Descent of Men (Egypt Edition)

The outlines of the case are simple. The mob came to the home of a Christian man accused of dishonoring a Muslim woman by offering his love. They torched some nearby homes of other Christians. The mob dragged out his mother, disrobed her and paraded her naked through the streets. The police arrived much too late to prevent the spectacle. The Governor of the province (Minya) blamed the entire matter on the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no evidence that the crowd was demanding the return of Morsi, nor that they had just put down their copies of Sayyid Qutb and sprang into action fired by the zeal of his writing. In any case, had the crowd been composed of partisans of the Brotherhood the police would likely have shown more alacrity and less restraint.

Naturally, many will file this case under the heading of “Sectarianism”. And it does qualify for that perennial and tiring problem of religious bigotry in Egypt. But this observer wishes to call another aspect to attention; that of misogyny. The bias against women in Egypt is one that transcends the religious divide and has profound and retarding effect on the nation. What we have witnessed in the last decades is nothing less than the descent of Egyptian men. Even if all the Christians were to disappear from Egypt, the underlying illness captured in this episode will continue to haunt the country.

First, why should an affair between a Muslim woman and a Christian man be more offensive than one between a Muslim man and a Christian woman? It is not the religion but the gender. It is not for this observer to sort out whether misogyny is built into “Islam” or merely a construct of its interpreters. Islam, like any religion, is capacious enough to contain whatever good or ill its faithful can crowd into it. In any case, no religion has a monopoly on misogyny. The point is that the events contain many tell tale signs of the dangers such feelings pose to the country, and of the prevalence of those feelings among many, including Islamists, secular authoritarians, nominal progressives and every shade in between.

The Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamists in general, maybe innocent in these events, but not in others. They have sought to reform society by imposing the will of of one half on the other half. Women are “protected” by the paradoxical acts of gently covering hair which lacks nerve cells and savaging genitals which have them in abundance. Their vision of an upright land where every woman is invisible and silent contradicts all evidence of what makes a free and prosperous society. Nor are the so-called revolutionaries innocent of such feelings. Few want to remember the case of a CBS reporter stripped and nearly raped in the midst of the euphoria celebrating “freedom” from a supposed dictator. To the victim of the assault it must have seemed that every male celebrant is a potential oppressor or worse. The military, the vaunted protector of “mother” Egypt’s integrity and honor is also not immune to misogyny. It saw fit to poke between the legs of young women to prove the decency of its men. Sexual freedom and autonomy of women remain a proxy for rebellion. The religious authorities, both Muslim and Christian, are entirely male. They will undoubtedly rush to make sure that the ordeal of one old woman does not mar “brotherly” feelings among Egyptians of differing faiths. Every woman who lives in or visits Egypt can attest that harassment can come from such a wide variety of sources that it transcends ideology.

All that brings us to a grim conclusion. It hard to see how Egypt can progress when in a crowd of hundreds of men not one had enough Shahama to cover the nakedness of an old woman. Even the beasts of Dr Moreau have tried and cried “Are we not men?”.

— Maged Atiya


My Reston – How to Report on Egypt

James (Scotty) Reston was a great journalist, the best in many generations according to many in the profession. Himself an immigrant, he served as an ideal introduction to the value of the press in a free country for those unfamiliar with it. Here is the beginning of his dispatch from Cairo on a fateful June 4 1967

An alarming fatalism seems to be settling on this city. Cairo does not want war and it is certainly not ready for war. But it has already accepted the possibility, even the likelihood, of war, as if it had lost control of the situation.

There is very little relationship here between word and action, The Government seems to be provoking trouble without preparing for the consequences. Except for a few workers filling and piling sandbags in front of one or two public buildings, there is no evidence of civil defense.

Few soldiers appear in the streets, and the Cairo airport is more open to attack than even La Guardia in New York. The newspapers talk incessantly of war but make no effort to protect their own property. There is no public debate on the issues. There is no organized political opposition to question the Government’s course of action, And there is no voice of protest in the press.

This is not because Cairo does not have brilliant journalists. The editor in chief of Al Ahram, el-Sayed Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, is a worldly, intelligent and handsome man. He has built his paper into the most powerful voice in the Arab world.

His a confidant of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and prides himself on his independence from a Government he could have joined long ago. But he expresses absolutely no doubts about the present drift to war, either in public or in private.

