My Heikal

The immigrant boy filled out the school enrollment forms in block letters. The form labeled “ESL” had a space for declaration of the native language. He left it vacant. It is tempting to paint a dramatic scene of a profession of faith where the boy declares English to be his true mother tongue and thrice insists “I do not know this language” about Arabic. But the reality was that he was simply eager to move on quietly. Many hands participated in this linguistic matricide, but chief among them was Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, who passed away a few days ago. Many have tried to locate Heikal as a journalist, or an opinion maker or a government official. He was all three, but mostly he was a writer of fiction made believable by his own fervid faith in it.

For a boy coming to grips with literacy in 1960s Egypt Al Ahram was required reading, and its editor, the aforementioned Heikal, held court several times a week with an opinion column. A memory, in a Proustian knock-off way, is of the smell of freshly baked cookies with date filling wafting from the neighbor’s apartment. The generous patriarch took a liking to the boy and often invited him to share. On the invariably sunny days of Egypt the man sat in the balcony reading Al Ahram and commenting on Heikal’s column with a red pencil. But that was Egypt then, and one could not be sure that a discarded newspaper will not be picked up by a Zabal who moonlighted for the secret police. So uncle Thabet made his comments in his own secret code; daggers, double crosses, circles with arrows and triangles with bars. Every edition was a palimpsest of Quotidian Egypt with the red cuneiforms of honestly felt views laid over the black print of the newspaper. And so it went as Arabic was inseparably linked to the lie called Arabism. Arabic became a language reflexively understood, reluctantly spoken and on occasions even harshly denounced.

A decade later the young college student trying to navigate the treacherous and alien currents of America’s 1970s experiment in all manners of freedom, both laudable and dangerous, still found time to obtain a copy of Al Ahram to jeer at Heikal’s column, only to leave unsatisfied. His opinions came out less frequently, and the new boss was a one-man theatrical troupe who needed no bard. It is embarrassing to say that when news of Heikal’s arrest came in the fall of 1981 one strove to think of him as an Edmond Dantes deprived of pen and paper and furtively writing on the cell walls with whatever implements or excretions on hand. In fact he was released quickly and continued to ply his trade with great energy and to great fame.

Obituaries for Heikal describe him, in one way or another, as Poet Laureate of Nasser world. But Heikal, who was a few years younger than Nasser, lived nearly twice as long. He had an entire lifetime to show otherwise, and failed to do so. We must then judge Nasser as the smiling enforcer of Heikal world. This author professes no attraction to eulogies, nor faith in the afterlife. But if there is an afterlife we must hope that Heikal is consigned to heaven, for there he will be condemned to the eternal company of those that the presumed creator has deemed to be truth tellers.

— Maged Atiya


Terry Gilliam’s Egypt

Let us say you are a Hollywood executive when a writer approaches you with the following script. In a country where the government is both inept and aspirationally oppressive a bureaucratic snafu, due to a mix up of names and birth certificates, has a four-year toddler sentenced to life in prison for a crime committed several years earlier, while still an infant. No one seems to notice the anomaly and “justice” proceeds as normal. If you were that executive you would reject the script, not as improbable, but as too close to the script of the 1985 film “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam, one of the brains behind the British comedy troupe “Monty Python”.

Well it seems that Egypt is aspiring to be the next Brazil. Not the actual Brazil, but the Terry Gilliam version.

— Maged Atiya


On the Passing of Boutros Boutros Ghali


Much has been written about the “Coptic Problem” in Egypt. But the parable of the life of Boutros Boutros Ghali is more telling. A capable and prickly man, he is remembered as the only UN Secretary General to stand up to the great powers and refuse to play house boy to their designs or indifference, and paying for it by the spectacle of Madeleine Albright vetoing his reappointment with a public display of vengeful glee. His courage seemed to stop at Egypt’s shore.

