underway in Spain. It would come to a final conclusion before the century was over. Europe rid itself of any significant Muslim population, except for a sliver of the Balkans under Ottoman rule. The continent developed and rose to enormous power as a purely Christian culture and its narratives are those of competition between different Christian theologies and sects. The Ottoman Empire, however, retained a significant Christian population. But the fall of Byzantium signaled the end of Eastern Christian governance. It would continue further north in Kiev and Muscovy; both retaining Eastern rites in a Slavic culture. But in the Levant and Egypt Christians could only aspire to an inferior position, at best.

The decline of Eastern Christianity continued, although there was a false dawn during the late 19th and 20th centuries when the incursions of the West in the Middle East seemed to offer a promise of governance based on citizenship. But on the whole Western Christendom cared little for Eastern Christianity. The Christians of the Levant who looked west for support found mostly disappointment. The Christians of Egypt who never put much stock in Western help survived and grew proportionately to where they now constitute the bulk of Christianity in the region. The prospects for the future are somewhere between uncertain and dim.

The Syrian civil war will burn itself out eventually. Syria will likely be either partitioned or become highly federalized as to be effectively so. The interior will look like a less developed version of Saudi Arabia. The Mediterranean rim will have most of the heterodox Muslims and Christians clinging to its coast. Instead of Greater Syria we are likely to see the rise of a Greater Lebanon, with all its ills and uncertain and checkered divisions. The Copts will continue to be a presence in Egypt and their survival there will depend largely on the fortunes of the nation. In any case, the survival of Christianity in Egypt has always seemed so improbable as to be almost providential. In the meantime the West has acquired a significant Muslim minority that has yet to fully find its place in an alien culture. In an odd way Europe and the remnants of the Ottoman East exchanged roles.

The attitude of Western Christianity toward the Christian East is schizophrenic. One part of its psyche wishes for the survival of Eastern Christians, but another part adopts policies that lower the chances of such an outcome. America’s involvement with Iraq did not aid its Christians, but deepened their troubles through the collapse of whatever state power existed in place. The current US policy debate features supporters of closer engagement with Saudi Arabia versus those of closer engagement with the theocrats of Iran. Neither is  favorable to religious tolerance. Eastern Christians who immigrated to the West have done well and prospered there; yet few are certain about urging Western involvement with their ancestral lands. Both the Christians of the Levant and of Egypt are deeply suspicious about Western motives and means.The most they want from the West is more immigration visas.

It is a dismal election season in America. The two likely candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, occasion no enthusiasm. Clinton supports tolerance for religious minorities at home while promoting policies that dim prospects for such minorities abroad. Trump proclaims support for religious diversity abroad while espousing despicable bigotry toward Muslims at home. The interval between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday reminds us of the Christian faith in ultimate triumph over death. The fortunes of Eastern Christianity rest in such hope, and not in any earthly power.

— Maged Atiya


The Speech Obama Should Have Given in Cairo 2009

President Obama occasionally rises to the sublime, a gift rare for professional politicians. His speech in Cairo in June 2009, nearly seven years ago, remains a major flop, an Edsel of foreign policy speeches. Yet, in an entirely different forum (London), speaking about an entirely different topics (US protests), he gave the speech he should have given then. Let us quote a few lines from his speech that Egyptians, rulers and revolutionaries alike, can heed.

Movements are “really effective in bringing attention to problems

Activists  “you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them” [ implicitly rulers must do more than pretend to listen]

And to many so-called leaders of January 25And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position

To all sides in a polarized countryYou then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment

To those loudly urging democracy on Egyptchange is hard and incremental

To all sides in a country in deep trouble “solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions

At the moment, those who applauded the 2009 speech will likely pay little heed to the above words.

— Maged Atiya








Islands of Trouble II

A previous post on Egypt’s transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia examined the dangers implicit in the hyper-nationalism demonstrated in the public’s response. But there are other dangers as well in that incident. Chief among them is the bumbling exhibited by the Egyptian government.

Most legalistic analysis favor “Saudi” ownership of the islands. The quotes are meant to reflect that such ownership dates back to before the establishment of the third Wahabi state now known as Saudi Arabia. That critical fact aside, other aspects should also be noted. In the wars between Israel and Egypt, Israel made an implicit assumption about Egyptian ownership by occupying the islands as part of various offensives. The military and diplomatic efforts by Egypt and other countries to return the Sinai to Egypt included the two islands. The Egyptian state had a de facto ownership. Before abandoning that ownership it had the obligation to explain its reasoning and motivations to the public, especially given the long negotiations leading up to the transfer. In skipping over this step the state put a major dent in its claim to sovereignty and competence. These are not trivial points.  The anger of the Egyptian public was mis-directed. It should have been directed less against the return and more against the manner of the return. In a region of collapsing states, the largest of them all whacked itself in the head needlessly. That is rank incompetence.

If sovereignty is taken seriously, and it must be here because the Egyptian state campaign of violence against many of its opponents rests on that claim, then relinquishing of any territory must be done with utmost sobriety and ceremony. The casualness of the transfer, even after long negotiations, has damaged the state’s claim to competence and thus empowers many of its doleful opponents. Anyone who cares for Egypt must insist that President Sisi address this point with something stronger and more detailed than “trust me”.

— Maged Atiya


Islands of Trouble


Reactions to Egypt’s transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia have generally ranged from the factually inaccurate to the emotionally febrile. The merits of the case (likely to favor Saudi Arabia) and the long negotiations leading up to it made hardly a dent in the public attitudes. In fact these attitudes, especially the Egyptian ones, shed a harsh light on a dark picture.

Egypt has never recovered from Nasser’s capitulation to King Faisal in Khartoum in August 1967. During that conference of Arab leaders Nasser issued “3 Nos” to Israel and a “Yes” to Saudi Arabia by withdrawing from Yemen, which Egypt had secured for the republican cause and had nearly pacified. In subsequent years the “Nos” to Israel became “Perhaps” and finally “Yes” at Camp David. The “Yes” to Saudi Arabia became “Yes, Sir”. Although few Egyptians now fully understand the history of how their country was brought low, nor can pin responsibility with any clarity, most,it seems, feel humiliated and betrayed by the country’s decline. Every discourse, on all sides, resonates with accusations of conspiracies and stabs in the back. Add to this the often unjustified Egyptian sense of superiority toward the Gulf countries, and you have a lethal dose of inferiority/superiority complexes. Such labile states rarely evolve to something healthy. The islands, central to Israel’s maritime security and subject to Camp David restrictions, are unlikely to be Saudi property in a free and unfettered manner. For this tiny acquisition Saudi Arabia will likely offer cash to Egypt and earn anger in return. This was a bad deal for Saudi Arabia, made worse by the Saudi leadership’s inability to sense that.

For Egypt, the situation is likely worse. Sooner or later the combination of inferiority/superiority will work its way in a public fashion. The results will not be pretty. Europe’s descent to hell a century ago began with miscalculations and one large country feeling badgered by its neighbors, humiliated by the world, and betrayed by its leaders, and seeing no recourse beyond a loud assertion of nationalism. One can only look with disbelief as Arab states, or at least those that still exist as such, find ways to damage their prospects for paltry returns. The public reaction to a minor tweak of the map, and one with little strategic value, points to darker times ahead.

— Maged Atiya