“What is a Copt?” A Review of “Marcus Simaika, Father of Coptic Archaeology”


Sometime in late 1872 or early 1873 the 14 year-old Theodore Roosevelt, future President of United States, visited Egypt. Later in life he blurted out in his diary “How I gazed on Egypt. It was the land of my dreams; Egypt, the most ancient of all countries! A land that was old when Rome was bright, was old when Babylon was in its glory, was old when Troy was taken! It was a sight to awaken a thousand thoughts, and it did” The precocious boy exhibits a certainty of what Egypt is, an attitude shared by outsiders, then as now. Two decades after Roosevelt’s visit outsiders (mostly) brought forth the great age of museums in Egypt, with four of them built in two decades. First to be established was the Egyptian museum, the plaque on top of it lists the great men of Egyptology, all of them European. The items within would whet the appetite of every Teddy, and cuttingly remind Egyptians of how unworthy they have become of their ancestors. Then came the museum of “Arab” (actually Islamic) art. It was also built by Europeans of a different stripe; romantics who saw in Islam the exotic and the “other”. Then came the museum of Greco-Roman art in Alexandria. Again it was built by Europeans, of yet a third kind; eager to cement their claim to the city by attaching it firmly to the southern end of Europe. The last, and the most modest, was unique in that it was started by a native Egyptian, a bulldozer of a man and a Copt. The man was Murqus Pasha Simaika (1864-1944), and the museum was dedicated to “Coptic Archaeology”. It was an odd designation given that the Copts were not dead, and in fact were very much on the rebound at that time. Well into the 1970s Egyptians referred to the museum as “Mat7af Murqus Basha Simaika”, or the museum of Murqus Pasha Simaika. Simaika was not a scholar, but a mover and a shaker, an able administrator and dogged collector. His efforts lit a spark to the field of Coptology, with reverberations that echo to this day. He also fought in the trenches of the communal struggles between the 1870s into the 1940s. He was not a man of letters, and his opinions often changed, but by action set markers for Coptic identity that others continually sought to support or refute. It is not that he settled the question of “What is a Copt?”, but that he raised the question in the first place, without even meaning to do so.

The years after his visit to Egypt were kind to Theodore Roosevelt. He went from honor to greater honor until he reached the pinnacle of power as President of the United States, ending his term in 1909. In his first year away from power he traveled the world and visited Egypt. He gave a memorable speech denouncing the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, a Copt, and advising the Egyptians that “the training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations”. Grateful Copts whisked him away to visit the recently established Coptic museum where Murqus Pasha was his guide. The Simaika and Roosevelt families were equally ancient. In the middle of the 17th century the Simaika family was among the most powerful Coptic notables, at the same time that the Roosevelts traveled to New York to become landed gentry. It must be said that the artifacts in the museum fail to answer with complete certainty the question of “What is a Copt?”, since many predate Christianity and appear decidedly both Coptic and Hellenic, while others are medieval and appear both Coptic and Islamic. In a further swirl of identities and accidents, we know that this was not the last interaction between the Roosevelts and the Simaikas. Farid Simaika, the nephew of Murqus Pasha, and an Olympic diver, was inducted into the US Army air corps under a special program set up by President Franklin Roosevelt. He had recently become an American. He volunteered for a highly dangerous spying mission to the South Pacific where his airplane was shot


Farid Simaika, Olympic diver and war hero

down. It is surmised with near certainty that he was beheaded by the Japanese forces. He is believed to be the first,and perhaps the only Copt to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. It is a sober reflection on where America was then that Farid was able to marry an American woman only after the local California court ruled that “Egyptians belonged to the Hamitic and Semitic branch of the Caucasian race”. The court expressed certitude about Egyptians, and by implication Copts, that they themselves lack even today.

Murqus Pasha stood astride many divides among the Copts. There was the divide between the laity and the Church as how to reform and modernize the community. There was also the divide between the landed aristocracy and self-made new men. But perhaps most critically there was an identity divide. Should the Copts attach themselves to ancient Egypt, as the “true sons of the Pharaohs”, of hew to a Christian identity? How much of the Copts’ identity is tied to Egypt’s ancient history and how much is a product of their Christianity? Murqus Pasha was a bold and forceful man; he lacked what Stanley Lane-Poole insisted Copts possess, “the vices of servitude”. Yet it is possible to find in his life and actions clear evidence that he was on all sides of those divides. It is perhaps his great contradictions, as well as as his great actions, that make him worthy of study, especially in our current times.