He was buried with military honors. President Sisi walked in his funeral. Pope Tawadros II read liturgies for his soul in an elegant church built by his family. The flood of obituaries noted that he came from a “prominent Coptic Family”. None have noted how his family traced the rise and fall of modern Egypt, nor of the Copts who punch above their numerical weight in that historical tale. A distant ancestor was strangled by Muhammad Ali for pointing out a budget shortfall in the early 19th century. More than fifty years later his great grandfather would come to great wealth serving Khedive Isma’el. His grandfather would be the first Coptic Prime Minister, and only the second Christian to be so, and next to last one. His uncle was a powerful minister. He could never attain the rank of full minister, contenting himself at times to serve under Amr Moussa. In two centuries the Copts of Egypt rose from wretched misery and ignorance to dreams of being full citizens, or at least demand that Sunday be recognized as a day of rest, but finally watch young boys sent to court for making a video lampooning ISIS, the criminal gang that beheaded 21 of their poor coreligionists in a pornographic display of hate and violence. The Egyptian Council on Human Rights, which he established, seems to have little to say about such judicial proceedings.

Here is the eminent sociologist Sana Hasan describing a conversation with the diplomat.

“I questioned Boutrous Ghali, the grandson of the prime minister by the same name, on the difficulty Coptic candidates had in gaining admission to the Foreign Service, an elite corps. He replied that as one who had sat on the board of examiners of the Foreign Service for eleven years he could testify that there were very few qualified Christians. Besides, he added after a moment’s reflection, the number of Christian ambassadors had been increased to four under Sadat. When I pointed out to him that none of them occupied the weightier posts, in North American or Europe, he tried in all earnestness to argue that an ambassadorial post in Addis Ababa was more important than one in Washington. He also said that Sadat had appointed three Coptic ministers to the cabinet. To my objection that there were merely token Copts, technocrats appointed to posts without any power, he retorted that if they had not been awarded any of the major portfolios, it was simply because they did not have the personalities for them.

“Name me ten Copts with personality!” he burst out, before my silent skepticism.  And he clinched the argument by giving himself as an example of a Copt who had been assigned a significant post. It would have untactful to mention that he was merely “minister of state” for foreign affairs, while the post foreign minister, as such, was reserved for a Muslim. Everyone knew that he had been passed over three times for promotion to that post, despite his brilliance and savvy- not to mention his command of foreign languages- in favor of Muslim foreign ministers of inferior  talents.

When I tried to steer away from this touchy subject to safer grounds and brought the general situation of the Coptic minority, he dismissed their grievances with a disdainful wave of the hand. ‘Believe me. These are nothing but exaggerations. You have been listening to too many frightened, hostile Copts. Besides, instead of whining and lamenting they should do something about their problems. Let us face it, the Copts just don’t have balls!’”

From “Christians vs Muslims in Modern Egypt”

His words came to mind a year before his death, when a Ghanaian and 20 poor Copts, who had left Egypt to work in Libya, silently recited the Lord’s Prayer as the blade fell on their necks. Perhaps Copts are incapable of having balls except on the point of death.

— Maged Atiya




Egypt’s January Revolution

No, not that one of 2011. The January revolution that comes to mind is that of 17-19 of January 1977. Thousands poured into the streets to protest the rise of subsidized bread prices. The police fled, and the panicked President asked the Army for help in quelling the chaos in Alexandria and parts of Cairo. If revolutions are to be measured by their results, then this was a profound and often forgotten event. Let us enumerate a few of its after effects.

Sadat in a panic over a lack of dividend for the impressive showing in the October 1973 war, and fearful of a US sponsored talk fest on peace in the Middle East, took matters into his own hand and eventually initiated direct talks with Israel. The result was an upending of the “Arab order” that still resonates to this day, in the hopelessness of building a Palestinian national state, the disintegration of the Levant and the rise of Saudi Arabia as the paranoid hegemon of the region.

The riots firmed Sadat’s desire to find allies among the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a fateful decision for him, and for the battered country he ruled. In the last days of his life he would realize the error of believing that the Brotherhood, and its allies, would seek anything less than the entire pie. That lesson seems to have been forgotten 34 years later, and with bloody consequences for the country.

