I am not weak like Eden
The topic of conversation at breakfast that Tuesday was Nasser’s news conference. Tuesday is mid-week for Egyptian schools, with Friday being the normal day off. Schools were off that day to allow students extra time to study for the upcoming examinations. But few actually did. War was in the air and with that excitement blew in with the warm May winds.
The adults were utterly mystified by Nasser. Some thought he had it all figured out, and that we are living in the last days of Israel. Others thought he was a damn fool and that the Jews will give us a thorough thrashing. There was plenty in that news conference to support both points of view. On one hand “America is the enemy of the Arabs and had chosen to side with Israel“. On the other hand “America is a great country and we want it as a friend“. Nasser was sure of victory “We will not move one inch on the straits of Tiran“. But just in case things went badly “We will block the Suez Canal to world shipping“. As far as Israel was concerned “Negotiating peace was out of the question“. But the Palestinians need to have patience “wait a year or 10 or more until we restore your rights“. Egypt was willing to sacrifice for the Arab cause, but of course things couldn’t be better at the moment “look around, the country is full of bread and chicken“.
But the line that struck most people, and perhaps sedated them for some time, was Nasser’s declaration “I am fit. I am young. I am not yet 50. I am not weak like Anthony Eden“. Eden, 20 years Nasser’s senior, and famously sickly, survived him by 7 years.
— Maged Atiya
Samuel Tadros, a chronicler of modern Egypt and its Copts, opens his new op-ed for the New York Times with a passionate and moody warning from a friend: “At this rate Copts will be extinct in 100 years. They will die, leave, convert or get killed”. Many Copts disagreed with this sentiment, both privately and publicly. There seems to be a serene faith that it is God’s plan for Egypt to remain a Christian country, and that no evil human plot can contradict that. In a 2013 review of Tadros’s book “Motherland lost” this blogger noted “more painful than contemplating how Copts might fare when shorn of Egypt is the thought of how Egypt might fare when shorn of the Copts”. This still holds true. The very act of exterminating Christianity from Egypt will so painful, so wrenching, certainly for Copts, but more so for Egypt. The country left behind, if it can be called that, will be a desolate wasteland, a place so hellish for its Muslims that it will make Somalia seem like a well-run Scandinavian polity. A memory that insists on recognition is that of crowds marching on Friday June 2 1967 in support of Nasser’s pre-1967 war sabre rattling. “Today is Friday, tomorrow the Saturday people, day-after-tomorrow the Sunday people”. Half a century later the Islamists seeking the downfall of the Egyptian state express similar feelings in barely altered forms. The response of the great majority of Copts is to pray for the dead, bury them, forgive, hope for peace and expect more violence. This is commendable but short of what is required. It will be necessary to fight back, not with weapons, but with tools far superior; insistence on cultural and material achievements, a reaching out to potential friends and women and men of good conscience, and a forceful demand for a new compact with the country that many Copts believe God entrusted to them, and its shambles of a ruling elite.
Today is Egypt’s “come-to-Jesus” moment. Egypt, as a state and a society, must do all it can to hold onto the Copts or risk becoming a failed state that fails even at failing. The urban dictionary defines the “come-to-Jesus” moment as “An epiphany in which one realizes the truth of a matter; a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something; coming clean and admitting failures; realizing the true weight or impact of a negative situation or fact; acknowledgment that one must get back to core values; moment of realization; an aha moment; moment of decision; moment of truth; critical moment; moment of reassessment of priorities; turning point; life-changing moment.” The reality of May 26 2017 is that gunmen took children out of a bus, attempted to make them read religious confessions, shot them dead and then robbed them. The children were guilty of being born into the wrong religion.The gunmen escaped, and are unlikely to be captured, because they blend in with a larger population that sees their actions as scarcely different from an accepted social norm. The Egyptian state, well-armed but hapless, anticipated its failure to capture the gunmen by launching an air attack on neighboring Libya. While many Egyptians must have winced at this atrocity, few will take up the cause of fundamentally altering the society and the state it produces. The murder of children is an embarrassment and an annoyance, but not a cause for reflection and an urge to change, at least not yet. The community on the receiving end of this violence has little to lose by altering the current practices. The Jihadi violence is not insurmountable, but the current strategy of begging the government to do its duty and protect its citizens is short of the mark. While the Copts are bearing a disproportionate part of the violence aimed at altering society and bringing down the state, they are not given a chance to bear a proportionate part of what is necessary to secure the future of both. The “ask”, to use the common parlance of Washington DC, should be something more substantial than condolences and a few bombing raids on Libya. We can start by asking how many of SCAF’s generals are Copts, or how many Governors are Copts, or how many high police or State Security officials are Copts. We all have eyes to see and fingers to count on. Anything less than a proper response and a determined effort should render any self-proclaimed leaders unworthy of support.
