The Sorrows of Egypt, Revisited
(Samuel Tadros, February 13, 2019)
Transcript available below
Watch his speaker playlist here
About the speaker
Samuel Tadros is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, where he researches Middle Eastern politics, Islamist movements and religious freedom. He is also the co-host of “Sam & Ammar,” a television program dedicated to covering Middle Eastern political and social developments from a classical liberal perspective that is broadcast throughout the Middle East by Al Hurra TV.
He asks: Does Egypt still have a place in the US grand strategy? For many pundits in Washington the answer is a resounding no. From every corner of the US foreign policy community frustration abounds with Egypt. If, however, the United States is ever capable of understanding its troublesome ally and salvaging what remains of the US-Egyptian alliance, it must tread carefully, following Fouad Ajami’s steps, and approach the Egypt of reality, and not that of imagination. It must take a voyage to “a jaded country,” as Ajami called it, and visit the land of sorrows.
Tadros is also the Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Hoover Institution, and a Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he teaches Middle Eastern politics.
Prior to joining Hudson in 2011, Tadros was a Senior Partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, an organization that aims to spread the ideas of classical liberalism in Egypt. He received his MA in Democracy and Governance from Georgetown University and his BA in Political Science from the American University in Cairo.
He is the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity (2013) and Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt (2014) both by Hoover Press. His numerous articles have been published by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, National Review, and World Affairs.
He previously spoke at the Westminster Institute on the subject of: The Future of Islamism in Egypt.
Robert R. Reilly:
It’s a great pleasure to welcome Samuel Tadros back here, who graced us with his presence on a prior occasion, to speak on the subject of Sorrows of Egypt, Revisited.
The first part of that phrase he’s taken from Fouad Ajami, the wonderful Arab-American scholar here at SAIS. But Sam has added on the ‘revisited’ part.
,And since he himself is an Egyptian, he can speak directly about both the place and its sorrows and its future and its relationship to the United States and what that relationship ought to be and how it ought to be pursued by us.
Sam Tadros is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom. Quite notably, he’s the co-host of a very popular television show broadcast into the Middle East by Al Hurra TV, whose director is Alberto Fernandez, who’s also spoken here at Westminster on a couple of occasions.
And the name of the program that Sam co-hosts is Sam & Ammar. Maybe someday we will get Ammar here too. This program is of course dedicated to covering Middle Eastern political and social developments but the interesting twist is it’s from a classical-Liberal perspective broadcast throughout the Middle East.
Sam is also a Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Hoover Institution and professional lecturer at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Prior to joining Hudson in 2011, Sam was a senior partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, an organization dedicated to spreading classical liberal ideas in Egypt.
He received his MA in democracy and governance in Georgetown University and BA in political science at American University in Cairo. He’s the author of Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity and more recently Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt, both of these published by the Hoover Institution, and of course, many, many articles in the press and journals. Otherwise, please join me in welcoming Sam Tadros.
Thank you Robert for the kind introduction and for hosting me here again. It’s always a pleasure to come to Westminster Institute, and I see a lot of friends and familiar faces, as well as engage with the people who attend these important discussions.
I guess this is where the pleasant part of this discussion ends for the title of this talk is the Sorrows of Egypt, Revisited, a depressing title one might say. A depressing title of a talk based on a depressing title of an article based on a depressing subject.
In fact, it’s depressing enough that when the article was first published, a colleague of mine at Hudson Institute remarked to me that this was really the most depressing thing he’d ever read and he read accounts of the Cambodian genocide, so it’s not the most pleasant subject to speak about.
Let me begin by a quote from Fouad Ajami, “The Sorrows of Egypt is made of entirely different material, the steady decline of its public life, the inability of an autocratic regime and of the Middle Class from which this regime comes to rid the country of its dependence on foreign handouts, to transmit to the vast underclass the skills needed for the economic competition of nations to take the country beyond its endless alterations between glory and self-pity.” The quote comes from an article that Fouad published in 1995 under the title of “The Sorrows of Egypt”. Fouad had written about Egypt previously.
In fact, he had come to love Egypt as many of his generation of Arabic speakers, the Egypt of glory of Gamal Abdul Nasser, of the greatness that would lead the Arabic speaking world. He had made pilgrimage to Damascus to see the great hero of the Arabs, Gamal Abdul Nasser, as the masses carried his car in Damascus. Changing his views and after time he had visited the country again, a different country, a country that had come out of the 1973 war unsure in which direction it would go.
