If Nasser were alive today he would be 100 years old. Although dead for nearly half a century, he is very much alive in the country he remade before he reached the age of 40. He is a true revolutionary, in the technical sense of the word, as a man who rearranged the power relations between the elites of the country. The arrangement he created remains very much in place today. Some have rebelled against it, others have tried to tinker with it, but the broad features remain intact and the majority seems willing to live in its confines or unable to escape them. This blogger has noted before that Nasser should not be viewed as a great thinker, nor as a capable administrator, nor as a wily politician, but as a masterful actor that strove to embody every major role the country was compelled to put forth. In a future and happier Egypt a Nasser-like man will be a great actor in plays authored by Pirandello or Tawfik Al Hakim, or their successors. Still, any anniversary with a sufficient number of zeros on the right is a good occasion to take stock and examine the balance of the ledger. What has the man born a century ago given his country and what has he taken from it?
For sixty five years, nearly two generations, Egypt has lived in his shadow. He had always insisted, theatrically enough, that every Egyptian is Nasser and that his own mortality is irrelevant as he will live through his people. But we can also insist that every Egyptian was represented in Nasser, and that both his vitality and decline affected his people deeply. He became a hero at a young age; he was 30 at the time of the 1948 war with Israel. The status of one junior officer was such that Um Kalthoum, the woman who became the voice of Egypt, offered to host a concert for him, before the 1952 coup which he turned into a revolution. Nasser went on to become a sponsor and a promoter of the popular arts. Arguably he was also a participant in them. His rallies and extended speeches were a performance art of the highest caliber. Whenever he spoke the people listened and all felt a close connection with each other through him. If great theater is catharsis for the audience, then Nasser provided a partial version for all the Egyptians, regardless of how they felt about him. This giant shadow forces a question: Does today’s Egypt represent Nasser’s success or his failure? An answer is difficult to come forth because the relationship between the man and his nation is fundamentally that of betrayal. Nasser’s errors betrayed the unreserved trust Egyptians placed in him. Similarly, Egyptians failed to rise to Nasser’s exhortation of their innate greatness, most of all by failing to hold him to account and to limit his power and hence the consequent damage of his errors. Nasser longed to be a great hero and he needed a great people to lead, while the Egyptians hoped for national greatness and signed up with the man who promised it. This is hardly a unique arrangement in the history of nations, and on many occasions such arrangements either work well or fail disastrously and thus force a reckoning and subsequent improvements. In Egypt’s case neither happened. Nasser’s project of national greatness was too farcical to be a tragedy and too grim to be a comedy. The drama he put forth provided no resolution, only an abrupt end. Nasser’s catharsis was incomplete, failing the Emile Durkheim final stages of integration and renewal of self-confidence and internal strength.
Five decades after the actor left the stage the theater lights have come on. The audience members stare at their neighbors scarcely able to discern what relations they might have with each other and what might have brought them together in the first place. They stare blankly at the empty stage and try to decide if this is merely an intermission or if the performance is truly over, in which case they should rush the doors and explore the freedom and chaos of the world outside them.
— Maged Atiya
Egyptian President Sisi inaugurated two floating bridges in Ismailia and Qantara named after two army men who died in combat against terrorists, Ahmed El Mansi and Abanoub Gerges. There is a symbolism in the gesture of twin names, one Muslim and one Copt draping the two bridges. We are supposed to feel a surge of warmth about the naming equivalent of a joined cross and crescent. There will be many notables, of both religions, who see the gesture as the “true” nature of Egypt. Journalist and academic Edward Wakin noted similar gestures while traveling in Egypt in 1961, and was not impressed. In his 1963 book, “A Lonely Minority”, Wakin identified with precision a species of humans that he called “Public Copts”. These men and women speak hopefully of religious equality in Egypt, while proclaiming their fealty to the nation in spite of religious discrimination that they deny exists. They insist that symbolic gestures embody the true feelings of the people, while harsh realities are caused by the wayward few. A Public Copt is always available as evidence against any attempt to identify and rectify obvious social ills. A decade after the publication of Wakin’s book there would be further sighting of the Public Copt in the vicinity of the aforementioned bridges. The liberation of East Qantara, where one of the bridges is located, and the capture of an Israeli corp commander was achieved by a capable and daring general named Fouad Aziz Ghali. After the war he further demonstrated administrative ability by supervising the growth of the Southern Sinai into a tourist destination. This exceptional man behaved as a Public Copt by insisting that his promotion demonstrated a lack of religious discrimination in the Army. The evolution of the Public Copt can be traced to the distant past, as illustrated by two other unrelated Ghalis. One Ghali, in the middle of the 19th century, kissed the hand of the Wali that ordered his father’s execution. Another Ghali, Boutros, served the Khedive and British imperial ruler faithfully even to the point of losing his life. He must have known what Lord Cromer thought of his fellow Copts “The principles of strict impartiality on which the Englishman proceeded were foreign to the nature of the Copt. He thought that the Englishman’s justice to the Moslem involved injustice to himself, for he was apt, perhaps unconsciously, to hold that injustice and absence of favoritism to the Copts where well-nigh synonymous terms”. Many factors must have raised the imperial ire in Cromer. Perhaps it was the Copts very different Christianity. It could also be that their temerity in asking for equal rights exposed the hollow nature of the “Englishman’s justice” and the entire lie of the imperial scheme. Or that Cromer sighted a Public Copt and proceeded to dislike all others, for the Public Copt’s habit of saying one thing while believing another fed directly into the stereotype of the Copts as devious and crafty, something that Cromer readily accepted. The task of a Public Copt is to praise the granting of crumbs.
