The Killing of Brigadier General Yusuf, a Writer


On February 18 1978 members of the Palestinian Abu-Nidal gang shot and killed Egyptian writer and government minister Yusuf Al Siba’i while in Cyprus. In response, the Egyptian government dispatched a squadron of special forces to the island, violating its sovereignty and engaging in various bloody encounters there. This incursion was a rare and uncharacteristic response from the Egyptian state. The mess did not end on the tarmac in Cyprus. Sadat, visibly angry, cut diplomatic relations with Cyprus and called its leader a”pygmy”. That resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the Central African republic. It was heavy price to pay for the life of a writer, especially given the general value of such lives in Egypt. But Yusuf was more than just a writer who produced dozens of novels and short stories. In fact, too little attention is paid to his life and what it symbolized. He deserves a closer look, and perhaps an entire work centered around his career. That career started in earnest three decades before his death at age 60. The arc of it was rather unusual but prophetic. Yusuf was a military man; he was of the same age as the Free Officers and joined the military at the same time as all of them and served with distinction until he retired as a Brigadier General. His subsequent career as a writer and intellectual was not a departure from his military service but a continuation of it by other means. Egypt after 1952 featured many military men who officially retired and then were assigned to manage commercial enterprises, state entities, provinces, political parties and even the presidency. Siba’i’s assignment was culture. He was an intimate of Nasser and wrote many of his speeches. If Mohamed Hassanein Heikal spoke for Nasser, then Yusuf Al Siba’i thought like him.

Yusuf’s rise was symbolized by his role in the Third Conference of Arab Writers organized by the Egyptian state in December 1957. The previous two conferences were modest academic affairs. But this one was an entirely different beast. Albert Hourani described it as the moment of death for Arab liberal thought. Siba’i wrote the opening talk, it is rumored, but Nasser read it. He welcomed the writers to Egypt and identified their task as “create Arab literature that is free”. He went on to describe that freedom as “freedom from foreign control and foreign direction”. He assigned them the task of “realizing our goals” and bid them God’s protection. The speech reads closer to what a commander might give to a graduating class of cadets. The attending writers, by and large, competed in showing their dedication to the task of pan Arabism and their devotion to their assignment. There were a few dissenting voices, notably that of the Tunisian Mahmoud Al Mas’adi, who spoke of individual freedom and autonomy, and was denounced as a traitor to the corp and the imaginary uniform. Taha Hussein spoke elliptically about the necessity for thought as the foundation of writing, but few listened. In the next decade he delivered a series of valedictory speeches and interviews to rebut this vision of the intellectual as a servant of the state but few listened. In a TV interview with Layla Rustum he lamented that “the problem with Arab writers is that they write more than they read”. Without mentioning names he was castigating the entire group and its leader, Yusuf Al Siba’i.

It is sometimes said that Nasser served as a bookend to Muhammad Ali, and there is truth to that. Ali attempted to build a state without a nation, while Nasser, who ended Ali’s dynasty, attempted to build a nation as an arm of the state. He had the assistance of many in that task, none more effectively than the men in uniform and those who took up the pen as their special weapon. Levantine writers were especially enamored with Nasser, for much the same reason as young men are attracted to uniforms and military service; belonging, adventure and purpose. As with these young men, the writers and intellectuals were to realize all too soon the dangerous and tragic nature of their calling. Mas’adi predicted the likely failure of this project decades in advance. He also castigated the practice of conflating anti-Colonialism with anti-Western intellectual thought. The common wisdom today is that the poverty of Arab thought and intellectual discourse is the result of authoritarian governance. But there is a darker explanation. It was perhaps the willingness of Arab intellectuals to be drafted to the cause of the state that ultimately gave rise and support to these authoritarian regimes. It was the exceptional figure, such as Adonis or Nazik Al Malai’ka, who denied that the intellectual’s primary obligation is to serve a national vision, or the state that often articulated it in violent thoughts and actions.

In many ways, Yusuf Al Siba’i was the genteel face of the intellectual as the state’s servant. At the height of his fame, during the 1960s and 1970s Al Siba’i was ever present on the Egyptian scene. He headed many of the the cultural institutions and publications, including Al Ahram, and thus was technically Heikal’s boss. His novels were assigned reading in Egyptian schools, especially the 1952 “Al Saghamat”, always hailed as a work of Egyptian realism, but in fact it was largely political fiction. Siba’i mastered political fiction as thoroughly as Nasser mastered political theater. An elegant man with careful diction he faithfully represented the state. His political views were always subject to trimming by his service. He was a soldier at heart; his mission was not to ask why, but to do or die. For decades he lionized the Palestinian Fedayeen, only to turn against them when they attacked Sadat for visiting Israel.  He published paeans to socialism in the 1960s and defended its dismantling in the 1970s. Siba’i was the epitome of the writer as a civil servant. Under his tutelage a generation of Egyptian writers grew up not to write the great Egyptian novel but to become the head of its writers’ union. Many who opposed the state still invested in Siba’i’s vision of the writer as a servant of a cause.