A chronicler and molder of Egyptian and Coptic identity, Mirrit Boutros Ghali, wrote the obituary of Murqus Pasha. It was a fit choice, as Ghali had become a prominent archeologist by that time, and Murqus had been a friend of both his paternal and maternal grandfathers, as well as a grateful recipient of the assistance of Mirrit’s mother. In an entry in the Coptic Encyclopedia written four decades later he quotes from Simaika’s unpublished memoirs, which were kept privately by Murqus’s son Youssef. It was always hoped that full accounting of them be made public. A new account of Murqus Pasha and his times based on these memoirs is now published in English by AUC Press, by the Pasha’s grandson, the eminent gynecologist Samir Mahfouz Simaika, and Nevine Henein. This follows an earlier publication of a similar volume by the Farid Atiya Press. Samir Simaika is also the grandson of Naguib Mahfouz, the famous Coptic Gynecologist, after whom the Nobel Prize novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who is a Muslim, is named, in recognition of the doctor who made his life possible after a difficult birth. Islamists would always hold Mahfouz’s name against him, and late in life attempt to assassinate him for it. We should also note that the editor of the Encyclopedia, Aziz Atiya, who was Farid Atiya’s uncle and this blogger’s adoptive grandfather, was inspired to attempt his monumental work late in life through the example of men such as Simaika. So much of the focus on Egypt today centers on the roles of the military and Islamists, but those who wish to read Egypt beyond the doleful reality of power and prejudice will find rare treasures in this book, even if it is a difficult dig.

The book is divided neatly into four parts that tell of Semaika’s upbringing, his services to his nation, his services to his fellow Copts, and finally his efforts to establish and grow his museum. These correspond roughly to the divides mentioned earlier. A notably curious fact about both books is that they use the Latinized version of Simaika’s name, Marcus, rather than the pronunciation favored by Egyptians, Murqus, thus banishing the harsh Semitic Qoph. It is possible that the Pasha would have approved of this. In official photographs the old Copt seems pleased as his chest proudly displays the multitude of medals and accolades bestowed on him by kings and potentates from various countries. A 1923 photograph of the Simaikas looks remarkably like a European aristocratic family. The memoirs of Marcus display an easy familiarity with the top colonial and Egyptian officials, as well as many eminent scholars of the time, such as Alfred Butler, Somers Clarke, Josef Strzygowski, and Ugo de Villard. But the old Copt within him chafed underneath the charming veneer of a man of the modern world and occasionally it would lash out in resentment. He confronted Sa’ad Zaghlul over the matter of teaching only Muslim religious thoughts in schools, and Zaghlul, who favored the word “uskut”, or “shut up”, in debates, gave in. He was angry with multiple British officials for sowing seeds of dissent and general run-of-the-mill condescension. After all, the Pasha came from a family of Coptic notables accustomed to respect for centuries. Throughout his life, and in quoted passages from his memoirs, he promoted a vision of Egyptian identity that stands beyond religion, only to be faced with ugly realities at all times. He attended the funeral of Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali after his assassination, but could recall with precision the “praise” bestowed by Sheikh Al Azhar on Ghali, “this Copt did more for his country than many Muslims”. The sense of anger, coiled beneath a requisite surface of amity, must feel familiar to many Copts. When aroused, the anger can take on unhappy forms. In a speech regarding the dispute with the Ethiopian Church over the ownership of Deir Al Sultan in Jerusalem (still ongoing a century later), he notes that “after each incident … the repenting Ethiopians came back tearfully begging to be allowed to stay, and the Copts taking pity on them and considering them as their brothers in faith always pardoned them ..”. It is expected of ambitious men to stand up for themselves, unless they are Copts. Marcus Pasha is advised by a more traditional Coptic politician, Youssef Wahba, to turn it down a notch, saying “when you want something …you seem to carry a stick in one hand and a knife in the other”. The quotations in the book leave no doubt that Marcus Pasha was shadowed by anger. In the preface his grandson notes that unlike many other Coptic grandees he never turned his back on his people, or ignored their needs, after he achieved wider fame. That is exactly true of Simaika, he remained a passionate Copt and fully engaged in the affairs of the community. His greatest battles were with other Copts, usually the clerical hierarchy. A dynamic man in a time of rapid social change could not possibly avoid that predicament. It is not so much that he was a bridge between generations, but that he was a familiar and oft repeated note in an endless fugue.

