Francis and the Egyptians

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Pope Francis I is due to visit Egypt for two days this week. The visit is generally covered as yet another chapter in the anxious serial of the life of Christianity in the Middle East. These anxieties are heightened by the desire of the so-called Islamic State, and a few other Jihadi groups, to eradicate the Copts from Egypt. It would be a historical mistake if the sole purpose of the visit is to give another expression to such anxieties.

The first Francis to visit Egypt was the original one, St Francis of Assisi. He came to Egypt in 1219, during the waning days of violent religious wars generally branded as “Crusades”. He hoped that his strong faith and golden tongue would persuade the Muslim rulers of Egypt of the truth of Christian doctrine and thus “restore” Egypt to Christianity. Surprisingly enough, St Francis made little contact with Egyptian Christians. Had he done so he would have found out that the country was still substantially Christian. St Francis is not the first Westerner to confuse the rulers of the Egyptians for the natives of the land. He was but an interlude in a long history that runs from the Roman Emperors to French Generals to British Proconsuls to American Senators. Nor was he the first Westerner to attempt to introduce the Gospel of Christ to the Egyptians who had known of it and believed in it as early as any people. He was also not the first Westerner to feel that lecturing Egyptians is the way to guide them out of their troubles. In fact, had he made substantial contact with the Copts he would have found that his oratorical skills, which worked with birds and beasts, to have little efficacy beyond arousing the habitual suspicion of Egyptians about foreign motives. St Francis left Egypt with kind words from its rulers and nothing else.

Pope Francis shows an early promise to avoid such errors. He is genuine about the power of hope and faith to overcome fear and violence. But if the trip is to leave a lasting effect beyond a few days of headlines, it must recognize two centralities. The first is the centrality of Eastern Christianity to the Western and Global Christian culture. Western attitudes toward Eastern Christianity have sometimes been confused and confusing; whether viewed as heretics or souls lost behind enemy lines or as an opportunity to exercise missionary zeal. Pope Francis displays a more subtle and understanding attitude, seeing them as authentic brothers and their struggles as integral to the larger Christian world. The second centrality is one that Egyptians, rather than Pope Francis, must recognize. This is the centrality of Christianity to Egypt’s identity. Christianity is tattooed on Egypt’s soul as indelibly as the small Crosses many Copts tattoo on their wrists. Egypt’s establishment, including Pope Tawadros II, is keen to label attacks targeting Copts specifically as attacks on all Egyptians. If so, then any diminution of the rights of Copts, whether by Jihadis, frenzied mobs, or indolent policemen, is an attack on all of Egypt. If such claims are anything but an attempt to avoid dealing with a difficult issue, then Egypt’s political and spiritual leadership must preach a message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. This can begin by viewing the visit of Pope Francis as that of a Christian to a land that is and will remain both Muslim and Christian.

— Maged Atiya

 


Copts Under Western Eyes

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A French Jesuit by the name of Sicard remarked in 1723 that “the Copts in Egypt are a strange people far removed from the kingdom of God. Indeed many of them are so odd that outside their physical form scarcely anything human can be detected in them” and “in any event we should not omit to teach the ignorant Copts in the faith as incapable as they always are of learning its mysteries without incontestable effort”.

Less than two centuries later, in 1911, a British Assyriologist and Egyptologist, Archibald Sayce, remarked in an introduction to a pamphlet by a Copt, Kyriakos Mikhail, that “ They [Copts] alone trace an unadulterated descent from the race to whom the civilization and culture of the ancient world so largely due. Thanks to their religion, they have kept their blood pure from admixture with the semi-barbarous Arabs and savage Kurds, or other foreign elements whom the licentiousness of Mohammedan family life has introduced into the country.

What is remarkable about these two accounts, different as they are, is how little they seem to focus on the Copts, except as a means of confirming preconceived notions, or as ancillary tools to support other endeavors.  Little is said of individual men and women, or their joys and sufferings, of their triumphs and tribulations. They are simply “Copts”. Of course, the accounts contain kernels of truth wrapped in layers of cultural and racial prejudices. We would like to believe that we live in more enlightened times. Things have indeed changed, for both the West and the Copts. The West is far more open to diversity, and the Copts are acquiring new identities, beyond that of Egyptians, as many are born and raised in the West. Egypt, where 90% of the Copts reside, has changed too. Islamism has weakened the notion of an Egyptian national identity, to which Coptic thinkers contributed heavily. The Copts are targets of both extremists and political opportunists. At some point they may need to abandon the idea that they can love Egypt hard enough to stop the majority from kicking them in the teeth. One thing, oddly enough, has not changed, which is how Western eyes -or the majority of them- view Copts. They are still seen as “others”, victims and thus scarcely human. When atrocities occur, horror and grief are expressed in profusion. In between atrocities little thought is given to what really matters to Egyptian Copts. In fact, recommendations are made out with a healthy dose of confidence of what is good for them and for Egypt. Few pundits today would approve of Sicard or Sayce; yet many regularly provide cleaned up versions of their ideas. When Western eyes are cast on the Copts, they see what they wish to see and disregard the rest.