He had written about it in the past in his famous book The Arab Predicament but this time it was different. In each of the approaches that he had taken to Egypt, it was the Egypt of others, it was the Egypt that outsiders had thought of, had dreamed of, had cursed, had blessed. In that article in 1995, it was a different Egypt that he approached, the Egypt of reality, the Egypt that its own citizens have to come love and to hate, to worship, and to seek ways to leave.
Today, in Washington a lot of people wonder whether Egypt still matters to the United States, whether Egypt has any place in U.S. strategic thinking of the Middle East. For many pundits and policymakers in Washington, the answer is a resounding no. Egypt doesn’t matter. It no longer fulfills any important role in the region. Arabs no longer look to Egypt as a source of aspiration. They no longer read what Egypt writes, if it writes any longer. They no longer listen to it or watch what Egypt produces.
So for many people, the answer to the question of does Egypt matter is no. And towards what the U.S. policy should be, well, Egypt receives a lot of money from the United States. Billions of dollars have poured into the country since the Camp David Accords and the answer is we should cut that aid.
The list of complaints that pundits have with Egypt is long; its internal policies, human rights record, dismal human rights record, lack of any democratic transition in the country, its foreign policies from support to Bashar al Assad in Syria to support for General Haftar in Libya, its economic policies, lack of movement and improvement in its economy, President Sisi’s obsession with mega projects that produce no future for his country.
The list is very, very long but the cutting aid option or the policy recommendation begs the question of what then? Will cutting military aid to Egypt lead to Egypt transitioning to democracy tomorrow? Will it lead to an improvement of the U.S. strategic position in the region? These are questions that few are asking in the first place.
Egypt is a problematic ally for the United States and has been for a very long time but if the United States is to ever understand that problematic ally, if it is ever to salvage what remains of the alliance between Egypt and the United States, then it needs not to look at the Egypt of imagination, the Egypt of frustrations, the Egypt that people imagined would lead the region in peace with Israel and prosperity or lead the region during the Arab Spring to a democratic future, and instead, deal with the Egypt of reality, a more depressing picture but a real one.
And its that picture or that journey that we will take today as we go and visit that country that Fouad Ajami said, a jaded country, and see the sorrows of that country. Fouad Ajami in his article he began with a quote, “At the heart of Egyptian life there lies a terrible sense of disappointment. The pride of modern Egypt has been far greater than its accomplishments. The dismal results are all around: the poverty of the underclass, the bleak political landscape that allows an ordinary officer to monopolize political power and diminish all would-be rivals in civil society, the sinking of the country into sectarian strife between Muslim and Copt, the dreary state of its culture and educational life.” Again, the article was written in 1995 but perhaps, it’s as accurate a description of the Egypt of today as possible.
Let me go back in history. On the 21st of July 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, leading a French Army, stood in what was claimed to be in front of the pyramids. In reality, he wasn’t really there in front of the pyramids. It was about 20 kilometers afar, facing the armies of Egypt by the Mamelukes, the warlords that had ruled the country independently and then in reality under the Ottoman Sultan. And he told his soldiers supposedly, “Forty centuries of history look upon you here.
The battle is fascinating – it was named the Battle of the Pyramids – for two reasons. First, because it led to the complete humiliation of the Egyptian pride not only that of Egypt but of the whole region. When news of the French arrived in Cairo, the reaction was, “So what? Let all the Franks come and we will crush them under the hooves of our horses,” said a Mameluke prince.
When the battle occurred, it wasn’t exactly the Mamelukes crushing ‘the Franks.’ It was a complete humiliation. Thousands of the Mamelukes died compared to a minimum number of French officers. It’s that battle that would lead to the crisis of modernity in the region as people discovered the huge gap that separated the Middle East from the West for the ‘Franks’ they had imagined were no longer Franks but instead modern Frenchmen. The developments in Europe, the industrialization, all the technological advancement had been completely unknown to the region. And it is the shock of that discovery that Bernard Lewis famously described as the question ‘what went wrong’ that would lead to the political crisis of the region perhaps until today. But it’s also an important point to begin with to begin with the pyramids.
