The Last of Their Kind?



Once upon a time a Copt named Boutros Ghali rose to be Prime Minister. The time was the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The place was Egypt. Boutros was the son of Ghali Nayrouz, who had become an overseer of Khedival lands, just about the best kind of job open to capable Copts since the Arab invasion in the 7th Century. Boutros Pasha begat three sons and a daughter, Naguib, Wassif, Youssef and Galila. The humbler and poorer Copts were proud of him, and many named their children after his (This observer’s paternal uncle and maternal grandmother were accordingly named Naguib and Galila). Naguib Boutros Ghali begat two sons: Gueffrey and Merrit. Wassif had no children. Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Boutros, Wassif and Raouf. Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Youssef, Boutros and Kareem. Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali has edited a new book called,  A Coptic Narrative in Egypt : A Biography of the Boutros Ghali Family.

51lj4my9jxl-_sx384_bo1204203200_It is possible to read this handsome book, with its elegant typography and many photographs and reproductions, in the spirit that the author intended, a praise of famous men lest we should forget them. But there is a certain weariness in the first paragraph of the preface “people who are condemned to repeat history must seek to find truth in it”. It is an implicit urging to find other and more nuanced readings in the book. While the author does not explicitly point in these directions, the possibility is raised by the insertion of one word in the title, “Coptic”. It is an indication, indeed a surrender, to the otherness of the Copts, the Sisyphean nature of their struggles, and to the indelibly sectarian nature of Egypt, regardless of all the grand pronouncements by many great men, including several family members in the book. This is, after all, a remarkably accomplished family (there has been at least one member in the upper echelon of Egyptian governance since the 1850s. The family has outlasted several empires). The title could have included any number of descriptions, but “Copt” is the one to have leapt to the head of the line. Also the “a” is an indication that there are other narratives, equally compelling, and indeed also threading through the book. Yet in spite of the title much of the book is really about Egyptian history, an indication of the truism that Egyptian Copts are frequently a stand-in for the country at large, whatever their predicament. These are matters to come to in due course, but first about the book.

It is clear that the author consciously wishes us to see parallels between himself and his great-grandfather, noting that both were made Finance Ministers 111 years apart. Both men attempted, and nearly succeeded, in setting Egypt’s finances on a more favorable course. Both were ultimately undone by compromises with the powerful, which they saw as attempts to lessen oppression, but were easily portrayed as a collaboration with oppressors. And there are more parallels. As his great grandfather was assassinated by a proto-Islamist, Youssef was chased out of Egypt by the assassin’s ideological successors. The death of Boutros Ghali prompted a conclave of Copts in 1911 to demand equal rights. The reaction to that conference figured prominently in the rise of the Society of Muslim Brothers. Their demise would come shortly after Youssef’s exile, prompted by their final grab at power. Between the author and his great-grandfather, there were many prominent men in the family. The book has eight chapters on four public men (Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Boutros Ghali , Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali, and the author), four private men (Youssef Boutros Ghali, Gueffrey Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Youssef Boutros Ghali and Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali), and one towering intellectual, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The public men, who served the State, get longer and more detailed treatments that the private men, who served their families and often the Nation as well. As always with Egypt, the projects of State building and Nation building did not work in tandem. The secret to understanding Egypt’s history is to view it as an overbearing State in search of a nascent Nation. Indeed, it was Youssef’s uncle, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali who diagnosed the Egyptian identity crisis in a remarkable essay in 1978. The final chapter in the book is not about a famous man, but a famous Church, the Boutrossiya Church, built to honor Boutros Ghali after his assassination. Within a few months of the book’s publication, the Church would be attacked by the so-called Islamic State terrorists, in what may prove to be a seminal moment in Egypt’s long history, and the Copts’ relationship to the difficult land that they believe God anointed them as its guardians.