The majority of Western experts on Egypt treat the country as part of the “Middle East” (an invention of an American Admiral), the “Arab World” (an invention of wacky Englishmen) or the “Muslim World”. It is the rare few who see Egypt as unique, a diverse culture, a country as much Christian as Muslim, as much African as Arab, as much Mediterranean as Middle Eastern. Most do not know individual Copts, even if the majority of Westerners of Egyptian descent are Copts. In the rush to study the region, identify its problems and recommend solutions, the Western experts on the region have disappeared the Copts, except when inconveniently their dead bodies call their attention, and perhaps complicate their neat theories. In between massacres, many Western pundits lecture Copts about “support for dictators”, recommend free elections that will bring bigots to power, demur when asked about support for true liberalism that will actually protect those few in number or different in belief. They might even employ those who advertise love for “illiberal democracy”. Others find it easy to use the difficulty of being a Copt in Egypt to buttress simple bigotry toward Muslims. Their arguments float better on the blood of Copts. And so it goes, on every ideological side, the “Copts” remain a powerful tool to use or put away as need be.

Those of us who know Copts can not romanticize them. “The Coptic mind can have a sharp edge”, in the words of John Watson, an English clergyman who knows them. But at least he views them more than victims or tools for arguments. To have a mind, and occasionally express anger, justified or not, is to be human. Humanity is precisely what is often denied the Copts, by their killers and their self-identified defenders.

Instead of condolences, please get to know us.

— Maged Atiya


The Last of Their Kind?

 

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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.

“Read!”

I sat on stonily, armed folded.

“Read!”

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

 

 


Equations

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The above cartoon, promoted by many official and Church channels in Egypt provides an equation (reminisceint of old style Socialist Realism agitprop)

Muslim + Christian = Egypt

A more relevant equation for all to contemplate is

Egypt – Christians = ?

— Maged Atiya

 


On The Church Bombing – A Modest Proposal

funeral_imagedIn almost all Coptic Churches women and children sit in separate pews from men. At the end of the liturgies, both groups crowd the Altar to receive Communion. It is usually a joyous occasion, as the faithful are a bit closer to heaven than to their quotidian worries. At a little before 10 AM Cairo time, 8 AM GMT, on Sunday December 11 2016 an explosive device ripped through the women’s section in the Boutrossiya Church in Abassyia, Cairo, killing 25 mostly women and children, and injuring dozens more, some of whom are barely clinging to life. When the dust settled, the responses were familiar. The Egyptian State expressed outrage at the terrorists it has been battling for the better part of 50 years. The Coptic Church reminded its flock, in all likelihood needlessly, of the words of Tertullian. Outside observers who felt capable and eager to opine on such matters placed the blame on a variety of historic ills and practices. Most arguments felt tired and worn out, as most people have barely inched from their deeply held beliefs and saw the occasion as an opportunity for further hectoring. Well meaning souls from around the world extended prayers to Copts, who are notorious for the frequency and length of their prayers. Sending prayers to Copts is about as useful as dousing a drowning man with water.

All that was too late for sisters Marina and Veronia Faheem Helmy, and for Ensaf Adel Kamel, and Ensaf-adel and Aida Mikhail and Eman Youssef and Amany Saad and Amany-Saad-Aziz and Neveen Adel Salama and Regina Raafat and Nadia Raymond Shehata and Nadia-Raymond and Varina Emad Amin and Samia Gameel and Sohair Mahrous and Mohsen Elios and Widad Wahba and Samia Fawzy and Marcelle Guirguis and Neveen Nabil Youssef and Jihan Albert and Suad Atta Bishara and Sabah Wadih Yesa and Nabil Habib Abdallah, and for many more victims. Liturgies will be read for them today, and their souls consigned to Heaven, and sadness at their passing assigned to those who survived them and will forever miss them. But what about the living? What can be done for them?

The response to such an event should be grounded in reason, not anger; in desire to protect the living rather than merely avenge the dead; and to display an unwavering commitment to the sanctity of every life. One modest proposal, which skips past all the grand plans for historical changes, is to borrow from practices seen around the world in public buildings. Copts should protect their own Churches more effectively, to save lives and frustrate terrorists. The proposal is simple. The Church and the community can purchase their own detection devices and employ, at their expense, a civilian corp to man them. We are bound to hear from conspiracy-obsessed Egypt that such an act is a prelude to a “Coptic militia” to “divide Egypt”. If such concerns are valid, then they could easily be put to rest with simple steps. The corp should be unarmed, composed of men and women who are Egyptian citizens and of Muslim faith. The leader should be a government security official. The State can vet potential members, who should be paid handsomely, as it does the current police and army officers. The President of the Republic should be able to disband this corp at any time, and without giving reason, by a simple decree. This is hardly a cure for the persistent sectarianism of Egypt. A future happier Egypt should not need such a corp. Until then, we can at least save a few lives.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