The pyramids are hard to see from anywhere in Cairo today. The city has grown tremendously, pollution is extraordinary, but as you leave the city and move in the direction, you being to see the tops of the three grand pyramids. Egypt’s greatest pride but also its greatest burden. I was once asked what I would do if I had one thing that I could do to change Egypt’s trajectory for the better, what I would do. And my reply was, I would bomb the pyramids. Of course, the person asking me was shocked. But it’s hard for Egypt to deal with the legacy of the pyramids. It’s hard growing up in a land where the pyramids are so present, realizing that the past will always be greater than the future, that Egypt’s modern accomplishments mean nothing compared to its past, that millions of tourists come from all over the world to see what our ancestors have built. And what have we to offer today next to the pyramids?
There’s a joke from Mubarak’s time that there were only two accomplishments for modern Egypt: that we had ‘won’ the 1973 war with Israel and Egypt qualifying to the soccer World Cup in 1990. Of course, the joke was on the Egyptians because we hadn’t really won the 1973 war and when we did go to the World Cup in 1990, it was a mediocre performance, two draws and one loss. But it captured something. It captured the reality that there’s nothing to be proud of in Egypt’s modern history. Egypt’s modern history in fact has been a continuous quest for that glory. Egypt doesn’t think of itself as a land that is meaningless to the world. It’s a land that kids in schools in America and all around the world learn of. It is not some desert that no one has ever heard of.
People know its story from the Bible, from history, the Pharaonic history. In fact, in Egypt’s sense of itself, it is the center of the world. Egyptians love to call the country omud-dunyah (دُنْيا أم), mother of the world. When you read the Egyptian description of their country, it is as if the whole world started and ends in Egypt. The Pharaohs built their civilization there, Rome depended on the province for food coming to serve the whole empire, Christianity had built a pillar in the country, the Church of Alexandria becoming a central pillar of the early Christian church, and Islam had made it home. In fact, from the Egyptian narrative, cities like Damascus and Baghdad were meaningless. Sure, the Umayyads and the Abbasids had built their caliphates there, but it was really in Egypt that Islam became central to the world.
With that narrative and with that sense of grandiosity, the question becomes: what of Egypt today? Egypt for the past two hundred plus years since Napoleon landed in Alexandria has been in that quest for a place under the sun, a place of grandiosity of the past. It has been attempted many times and every time has led to greater disappointments. It was attempted by Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of Egypt who created or attempted to create a modern state, building orattempting to bring modern technologies from Europe and building his own dynasty and empire in Egypt. That ended with failure.
It was attempted by his grandson, Khedives Isma’il, who thought that he would create an empire in Africa and would create Paris on the Nile as Cairo would be called. And it again ended in bankruptcy and then a couple years later in British occupation.
That moment of grandiosity and enthusiasm was attempted again in what is called Egypt’s Liberal Age from 1919 to ‘52. That same spirit drove Gamal Abdul Nasser and the dream of Egypt leadership in the Arab world. It came to Sadat after 1973 and the hope of American deliverance. It came in the form of a revolution in 2011 that would hopefully change the face of the country, or for the Islamists, in the rule of Muhammad Morsi and the Islamic State that would be established, or in the form of President Sisi and his dream of making Egypt as he said, ‘It is Omud-dunyah and will be as big as the whole world, Adid-dunyah.’ And all of these attempts have ended in disappointment.
In none of these attempts has Egypt succeeded in finding its place, in achieving success, in becoming great like those other countries. That burden of history and that reality of miserable failure is a tough combination to deal with because it pushes the country always to seek that glory. Egypt doesn’t accept the mediocre state. The only one of Egypt’s rulers really who thought of a mediocre nature as something good and acceptable was Hosni Mubarak. Different from all of Egypt’s presidents, the man had no aspirations. He was described by Fouad Ajami as a civil servant with the rank of President.
It was the best description you could give the man. Early on in his rule he had been asked by one of his interviews, “How do you feel sitting on a seat that Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat have sat upon, giants of men who took Egypt in a very different direction, but giants nonetheless?” Mubarak, not understanding the significance of it, looked down at the chair and told him, “If you like it, you can take it.”