The Public Copt is familiar to all from an early age, as the young witness what the adults say in public and private. Any anger or rage at such behavior is quickly extinguished in the young by the process of acculturation and socialization. It is nurture, not nature, that creates Public Copts. Many currents contribute to the pathology. First there is the simple need to constantly deal with a perennially authoritarian, and often hapless state. There is also the hope that in stating the perfect outcome as established fact the entire nation will be shamed into reform. Then there is the reality of collective punishment, which is a constant secret sharer of repression. Individual merit will sometimes rebound to the benefit of the owner in uncertain measures, but individual error will invariably be held against the entire community. Every Public Copt is aware that honest discourse is not a test of his or her courage, but of their intestinal fortitude to watch others suffer for their frankness. But perhaps the strongest reason for the existence of the Public Copt is the difficulty of the Coptic identity. There are many unattractive aspects to that identity born of centuries of persecution. The Public Copt may wish to underplay that identity, or escape its worst aspects, but will usually find that it claims him anyway. Every Copt who attempts the magic transformation of being more than a Copt will eventually grow to be an old Copt. Anger invariably stalks the Public Copt, born of the frustration of doing exactly what is known not to be effective for fear of worse.
It would be easy to paint the Public Copt as weak and compromising, but it would also be wrong. Ameen Fahim, a Public Copt from the 1980s, explained the issues facing men such as him. “[It is like] an earthenware vessel banging against a bronze vessel“, he told sociologist Sanaa Hasan. Magdy Wahba, another Public Copt, also reminded her of the need “to walk close to the wall“. There are plenty of men who enjoy praise for their public display of courage while cutting weasel deals in private. America provided plenty of such examples in 2017. It is rare to have men who undertake private risks without expecting praise for their courage. Such was the lot of Public Copt. The public record is sparse, intentionally, but fragments exist nevertheless. Kamal Ramzi Stino, often ridiculed as a Nasser poodle, took many courageous positions in private against a man that all Egyptians feared or worshiped. The same can be said of Fakhri Abdel Nour or Mirrit Ghali, and the full knowledge of their courage is likely forever lost to us. Occasionally the records survive in scattered public and some private form. Aziz Atiya left the safety of America in 1961 to travel to Egypt, meet Nasser, and ask that his underlings cease attacking the World Council of Churches. The WCC was in no danger from Nasser’s mouthpieces at Sawt Al ‘Arab, but Atiya felt that a connection to world Christianity is important for the Copts and worth the personal risk. There were many Copts, of a more militant attitude, who condemned the Public Copt. One such man was Pope Shenouda, or at least the first quarter of his long public life. For a decade he exposed the sectarianism and hypocrisy of Sadat, who at the time was the darling of the West. Many Public Copts disapproved of the Pope’s attitude, and he of them, but when he went into a desert exile on the orders of Sadat all worked hard for his release. Eventually, Shenouda too became a Public Copt, of sorts. If there is a lesson in all that, it is a difficult and complex one. And in any case, it is always necessary to calibrate actions to the times. The benefits of the Public Copt seem to be in great decline in today’s Egypt. That country would be unrecognizable to many of them, and their behavior might be entirely different now. Paradoxically, the path to future freedom and survival may well be in doing just the opposite of what has allowed survival after centuries of oppression.