The riots convinced the Egyptian political elites that subsidies for the poor were an evil necessity and can not be touched; the third rail of Egyptian politics, as it were. This conviction condemned the country to further three decades of authoritarian economic stagnation. Ironically, the attempt to reverse this in the decade before 2011 which was bearing some fruits in economic growth, came to an effective end in 2011.  

Shortly after the events of 1977 Tahseen Bashir remarked that “Egypt is the only country in the Arab world, the rest are tribes with flags”. The son of Egyptian aristocracy was paraphrasing a widespread feeling among those of his class during the early 20th century. They believed there were only two civilizations in the region, Egyptian and Persian. The irony of today is that both countries continue to struggle with the demons of their nationalism and religion sapping their potential greatness, while the “tribes” have fragmented even further.

It is not quaint historicism to recall the January 1977 revolution, for the next revolution in Egypt is likely to resemble the 1977 events rather than the 2011.     

— Maged Atiya


In The Season of Celebration and Loathing

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” Matthew 7:21-23

In this season of celebration and fear, this difficult chapter from the New Testament beckons us with many warnings.

It warns against turning religion into identity. We “are” neither Christians nor Muslims nor any other religion for that matter. We are humans with an urge to religiosity that calls us to actions of great mercy and terrible cruelty.

It alerts us to the dangers of public piety, its many base uses, and its varied faces. There is the young Senator, who professes his religiosity to garner votes and bash enemies. There is the aging monarch, with shoe black in his beard and hair, who claims to be a “guardian” of holy places, as if God needs shelter in habitat guarded by humans.

It points us to justice as the way to discern what is right. We can not miss the harshness in Jesus’ voice when he denounces those who are unjust in the name of God. He denies them and exiles them.

It calls us to honesty, especially when dealing with painful realities. Jesus is particularly harsh on “Hypocrites”, those with words and actions that lack transparency of meaning or clarity of purpose. Anyone who attacks, or defends, can do well by heeding a simple advice “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” 7:5.

The defense of those who are few among us does not require complex arguments or utilitarian purposes. It is rather simple. “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them7:12

It inspires dread as Jesus’ words turn violent. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” 7:19-20

It provides gentle hope for those who are confused, displaced or simply fearful. “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” 7:7

A few things to keep in mind in this time of celebration and loathing.

— Maged Atiya



The Fall of Bashar

Dear Reader: Please indulge the author of this blog in a small Gedanken experiment.

By all indications Bashar Al Assad is running out of troops. In a civil war demography is king, and he is on the short end of that. True, Russia and Iran vowed never to let him fall, but in ambiguous terms. For Russia, a Bashar safe in a canton around Latakia is plenty good, for it assures it a long-desired Mediterranean naval base.  Iran wants to extend its sphere of influence and protect the Shi’a of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. None of these objectives require Bashar in Damascus.  When Bashar’s fall comes, it will be sudden and rapid. He will decamp to Latakia, followed by his clan and many refugees, some of whom might actually head out away from Syria. The fall of Bashar, like the receding tide, will expose the swimwear of all regional and international actors.

ISIS and Al-Qaeda units will rush to the south-north axis extending from Damascus to Homs, where they will be face-to-face with Hezbollah at the Lebanese border. Israel rightly regards Hezbollah, with its thousands of rockets, as a mortal threat. It will be tempted to see the circumstances as once-in-a-lifetime chance to end the threat, with ISIS as the anvil to the IDF hammer.  This may entail the destruction of Lebanon, and more refugees. Iran will not remain idle, but its capacity to project power outside its regional area is limited. It will most likely attempt to relieve Hezbollah by opening an Eastern front against ISIS, using its own units rather than the unreliable Iraqi Shi’a militias. ISIS has drawn a bull’s eye on the Hashemites of Jordan, but almost any course of action for Jordan will be a bad one. It is unthinkable to attack Israel, nor to side with Iran, nor to give succor to ISIS. Saudi Arabia, which could not tolerate Iranian allies at its distant southern border, will now have the Iranian army at its northern border, close to its oil fields. Will it give assistance to ISIS, which might initially be grateful but ultimately may decide to go for the whole Enchilada? Or will it launch a direct and catastrophic attack on Iranian troops. The Saudi royal family is a bit like the hedgehog, it knows one thing well, its survival. And of course there is Turkey. The bee in its bonnet is the Kurds. Will it resist the opportunity of chaos to set back their cause of independence by some steps?