At the time of the end of his rule, he was in one of those meetings with intellectuals that he would hold before the Cairo book festival. An intellectual told him, “You know, you’re going to rule us for life. That’s fine. Give us a future. Give us a constitution that’s democratic. Give us a future after you, so that history will remember you.” Mubarak looked at him and told him, “History, Muhammad,” the intellectual was called Muhammad Said, “History, Muhammad?” He told him, “Yes, Mr. President.” And he replied, “Muhammad, I’m not into history or geography.” That was Hosni Mubarak.
For a long time, that was acceptable to Egyptians. The man that fate or the bullets that Khalid Islambouli had given them on that day of the sixth of October of 1981 when Sadat was assassinated, was after all better than the Blind Sheikh. Facing the option of an Islamist rule of Egypt as after they killed Sadat, Mubarak, mediocre as he was, was an acceptable solution. The country never warmed to him. But then what other alternative did they have?
Over time – and I’ll get to that – the country of course, discovered that mediocrity was not for it. Today, Sisi’s trying to give it something else. Unlike Mubarak, he has bonded with the country because he has tapped into that Egyptian sense, that Egyptian desire for greatness, which brings me to describe the state of Egypt today and of its political landscape. Again, I go back to Ajami in 1995, “The country feels trapped, cheated, and shortchanged. In the battle between an inept, authoritarian state and a theocratic fringe.”
Before we talk about the state and the theocratic option, let us look at the other alternatives in that country. What alternatives do Egyptians have on the political landscape? When Fouad was writing in ‘95, he began with the liberal option. At the time, that was represented in the form of the Wafd Party, Egypt’s glorious party of old that had led it in the liberal age and that had made a comeback when Sadat began to open the political landscape in 1978 before closing it a few months later. It had again made another comeback in 1984 by court order at the time but quickly lost whatever appeal or standing for liberal principles it had when it decided to ally with the Muslim Brotherhood, its enemy of old, in an election alliance. Those liberals – or who claimed the mantle – would repeat a similar story as they allied with the Muslim Brotherhood to bring Mubarak down and continued to defend it as an acceptable alternative to the Egyptians.
Then there were the Nasserites. For a man that really lacked a clear ideology, Gamal Abdul Nasser, it’s remarkable how millions of followers he left in the country and all around the region. After the man had died, many had attempted to fill that vaccuum. But no one had risen to that level of greatness of becoming the idol of the Arabs. Others outside of Egypt, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafhi, had attempted to fill that role.
Inside Egypt, you could attack the government of course, from a Nasserite perspective. You could criticize its relationship with the United States, the peace with Israel, its economic policy that dismantled the state’s services or deal with the people to provide services. But very few could fill that idol of the masses role that Gamal Abdul Nasser had occupied. The latest one to attempt, Hamdeen Sabahi, presented himself in the presidential election, but the guy lacked that aura that Gamal Abdul Nasser had.
Then there were the Islamists. Contrary to claims that the Muslim Brotherhood survives repression, in reality Gamal Abdul Nasser had completely crushed the organization after 1954. But when the Muslim Brotherhood figures were released from prison by President Sadat in the beginning of the seventies and then after ‘74, they discovered something already in existence, an Islamist resurgence in Egypt’s universities that they had little to do with. By fate, by geography in many cases, they succeeded in attracting many of these young Islamists that were there in universities to their ranks. They had failed a bit in the south and Alexandria. In the south, those Islamists had decided to create a separate organization called al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya.
In Alexandria, they decided to create the Salafi Call, which would later contest with the Muslim Brotherhood and become a thorn in its side in Egypt’s election after the revolution. Jama’a Islamiyah would become the greatest threat to the regime in the mid-’80s until the end of the ‘90s. It was that insurgency that they fought in the south that in a sense provided Mubarak with his legitimacy, with a reason why Egyptians should tolerate that man that never connected to them. After all, this threat of an Islamist rule was a reason enough to support the state no matter its shortcomings.
But then the state succeeded. In its success however, prices were paid that were not noticed immediately. The first, that in order to defeat the Islamist threat, the state had Islamized it. Not necessarily that Mubarak grew a beard or became a Salafi, he didn’t do that, but that the public space was left to the Islamists, that the regime had attempted to become more conservative than them or to allow more conservatism, so that it would not be attacked by them in order to gain legitimacy with the population.