Half a dozen years before his death the ideology of Siba’i’s career claimed one of its victims in a horrific but little examined assassination. On July 8 1972 Ghassan Kanafani, an extraordinarily talented Palestinian writer, indeed possibly the Kafka of Acre, was blown up in his car. He had loudly, but largely without participation, supported the Lod airport massacre. To this day it is not fully known if his murder was a retaliation by Israel or part of an internecine fight within the Palestinian militant groups. Regardless of the truth, it was a terrible waste of a life and a talent. A futile demonstration of the Arab insistence that the artist represent not his individual beliefs, but his people, right or wrong. That was the message of the life and death of Brigadier General Yusuf Al Siba’i, soldier and writer.

— Maged Atiya


Ready, Aim, Make Kofta

There is news that the Egyptian army has started a private school and will also start managing the Cairo University cafeteria. This is exactly the reverse of what the Bush administration did during its Iraq war when many tasks normally assigned to military personnel were outsourced to civilian contractors. Many attacked that decision as a dangerous precedent. Without defending the Haliburton palm-greasing, it is a far less dangerous precedent than the one now set by the Egyptian Army, which harbors three distinct dangers.

First, there is the danger that the Army will further erode its abilities and focus at a time when the country needs such focus to handle the multiple security threats raised by the collapse of the so-called Arab world. Second, there is the danger that the Army staff will now see themselves as the rulers and managers of the country, rather than its faithful servants, and that this self image will further hinder any progress to effective governance. But the last and most profound danger is the further infantilization of Egypt and the Egyptian society. Nasser once remarked that to let Egyptian practice politics is as irresponsible as letting children play in traffic. But the mission creep of the Army presents additional levels of infantilization; those of basic entrepreneurial skills. To lift the fortunes of the country there needs to be a flourishing spirit of initiative and entrepreneurship. If the civilians can’t be trust to cook, then can they be trusted to do anything else, such as starting a business, or heaven-forbid, pulling a Halliburton?

— Maged Atiya


Keyboard Wars in Egypt

When hundreds of fighters allied with the so-called Islamic State streamed into the Sinai border village of Sheikh Zwayd, there were few reporters to document the situation. The notorious murderousness of these men, as well as restrictions from the Egyptian government, had understandably depleted the pool of reporters there.  This did not stop the filing of many reports in the Western press, nor of many journalists taking to the social media to comment on the unobserved scene. A rare voice in this cacophony was that of Egypt historian Steven Cook who tweeted Egyptians are fighting the same group as the Iraqis, but without the help of sectarian death squads”, thus summarizing in a few words all that matters in this fight and in all the other fights raging in the region. The majority of the foreign press, however, were dusting up old stories of ISIS conquests and preparing to bulk-edit “Egyptian” for “Iraqi”.

We do not know all the details of what did occur during that fight. We do know that some things did not happen. The ISIS-affiliated group did not take over the town, nor was the Black Flag hoisted on government buildings. We also know that the conscripts of the Egyptian Army, clean-faced young men, the majority devout Muslims from rural or working-class backgrounds, did not ditch their uniforms and flee. That was a story worth reporting, but instead the majority of reports spoke of government repression, escalation of attacks since the removal of President Morsi, the alienation of young men, etc etc etc. All very important topics, but hardly breaking news. There was some reason for the Egyptian government to be miffed at this, but in typical fashion, it compounded the problem by attempting to shape the narrative and intimidate the reporters. It thus shifted the attention from the shortcomings of the reporting to that of its own.

Foreign reporting is a peculiar genre. Reporters have to both document facts and provide “context” for the readers back at home who might not be familiar with history and culture of the countries in question. Naturally all reporters come freighted with their own ideas and biases. The best among them will pierce through that fog. It is more complicated in Egypt, where a sense of injury and hyper-nationalism has made everyone behind a camera or a notebook seem like a dangerous spy. Some reporters go beyond writing to exhibit their biases and occasional holes of knowledge on social media. The reporters are suddenly the glaring sidebar, muddling the real story. But what is the real story here?