The Pasha was not an easy man, and he sometimes clashed with many of his contemporaries, especially the prelates of the Coptic Church. The book bills him as the “Father of Coptic Archaeology”, which is a richly deserved honor. The title of “Founder of Coptology” should be reserved to the intellectual Cladius Labib (1868-1918). He, and his son Pahor (who directed the Coptic museum after Simaika’s death), tried and failed to revive Coptic as a spoken language, something all other Coptologists shied away from, in favor of Arabic, English, French and German as their favored tongues. But Simaika should be counted as one of Coptology’s early founder and a prototype for many of subsequent followers, even if he was more of a man of power than scholarship. His contemporary in that work, Prince Omar Toussoun, also deserves equal honors. The Prince, a descendant of Muhammad Ali on both sides of his parents, was an accomplished scholar who studied the geography and history of Egypt. Although a Muslim, he too is a father of Coptology. The book features a rare photograph of the two of them at the Coptic museum in 1942, a few years before both would pass away. By that time these two men were already passing the baton to a new generation of Coptologists cut from a different cloth, but with equal or greater ambitions. These men shared a curious feature. All would make major contributions to the revival of Coptic culture while denying any thought that there is a “Coptic nation”. Most saw the contradiction between their actions and words (as indeed did Simaika) but perhaps felt it was the price of gaining agency in a world beyond their control.

The book features many anecdotes so familiar that they seem apocryphal. There is the story of the strong-willed Marcus defying his father, who wanted him to be a priest, and learning English and venturing out onto the wider world. He was not the first Copt to do so, as many Boutros, Murqus and Salamas would try to transcend and outgrow their Coptic identity. The older man, made wiser by the buffeting of the world, returns to serve his people in ways far more important than a mere parish priest. This is a familiar story of many “founders”, whether they were secular Zionists who rejected the rabbinical ways of their families, or Brahmin Hindus who adopted the manners and language of the British they loved and resented. There is a hesitant uncertainty about the world made by Western culture. The arms embrace it but the eyes betray a suspicion of it. In the case of Marcus Pasha the ironies and ambiguities loop on each other. He went to a school founded by Pope Kyrillos IV, “Father of Reform”, but open to Muslims and Copts, although Copts could not attend state schools at the time. The English Church Mission Society (CMS) made the Pope’s task easier, but he was a iconoclastic man, both figuratively and literally. Marcus the ambitious young man must have appreciated the “figurative” part, while the older Marcus as an art collector resented the senseless destruction brought on by this Pope. Admiration and censoriousness have a common heart.

The foundation myth, even if true, of the Coptic museum is also a familiar one. Marcus Pasha sees Pope Kyrillos V, the man he battled for years, about to melt ancient and beautiful silver bowls. He snatches them from his hands and with these as the first artifacts builds the museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Copts. Since then the story has been repeated and retouched by many a Coptologist. Ragheb Moftah documented Coptic sacred music with Western musical notation to save it from the mouths of ignorant priests who mumbled it without understanding. Aziz Atiya would not let Pope Shenouda have a final say on the editors of the Coptic Encyclopedia lest it becomes a uselessly hagiographic paean. These stories, all true, share a common theme. The determined scholar eager to use the tools of Western knowledge to serve “his” people must face down the entrenched and sometimes ignorant official Church. The reality also contains additional notes. The majority of Copts at those times likely supported Kyrillos V and Shenouda III, and viewed these men as “fathers” necessary for their survival. Whatever these scholars did to guarantee the cultural survival of the common folks was likely to be under-appreciated by the beneficiaries. There were more than a few shades of gray to all the confrontations. Samir Simaika notes the difficulty of collecting old Coptic sacramental artifacts since any item anointed by chrism must be destroyed once unusable lest it falls to profane hands. There is an echo of this in the tale of the Cairo Geniza records. European, or “advanced” Jews, wrested these documents from their rightful owners, the Egyptian or “backward” Jews, and sent them to Europe and the US for preservation and study. The act is either a perfidious theft or a heroic effort that documents the ways of a people now literally extinct. Individuals often pay a heavy price for communal reform. Conventional morality is a confused waif when it comes to the difficult work of preserving and building a nation’s culture.

