Descent of Men (Egypt Edition)

The outlines of the case are simple. The mob came to the home of a Christian man accused of dishonoring a Muslim woman by offering his love. They torched some nearby homes of other Christians. The mob dragged out his mother, disrobed her and paraded her naked through the streets. The police arrived much too late to prevent the spectacle. The Governor of the province (Minya) blamed the entire matter on the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no evidence that the crowd was demanding the return of Morsi, nor that they had just put down their copies of Sayyid Qutb and sprang into action fired by the zeal of his writing. In any case, had the crowd been composed of partisans of the Brotherhood the police would likely have shown more alacrity and less restraint.

Naturally, many will file this case under the heading of “Sectarianism”. And it does qualify for that perennial and tiring problem of religious bigotry in Egypt. But this observer wishes to call another aspect to attention; that of misogyny. The bias against women in Egypt is one that transcends the religious divide and has profound and retarding effect on the nation. What we have witnessed in the last decades is nothing less than the descent of Egyptian men. Even if all the Christians were to disappear from Egypt, the underlying illness captured in this episode will continue to haunt the country.

First, why should an affair between a Muslim woman and a Christian man be more offensive than one between a Muslim man and a Christian woman? It is not the religion but the gender. It is not for this observer to sort out whether misogyny is built into “Islam” or merely a construct of its interpreters. Islam, like any religion, is capacious enough to contain whatever good or ill its faithful can crowd into it. In any case, no religion has a monopoly on misogyny. The point is that the events contain many tell tale signs of the dangers such feelings pose to the country, and of the prevalence of those feelings among many, including Islamists, secular authoritarians, nominal progressives and every shade in between.

The Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamists in general, maybe innocent in these events, but not in others. They have sought to reform society by imposing the will of of one half on the other half. Women are “protected” by the paradoxical acts of gently covering hair which lacks nerve cells and savaging genitals which have them in abundance. Their vision of an upright land where every woman is invisible and silent contradicts all evidence of what makes a free and prosperous society. Nor are the so-called revolutionaries innocent of such feelings. Few want to remember the case of a CBS reporter stripped and nearly raped in the midst of the euphoria celebrating “freedom” from a supposed dictator. To the victim of the assault it must have seemed that every male celebrant is a potential oppressor or worse. The military, the vaunted protector of “mother” Egypt’s integrity and honor is also not immune to misogyny. It saw fit to poke between the legs of young women to prove the decency of its men. Sexual freedom and autonomy of women remain a proxy for rebellion. The religious authorities, both Muslim and Christian, are entirely male. They will undoubtedly rush to make sure that the ordeal of one old woman does not mar “brotherly” feelings among Egyptians of differing faiths. Every woman who lives in or visits Egypt can attest that harassment can come from such a wide variety of sources that it transcends ideology.

All that brings us to a grim conclusion. It hard to see how Egypt can progress when in a crowd of hundreds of men not one had enough Shahama to cover the nakedness of an old woman. Even the beasts of Dr Moreau have tried and cried “Are we not men?”.

— Maged Atiya


My Reston – How to Report on Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya



The Man Who Invented Sykes-Picot

Monday, May 16 2016, is the presumed 100th anniversary of the “Sykes-Picot” accord. Many speak confidently of it, fewer have actually read it, fewer still understand its roots and how an obscure letter has become a prominent feature of discourse about the Middle East.

To understand the roots of the letter and its deeper meaning, we need to place ourselves in the minds of European diplomats circa 1914. The “Great War” as far as these men were concerned was the Crimean conflict of the 1850s. It was as present in their minds as World War II is now in ours. It was a war waged by Catholic and Protestant Europe against Orthodox Russia to stave off the state collapse of the largest Muslim political entity, the Ottoman Empire. In return, the Western powers extracted “reforms” from the Ottomans that created the modern Middle East. These included citizenship rights to religious minorities, mostly Christians and Jews, the elimination of Jizya, the last vestige of Muslim dominance, and the attempt to build modern state apparatus. These Ottoman Tanzimat were an imitation of Muhammad Ali’s Egypt and still resonate in the region. Russia attempted to outflank the European and Ottoman powers by direct appeal to Eastern Christians. The Coptic Church of Egypt rebuffed the Russian overtures with its customary prickliness and habitual servility to the rulers of Egypt. The Levantine Christians were more receptive, but the Russian defeat in the Crimean war opened the way to reprisals from the Ottomans, exemplified by the 1860s pogroms in the Mountains of Lebanon and later against the Armenians. That conflict still echoes today, with a new Russian despot, Putin, imagining himself a second coming of Nicholas I.