— Maged Atiya
A Traffic Jam
Peter M., then a young attache at the US Embassy in Cairo, woke up early on Monday May 22 1967 to head to work expecting a flurry of instructions from a Washington DC returning from the weekend. He recalled the events of the day more than a decade later. His normal drive from his house in Ma’adi to work was less than 20 minutes. On that day, however, the roads were clogged and it took him the better part of 2 hours. The traffic jam was caused by the “whole bloody Egyptian Army traveling across Cairo”. The next morning he read about the events as reported by a number of Western journalists. He recalled the reporting of the highly regarded Eric Pace of the New York Times. Mr Pace asserted that the five Egyptian divisions deployed in the Sinai would “prevent any sudden humiliating defeat, like that of the offensive of 1956“. Pace also noted how the official press promoted the image of Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, a “mainstay of the regime“. In Pace’s considered judgement “In short, by his belligerence, Mr. Nasser has created an atmosphere in which military dictatorship thrives best“.
Later that evening at the Heliopolis Sporting Club, members gathered at their usual spots on tables below Sycamore trees ordering rounds of Stella beer and Termis (pickled Lupini beans). The adult conversation centered on quotidian subjects, especially the upcoming Thanawya examinations for college entrance. At one point a man pointed out the radio announcement of the calling of the reserves. Few took much heed, or give any insights on an impending war. Nor did anyone notice the absence of a sometime guest, General Medhat Fahmy. He had been ordered to speed to the Sinai at the head of his tank division. His mission was to wait near Gaza, and when ordered to make a dash north toward Haifa. Three weeks later he was indeed in Haifa, as a prisoner of war. In an interview he gave to French reporters he spoke admiringly of the skill of both his soldiers and their Israeli opponents. He said he harbored no hate toward Israel, and that he was treated with respect since his capture. More noted was the absence of Ahmed, the young roustabout who did a variety of tasks around the club. He had received a notice of mobilization at the tiny basement apartment he shared with his father, a doorman, his mother and a brother and a sister. Ahmed was never seen again at the club. More than two months later his name appeared on a list of those presumed dead. A fellow private in his unit insisted that he was taken prisoner, and that the “the Jews shot him”. It is certainly possible that this was his fate. It is also possible that the charge stemmed from anger and humiliation. The world may never know the truth. What some know for certain is that on a hot day in August 1967 a piercing shriek issued from a tiny basement window in Heliopolis. For a long time after, whenever Um Ahmed appeared in public she was clad in black and wordless, and occasionally in tears.
— Maged Atiya
The Cost of Dignity
On that day President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader who renamed a once and future Egypt as the United Arab Republic, made the decision to ask the United Nations to withdraw its peace keeping mission. We will never be able to assess his true reasons, but they are likely to have originated from the peculiarly Egyptian sin of seeking dignity at all costs. Shortly after the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser signed a memorandum with Dag Hammarskjold, then UN Secretary General, to de-militarize the Sinai and give the UN veto power over the withdrawal of its peace keepers. Nasser must have suffered this indignity only because the agreement was kept a secret. Anything less would have shattered the myth of the successful resistance to the Tripartite attack on Egypt. The Rotem Crisis of 1960 may have encouraged Nasser to think that the the memo has lost force and that there is room to give. The hot days of late May 1967 were a giant exercise in restoring his dignity, now tarnished by the costs of Yemen and poor economic planning. No one could pull him back from the brink, as any such effort amounted to an attack on his dignity, and by extension all of Egypt, which loved him for illusion of dignity he offered.