The Step-Mother’s Tongue

Every Arab-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism; in that case we must limit his egoism. But under no circumstances, should we say: ‘As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.’ He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscienceSati’ Al Husri (1882-1968)

The impossibly thin Algerian boy stood out among the hearty well-fed Egyptian school boys. The large head perched atop his reedy frame came with an impressive shock of wavy hair and a prominent mouth full of Houari Boumediene teeth. The cold, cruel logic of the boys dubbed him “Abu Sinan”, or “Toothy”. Toothy’s father was posted to the Algerian embassy, and in the post-independence days political correctness dictated that he must attend an Egyptian institution rather than the more congenial French Lycee. In the Lord-of-the-Flies school, he marked out his days in ticks of humiliation. Ill at ease with spoken Egyptian, he was defenseless against bullying that usually started with verbal assaults but rarely ended there. At home, he spoke French and a language that barely resembled Arabic. If silence is golden, then Toothy and the Egyptian boy who on rare occasions rose to his defense were each a Midas. The civics textbooks, written in Modern Arabic, instructed Toothy that he and his tormentors were one, bound by a common language, tradition, history, and future; all members of the “Arab Nation”. In class, the school boys were required to memorize the poem by Mahmoud Darwish “Identity Card”, which starts with the stirring words “Sajil ! Ana ‘Arabi” (Write! I am an Arab..) before it comes to end in a litany of accusations, complaints and threats. In the school yard, bullies put the poem to good use as well. The chief bully would yell with the hard Cairene “g”, “Sagil, Enta …” and expect the hapless boy from Oran to complete the sentence with a litany of derogatory statements about his own manhood and his mother’s virtue. More than a decade later the Egyptian boy would read the remarkable essay by the polymath Mirrit Boutros Ghali on Egyptian identity and find that, for all its evasions and care not to offend President Sadat, still managed to approximate the situation in the school yard.

In the 1920s, Salama Moussa proposed that colloquial Egyptian be made the official language of the country if only to slash the illiteracy rates with one sweep. It was the simplest solution to end the endemic diglossia that plagued Egypt for nearly a thousand years. He got nowhere with that idea. Even his friends mocked it (Moussa and one-time friend ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad parted company over such issues, and became bitter enemies, hurling painful insults at each other for nearly two decades). Others who followed his suggestions, such as the cartoonist and poet Salah Jaheen, also failed to make headway. The conventional wisdom is that Moussa’s attempt failed because of the resistance of obscurantist religious leaders who felt that devaluation of classical Arabic is tantamount to leading people astray from the language of the Qur’an. They certainly felt, and still feel this way. There is also a persistent rumor that Moussa encouraged various scholars to translate the Qur’an to the colloquial. But that does not explain why many of Moussa’s liberal friends found his efforts misdirected, even quixotic. Nor can we lay the blame entirely on Moussa’s Kemalist tendencies. In fact, the failure is largely that of Egyptian intellectuals of the so-called “liberal age” and tells of why it ended in Nasser’s tyranny. These intellectuals always devolved to populism, of one sort or another. Their populism sprang forth from a recognition of the power of the street rather than a desire to elevate it.  

Language is identity. The Greeks identified themselves by apartness from the foreigners who spoke unintelligible “barbaros”. Americans could not easily dispense with English but enriched it with a patois from dozens of ethnicities, beginning with the Scots-Irish and African slaves, to create a unique identity and become to England a “nation separated by a common language”. Many other examples abound. The rise of the West and of nations within it was occasioned by the refinement of indigenous languages. Had Europe stuck stubbornly to Latin, recalling the by-gone glory days of Rome as reason, it is likely it would not have achieved as much. One wonders what Egypt’s trajectory would have been if Moussa’s suggestion of translating the Qur’an to colloquial Egyptian. A pious Muslim laboring to replicate the eloquence and precision of the original would have done a great deal for Egypt; as much as Tyndale did for England, Luther for Germany or Calvin for France. Such an effort would have rendered Islam, and to some extent Christianity, a strong cornerstone of Egyptian identity and a springboard for progress. The work of building a nation is primarily cultural. Yet there has been few studies of how the struggle with language has endowed Egypt with a propensity for authoritarianism.

The common discourse is to label Egypt’s authoritarian leaders as “Pharaohs”. But its modern authoritarianism is rooted less in Pharaonic tradition than in the drift toward Arabism and Islamism. In fact, other “nations” in the region, who lacked such an identity, seem to have fared far worse, combining brutal dictatorships with state collapse. Al Husri’s formulation “He is an Arab regardless of his wishes” is the theme song of the current collapse. One can easily remove “Arab” and substitute “Muslim” and the formulation explains much of violent Takfiri thought. In fact, almost any other identity can replace “Arab” and lead to the same deadly dead-end. The only way out is to stipulate that identity is a personal choice, and one often arrived at after much soul searching, if at all. Men can not choose their mothers, and rarely their step-mothers. But at least they can choose their identity. Anything less is the road to bloody servitude.

— Maged Atiya