In 1916 the British and French had lost their taste for propping up the Ottomans. For one thing, the “Young Turks” had sided against them and allied themselves with Germany. This was no accident but a telling foretaste of the Middle East new nationalism and its fascination with European Statism and Fascism. The French wanted nothing more than to save face with the Catholics of Lebanon who saw them as protectors. The British were truly confused. A prominent member of the aristocracy (Balfour) was toying with supporting Jewish Nationalism. A screwy romantic (Lawrence) was toying with inventing Arab Nationalism. Balfour and Lawrence were bound to collide (as they figuratively did after the war). In between, sat the sober diplomat Sykes. Catholic, restrained and sensible, he simply wanted order not excitement. Hence the “Sykes-Picot” letter. The letter sought to protect British and French interests in the presumed chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Ottomans. It even included a bone to Russia, in the form of control over Constantinople and partial control of Jerusalem. The Tsar, one year away from revolution, still imagined himself the Eastern Christian Emperor. The letter would have been consigned to the memory hole had it not been for subsequent events. When we speak of “Sykes-Picot” today we speak not of the letter but of the invented drama about the letter and its meaning. But who invented “Sykes-Picot”? It is a question worth pursuing, but with likely frustration as no single father (or mother for that matter) is apparent.

This observer’s favorite is Mohammed Hassenein Heikal, the Egypt journalist who recently passed away. Heikal was Nasser’s voice and the prominent peddler of the mythical Arab nation. Like many of his generation he felt Egypt would be made better with additional discipline, and a larger mission. A man educated by American missionaries could have no truck with the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamism. Instead he hit upon a fashionable idea from the salons of Damascus and Beirut. Yes, Egypt would be the Prussia of the Arabs. Egyptians would be cured of their habitual Fawda and goose-stepped to greatness. But such a vision needed a “stab-in-the-back”. “Sykes-Picot” was there to serve the purpose. Couple that with the “Balfour Declaration” and you have a unifying theme, and one with easy public appeal. Anti-Western and Antisemitic, it was the perfect tool for the propagandist from Dokki and Zamalek. Somewhere in heaven, Ustaz Heikal is smiling, Cigar in hand. He had put one over the Western scholars, or most of them anyway. A man for all political seasons had found an excuse for all political ills. Or so lives the lie.


— Maged Atiya

Eastern Christianity – Notes on a Good Friday

As the Ottoman armies prepared to scale the walls of Constantinople, almost exactly 563 years ago, the Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, looked west. He effectively severed Venice from Byzantium after a millennium of close relations. Further westward, the campaign for the capture of Grenada was already underway in Spain. It would come to a final conclusion before the century was over. Europe rid itself of any significant Muslim population, except for a sliver of the Balkans under Ottoman rule. The continent developed and rose to enormous power as a purely Christian culture and its narratives are those of competition between different Christian theologies and sects. The Ottoman Empire, however, retained a significant Christian population. But the fall of Byzantium signaled the end of Eastern Christian governance. It would continue further north in Kiev and Muscovy; both retaining Eastern rites in a Slavic culture. But in the Levant and Egypt Christians could only aspire to an inferior position, at best.

The decline of Eastern Christianity continued, although there was a false dawn during the late 19th and 20th centuries when the incursions of the West in the Middle East seemed to offer a promise of governance based on citizenship. But on the whole Western Christendom cared little for Eastern Christianity. The Christians of the Levant who looked west for support found mostly disappointment. The Christians of Egypt who never put much stock in Western help survived and grew proportionately to where they now constitute the bulk of Christianity in the region. The prospects for the future are somewhere between uncertain and dim.

The Syrian civil war will burn itself out eventually. Syria will likely be either partitioned or become highly federalized as to be effectively so. The interior will look like a less developed version of Saudi Arabia. The Mediterranean rim will have most of the heterodox Muslims and Christians clinging to its coast. Instead of Greater Syria we are likely to see the rise of a Greater Lebanon, with all its ills and uncertain and checkered divisions. The Copts will continue to be a presence in Egypt and their survival there will depend largely on the fortunes of the nation. In any case, the survival of Christianity in Egypt has always seemed so improbable as to be almost providential. In the meantime the West has acquired a significant Muslim minority that has yet to fully find its place in an alien culture. In an odd way Europe and the remnants of the Ottoman East exchanged roles.

The attitude of Western Christianity toward the Christian East is schizophrenic. One part of its psyche wishes for the survival of Eastern Christians, but another part adopts policies that lower the chances of such an outcome. America’s involvement with Iraq did not aid its Christians, but deepened their troubles through the collapse of whatever state power existed in place. The current US policy debate features supporters of closer engagement with Saudi Arabia versus those of closer engagement with the theocrats of Iran. Neither is  favorable to religious tolerance. Eastern Christians who immigrated to the West have done well and prospered there; yet few are certain about urging Western involvement with their ancestral lands. Both the Christians of the Levant and of Egypt are deeply suspicious about Western motives and means.The most they want from the West is more immigration visas.

It is a dismal election season in America. The two likely candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, occasion no enthusiasm. Clinton supports tolerance for religious minorities at home while promoting policies that dim prospects for such minorities abroad. Trump proclaims support for religious diversity abroad while espousing despicable bigotry toward Muslims at home. The interval between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday reminds us of the Christian faith in ultimate triumph over death. The fortunes of Eastern Christianity rest in such hope, and not in any earthly power.