The story is by-now a familiar one, of identity fights and state collapse. Should Egypt succumb to these then all hell will break loose. But in managing to fend off terrorism using the instruments of the state, however creaky and clumsy, there is hope left. To build a democratic and prosperous state, you need to start with an actual state. This is an unsurprising statement, but one that occasioned an esteemed Western reporter to attack it as “conniving with the coup”. There is a loss of perspective here, a proverbial trees-for-forest confusion. A century ago Western powers put potentates in charge of states, more recently it has yanked potentates from them. Various actions, from the invasion of Iraq to the fall of Qaddafi, have adopted the attitude of change-regime-now-ask-questions-later. Egypt has been largely exempted from both processes, but Egyptians have honored the Western powers by impugning these actions to conspiracies rather than to fumbling. The rest is history in the making. Yes, the Egyptian state is ramshackle, and Egyptians need to place more effort than pride in it; but when faced with its dissolution, can they really be expected to join in? Reporters can not be expected to participate in this fight, and they can best refrain from doing so by sticking to the facts, and skip the “context”.

So to sum up a frustrating post. An unsolicited advice to the Egyptian government is to “chill out” To the Western press, I offer no advice. These are the things we hold sacred; that no government should muzzle the press, that no reader should believe newsprint blindly; that news is a product where the tires must be kicked, the fabric handled and the package sniffed; and that men, both wise and foolish, should await facts before filing reports.

— Maged Atiya

It Is Not 1954

The current standoff between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)  is evoking tempting comparison with the last such confrontation in 1954. But the temptation should be resisted as superficial, for four fundamental reasons:

1- The Army is not the same as 1954. The army of 1954 was a much smaller body, dominated by charismatic officers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was itching to sideline his commander General Mohammed Naguib. The army also lacked a doctrine, which it does have now, and one that is largely Western-oriented, built with decades of American assistance. The army also lacked advanced weapons in 1954, and in many ways was closer to a small militia. Today’s Egyptian army would be crippled without a constant supply of American spare parts and other less tangible assistance. The US is unlikely to allow full scale suppression of the MB and still retain close relationship with the army. The army also has far more considerable economic interests which it will not want to risk in a protracted confrontation with the MB.

2- The Brotherhood is not the same as 1954. The MB of 1954 was a far wilder affair. It was less than a dozen years since it assassinated a Prime Minister and sent armed gangs to fight the nascent Jewish state in Palestine. Today’s MB is grayer, more scarred, richer and has tasted power, and the pain of its loss. It will find it difficult to fight the army without losing much of the support it has built among Egyptians. One of Morsi’s singular mistakes was appointing a member of the Gama’a Islamiya (GI) as governor of Luxor, incurring the wrath of most Egyptians who remember the terrorist acts of the GI in the 1990’s, even though it has since abandoned violence. The MB also sees itself more as a regional and even global actor, with much of its financing depending on smooth operation of its business sectors. If it were to be declared a terrorist organization by the major Western powers its finances will be irreparably damaged.

3- Egypt is not the same as 1954. The Egypt of 1954 stood idly while the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which morphed into the Nasser presidency, arrested a good number of the MB and even executed a few of its members. Today’s Egypt is far more mobilized, and although polarized, will likely reject wholesale suppression of any group. Political mobilization in 1954 was still along nationalist lines, the result of 30 years of Wafd politics and the presence of the British in the Suez Canal. This gave the army an advantage over the MB. In Egypt of 2013 mobilization is largely along pro and anti Islamist lines, making the army think twice before initiating a wholesale purge of the MB.

4- The world is not the same as 1954. In the 1954 the world was largely a spectator in the fight between the army and the MB. Even the US, which viewed the MB as potential allies against communism, and even hosted them to a meeting with Eisenhower, stayed out of the fray, and instead kept solid intelligence contacts with Nasser. The US today is concerned about the Muslim world in ways un-imagined in 1954. It will not want to see a brutal suppression in Egypt that will back fire on the West. Europe will say “me too”. Even other rising powers, such as China, will wince at such suppression.  Other regional powers have also risen since 1954, especially Turkey and some Gulf countries. These countries will try to moderate any crackdown on the MB.

Having stated the four reasons why 2013 is not 1954, let me state one reason that might negate all of the above. The strong hostility that certain sectors of the Egyptian society now have toward the MB, especially after one year of their rule. Some, otherwise sensible people talk of how “Tienanmen Square led to China’s economic rise”. It is a frightening prospect for Egypt, and one that we hope will not take hold.

