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



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


The Unbearable Ineffectiveness of Coptic Protests

An email went out yesterday from Pope Tawadros II stating:

I oppose any demonstrations that may harm Egypt and cause conflict with higher authorities. These demonstrations do not change our situation and stain the image of Egypt nationally and internationally. We, in Egypt, are capable of dealing with our problems and their consequences. Please, for Christ’s sake, avoid this behavior which is not acceptable in any of our churches in the USA. These demonstrations disfigure our country and fuel evil. Our circumstances are completely different from those of five or ten years ago and we can not afford to deal with new evolving events using old ways. May blessings be bestowed on the obedient son as failure follows those that disobey.

His Holiness Pope Tawadros II “

The noted historian Samuel Tadros tweeted that “Pope Tawadros [sic] is a product of Nasser and believes 100% in the nationalist discourse from national unity to conspiracy against Egypt nonsense”. This author has also noted that Pope Tawadros (and also President Sisi) are both products of the Nasser era and its educational system. A contemporaneous boy, now an adult, can recall with precise details, considerable sympathy and a touch of horror, the civics curriculum that all Egyptian boys learned at that time. Any analogy between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Egyptian Army would be highly inaccurate, but both are conservative male institutions, which promote the ethics of unquestioned obedience and selfless sacrifice. The men who rise to lead major institutions are usually formed by them as well. It takes considerable physical and cultural distance, and decades of reflection, to alter such world views. Neither of these two men had that luxury. Both perceive themselves as captains in troubled times.

A powerful boyhood memory has Pope Kyrillos VI, an opponent of immigration, addressing a small audience in his ante-chamber. The quiet man, since canonized, who exuded authority and holiness, dressed in a black Gallabyia and socks, and a simple woven cross, reminded his audience that “we [meaning Copts] can not abandon Egypt in its time of trouble, for who else will lift it from its fall”. To buttress his argument, he explained that the captain of a ship in a storm must navigate by three tools, trust in God, his knowledge of the seas, and the strength of his crew. The opinions of the passengers were notably absent in that parable. Most of the men and women in that room were on the verge of immigration. Time would show that his arguments made little difference in their determination. For almost all of them, immigration heightened both their attachments to their immigrant lands and also to Egypt. During the troubled times of the 1970s and early 1980s many favored noisy demonstrations to highlight their cause. Some even pooled their meager resources to buy expensive full page ads in publications such as the New York Times to complain of rising discrimination and harassment of Egyptian Copts. Although those times were troubled, they now seem halcyon in comparison. The best that can be said about these efforts is that they were well-intentioned, naive and ineffectual. Centuries of oppression under Arab and foreign rule inculcated bad habits in all Egyptians, and especially so among Copts. Most damaging was an inability to project themselves into a mindset of power, and preference for pleading outside the walls over compromising for a seat at the table.

It is now decades later and the Copts of North America and Australia have evolved considerably. Second and third generations have less cultural baggage from a life in Egypt. How these men and women will heed the Pope’s call remains unclear. But one hopes that they will draw lessons both from their new native lands and their ancient ancestral land of Egypt. Egypt today is an object lesson in the futility and danger of anger and retribution. It is the land of the unforgiven, where the oppressed and the oppressors, sometimes one and the same, seem unable to chart a future unblemished by the memory of hurt, real or imagined, or guided by the dignity of unsolicited forgiveness. In stark comparison stands America, which has the largest number of Copts outside Egypt. Even in this season of anger, the country remains focused on honoring unfulfilled promises and finding a common constructive path. It is likely that most Copts will prove to be obedient sons and daughters. It will be troubling if those who disobey will favor nonconstructive venting. The real question for Pope Tawadros is not one of obedience, but of direction. If disobedience is the road of failure, then what is the road of success that favors the obedient? It is a question well worth asking of all leaders in Egypt who demand unquestioned loyalty but offer no clear vision or sufficient competence. The passengers, it maybe said, can both trust the captain and ask for a destination. It wise of leaders to warn against the path of ineffectual protest, but wiser still to seek alternative views and build a constructive consensus. Perhaps future emails will do so.

— Maged Atiya



June 19 1926

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

— Maged Atiya




Of Two Kings

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

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya


What If The June 1967 War Never Happened”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya




My Reston – How to Report on Egypt

James (Scotty) Reston was a great journalist, the best in many generations according to many in the profession. Himself an immigrant, he served as an ideal introduction to the value of the press in a free country for those unfamiliar with it. Here is the beginning of his dispatch from Cairo on a fateful June 4 1967

An alarming fatalism seems to be settling on this city. Cairo does not want war and it is certainly not ready for war. But it has already accepted the possibility, even the likelihood, of war, as if it had lost control of the situation.

There is very little relationship here between word and action, The Government seems to be provoking trouble without preparing for the consequences. Except for a few workers filling and piling sandbags in front of one or two public buildings, there is no evidence of civil defense.

Few soldiers appear in the streets, and the Cairo airport is more open to attack than even La Guardia in New York. The newspapers talk incessantly of war but make no effort to protect their own property. There is no public debate on the issues. There is no organized political opposition to question the Government’s course of action, And there is no voice of protest in the press.

This is not because Cairo does not have brilliant journalists. The editor in chief of Al Ahram, el-Sayed Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, is a worldly, intelligent and handsome man. He has built his paper into the most powerful voice in the Arab world.

His a confidant of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and prides himself on his independence from a Government he could have joined long ago. But he expresses absolutely no doubts about the present drift to war, either in public or in private.

Cairo today is not one but a series of separate communities, each viewing the emergency in a different way. The people stand apart from the issues as if they had nothing to do with events, as indeed they do not.

For those who experienced these fateful days, Reston’s precise and restrained tone can still evoke the shivers of that time. Today’s foreign journalists could learn a trick or two about mastering the right combination of accuracy, empathy and clear vision. Egyptians could read this dispatch and look inward in recognition and possible redemption.

— Maged Atiya