The Idiot’s Guide to Becoming a Lovable Tyrant

ty·rant \ˈtī-rənt\. One who obtains absolute executive power by appeals to factions of the people. Originally made with no reference to character

Tyrants, like viruses, come in many kinds. As with viruses that attack the immune system, the most dangerous tyrants disable the human bullshit detection system. Such tyrants remain beloved by their people long after the stick has been repeatedly applied. The hobby of studying lovable tyrants, born of some necessity, produces a manual for how to become one.

First, you must have a grand goal, a destination so far away, and so enticing, that followers will want to endure the brutal journey to the paradise at the end. A lovable tyrant should not seek a 4% GDP growth, but the total elimination of poverty and suffering. In such a fashion, after all ills are tallied, people can still say “he meant well”. The long harangues and repeated beatings are made bearable, even justifiable, by warnings and promises of devils and angels.  It is not works, but the inscrutable grace of the people that redeems lovable tyrants.

Second, you must acquire powerful enemies. This may seem counterintuitive, but the reality is that the people you beat will feel uplifted in watching you get battered by the powerful. This is an evident truth in one of the most profound intellectual works about oppression and resistance, the 1967 movie “ Cool Hand Luke” starring Paul Newman. Never ever let on that you are coming at ‘em with nothin’.

Third, and this is also a lesson from that film, look sharp while at it. Politics is theater, and tyranny is the grandest of theater. But you must look sharp in a new and original way, one that reveals in an off-handed fashion how little you care for convention. Once you break one convention, you can break them all. Lovable tyranny is a bit like a drunken party, it never ends with breaking just one glass. The people you oppress invariably come in two genders. One must swoon and the other must turn green with envy at that swoon. You are now lodged in their brain, they can no more eject you than they can perform a self-lobotomy.

Fourth, get yourself a Boswell, a scrivener, a Heikal or a Marquez, who will sing great epics in exchange for crumbs of approval. This will guarantee that some tweedy academics in far and free lands will mine your shit for pearls, because contrary theses generate the requisite publicity. Again seek ye guidance in “Cool Hand Luke”. The loser and small time con man, Paul Newman, became the celebrated leader of the downtrodden prisoners only after George Kennedy sang of him.

Above all, be on the lookout for Andersen’s little boy. He comes in many varieties, including the one who, when assigned an art class project to draw you in all your glory, did so featuring you, factually, in a tank top with a cigarette.

— 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

 


The Road From Suez

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As the debacle of Suez began to take shape, Anthony Eden faced defections in his own cabinet. Winston Churchill heaved himself up to defend his protege with a letter dated November 3 1956. The letter, reproduced above from the next day issue of the New York Times, remains a remarkable document. One barely concealed subtext is the British attitude toward the Middle Eastern states; “We created them and we are damn well entitled to tell them how to behave”. There is a touch of blasphemy in that attitude, for even God himself, over the course of the Old Testament, had failed to extract obedience from humanity, once a wisp of divinity was breathed into it at creation.  It is doubtful that Churchill expected subsequent history, both quickly and over time, to render his expectations foolish and ridiculous. Her Majesty’s government action proved anything but “resolute”, as even the name of the operation (“Musketeer” or “Mousquetaire”) hinted at its foolishness (The Israelis called it “Kadesh” in their habit of evoking history to justify both the noble and ignoble). Nor was the action crowned with “victorious conclusion”, as the three countries quickly evacuated their troops within a few weeks. His confidence in the “American friends” proved empty, as the hard-eyed realist from the Midwest implicitly responded “What do you mean ‘we’, old imperialist?”. But the saddest prophecy of all was his expectation that in the “long run” Suez would benefit “World peace, Middle East and [British] national interest”. It would be both easy and churlish to scoff at Churchill now.

Whatever clarity and sense Ike possessed on the weekend of the vote to reelect him, seemed to have evaporated quickly afterwards. Ike saw the demise of imperial hard power and moved to assume its dolorous mantle, as proven by landing troops in Lebanon in 1958. But his words preceded his actions. A couple of weeks after the disaster, Winston sent a groveling letter to his dear friend Ike. It began with a profession of fatigue “There is not much left for me to do in this world and I have neither the wish nor the strength to involve myself in the present political stress and turmoil.” After much junior-grade predictions about the perfidious nature of Nasser and the Soviet Union, he concluded with a plea for forgiveness “Yours is indeed a heavy responsibility and there is no greater believer in your capacity to bear it or well-wisher in your task than your old friend,Winston S. Churchill”. Ike responded generously, opening his letter with a sympathetic “I agree fully with the implication of your letter that Nasser is a tool”. He cited public opinion in the US which never fully embraced imperialism “When Nasser took his highhanded action with respect to the Canal, I tried earnestly to keep Anthony informed of public opinion in this country and of the course that we would feel compelled to follow if there was any attempt to solve by force the problem presented to the free world through Nasser’s action.” And concluded with a promise to forget what went right for America in Suez and move closer to assuming the mantle of the British Empire “So I hope that this one may be washed off the slate as soon as possible and that we can then together adopt other means of achieving our legitimate objectives in the Mid-East”. There was a hopefulness in the phrase “other means”, that time and circumstance would quickly undo. The US would spend far more treasure, and bring more fearful lethality than the British ever did in attempting to achieve “legitimate objectives”. America tried to end “internecine wars” (for example in 1990); it also tried to bring “benefits of justice” (for example in 2003), and all to no avail. In fact, America’s standing the region was at its zenith in 1956, when a century of missionary activities left it with enormous “soft power” among the natives.