Outside the region there are many powers with stakes in the outcome. Europe will shiver at the multiplication of refugees. Russia will have endless opportunities at mischief. The US will have a hard time deciding whether to remain on the sidelines or intervene, but on whose behalf exactly?  A Saudi-ISIS alliance, an Iranian anti-ISIS, anti-Israel effort, or simply against all?

The purpose of this grim mental experiment is to show that the only rational course of action, as well as the one with least suffering for people, is for all actors to arrive at a negotiated settlement for the Syrian conflict, respecting existing borders, and with the Jihadis as the odd man out, and hopefully quickly gone as well. Whether the bumbling regional powers and dazed world powers can arrive at this end remains to be seen.


— Maged Atiya

Of Teeming Refugees and Empty Towns

The City of Utica is nestled in Central New York State, away from main roads and seemingly in decline. But look further and listen closer and you will notice one of the main reasons Utica reversed seven decades of population decline beginning in the year 2000. Utica has a large population of Balkan emigrants, many settled there after the famous “Dayton Accord” that finally closed the book on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eight decades after its official demise. The events that started with the shooting of a Grand Duke seem to find their denouement thousands of miles away in an unlikely place.

The year 1918 saw the collapse of three Empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman. The last two are still in progress. The events in the Levant are a final echo (hopefully) of the Ottoman collapse. As always, the collapse of Empires is occasioned by much human suffering, wars for power that jostle men, women and children from their homes and send them as mendicants on roads. The latest wave is that of Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi refugees, escaping fighting, the predations of the “Islamic State” and the general collapse of their native states. Refugees are never the teeming, faceless mass they are often taken to be. Among them lurk all the individuality, promise and errors of humanity. This wave is no different. Their plight has created waves of outrage, as well as defensive anger, but little by way of helpful action. Germany has promised to take in a million refugees, roughly a tenth of the estimated number of displaced civilians. Another four millions are spread out on the borders of nearby states, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt; all states in a tenuous state. There is strong criticism of the wealthy Gulf states for not taking in refugees, but the criticism, however justified, glosses over significant issues and is unlikely to bring a change in course, or relief for the refugees. Europe, beyond Germany, is hesitant to absorb a massive wave of displaced persons at exactly the moment when its politics is nurturing noxious demagogues who traffic in fear of Muslims.  Some are seeing the refugee crisis as a chance to push for their favorite outcome in the Syria, insisting that it will only be solved by the removal of Assad. We should shed no tears for him, but his collapse will send waves of Christian and Alawite refugees out of Syria. It will also bring ISIS to the borders of Lebanon and a chance to try to practice its genocidal policies on its population of Shi’a and Christians. It takes little imagination to play out this scenario.

Forgotten in the storm of outrage is the role of the US. The US has accepted more refugees from the Balkans, where it had a minimal hand in its wars, than from the Levant where it meddled extensively. The collapse of Syria has many authors; its Mafia-like leadership; many Gulf States who are nominal US allies; the chaos in Iraq occasioned by the smash-and-democratize dreams of 2003; and Turkish fears of Kurdish nationalism. Historically the US has been one of the largest, if not the largest, recipient of immigrants. Some sought riches and some wanted a safe distance from their potential executioners. Most have found some immediate suspicion but ultimate acceptance. Although the US immigration policies are now captive to fierce and unprincipled debates, mostly regarding “South of the Border” immigrants, there remains space for decency and assumption of responsibility if the right leadership claims it. There will surely be the usual noise about the lack of resources to manage the new influx, or the fear that many Jihadists will sneak in with the immigrants. But immigrants bring in resources in the form of sweat equity in the national enterprise, and the Jihadist problem exists regardless of immigration policy.

What is advocated here may seem fanciful. Eager workers to fill rust belt cities that lost millions in population over many decades. It you think this is a dream, ask the Mayors of these towns and cities.

— Maged Atiya