June 19 1926

The procession started from a Red Sea port toward Mecca as it had done for nearly a century. The carrier (Mahmal) contained the covering for the Holy Ka’aba (Kiswa) . It had been a tradition since the rise of modern Egypt in the 1820s to provide this annual change of covering. Some say the tradition dated back to the twelfth century. But in 1926 things had changed in Arabia. Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud and his band of Wahabis were now uniting much of the peninsula under his rule. Some of these Wahabis objected to the music and celebration accompanying the procession. The Egyptian police escort responded with a customary delicate touch. They opened fire and killed upwards of two dozen men. Then continued on their merry way. Back in Egypt, grumpy King Fu’ad was furious at the temerity of the victims. He asked the British, who held sway in Arabia and to a lesser extent in Egypt, to allow him to become King of the Arabs (he spoke a bit of Arabic). A conference was being organized in Egypt at that time to make him Caliph of all Muslims, a prospect that was met with no appetite among most Muslims, save Fu’ad’s sycophants. The British demurred and then offered a flat out No. Fu’ad would not recognize Saudi Arabia for the rest of his life. In fact, he sent a mission to Yemen to see if he can stir up trouble for the new “Saudi” Kingdom there. His son Farouk would recognize Saudi Arabia in a flourish of Islamism that characterized his rule. A rising young community organizer, Hasan Al Banna, would be photographed kissing the hand of the Saudi King, A noted intellectual at the time, Salama Moussa, predicted that all this nonsense would come to a very bad end. A year into his reign,  Farouk pulled an interesting stunt. He was visiting Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. The noted Egyptologist Howard Carter was ready to receive his Majesty and guide him. He prepared explanations of such Pharaonic symbols as the “Key of Life” and “Key of Happiness”. Farouk would not listen, He pulled out a copy of the Qur’an and kissed it, “This is the key of life; this is the key of happiness”, he chortled as he hastily went back to his car.
The rest is, as they say, history. A very bad history indeed, at least for Egypt.

— Maged Atiya




Of Two Kings

Two young men came to rule at an early age in the unstable and occasionally violent Middle East. The first was Farouk of Egypt, who became King at 16. The second was Hussein of Jordan, who became King at 17. The circumstances would seem to favor Farouk; but in a demonstration that character is destiny, Hussein would die on his throne of cancer, beloved by his people, while Farouk passed away under murky circumstances in Italy, sometimes reviled by his former subjects. Egypt is not in a happy state today, and as to be expected there is some nostalgia for the seemingly better and elegant age of Farouk. That should not blind us to his flaws.

Farouk came to the throne of Egypt in 1936 in a country that was developing a nascent and powerful nationalism (Egyptianism of the 1920s) and with the economy in relatively good shape. The developing parliamentary democracy was far from perfect, but it showed real promise to foster the growth of a native and somewhat liberal order. The people gave him adulation and affection. The political leaders had secured a formal independence from outside powers for the first time in centuries. All the politicians recognized his royalty and right to the throne. 

What did Farouk do with fortune’s gift?  First, he surrounded himself with ignoble sycophants. His first act was to demand a bizarre coronation that undercut Egyptian nationalism; and sulk when objections rose up. He tried to rig the first election under his rule (1938), setting a pattern of sectarianism, violence and corruption that was to beset the nation for decades to come. That debacle was totally unnecessary; he simply could not abide becoming a constitutional monarch. He looked for baubles. Not merely the Harry Winston diamonds he could not afford, but also irrelevant intangibles such as becoming a “Caliph of All Muslims”. A young man with unlimited appetite and unconstrained ego, he was never content with Egypt, as if the country was too small for his desires. He wanted to become a leader larger than his nation and that led him to many dangerous dead ends. His flirtation with Islamists would end up costing his ministers their lives, and his country’s politics its decency. Against all reason he wanted to become a leader of the Arabs. In the end, his demise was sealed by a disastrous involvement in the conflict between Arab and Jewish nationalisms, one having little to do with Egypt. He was too clumsy to even coup-proof his tiny army, flirting foolishly with different factions. The youngest and most impetuous among the officers saluted and sent him on his way at 32, looking far too old for his age. What followed was decades of misrule for Egypt, and exile or worse for those who loved it.

King Hussein came to the throne with a double trauma. His beloved grandfather was shot in front of him. His father was mentally ill. The country he ruled was a sliver of desert with no national feelings or a history of geographic or cultural unity. To the west rested Israel, brimming with ill-intent for his kingdom. To the east loomed Iraq, which soon was to murder his kinsmen and its royals. To the south grew the House of Ibn Saud, which ejected his great grandfather from his homeland of the Hijaz. Further afield, Nasser of Egypt had set his cross-hairs on him. “Uneasy lies the head” hardly describes his ordeal. But at the root of it Hussein was a decent man. Again, character is destiny. A descendant of the Prophet, he saw no need to play up his Muslim credentials, and in time  built a reservoir of tolerance in his country. He could have harbored resentment against the Ibn Sauds, but he showed no sign of it. He had a greater birthright than Nasser to being proclaimed a “leader of the Arabs”, but he avoided all such entanglements, to the benefit of his country. The single exception was a big one. He followed Nasser into the disaster of 1967 to the detriment of all involved. Still, he built one of the best and most professional armies in the region. Not the largest, but one that kept its nose out of royal affairs. This is no small feat in the Levant, where every other country saw its army descend to militia status and incompetence.  Jordan stands as a reprimand to all who argue that Middle Eastern states collapsed due to “artificial” borders. The fault was not in the map lines but in the character of the rulers. Hussein was wily when Farouk was foolish. Hussein was disciplined when Farouk was capricious. Hussein was patient when Farouk was hasty. Hussein built a country. Farouk destroyed a 150 year throne.