Churchill’s letter shows how even a legendary leader can come to grief when thinking about and acting in the murkiness of the Middle East. Many of the nations that owe their “origin and independence” to the British have largely ceased to exist. Those that actively built their national identity out of stark opposition to the British (Egypt, Turkey and Iran) seem to fare better. History has largely answered Churchill’s choice “We had the choice of taking decisive action or admitting once and for all our inability to put an end to the strife

The road from Suez led to many places; the Sinai, Damascus, Sana’a, Camp David, Beirut, Baghdad, Benghazi, and finally to Mosul and Raqqa. There seems to be no shortage of thinkers and politicians willing to re-enact Churchill’s script, and one leader, at the end of his term, barely standing against the rush to lunacy. The British imperialist, T. E. Lawrence sought to build a dream palace for the Arabs, but little did he know that it would attract its share of Westerners.

— Maged Atiya

 


The Absent Baba. “Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”

Regular readers of the New York Review of Books are familiar with dispatches from Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi. Her reporting is notable for combining a depth of understanding of the country’s dilemmas and an empathy for the difficult times it currently endures. She has now published a novel, “ Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt”, which belongs in the collection of anyone seeking to understand where the country stands today.

The novel avoids complex plotting and extended characters, which lends it a well-crafted depth. Many passages are worth reading multiple times to unearth clues to the narrator’s internal state of mind. The book adopts a conventional device of three episodes in the life of a female Egyptian,  as a young girl, as a woman entering adulthood, and as a grown woman. These episodes are roughly a decade and a half apart, concluding in the present time. Each episode depicts a threshold, a moment of change but with no clear destination. It is a fitting metaphor for the narrator who is born between the “Bread Riots” of 1977 and the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Egypt’s inflection point. She is of the Mubarak generation, when a certain stability set in, marked by both conservatism and decay. The novel is full of allusions to that, symbolized by the physical decay of the narrator’s house and the surrounding once-lush neighborhood, the emotional decay of her mother as she endures the absence of her husband, and of extended family members as they age and die. The novel has few characters, but all of them undergo a process of disillusionment. Her mother is loving but is consumed with a sense of loss, as many of her friends departed the country during the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s. Cousin Dido, is politically active, but to little effect, save his personal suffering. “Uncle” is astute and observant, but the country ultimately wears him out. Yet, the book manages to avoid grimness through well-observed quotidian details, and the most Egyptian of medicines, sly humor. And although the novel has little action, it is propelled forward by the seemingly coiled energy of the narrator.

The real protagonist of the novel is the absent father, the hidden Baba. He disappears from the family while the narrator is a child, and reappears again when she is an adult. No reason is given, which is typical of the inscrutability of official Egypt. Perhaps it was politics, or a business deal gone bad, but Baba disappeared one day. The young girl is left longing for him, and in a searing passage, trying to discern his remaining scent around the house, in his room, and by pulling his drawers slightly ajar. The obliqueness allows readers familiar with Egypt to fill in the details without burdening the novel with didacticism. The narrator occasionally spies Mubarak on TV, and his wife, Baba Mubarak and Mama Suzanne. But she remains unconvinced by the charade. When Baba finally reappears the daughter is no longer interested in finding out what happened, nor does she question him closely, but notes how he fits in easily with other older men who talk idly about lost times. The subtitle of the book, “A Novel of Egypt”, hints at the weight of the absent father as a metaphor for the country’s lost ways. Patriarchy remains powerful but ineffective. Rulers play the father, and fathers rule, but to good end in both cases. Subtly, the novel draws out the personal from the political, and vice versa. As a revolution, really an explosion, approaches, the ruler asks pity as a father, but offers little beyond requests for obedience and acceptance of discipline. The muteness of the absence of the narrator’s father, and lack of explanation for his absence both point to a country grown alienated from its soul by the daily grind of a difficult existence. This is the terror at the heart of the novel, rather than the occasional reference to random terrorism or political violence.

The novel works well because, whatever the intentions of the author are, each reader is invited to pencil in a favorite absent Baba. Decades after a brief meeting with Nasser, and of attempts to understand and come to grips with his actions and legacy, what remains of the man most powerfully is his scent. The imposing and handsome man in a well-cut American-style jacket and worn shoes smiled broadly and smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. Thereafter, freedom was found in a life free of both.