The family has a recessive gene for state service, which expressed itself across four generations of men who served in entirely different periods of modern Egyptian history, the British tutelage, the “liberal age”, the Nasser revolution, and finally the Mubarak stagnation. Yet, each politician’s career and life were remarkably similar. There is a rise to prominence powered by personal merit and occasioned by a desire for both personal and national prestige. As the author summarizes in the preface : “they were concerned for the fate of the country as if they were personally responsible for it”. There is also inevitably a fall, as Egypt undergoes an upheaval, and the fall is made more severe by that very same Coptic identity, and perhaps some of its unattractive aspects. Each man performs a difficult high wire act while buffeted by social forces, and tyrannical bosses, that constantly strive to affect a fall. In the case of Boutros Ghali it was the combination of the resentful Khedive Abbas Hilmi and the racist Lord Cromer. His killer, Ibrahim Nassif Al Wardani, accused him of treason to a “nation” whose nature many disagreed about. It is said with some authority that crowds chanted “Al Wardani Qatal Al Nustrani” (Al Waradani killed the Nazarene). Men of the time recognized Boutros Ghali’s contributions to Egypt, and Lord Cromer took a leave from his customary dislike of Copts to note that Ghali was a capable man and true patriot. But he was the last Copt to occupy that position*.The British Foreign Office noted that had it not been for the victim’s religion, the assassin would not have fired the fatal bullets. Boutros’ son Naguib Boutros Ghali served the rulers of Egypt well from before the death of his father until 1921, but the new nationalist regime that took over in 1923 had little use for a man cut in the mold of the past. He spent the last decade of his life in charitable work and away from public life. His brother Wassif Boutros Ghali was more nimble. He rose to prominence as Foreign Minister in various Wafd governments from 1923 onward. In that position, Wassif worked diligently to reduce British influence in Egypt. The crowning achievement of his career was the 1936 treaty with Britain. It also effectively ended his public life. The 1938 election was an ugly spectacle of anti-Copt and anti-Semitic hate, and was rigged to boot. The Wafd party began to trim its sails to match the stronger winds of bigotry embodied in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and would have less use for such men as Wassif, who gradually withdrew from politics for the last two decades of his life. He was the last Copt to occupy the office of Foreign Minister. Wassif’s nephew Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali was equally nimble and a man capable of adjusting to the new Egypt, formed by the rise of Islamism and eventually by Army rule. From the 1950s into the 1990s he served Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak as an able diplomat, but would never rise to his uncle’s station, even if he matched him in talent. He was a self-possessed and proud man. He was neither awed by Henry Kissinger, nor alarmed by the cast of loud and blustering Israeli politicians, generals and diplomats, nor made uneasy by the casual condescension of his bosses (Sadat addressed him as Peter, Boutros or Ghali depending on his degree of irritation with him.). His career culminated in becoming Secretary General of the UN. The new role freed him from the customary deference he showed to Egypt’s rulers and he felt free to talk back to the main financial backer of the UN, the United States. He ran afoul of First Lady Hillary Clinton, and her appointed surrogate, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State. The latter showed visible glee and scorn when she vetoed his reappointment as Secretary General. His nephew Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali followed him into international service, in the IMF, as a talented economist. On his return to Egypt he rose in various government jobs until he became the Minister of Finance in 2004. And as with his kin, his fall from grace was a result of a historic lurch. A few months after the 2011 revolution, he was awarded a 30 year sentence in a six minute trial. Additional trials added yet another 35 years to his jail time. The charges amounted to little more than hearsay about misuse of government cars.  The entire cadre of Egyptian revolutionaries sprang into ecstasy when one of their own assaulted him on a London street. Nearly six years after the revolution many think Egypt needs the skills of Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali, but none are willing to invite him back or guarantee his safety.

These stories of rise and fall find echoes in the lives of many other great Coptic men too numerous to list, whether it is the wily politician Makram Ebeid or the eminent scientist Rushdi Sa’id. All lived at the mercy of their Coptic identity, the futility of downplaying it, and the capriciousness of rulers. All of them would have nodded in agreement with the author’s claim that “like my great-grandfather, my great uncles and my uncle, I worked for an autocrat who, with time, grew to trust me and let me implement reforms that I believe served Egypt best and brought progress even if late and never enough“. Indeed, even an earlier distant relative would have agreed. In the 1840s Muhammad Ali had his faithful Coptic accountant, another Ghali, strangled for honestly reporting a budget shortfall. The accountant’s son kissed the killer’s hand. Such is the pathology of the Coptic condition in Egypt. These events occur with a regularity that belittles their grotesqueness. Two generations after that event, when the 1911 conference was called in the aftermath of the Ghali assassination. Boutros Pasha’s son, Wassif, refused to attend, insisting that “I would rather side with the those who killed my father than those who wish to kill my country”. Wassif’s nephew Boutros, the UN Secretary General, chaired a Human Rights panel in Egypt that did little to point out regular violations against Copts. The sociologist Sana Hasan, a rebellious daughter of Egypt’s Muslim aristocracy, called him to account on such matters. She pressed Boutros about the absurd claim that there is no discrimination against Copts in the foreign service. He, clearly irritated, responded “You have been listening to too many frightened 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!”. In response, Hasan lumps Boutros with another famous Copt, Makram Ebeid, as “more finely attuned to the call of the minaret than to their own people’s cry of distress”. These two positions are also a template for the general, and generally futile, discussion of modern Egyptian governance. Is the State a reflection of the people’s supine attitude, or are the rulers to blame for ignoring the people’s needs? The answer is likely that it is both in uncertain and varying measures. The author lends his voice on this matter at the outset of the preface “the passive resistance of those who know they cannot throw their yoke but seek to lighten its burden. The courage to face challenges often gets misinterpreted as weakness and capitulation”. This brings us back to a fundamental question; is Egypt doomed to authoritarianism and the best that can be done is to make it light and enlightened, or is there a different path? A hint of an answer is also within the book in the life of Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali.