Marcus was elected to the newly created Al Majlis Al Mili or “Community Council” at the tender age of 25. And for decades he was one of its most notable voices. As befitting a man of his temperament, his positions and views were unambiguous, until they changed. He favored the primacy of the lay Copts over the clerical hierarchy in the running of the affairs of the community, yet he paid homage to the very same bishops to pry items from their monasteries and churches. He favored exiling Pope Kyrillos V, and also bringing him back with honors. Many a man cut in Marcus’ mold would bend down and kiss the hand of a Bishop or a Pope that he believed to be an uneducated rube.The men in his party found themselves in paradoxical situations. The Church has been the backbone of the Copts for centuries, and the common folks loved Christ and their Church even while occasionally disapproving of the behavior of the men in black. But the Copts must be beaten out of these views if they are to be whipped into shape and made fit for the modern world, so thought many men like Simaika. The century-long battle now seems to have been decided in favor of the Church, perhaps. The Church was reformed from within, by laymen who joined its ranks. The Coptic notables seem to have largely disappeared, victims of the various “isms” that haunt Egypt today. But listening closely one can hear the opening salvo of a renewal of that struggle. The old notables like the Simaika family, born and bred to serve Egypt’s despots, are gone, but new notables made of a different stock are coming on the scene. These are the figurative descendants of Marcus’ Pasha nephew Farid, Copts born outside Egypt and sometimes less than fully acquainted with its realities, but with entirely different sense of entitlements and expectations. They expect the world to respect their individual and personal rights, they expect the state to serve them not the other way around, and they expect the Church to administer to their spiritual needs but not be in control of their views and actions. These new notables are eager to belong and serve, but under a new compact. The shape of the future struggle, or even if there is one, is still unknown. Recently this author found himself in an audience with Pope Tawadros II and a number of young women. They were all Copts, most were not Egyptian, and a few were not even of Egyptian stock. They could just as easily have been in an audience of Oprah as with a Patriarch of an ancient Church. He listened to them with a great deal of fatherly love and some incomprehension. What came to heart were the twin feelings that underpin most religious experiences; hope and dread.

Marcus Simaika spent the last decades of his life collecting Coptic artifacts and building up his museum. The book is rich in telling details. He was not a man to take “No” or even “Yes” for an answer. He insisted on “Yes, Now!” (“Whenever I heard of some object worthy of being added to our collection, I began my attack. I never despaired if refused once … and obtained it when the possessor became tired of my visits”). There is a comic underside to such a man in Egypt, for “now” among the Egyptians often stretched to years or never. There was also a tragic underside. His searches proved beyond doubt that much of Coptic heritage was destroyed in the Mamluk pogroms of the 13th and 14th centuries. As his collection grew the state became interested in it, less because it supported Coptic culture but because it wished to look like it is solicitous of the welfare of the Copts, especially to outsiders. Marcus Pasha did nothing to expose the condescending sneer behind the smiling facades. In this manner he was a model for the men who followed him. Most ignored the painful realities that touched them in favor of a distant vision of a better country. Aziz Atiya, who was hounded out of his university professorship by Islamists, would later write that “Copts enjoy full citizenship rights in Egypt today”. Mirrit Ghali would serve the Free Officers as minister (briefly) and diplomat, even after he was certain they would destroy his vision of a genuinely liberal Egypt. Pope Tawadros II insists that Copts can trust their safety to the state, even as policeman watch idly while mobs ransack Coptic properties in Minya. A sympathetic American asked “Why do Copts do that?”, stopping short of repeating Lane-Poole’s charge. We can only look in vain for an answer among Marcus Simaika’s words. He was a nominal support of Lutfi El-Sayed brand of Egyptian nationalism, which time has shown to be inimical to the interests of the Copts, while also developing an ideological framework for the violent suppression of Islamists. Yet he, and the majority of Coptic public men, remained faithful to it. Simaika, while building up the Christian portion of the Coptic identity, insisted that Copts attach themselves to the ancient Egyptian heritage. This seeming contradiction persists, even within the Church, where Egyptian nationalism has attached itself to its theology, as a barnacle would to a magnificent ship. The Copts are full-fledged members of the fraternity of reviled minorities, yet have struck out differently from others. Unlike the Jews and the Kurds, for example, they never sought out a geographic state fortified behind secure walls. Also, unlike the Christians of the Levant, they never sought out communally based representation, nor attempted to secure special rights. Most even reject the label “minority”, a triumph of aspiration over arithmetic. These stands might be a product of nearly two centuries of sacralization of Egypt and a belief in its exceptionalism, or simply a realistic approach favoring the possible over the desirable. But whatever the reasons these views have become problematic, and might set up new communal struggles, as the percentage of non-Egyptians among Copts grows.