It is difficult to miss the increasing talk of the need for a “New Copt”. This is especially so among those who are born and raised in the West. This desire is a reflection of the current realities in Egypt, and of the failure of Coptic activism abroad. That enterprise maybe necessary but now seems insufficient, as no outsider is able to nudge the Egyptian state into doing its job. The desire for a new reality for the Copts seeps to us via articles and talks. One hears it expressed above the din of a coffee shop by anxious acquaintances. It is elaborated over long meals by men and women of perceptive minds and sharp senses. It is a heady time; for this must be what Vienna felt like in the late 19th century. That analogy should also alerts us that sometimes an awakening is a prelude to future horrors. But the desire for a New Copt is fundamentally sound, even if the shape of it has yet to come into view, and leaders necessary for the transformation have yet to identify themselves. But those who come to raise a “New Copt” must first bury the “Public Copt”.
— Maged Atiya
A man in the religion business issued a Fatwa declaring it permissible to keep antiquities as long as it is done with proper tithing. This has outraged many. As Fatwas go, this is a pointless one; about as useful as urging a diet of meat on a lion. Egyptians have taken to robbing the tombs of their ancestors since time immemorial. As soon as a ruler or a rich man is laid in his grave the treasures within attracted the attention of the next ruler or quick witted and daring thief. As late as the 1970s Hussein Abdel Rasul reigned supreme in his family compound in Gourna. The wiry, sharp-eyed patriarch entertained his guests with grace and charm, ordering coffee, tea and sweets for them without so much as a word or gesture. His minions bustled around eager for his favor or fearful of his wrath, it was never clear. Ali was not given to anger, except when it came to the matter of Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, whom he faulted for having his grandfather beaten for robbing tombs. Decades after that event he still seethed that his grandfather was undone and humiliated for engaging in the family business. Ali usually neglected to mention that it was his great uncles who betrayed their sibling. The point of this anecdote is that the Fatwa was scarcely needed to assuage the conscience of current tomb robbers. The real purpose was to fire yet another shot in Egypt’s culture war.
Scientist and public official Rushdi Sa’id noted in his memoirs that in 1953 he could not convince a simple farmer that he is “related” to the builders of the monuments that surrounded his field. They were after all pagan and evil, according to the farmer. Sa’id, an educated member of the elite who mentions how an English woman favorably compared his physiognomy to a statue in the British museum, was keen to establish the connection as a way to promote progress and elevate the nation. Like many nationalists of his time Sa’id was a firm Egyptianist, and an uncompromising enemy of Islamism. He notes how, given its history of invasions, Egypt can not be isolated to a single ethnic or cultural thread, but according to the logic of his Egyptianism the conclusion is that Egypt, and its river and soil, sublimates all, making them Egyptian beyond doubt. This mysticism of blood and soil has been a useful weapon against outsiders, and increasingly against proponents of political Islam. But it has done little to provide a vision of a common national project. Its gaze is so firmly fixed on the past that it regularly stumbles among the pitfalls of the present. It has certainly allowed Islamists easy victories through simple pandering. Sa’id’s failure to convince the farmer echoes more than 60 years later in the current controversy. Zahi Hawas, a pseudo-Egyptologist and a reality star, claimed that the Fatwa is illogical, since the state has rights on anything in its lands. To the sin of being tone-deaf, he added a measure of coercive statism. In fact, it is the Fatwa issuer who seems more logical, arguing that he has not encouraged anyone to rob tombs, but to simply take what is in their lands, and use some of its proceeds for charity. This clever refrain should not blind us to his real purpose. Others pointed out that the objects are the heritage of all of Egypt, without checking whether the majority would in fact agree with that statement. What was left unsaid is the real reason why antiquities should be preserved, even going to the length of paying those who find them. These artifacts belong to a common culture, one that transcends Egypt and belongs to all of humanity. To say so would be the first step to build a national identity on a foundation of shared values, rather than past greatness or imagined kinship.