Cairo today is not one but a series of separate communities, each viewing the emergency in a different way. The people stand apart from the issues as if they had nothing to do with events, as indeed they do not.

For those who experienced these fateful days, Reston’s precise and restrained tone can still evoke the shivers of that time. Today’s foreign journalists could learn a trick or two about mastering the right combination of accuracy, empathy and clear vision. Egyptians could read this dispatch and look inward in recognition and possible redemption.

— Maged Atiya



The Man Who Invented Sykes-Picot

Monday, May 16 2016, is the presumed 100th anniversary of the “Sykes-Picot” accord. Many speak confidently of it, fewer have actually read it, fewer still understand its roots and how an obscure letter has become a prominent feature of discourse about the Middle East.

To understand the roots of the letter and its deeper meaning, we need to place ourselves in the minds of European diplomats circa 1914. The “Great War” as far as these men were concerned was the Crimean conflict of the 1850s. It was as present in their minds as World War II is now in ours. It was a war waged by Catholic and Protestant Europe against Orthodox Russia to stave off the state collapse of the largest Muslim political entity, the Ottoman Empire. In return, the Western powers extracted “reforms” from the Ottomans that created the modern Middle East. These included citizenship rights to religious minorities, mostly Christians and Jews, the elimination of Jizya, the last vestige of Muslim dominance, and the attempt to build modern state apparatus. These Ottoman Tanzimat were an imitation of Muhammad Ali’s Egypt and still resonate in the region. Russia attempted to outflank the European and Ottoman powers by direct appeal to Eastern Christians. The Coptic Church of Egypt rebuffed the Russian overtures with its customary prickliness and habitual servility to the rulers of Egypt. The Levantine Christians were more receptive, but the Russian defeat in the Crimean war opened the way to reprisals from the Ottomans, exemplified by the 1860s pogroms in the Mountains of Lebanon and later against the Armenians. That conflict still echoes today, with a new Russian despot, Putin, imagining himself a second coming of Nicholas I.

In 1916 the British and French had lost their taste for propping up the Ottomans. For one thing, the “Young Turks” had sided against them and allied themselves with Germany. This was no accident but a telling foretaste of the Middle East new nationalism and its fascination with European Statism and Fascism. The French wanted nothing more than to save face with the Catholics of Lebanon who saw them as protectors. The British were truly confused. A prominent member of the aristocracy (Balfour) was toying with supporting Jewish Nationalism. A screwy romantic (Lawrence) was toying with inventing Arab Nationalism. Balfour and Lawrence were bound to collide (as they figuratively did after the war). In between, sat the sober diplomat Sykes. Catholic, restrained and sensible, he simply wanted order not excitement. Hence the “Sykes-Picot” letter. The letter sought to protect British and French interests in the presumed chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Ottomans. It even included a bone to Russia, in the form of control over Constantinople and partial control of Jerusalem. The Tsar, one year away from revolution, still imagined himself the Eastern Christian Emperor. The letter would have been consigned to the memory hole had it not been for subsequent events. When we speak of “Sykes-Picot” today we speak not of the letter but of the invented drama about the letter and its meaning. But who invented “Sykes-Picot”? It is a question worth pursuing, but with likely frustration as no single father (or mother for that matter) is apparent.

This observer’s favorite is Mohammed Hassenein Heikal, the Egypt journalist who recently passed away. Heikal was Nasser’s voice and the prominent peddler of the mythical Arab nation. Like many of his generation he felt Egypt would be made better with additional discipline, and a larger mission. A man educated by American missionaries could have no truck with the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamism. Instead he hit upon a fashionable idea from the salons of Damascus and Beirut. Yes, Egypt would be the Prussia of the Arabs. Egyptians would be cured of their habitual Fawda and goose-stepped to greatness. But such a vision needed a “stab-in-the-back”. “Sykes-Picot” was there to serve the purpose. Couple that with the “Balfour Declaration” and you have a unifying theme, and one with easy public appeal. Anti-Western and Antisemitic, it was the perfect tool for the propagandist from Dokki and Zamalek. Somewhere in heaven, Ustaz Heikal is smiling, Cigar in hand. He had put one over the Western scholars, or most of them anyway. A man for all political seasons had found an excuse for all political ills. Or so lives the lie.


— Maged Atiya