It is not too harsh to judge Farouk as the inferior of the two men.

— Maged Atiya


Trump: Illiberal Democracy – American Edition

It is possible that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. He would then assume an office with enormous power. The American Presidency is a near dictatorship, constrained only by constitutional checks and balances.The legislative checks on a President Trump would be minimal. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, has already voiced that Trump would a “partner” in achieving partisan plans. The leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has just written a book in praise of naked partisanship and political opportunism. The judicial constraints on Trump are considerable, but he has shown strong disregard for the judiciary. This is to be expected from a litigious man wont to attack judges who disagree with him. We can not forget that President Jackson simply ignored the Supreme Court when it disagreed with his plans for ethnic cleansing of citizens who happened to be native Americans. The election of Donald Trump would represent a triumph of illiberal democracy. While many nodded in approval while such outcomes were recommended to Muslim-majority countries, it is doubtful they would like the native edition. What is not good for the Muslim is also not good for the Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or the unbeliever.

There is of course some hope that voters will reject Trump. But risks abound. Hillary Clinton is smart, tough and prone to political self-mutilation. Bernie Sanders remains the unreconstructed independent and the curmudgeon in the machine. Any number of events could sway the election. But even if voters reject Trump in November, the outcome will still be unsatisfactory. The country will live with the memory of an ugly campaign, and of the fact that one of its two major parties embraced a habitual liar, a ranting racist, and a self-enriching operator of failing businesses. This is considerable damage in a two party system. The Republican party is not a private club; it is a national institution with considerable responsibilities.

But all is not lost. There is still room to act. The GOP should pull its version of the Egyptian July 3 2013. It should break all its rules and democratic norms and annoint another man or woman as its candidate. It will be wrong. It will be an act that we can neither condone nor condemn. But it would be patriotic. It may not work in the long run, or it may.

Welcome to Third World politics America.

— Maged Atiya

What If The June 1967 War Never Happened”

What if Israel held back in June of 1967 and the tensions tied down?

That war started a cascade of events that still shape the current Middle East. It is impossible to sort out all the various threads and counterfactual alternatives had the war not happened. The best we can do is focus on a few of the broader issues.

It is not fanciful to say that the war killed Nasser. Stress from dealing with the defeat, and its after effects, such as the 1970 “Black September” Jordanian civil war, shortened the life of the man. He passed away at 52, a very young age by the current standard of Middle Eastern autocrats. Where would Egypt, and the broader region, be if he lived to ripe old age, or even into his 60s. One possibility is that Nasser would have finally given in to Soviet pressure to move Egypt so close to its orbit as to be another Cuba. Nasser would be an aging Castro, and Cairo would sport traffic jams with 1950s American cars. Equally likely Nasser would have not given in, as his entire political and emotional persona was tied up with keeping “foreign” bases out of Egypt. An opening to the US would have been in the offing for a couple of reasons. First, the 1968 election in the US brought in Nixon; Henry Kissinger’s sponsor. The two men would have itched to deliver a strategic blow to the Soviet Union. Second, Nasser did not replace Zakaria Mohieddin (America’s man among the Free Officers) as Vice President until after the 1968 student riots. He brought in Sadat to appease the Islamists. Had Zakaria remained close to Nasser he would have likely pushed for better relations with America, and perhaps economic liberalization to offset the stagnation of the mid 1960s. There were also other forces at work. By 1967 Arabism was failing Nasser and tiring him. The Yemen conflict with Saudi Arabia was economically debilitating. The relations with Algeria, Iraq and Syria all had deteriorated. He had already made enemies of most of the other Arab countries. He was also fearful of any penetration of the Army by the Muslim Brotherhood. Without Arabism or Islamism to provide the outline of policy, Nasser was likely to fall back on the Egyptianism of the 1920s, with its deeply Anti-Arab sentiments. The closest actual historical parallel would be South Korea of the 1960s. Would authoritarian Egyptianism have been tamed into something resembling a liberal order? Perhaps, especially if an opening to the West occasioned liberalization of the economy.

What would have happened to Palestine had the West Bank remained in Jordanian hands? It is possible that King Hussein, ever the wily operator, would have moved to create a confederation that would ultimately result in a friendly Palestinian state, especially as Nasser’s Arabism cooled and the need to use the refugee issue against Israel lessened. It is also possible that the rising Palestinian population within Jordan would have de-stabilized the Hashemite Kingdom. In both cases, the Palestinian national aspirations would have found a better outcome.

Beyond Egypt and Palestine, the 1967 war helped the rise to power of a wily General by the name of Hafez Al Assad. If he remained an army man from a small Latakia clan, Syria would have evolved in a very different direction. The messy politics post union with Egypt would likely have taken a very Lebanese direction. Lebanon, in turn, could also have averted its civil war, which was the outcome of the increased Palestinian population in the country, and meddling by the Syrian regime.

And what of Israel? Where would the country be had it not won a major victory that boosted its pride, enlarged its borders and altered its politics. Would it have emerged as an economic powerhouse in the region anyway, or would the Labor party have kept it a narrowly socialist economy? Would the country have retained the left-of-center ethos of the early Zionists, or in time moved rightward anyway? What would be the evolution of an Israel; smaller, within less secure borders, less cocky and in the shadow of a less hostile Egypt?

But of course the 1967 war did happen. The last half century brought momentous changes to the region. Will the next half century be spent in reversing those changes, or ameliorating their effects?  We may never know the answer, until June 4 2067. 

— Maged Atiya