— Maged Atiya
One of the most amusing scenes of the events of January 2011 in Egypt was the image of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper cowering in an apartment in Cairo, curtains drawn, whispering into the microphone from an “undisclosed location” for fear that Mubarak’s “thugs” would come and drag him away by the scruff of his t-shirt. The location was well-known, even if it was undisclosed. Those who knew Egypt also knew that life went on normally just a short distance from Cooper’s location. This was a hint of what was to come, when the world reported on the “Arab Revolutions” as nearly a TV serial without much examination of of what was truly happening. Steven Cook opens his new book “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East ” with a nod to all that, listing the “characters”, “timeline” and “places”, as well as provide personal experiences of living through those days in January in Egypt as a historian and a sympathetic foreigner who studies Egypt’s convulsions. But that early start is a feint, for the book launches as a serious and occasionally gloomy examination of the events of the last 6 years in four countries, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and Egypt. The author has clearly come to many important insights, and one central conclusion; that the “revolutions” of 2011 were no revolutions at all. If a Hollywood agent had read only the cinematic first few pages and tried to option the book he would be advised to choose the music of “The Who” as the film’s soundtrack. The credits would play to the searing strings of “We Won’t get Fooled Again”. Cook concludes that to meet the new boss(es) is to meet the old boss(es).
There is a lot to like in Cook’s book, and a few things to quibble with. The author weaves events in all four countries into one tapestry. Most of the events are well-documented in the public record, but those who do not know the four countries, or know only one or two of them will appreciate and benefit from the summary. We should also note and be thankful for what is absent. There is no discussion of the “Arab mind” or “Islam’s encounter with Modernity” or any of the other similar crutches. There is no hint that the author read the seminal works of Orientalism and postcolonial theory, although he undoubtedly did. Cook assumes that Arabs, Turks, Egyptians and the other motley occupants of the region want what all humans want, a secure, prosperous and dignified life. The early part of the book marshals many economic facts and figures noting that the countries made many advances, but not enough. The people were neither so miserable as to hope for nothing, nor so satisfied as to offer loyalty to their governing schemas. Three countries were run by authoritarian structures, while Libya was not run at all, but simply managed for the benefit of the boss. Cook’s indictment of the ruling elites is indirect, summarizing what they failed to do, and what opportunities they missed, rather than detailing a record of specific perfidies. This is also a welcome departure from the literature of outrage common to studies of the region.
The central point of the book will no doubt arose arguments. The author leans on the theories of Theda Skocpol and others to demonstrate that the “revolutions” were hardly revolutions at all since they did not result in the fundamental alteration of social and political power relations. But those who argue against it will be doing so under the influence of the romance of revolution rather than the sober analysis of what actually took place. Whoever coined the term “Arab Spring” made the cardinal error in Skocpol’s world of using the events of a previous convulsion (fall of the Soviet Union) to analyze a new one. To see this argument advanced by a well-regarded voice on the region is worth the price of the book. It is not surprising that the author in two chapters (“Unraveling” and “What Went Wrong?”) does not countenance the idea of a well-planned “counter-revolution”. Instead he sees a multitude of actors responding in random and mostly predictable ways to new events and conditions. The descent into despotism in Turkey, repression in Egypt and Tunisia, and chaos in Libya were all improvised events, according to Cook, who describes them in some detail. The powers-that-be are not evil Chess masters, but hapless tossers of dice in a wild game of Backgammon. They may be deaf, dumb and blind to the subtle charms of good governance, but they sure play a mean game of pinball.