— Maged Atiya
Subway systems in most major cities have information Kiosks to guide the lost or confused travelers to their desired destinations. Egypt does things differently, as Herodotus noted some centuries ago. New Kiosks at the Cairo subway guide the travelers not to Sarayat Al Qoba or Demerdash, instead the way is pointed to a more pious life and perhaps a better afterlife. These “Fatwa” Kiosks are manned by nattily dressed Sheikhs experienced in such matter as how to divide inheritance, start a business or handle finances. The idea is to provide fast advice to the harried commuter by dispensing religion quickly on the trip home. Egypt does not lack for public expressions of religious fervor so the Kiosks fit in nicely in a country soaked in public piety. The entire idea is the brainchild of Al Azhar which is well-endowed with taxpayers’ money. And although the Kiosks are dedicated to Muslims, one suspects, nay is sure, that many Egyptian Christians would follow suit if they could. The Kiosks are meant to combat religious extremism; a sort of homeopathic cure where a lesser bit of the poison inoculates against the bigger danger, similia similibus curentur. We should not be quick to believe it. Al Azhar is an enterprise in the business of religion, and the Kiosks are its latest startup effort or growth fund. The government also sees them as a quick way to curry favor with the public, certainly easier than delivering services effectively. A state that has trouble keeping trains on tracks or ferries upright advertises itself as fit to guide souls to higher places.
The Fatwa Kiosks are not a harmless bit of nonsense. They are a manifestation of a deeper problem behind Egypt’s recent stagnation and social divisions. There is the widely held belief that religion, appropriately defined, is the solution to many, if not most, ills. The evidence for that belief is scant, and most of it points to the opposite. In his time in Parliament, former President Morsi, thundered against corruption and when running for president claimed that it can all be cured by appointing the pious to office. During his short term the men of his party came ready to grab with both fists in a time-honored, but hardly religious, attitude of “my turn now”. Preachers long urged women to cover up in order not to excite men’s passions. But a woman walking the hot streets of Cairo in the summer of 1967 in a flimsy sun dress could do so unmolested. Today her granddaughter, fully sealed in flowing garments, will all too often run a gauntlet of sexual harassment. There are even more serious consequences. Lower fertility is necessary for Egypt to improve the economic lot of the people and deal with scarce resources of land and water. But religious ideas, sotto voce, stand in the way of proper population control. And the mother of all problems is cultural stagnation and diminution. It is a chicken-and-egg question as whether cultural stagnation manifests as false piety or whether false piety causes cultural stagnation. We do know, regardless, that the current atmosphere has made it easy for a minority of moral busybodies, snoops and snitches, to operate freely in the country. Any man can drag a fellow citizen to court on account of perceived offense to their delicate religious sensibility. A professor who reads poetry and joyously belly dances in private celebration is immediately labeled a threat to religion. Few note the absurdity of the charge; and certainly the courts do not laugh off the suit. These cases represent the most obvious and egregious offenses, but lesser offenses pass unnoticed every day. Egypt has become a country of small daily coercions, and religion has played an unhappy role in that development. Culture matters; both in the lower and upper case. Public religious acts and the government implicit or explicit support of them is no laughing matter. The growth of religious fervor is not without cost. It displaces other forms of culture. It is no coincidence that the last 40 years of public whipping up of religious fervor saw a general decline in cultural output. Some causes are clear and direct, as artists, writers and poets are regularly accused of blasphemy on account of their work. Increased religiosity shifts the norms and allows for discordant and divisive voices to find homes on the fringes of the mainstream. These voices in turn pull the mainstream further towards them and suppress reasoned dissent. All of this is nasty feedback loop, and unless it is broken the race is to the very bottom.
No one has the right to ask Egyptians to forsake their God or deny their religious expressions. Herodotus also noted that Egyptians are inordinately fond of their religion. That may very well be true. But what we have witnessed in the last few decades is not the triumph of native spirit, nor the failure of “modernity”, but the result of a culture war waged by determined and disciplined ideologues (again of both religions), who wanted religious expressions to have primary, even exclusive, role in defining culture and even politics. When it comes to the latter there is discernable confusion. Politicians race around offering religious advice while Sheikhs and Popes comment knowingly on politics. It is a classic case of how mixing of religion and civic politics hurts both. An anecdote was related to this author some years ago by a man who witnessed it first hand. In 1950 the Egyptian Ministry of Education wanted to revise the school curriculum to a more native and nationalistic bent. It sought opinions from within its ranks. One man, highly regarded and armed with a recent graduate degree from America, offered his views. Religion must be weaved into all aspects of the curriculum, language, history, arts and even sciences. A skeptical member of the committee offered a rebuke “mish kulu el deen ya ustaz Sayyd” (It is not all religion Professor Sayyd). The comment earned a hearty chuckle from other members. More than sixty years later, Egypt needs to make sure that Sayyd Qutb does not have the last laugh.