For all its rewards, one can come to the last few pages of a book about a man who collected and preserved Coptic heritage without a satisfactory answer to “What is a Copt?”. For that we must look inward. A simple tribal definition that draws boundaries, defining who is in and who is out seems unsatisfactory. If any attempt at preserving cultural identity is to succeed it must account for change and allow for a constant redefinition of that identity by future generations. No culture can thrive behind high walls, and no wall is high enough to protect and contain a thriving culture. What might work is a series of concentric definitions radiating outward. There are those born into the Coptic identity, then there are those who wish to join it. Others might earn a place of honor by their understanding and support. Still others might look at the trials and triumphs of Copts and respect them as a retelling of the larger human condition. They are all Copts, and Copts would do well to embrace them without fear of dilution or loss of identity.

— Maged Atiya


How to Disappear Eastern Christians

All generalizations are suspect. But as such things go, this one is reasonably accurate. Concern about the suffering of Eastern Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists is more prevalent among the West’s political right, while concern about the less dangerous, but no less odious, bigotry toward Muslims in the West is taken up more vigorously by the political left. How this came to be is worthy of a book-long study, and mostly because to speak of the effect of “culture” is now taboo on the left. But the manifestations should be cause for alarm.

What used to be called “the Christian West”, a term now in disfavor, has not always been kind to its eastern coreligionists. But recently there has been a major change in these attitudes, in opposite and polarizing directions. The Russian Church, with its long and rather dangerous association with secular power, seems attractive to many white supremacists. Some are even converting from mainline and Evangelical Protestantism to Eastern rites. This blogger has warned about such Russification publicly, and privately even more vehemently. Putin’s cynical display of crocodile tears about the decline of “Western morality” serves as a magnet for such groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum, so-called intersectional warriors, are making hay with faux Muslim identities. A woman, of any skin complexion or ethnicity, who dons a Hijab is suddenly a “woman of color”, whatever that means. This is a dangerous polarization for all involved. Painting political polarization with a religious tint ends badly, especially for those in the numerical minority. It is silly, and wrong, to allocate blame equally on all sides. It is far more productive to urge change mostly where it is possible and realistic to expect it.

There is nothing to say to white supremacists. They are beyond the pale. One can only urge Eastern Christians to reject false friends and not join them outside the limits of tolerance and common humanity. More is expected from Western liberals. Their eagerness to end denigration of Islam and Muslims in their countries is commendable, although at times it finds them in uncomfortable embrace of suspect company, especially when coupled with superficial understanding of Muslim-Christian relations in majority-Muslim countries. The statement “America is a White nation” is hateful and inaccurate. Yet it is not uncommon to hear the even less statistically and historically accurate “Egypt is a Muslim country” without anyone batting an eye. Dog-whistle extensions of that statement are even more prevalent. Consider the now fashionable promotion of “illiberal democracy” by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings institute. In Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s Communists were disproportionately Jewish, while Christians were over-represented among liberals. The congenitally antisemitic and anti-Copt Muslim Brotherhood attacked “heathen Communists and dissolute Liberals” with vehemence, arguing that such views should be anathema to all Muslims. It is surprising to see such discourse repackaged for polite company as insisting that “illiberal democracy” is acceptable for Muslims. Panels on tolerance in the Middle East often include a combination of Islamists and Western or Muslim seculars with no representation of Eastern Christians who are most affected by intolerance. The liberal West is disappearing Eastern Christians, and is largely uncomfortable in the presence of their testimony, in many cases literally martyrdom, and their fervent devotions. They smell too much of incense, perhaps.

It was the privilege of this blogger, upon first arrival in America, to read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, urged on him by a kind teacher who was a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, at a time when the Church’s teachings about African-Americans were coming under scrutiny. As with all great works of literature, it has multiple readings. But the most obvious one is how invisibility facilitates oppression. It is understandable how hateful groups in the Middle East seek to render Christians invisible. It is puzzling why such discourse of supremacy hoodwinks Western liberals.