Cook also takes up a point often ignored in discourses about the region, identity crisis. (The sound editor should cue in “Who are You?”) Recently, Egyptian-American historian Samuel Tadros noted that the ills of the region stem from a refusal to accept, let alone celebrate, diversity. Cook is in broad agreement with that. Many people in the region refuse to acknowledge that it is normal for individuals to assume different, and sometimes overlapping, identities. To refuse to acknowledge that reality is at the root of collapse. Arabism did not die at the hands of Israel, but at the urging of Sati’ Al Husri to tolerate no other identity for an “Arab”, who may foolishly not know that he is one and must be coerced into that acceptance. Similarly, Islamism’s insistence on the supremacy of a “Muslim” identity, something unfortunately is increasingly accepted even in the West, is at the root of its failure to deliver anything more than coercion in the social norms. This is a point on which a direct comparison between Egypt and Turkey (two countries that Cook studies regularly) would have been valuable. Kemalism in Turkey and Egyptianism in Egypt tracked each other closely, and Islamism was a counter-reaction to both. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began to agitate for recreating the Caliphate as soon as Kemal dismissed it in post-Ottoman Turkey. A longer discussion of this would clarify to readers the reason for the ferocity of the suppression of the Brotherhood in Egypt, as the author points out how the Brotherhood is made non-Egyptian by its opponents. A longer discussion of the identity crisis in a place such as Egypt, which retains much of its pre-Islamic identity, would show that at the present moment any true revolution is likely to be Islamist and non-democratic and any liberal outcome is likely to come by evolutionary means. This subtle argument is understood by many Egyptians at a subliminal level, which explains why many supported the July 3 2013 removal of Morsi, while certain that the outcome in the short term will not be a freer politics. Cook hints at that when he points out that had the events become a true revolution, their outcome would not necessarily have been liberal or democratic. This is an accurate observation that runs counter to the conventional wisdom of 2011, which remains popular even if discredited by events.
Many studies of the region urge that considerable effort should go into “building institutions”. Cook finds no dearth of institutions in the countries he studies, excepting Libya. The trouble is less the lack of institutions than in their nature and function. Cook notes that these institutions were built long ago by founding figures (Nasser, Ataturk and Bourguiba). Younger generations have largely failed to supplant them. By day young “revolutionaries” risk their lives to oppose armed power, but at night they repair to the homes of their parents, where they fail to offer a modicum of rebellion against stifling tradition. Many surveys indicate that young Egyptians are as conservative in matters of gender and religion as their Mamas and Babas, and more so than their Tatas and Gidos. If true then this is an unhappy wasteland for social reform. Anecdotes abound. In the revolutionary year of 2011, many who manned the barricades tsked tsked a young woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, who displayed her bare breasts in a tasteful photograph. To hear their attacks on her one would think that Egypt is unraveling, not through senseless riots and the burning of important libraries, but through the display of nipples. In contrast to the unveiling revolution of 1919 and the rock and roll events of 1968 , the 2011 edition seemed to be characterized by sexual harassment rather than sexual revolution. While the outside world talked about a “youth” revolution in the region, there was little direct evidence that the youth were engaged in a major revamping of national institutions in either Egypt or Tunisia. When it came to running elections or offering platforms, old men stepped forward. The youth seemed more intent on street action and oblivious to its limitations. Cook takes the nihilistic riots in late 2011 in Egypt to task, but that nihilism was what filled the vacuum left by the lack of serious attempts at cultural and political transformation. This was not always the case. The region was once transformed radically by young men. Nasser made fundamental changes to Egypt before he was 40. King Hussein invented a new Jordan while short of 30. Ataturk invented and built a nation in his 40s. This is no longer the case. A recent meeting of the League of Arab States featured two dozen very old men dozing in their seats. The youngest and most dynamic of the men were Sisi, in his early 60s, and Abdullah in his mid 50s. “I hope I die before I get old”, is not their sound track.
One of the more amusing sections of the book is an insider report of how the US foreign policy Mandarins have been trying to understand the region and “get it right”. This “establishment” is a loose circuit of current, former and would be policy makers who commiserate on panels and in seminars powered by coffee, bagels and a firm belief in the power of the US. Like the Who’s “The Seeker”, they look under chairs and tables trying to vainly find the key to fifty million fables. The reality, asserts Cook, is that the US influence is limited at best, its actions are just as likely to hurt as help, and that detailed studies to divine the intentions of actors in the region and anticipate the course of future events are often about as accurate as a coin toss. He simply urges that the US should stand by its values and refuse to be drawn into foolish escapades. This is the right course for a liberal American republic, but not for a military empire. The Middle East, sometimes incorrectly regarded as the graveyard of empires, holds up an unhappy mirror to America. What is notable about America’s involvement in the region, compared to other areas around the world, is the lack of positive outcomes. America’s involvement in East Asia produced economic tigers (even including Vietnam). Its involvement in Europe produced two generations of peace and prosperity. By contrast, every American effort in the Middle East seems to be an attempt to rectify earlier mistakes and is usually fraught with new mistakes. Still, one suspects that Cook’s recommendation of upholding our values and restraining the impulse to re-engineer the region will fall on deaf ears.