— Maged Atiya


The Speech Obama Should Have Given in Cairo 2009

President Obama occasionally rises to the sublime, a gift rare for professional politicians. His speech in Cairo in June 2009, nearly seven years ago, remains a major flop, an Edsel of foreign policy speeches. Yet, in an entirely different forum (London), speaking about an entirely different topics (US protests), he gave the speech he should have given then. Let us quote a few lines from his speech that Egyptians, rulers and revolutionaries alike, can heed.

Movements are “really effective in bringing attention to problems

Activists  “you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them” [ implicitly rulers must do more than pretend to listen]

And to many so-called leaders of January 25And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position

To all sides in a polarized countryYou then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes you seek, and to engage the other side, and occasionally to take half a loaf that will advance the gains that you seek, understanding that there’s going to be more work to do, but this is what is achievable at this moment

To those loudly urging democracy on Egyptchange is hard and incremental

To all sides in a country in deep trouble “solving a problem means accepting a series of partial solutions

At the moment, those who applauded the 2009 speech will likely pay little heed to the above words.

— Maged Atiya








Islands of Trouble II

A previous post on Egypt’s transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia examined the dangers implicit in the hyper-nationalism demonstrated in the public’s response. But there are other dangers as well in that incident. Chief among them is the bumbling exhibited by the Egyptian government.

Most legalistic analysis favor “Saudi” ownership of the islands. The quotes are meant to reflect that such ownership dates back to before the establishment of the third Wahabi state now known as Saudi Arabia. That critical fact aside, other aspects should also be noted. In the wars between Israel and Egypt, Israel made an implicit assumption about Egyptian ownership by occupying the islands as part of various offensives. The military and diplomatic efforts by Egypt and other countries to return the Sinai to Egypt included the two islands. The Egyptian state had a de facto ownership. Before abandoning that ownership it had the obligation to explain its reasoning and motivations to the public, especially given the long negotiations leading up to the transfer. In skipping over this step the state put a major dent in its claim to sovereignty and competence. These are not trivial points.  The anger of the Egyptian public was mis-directed. It should have been directed less against the return and more against the manner of the return. In a region of collapsing states, the largest of them all whacked itself in the head needlessly. That is rank incompetence.

If sovereignty is taken seriously, and it must be here because the Egyptian state campaign of violence against many of its opponents rests on that claim, then relinquishing of any territory must be done with utmost sobriety and ceremony. The casualness of the transfer, even after long negotiations, has damaged the state’s claim to competence and thus empowers many of its doleful opponents. Anyone who cares for Egypt must insist that President Sisi address this point with something stronger and more detailed than “trust me”.

— Maged Atiya


Islands of Trouble


Reactions to Egypt’s transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia have generally ranged from the factually inaccurate to the emotionally febrile. The merits of the case (likely to favor Saudi Arabia) and the long negotiations leading up to it made hardly a dent in the public attitudes. In fact these attitudes, especially the Egyptian ones, shed a harsh light on a dark picture.

Egypt has never recovered from Nasser’s capitulation to King Faisal in Khartoum in August 1967. During that conference of Arab leaders Nasser issued “3 Nos” to Israel and a “Yes” to Saudi Arabia by withdrawing from Yemen, which Egypt had secured for the republican cause and had nearly pacified. In subsequent years the “Nos” to Israel became “Perhaps” and finally “Yes” at Camp David. The “Yes” to Saudi Arabia became “Yes, Sir”. Although few Egyptians now fully understand the history of how their country was brought low, nor can pin responsibility with any clarity, most,it seems, feel humiliated and betrayed by the country’s decline. Every discourse, on all sides, resonates with accusations of conspiracies and stabs in the back. Add to this the often unjustified Egyptian sense of superiority toward the Gulf countries, and you have a lethal dose of inferiority/superiority complexes. Such labile states rarely evolve to something healthy. The islands, central to Israel’s maritime security and subject to Camp David restrictions, are unlikely to be Saudi property in a free and unfettered manner. For this tiny acquisition Saudi Arabia will likely offer cash to Egypt and earn anger in return. This was a bad deal for Saudi Arabia, made worse by the Saudi leadership’s inability to sense that.

For Egypt, the situation is likely worse. Sooner or later the combination of inferiority/superiority will work its way in a public fashion. The results will not be pretty. Europe’s descent to hell a century ago began with miscalculations and one large country feeling badgered by its neighbors, humiliated by the world, and betrayed by its leaders, and seeing no recourse beyond a loud assertion of nationalism. One can only look with disbelief as Arab states, or at least those that still exist as such, find ways to damage their prospects for paltry returns. The public reaction to a minor tweak of the map, and one with little strategic value, points to darker times ahead.

— Maged Atiya



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