— Maged Atiya



It Is Not All Religion

An anti-Mursi supporter of Egypt's army walks in front of his shop, with huge posters of Egypt's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with cross and crescent symbol of the unity Egyptians in downtown Cairo

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



False Hope – Thoughts on Steven Cook’s “False Dawn”


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


Francis and the Egyptians


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

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

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

— Maged Atiya


Copts Under Western Eyes


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

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

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

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

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

Instead of condolences, please get to know us.

— Maged Atiya

To Restore A Church

Several days after the terrorist explosion at the Boutrosiya Church Egypt is still dealing with its repercussions. A state funeral for the 25 victims, mostly women and children, was tightly organized. President Sisi attended and read out the name of the suspect. Later, Pope Tawadros II presided over the services for the victims, who were interned after scenes of heart-rending grief. Today the Egyptian government announced that the Army will undertake the repair of the Church in 15 days. While the alacrity is commendable, it is also unnecessary, and possibly counter-productive. Anything less than an exacting restoration will add to the grief of the community and further diminish Egypt’s dwindling cultural heritage. The Church represents a unique history and the preservation of its structure to the standards of its builders should be the primary goal of the effort, not speed.

The Boutrosiya was built to honor and serve as resting place for the only Coptic Prime Minister in Egypt’s history, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910, in a crime tinged with sectarian feelings. His three sons undertook the construction effort; the learned Naguib, a one time government official and philanthropist; the worldly Wassif, the Foreign Minister who negotiated for Egypt’s independence from Britain, and the private Youssef, who bought and tended his brother’s lands, and was father to diplomat and UN Secretary General  Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali and grandfather to the man responsible for Egypt’s economic turnaround in the late Mubarak years, Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali. The sons spared no effort to build the most magnificent structure they can afford. When Egyptian artisans could not do well enough, they imported Italians. It opened as a trumpet call announcing their faith to fellow Copts, their prominence to all Egyptians, and Egypt’s rising status to outsiders. If the Church was built to project power and status, it was also appropriated for an entirely different purpose by another of Boutros Ghali’s grandsons, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The grounds served as home for much of Merrit’s cultural interests and outreach. Merrit, a polymath who was fluent in several European and African tongues, established the Society of Coptic Archaeology and ran it from the Church (actually a misnomer since he undertook repair of Islamic antiquities as well). At one time, the Church contained over 13,000 volumes of books, some exceedingly rare. He made friends with many other scholars, who followed his template to establish other cultural centers and initiated a variety of efforts. Men such as Murqus Simaykah, who founded the Coptic Museum, Yassa ‘Abd El Messih, who cataloged the St Catherine Monastery rare collection, Sami Gabra, who co-founded the Society of Coptic Archeology, and with Aziz Atiya, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, Labib Habachi, who excavated Nubia for the University of Chicago, Ragheb Muftah who rescued ancient  Coptic Church music from oblivion, and many others too numerous to name in a short post. All these men passed through the Church at one time or another because of Merrit. These were interstitial men, neither fully Eastern nor fully Western, yet better able to bridge the cultural divides. Most wanted to serve Egypt, but the confluence of Army men and Muslim Brothers made them focus more closely on Coptic culture. Even there, they struggled mightily to raise scholarship to eminence above hagiography, and sometimes suffered Clerical reproach for it. For these men,  work was prayer and learning a higher piety. They elevated their fellow Copts, even if the majority is barely able to recall either their names or their accomplishments, much less so other Egyptians.

The notion that the Army can fully and faithfully repair, in 15 days, significant damage to the Church which was a background to these activities seems miraculous. It is more likely that the job will be hastily done to meet a political deadline. The Church hierarchy may feel compelled to accept this seemingly generous offer, but lay Copts, especially those abroad, should advise caution. This is a historic site, and excellent restoration can be done, but likely at a painstaking pace. It deserves no less. As does the memory of men who strove to elevate their peers. The work of nations is varied, but the building of a nation is primarily cultural. A meticulous effort, supported by a communally raised fund, and done under private supervision of qualified art historians and restorers may well be the single ray of light in this bleak episode.

— Maged Atiya