Another good aspect of the book is that it does not end with a laundry list of recommended actions, as many studies of the region often do. Again, we have to be thankful for that absence. The author notes that the region is what it is because of a confluence of historical events and actors rather through any grand design that can be altered or improved. Cook avoids any discussion of what should have been, except in a few places where he notes how the failure to offer a vision has robbed the people of much needed leadership. To have done so would have had him wade into deep and perhaps contentious waters. This book on revolutions is notable for the author’s skeptical attitude toward the efficacy of revolutionary change. Without explicitly stating so, the book seems to favor evolutionary change, or mild Fabianism. The central point of the book is also a paradox. The countries it studies experience plenty of upheavals but no change. The revolutions in these places are literally that, a full turn of events 360 degrees back to where they started. It is as if change is preordained not to happen.
But the failure of the region was not preordained. A woman who went to sleep in 1917 and woke up in 2017 would be shocked by the turn of events. India has a better balance of payment and freer press than Egypt. Singapore, once the scene of another of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” episodes, now rivals Europe in wealth. The four countries Cook studies were in fact lucky by comparison, and yet they remain underachievers. Egypt and Tunisia were not colonized in the exploitative and deforming manner of India or Africa. Turkey was not colonized at all. Libya sits atop a pool of oil with a tiny population. None of the four countries have a history of long and troubled social relations, such as the caste system in India or the deadly friction between Hindus and Muslims, or between Chinese and Malay in Singapore. None of them experienced the natural disasters, rampant plagues and famines of India, for example. Nature endowed them with both mildness and favor. Egypt has a long history of native Christian and Islamic cultures, and has once sustained a polyglot population that remained firmly loyal to it, yet it turned nastily nativist to its disadvantage. Turkey’s Kurdish “problem” is no more intractable than India’s divisions, but is far more destabilizing to the state. So really what went wrong? Here we would do well to follow Cook’s method of looking not to systemic reasons but accidents of fate. Both India and Singapore were lucky to have two remarkable men lead them to independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew were not easy men to like. Neither was a true democrat. Both were deeply suspicious of the West, even if they spent formative years in England. Both displayed a healthy understanding of the shortcomings of their nascent nations and their people. They also shared some common characteristics. For all their resentment of Western colonial powers, they remained in a productive intellectual discourse with them (and in the case of Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, perhaps a carnal discourse as well). They displayed a veneer of authenticity without ever falling into the ugly nativism common to the Near East. Nehru, clad in signature suits, still had no truck with Gandhi’s daffy authenticity, and Lee only affected a certain Confucian hauteur. Both were sly men who realized that their nations needed to emulate Western success, and in doing so can not avoid some of the ills of the West, but the pill can be made sweeter with a bit of theatrical charades. Both men were also students, and to a great degree followers, of English Fabianism. It was not so much the manifestation of it in the early Labor party, but the belief in the efficacy of gradual change, of the necessity of immediate actions to treat the problems most troubling to the most people, and avoidance of single engagements meant to affect profound change. They were, in short, anti-revolutionaries. Their success has not convinced many in the Middle East to emulate them. Revolution still rings alluring and desirable to all too many. The region actually produced some Fabians, most notably the namesake of this blog, who alone among Egyptian national thinkers, opposed the 1919 revolution. Yet despite his wide influence during the interwar years, his personal limitations and that of his country consigned him to ineffectiveness. There is an apocryphal tale of how he was asked, toward the end of his life, of “what he got wrong?”. He answered with one word “religion”. We do not know if the tale is true, or even if it is, what he meant by his response. Religion is one subject that weaves through Cook’s book but is never confronted directly. This is a hint at both its centrality and volatility for the region and any potential transformation. Religion is meant to provide man with hope. It remains with man to make that true or false hope.
Buy the book.
— Maged Atiya