Why SCAF would be Happy with President Mursi

Now that the Egyptian presidential race it is all over except for the shouting (and the outcome is still unknown), it is useful to reflect from a cold-eyed power-realist point of view on why Mursi is the best outcome for SCAF, meaning the outcome that allows them to preserve the most power:

1- Revolutionaries  of all stripes will be either drained or focus their anger on the MB, relieving the pressure on the military.

2- Many of the secular and liberal elements will want to keep the military powerful as a check on the MB. The MB is bound to give them plenty of reasons to feel so.

3- The economic doldrums to come will be dumped squarely on the MB.

4- SCAF would remain the conduit for much of foreign contacts as countries such as the US will find it easier historically and culturally to deal with SCAF rather than the civilian government. Witness Pakistan. Will the potentates of the UAE deal with the MB or SCAF?  Ignore Qatar in this, it is a stock worth shorting greatly.

5- They can run rings around Mursi personally, and in any case they will always deal with El-Shater. It is always better to have No. 2 appear in charge if you do not intend to be transparent in your dealings.

6- They can always come back to power with the West’s support. All you need is a few incidents against the Copts, a big cry abroad, and the nattering pundits in the West will be asking the military to end sectarian violence. The white horse is always in the stable while Mursi is in charge.

7- Shafiq can always pull a Nasser or a Sadat. Both were military men who kept the military brass fat and happy and out of power. He will have the support of the various capitalist forces. Mursi is unlikely to challenge the SCAF brass.

The Mursi scenario is a sophisticated version of Mubarak’s crude “me or the Brothers” strategy. Fear refined to a governing philosophy.

Are they good at their job?

The torrent of talk about Egypt’s “Supreme Council of Armed Forces” seems to be missing a strand. The question is simple : are these generals good at war-making?

They seem to be into everything else. Business, journalism and politics, of course. But are they good as military leaders?  We have no way of knowing, since they seem to have abandoned that vocation as too difficult since 1973.  Egypt’s location in the world makes a bit vulnerable, yet it is cursed with an army that is unable to defend it properly. Egyptians are good at denial. But they must know that in an all out war against Israel, the army would lose badly. In fact, a small regional conflict with the Sudan or Ethiopia over the Nile resources would tax it heavily.

Yes, they are liars. But most damning, they are bad at their job.



The Egyptian Army needs to be rescued from the incompetence of its generals.

The year 2011 will be a seminal and clarifying date for the Egyptian Army. If 1952 marked the rise of the Army as a quasi-monarchical ultimate source of power and legitimacy, then 1967 is the year the Army was laid low by the incompetence of its leadership, chosen more for loyalty than capability. The summer of 1967 is when officers could not wear their uniforms in public. The Army purged its leadership of Nasser’s hacks and redeemed itself, in a limited way, in the 1973 war. 2011 is the year the Army will choose the fork in the road : rule Egypt openly or retreat from politics entirely. The possibility that the Army will have invisible power is made remote by incompetence of SCAF in managing the post-Mubarak transition. 2011 is 1967 replayed, not on the battlefield but on the streets.

It should be emphasized : the generals are not helping the Army as an institution nor the lower rank-and-file officers. To place the Army in the street with no clear objective or strategy beyond just showing up and engaging in a give-and-take with an unruly bunch of civilians is extraordinarily negligent. It is a level of negligence that recalls the strategy of Abdel Hakim Amer who packed most of Egypt’s Army along the border with Israel without so much as a half-baked plan.

The Egyptian Army needs to be rescued from the incompetence of its generals. It is up to the Egyptians to do that. It is time to stop going after the poor conscript in the street and target peacefully  his superior who left him there without adequate orders.

Canaries in the Mine

The saddest aspect of the events of this weekend at Maspero is not that the Egyptian Army killed dozens of Copts. It is that the Army killed dozens of its citizens. Egypt has been coarsened and brutalized by 30 years of Mubarak. There is a need to develop protests that do not end up as riots. Most importantly there is a need to retrain the police so that keeping public order is not a licence to kill.

The Army crossed a threshold. It is straining under the weight of being in government and politics.  To claim that the killings were the result of panicked soldiers is more damning that to simply admit error. No one wants a panicky military.

Last, and saddest of all, is that fact that Copts are often the proverbial “Canary in the mine”. Soon the Army will be killing its citizens regardless of faith. This needs to stop. Egypt needs to be reclaimed, not lost.