— Maged Atiya
The year 1954 saw the establishment of a new state model in Egypt, and one that ran into trouble almost in its infancy. It was a remarkable year. Nasser assumed sole power as President and began a pattern of concentration of decision making at the very top that still holds today. He rose to his position by a combination of public appeals and negotiations among the top leaders of the Army; a template that every leader that followed found to be the necessary means of holding, or in the case of Morsi of losing power. It was the year the Muslim Brotherhood took a lurch toward grabbing power and failed miserably. Nasser started an economic movement based on native production and centralized government planning and system of ever larger public sector and creeping subsidies. Development was to be made with gigantic projects of prestige, such as the High Dam. It was also the year that the government began a massive reprogramming of education, ironically with the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood that cashiered the elite of Egyptian university professors from their positions and pensioned off their leader Taha Hussein. It was also the year Nasser started to project Egyptian power onto the local and international scene. The last British soldiers evacuated from the Canal. Egypt was to be a leader of both the Arabs and the “third” and “non-aligned” world.
The failures of the 1954 state were many. Governance in Egypt remains problematic with centralization and repression as its most obvious flaws. Education is in shambles, risking future generations and economic prosperity. The public sector grew larger and more ineffective after the 1961 and 1964 waves of nationalizations. It remains a drag on economic development. Subsidies have created dependence but no prosperity. Egypt still relies unhealthily on foreign aid. It is nearly a rentier state which relies on its “strategic” value to extract support without economic production. Egypt’s bid to lead the Arabs ended in a series of failures: the demise of the union with Syria in 1961, the Yemen war with Saudi Arabia from 1961 to 1967, and finally the shattering defeat in 1967. Its prestige in the wider world is nominal more than real, like an old dowager that everyone respects in spite of her bizarre manner and tatty clothing. Many agreed with this observer’s rather obvious conclusion that President Sisi must pivot away from the 1954 or risk failure. The surprise, if it can be called that, is how the wider Egyptian public seems reluctant to let go of that failing model.
The late Mubarak years were an attempt to shift away from that model, albeit in a clumsy and ultimately unsuccessful manner. While the events of 2011 are always cast as a revolt against authoritarian governance, the reality is that it brought back the two most repressive forces in the Egyptian society, the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, setting the stage for an even nastier clash between them than in 1954. The Army was called to power twice by the street in January 2011 and again on June 30 2013. The demand for “social justice” was a thinly veiled reprimand for any sensible effort to free the economy from the shackles of the public sector and ruinous subsidies. Attempts to wean the country from poor economic models are inevitably painful, but are often attacked not based on their merits but as a “cave-in” to the evil foreign bankers at the IMF. Prestige and projection of Egyptian power abroad remain popular no matter how ruinous. The left still tweaks Israel without any visible gain, following the model set by the DMNL since it became a patsy of Nasser in 1952. The “sacredness” of Egyptian land is proclaimed with scant attention to history or fact, most notably in the Tiran and Sanafir islands affair. Little effort is dedicated to cultural and economic progress that can lift the majority from misery and set the stage for civilian government based on civilian politics. Faced with the failures of the 1954 state, many Egyptians seem to yearn for its proclaimed promises without attention to its demonstrated failures.
— Maged Atiya
Where is Zakaria?
On the morning of June 3 1967 neighbors of Zakaria Mohieddin, Vice-President of the United Arab Republic, reported that a fleet of cars arrived as his residence and whisked him out. The rumor spread through Cairo rapidly. For many the incident was a ray of hope in an increasingly worrisome situation. The assumption was that Zakaria, a favorite of the West among Egypt’s “Free Officers” was headed to Washington DC to negotiate an end to the impending crisis. President Johnson seemed to hint at an approaching resolution. In fact, Zakaria was ordered by Nasser to fly to Algiers to round up a volunteer force of perhaps 200 men who were unlikely to arrive in less than a couple of weeks.
Zakaria came back to Egypt in time to be its President, days later, for a couple of hours. His star would fade rapidly thereafter. Nasser replaced him as Vice-President with Ali Sabry and then Sadat after the 1968 revolution. But the entire episode with its hallmarks of erratic decision making, waste of valuable time and skilled manpower, and the assumption that the crisis would drag on for some time, was a microcosm of how Nasser handled the disaster of his own making. Zakaria lived on for another 45 years. Unlike Khalid, his cousin and fellow Free Officer, he was silent to his last breath.
— 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