— Maged Atiya

 


The Old Man and the Immigrants

Deliberately and calculatedly, McCarthyism has set before itself the task of undermining the faith of the people in their Government. It has undertaken to sow suspicion everywhere, to set friend against friend and brother against brother. It deals in coercion and in intimidation, tying the hands of citizens and officials with the fear of the smear attack.” Emanuel Celler

The old man came to Columbia College, his Alma Mater, in 1972. His long and illustrious political career was now on the rocks.. Emanuel Celler had been serving in the US House of Representatives since 1923, and now fifty years later, the young revolutionaries of Columbia saw fit to jeer him and hope for his defeat. The immigrant student had to come to his talk out of curiosity; he had just found out about the so-called Celler-Hart act of 1965. The act eliminated barriers to immigration from “brown countries”, and he was one of the first beneficiaries of that act after it came into effect in 1968. In 1929, as a young man, Celler made an impassioned speech defending the right of dark skinned people to immigrate to America, and remake themselves as Americans. At Columbia of that day the sympathies were with his challenger, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Holtzman, who spoke of the rights of women, and attacked Celler for his unreconstructed maleness. Celler did himself no favor in his talk. A man of German heritage, and mixed Catholic and Jewish religion, he seemed stiff, distant, and even arrogant. The times were changing and Celler, a liberal, was now considered insufficiently advanced. Few remembered his prescient insistence that the US should open its doors to European Jews in the early 1940s. Most noted his gruff rejection of the increasingly fashionable “rainbow” construction of immigration. Celler believed that immigrants should be welcomed and made to assimilate. In the end, Holtzman would win the Democratic primary. Celler could still have kept his seat running under the Liberal party banner, but he was spent. He quit. It is said that he spoke to a small audience in Brooklyn and proclaimed to have no regrets, having achieved his life’s ambition of making immigration equitable across races and religions.

Celler lived to a venerable old age, and passed away 35 years before a major political party would nominate for the office of President a low-rent would-be McCarthy, and immigrant basher to boot.

— 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

 

 

 


Obama and Trump – Middle East Fatigue Twins

No two men could be more different than President Obama and GOP candidate Donald Trump. “Superego” and “Id” seem to have been invented to describe the two men. One is given to cerebral reflections and restrained behavior, the other to verbal emissions and tantrums. Yet remarkably when it comes to the Middle East, they seem to converge. The reader who doubts this should answer the following questions. Which of the two men complained about erstwhile Gulf allies as “free riders” or “they don’t pay their share”? Which of the two men called the Libyan engagement a “shit show” or “a disaster”? Which of the two men felt that Putin’s Russian adventure is Syria will “exhaust them” or “let them do the fighting”? Which of the two men confesses support for Israel but would like “to consider the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians” or “be even handed”?

As far as Middle East policy, the current US field of aspiring Presidents divides neatly into two camps. Those who echo the conventional wisdom of the “foreign policy establishment” and those who view its recommendations with deep suspicion and unease. Obama and Trump belong to the latter camp. To the mind of this observer this is an overdue correction. As a matter of empirical evidence, the US attempted a variety of policies in the region, and all came to bitter ends. It supported authoritarian leaders and revolutions and is left with the theoretical argument as which of these two groups are responsible for state collapse. It placed a massive army in Iraq to remove a hated dictator and democratize it. It did no such thing in Syria. It split the difference in Libya. It let allies handle the situation in Yemen. None of the above are examples of success. What is a super power to do with region that abhors both its involvement and indifference?

There is fatigue in the land with the intractable problems of the Middle East, and perhaps a desire to forget or ignore such problems. The Republic has been intimately involved with the region since its very founding. The involvement was always dual-natured and at times contradictory. The elite force of the US military, the Marines, was created in part to deal with the North African piracy. American missionaries, armed with the Protestant zeal and affection for the “Holy Land”, came to the region in the 1850s and built schools and universities that educated generations of intellectuals, journalists, and political leaders. Most exhibited a baffling combination of admiration, attraction, resentment, anger and hostility to America. The theorists of both Arabism and post-colonialism are closer to their American object of derision than to their own people. American soldiers and spies have been even less successful than teachers and preachers in building anything of lasting value. Most Americans are not well versed in the details of Middle East history and policy, but they do recognize a bad deal when they see one. Few are as upset by Obama’s distant shrug and are unlikely to be moved by arguments from the usual Middle East experts. Trump’s policy of a slammed door is harsh, yet more than a few are willing to give it a try. Middle East governments spend handsomely to affect American policy, and are likely to have a return as impressive as that of Jeb Bush’s donors. Whether good or bad, fair or unfair does not matter. While Obama and Trump advise these governments to take up the mantle and clean up the mess in their backyards, one suspects that they are unable and unwilling to do so.

There is no resolution or cure for this fatigue. Maybe it will pass, or maybe it will not. If the next President is from the “ignore them” camp then he will not pay a steep political price for that view. If the next President is from the “engaged and involved” camp, she will likely find no political rewards in that path. In that sense, Obama and Trump, in their very different ways, point to the future.

— Maged Atiya