For more than half a century, from the 1930s until his passing in 1992, Merrit Ghali, by word and action, outlined a different vision for Egypt and its Copts. Although technically half Armenian (his mother was the granddaughter of Nubar Pasha), he embraced his Coptic identity naturally, while advocating for a country that respected diversity as the cornerstone for proper governance. Although nominally a member of Egypt’s diplomatic corp, he served where his interests led him (generally Ethiopia) rather than the whims of his bosses. He neither endorsed nor revolted against the various manifestations of the State, but sought to build a better alternative in its shadow. His recipe for success, advocated in a variety of writing including his book “Traditions for the Future”, is simple. Egypt must recognize the diversity of its religious, cultural and ethnic heritage, and refuse to identify itself as only one thing or another, as its frequent and disrespected Constitutions insist. Although a leader in the revival of Coptic studies, he never engaged in the injured and injurious Coptic discourse of “we are the only true Egyptians”. He, and many members of his wide circle of friends and collaborators, also sought to keep scholarship apart from the Church’s hagiography. There is a rare photograph in the book showing him behind his desk receiving the usually indomitable Pope Shenouda almost as a supplicant. There is a hint of a deeper desire to see culture and religion on equal footing, with neither appropriating the other for its purposes. His wide interest in African Orthodox Christianity, and his involvement in Coptic studies in the West, point to a future, now almost within reach, when Copts might outgrow the narrowness of the Egyptian identity. In contrast to many of his men folk, he seemed to be a man of the future, and if hope persists, the first rather than the last of his kind. For it will take many like him for Egypt to escape its current predicament, where power, not politics, mediates social differences.

There are those who study Egypt hoping to understand its storied history, and then there are those who see in its history repeated couplets of an encompassing and all too human threnody. This elegiac book is a work of the latter, especially as its author remains marooned outside his country, and the Church of his family subjected to a horrific attack. Much of the current discourse about Egypt, and indeed the wider region, consists of laments about golden days, and tears for the “last of their kind”. This is understandable, and whatever sympathy that may elicit must be balanced by a desire to develop new kinds, anchored in traditions but not weighed by them.

— Maged Atiya

*  There was another Coptic Prime Minister, Youssef Wahba, who served for a few months during the 1919-1920 revolutionary disturbances, at the behest of the Sultan. His legitimacy was never widely accepted. I am grateful to Samuel Tadros for the correction.

Ibrahim and the Two Islands

This passage is from Leila Ahmed’s memoirs “A Border Passage”.

“You’re an Arab!” she finally screamed at me. “An Arab! And you don’t know your own language!’

“I am not an Arab!” I said, suddenly furious myself. “I am Egyptian! And anyway we don’t speak like this!” And I banged my book shut.


I sat on stonily, armed folded.


I didn’t move.

She struck me across the face. The moment afterward seemed to go on forever, like something in slow motion.

I was twelve and I’d never been hit before by a teacher and never slapped across the face by anyone. Miss Nabih, the teacher, was a Palestinian. A refugee.

The year was 1952, the year of the revolution. What Miss Nabih was doing to me in class the government was doing to us through the media. I remember how I hated the incessant rhetoric. Al-qawmiyya Al Arabiya! Al-Uruba! Nahnu Al-Arab! Arab nationalism! Arabness! We are the Arabs! Even now, just remembering those words, I feel again a surge of mingled irritation and resentment. Propaganda is unpleasant. And one could not escape it. The moment one turned on the radio, three it was : military songs, and endless, endless speeches in that frenetic, crazed voice of exhortation.

Ahmed devotes an entire chapter to her mixed feelings about Arabism, the damage it inflicted on Egypt, first by displacing the polyglot community that lent it vibrancy and cultural and economic momentum, and by disenfranchising the most ancient and native of Egyptians, the Copts, the majority of whom wished to identify as Egyptians only. The moment that tormented her in 1952 would last and continue to further split and torment the country. She correctly ties Arabism to Islamism and how the project of imposing these larger identities on a nation that neither wanted .nor needed them would ultimately result in the current decline and division.

This is all brought up again by two events at the end of 2016, and offered as a warning. The referring of the transfer to Saudi Arabia  of the Islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Parliament for final approval, and the shutting down of Ibrahim Eissa’s program, the last voice to challenge Arabism and Islamism, even officially espoused soft-core versions.

Leila did not “win” her fight against the teacher, Ultimately she left, a net loss to Egypt.

— Maged Atiya