The result was an Islamization of life in Egypt. Many signs were there of that. In the economic sector, the growth of these Islamic-driven companies became at a moment to dominate the economy. At the social level, this increasing conservatism that you saw in the number of women wearing the veil and all of these social signs. But the second price was more interesting. The second price was that by success, there was no longer any reason for Egyptians to tolerate Mubarak. By virtue of there no longer being an Islamist threat, why should Egypt accept [such] a man? The Muslim Brotherhood success in presenting itself more moderately during those decades or so after the insurgency as well as the removal of that threat of an Islamist takeover of Egypt allowed, in a sense, the Egyptian revolution to spring and to succeed. Had the Egyptian revolution from its first day been presented by a guy with a long beard instead of the Google Executive Wael Ghonim, it wouldn’t have garnered the same level of support inside Egypt nor would it have likely gotten the praise and the nice coverage that it received on CNN and eventually in the White House itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood or the revolution that occurred, it is often common today to speak of it as a moment that passed, that Egypt is back to where it began, a military ruler instead of another military ruler, younger this time. He’s going to remain for another god knows how many years, changing the constitution these days to allow him to remain until 2034, and still there’s no democracy, no human rights, none of these.
But that, of course, commentary misses the difference between those two men, Hosni Mubarak and President Sisi, and misses the impact of the revolution on the Egyptian population. The revolutionary upheaval, the threat of the Islamists, the insurgency in the Sinai, the regional upheaval all around Egypt has left its mark. Egypt that always thought of itself and still thinks of itself as not a normal country, as the mother of the world, today looks at the region around it and says ‘we don’t want what’s going on in the region.’ A common phrase in Egypt is ‘at least we’re not Syria and Iraq’ or ‘at least we’re not Libya’ or ‘at least we’re not Yemen.’ There are very few good options to look at in the region.
And, of course, President Sisi, unlike Mubarak, has offered the country something, a vision of greatness, a vision that would fit Egypt’s sense of grandiosity of itself, a vision that is likely to end in failure as in all of Egypt’s previous quests, and add to the burden of history and of failure but a vision that Egyptians – or some of them at least – can cling to at the moment as deliverance from Egypt’s endless quests.
Let me move from Egypt or inside Egypt to Egypt in the world or where Egypt fits in the region. Fuad said of Egypt that “Egypt was the last to proclaim the pan-Arab idea and the first to desert it.” Egypt. that provided the Arabs with Gamal Abdal Nasser and the dream of leadership to unite the whole region was however, a country that had little to do with the Arab idea. In fact, when the first Arab nationalists began to develop their ideas, Egypt wasn’t even there in their imagined Arab nation.
It had always been, in a sense, an independent country even under the Ottomans or the Mamelukes or, before that, the Abbasids or the Umayyads, Egypt had always been ruled as one unit. In the Levant, you had the governor in Aleppo, a governor in Khams, a governor in Damascus, a governor in Tripoli. Egypt was always one unit ruled by one guy even when it was part of a larger empire. It was a country that first discovered the ideas of nationalism as it came after the French invasion of the country.
Even when Egypt adopted Arab nationalism as an ideology for the region after Gamal Abdal Nasser, it was in a sense an attempt of Egyptian hegemony. It was in a sense, an attempt of using Arab nationalism, which we never really warmed to, as Egypt will become the prime player of the region.
Egypt has many things to offer to the region from educated lawyers and doctors and engineers that could then be sent or educators be sent to these countries or that these underdeveloped countries would become a market for Egypt. But the Arab idea gave Egypt nothing but disappointment. In the sands of Sinai, 1967, Egypt discovered the reality.
It is often common today to talk about Egypt’s loss of primacy as a result of Mubarak’s years of stagnation. In reality, the man that had waved the white flag and admitted that Egypt couldn’t become a leader of the region was Gamal Abdal Nasser himself. In the Khartoum Conference of 1968, famous of the Three Nos to Israel of no peace and no normalization. But with these Three Nos, he had given a yes. To King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, where the Egyptians would withdraw from Yemen and allow the Saudis to decide the fate of that country.
His successor, Anwar Sadat, was much clearer. Egypt would have nothing to do with the troubles of these Arab countries, making his separate peace with Israel and not getting involved in those inter-Arab fights. The price, of course, was Egypt would be kicked out of the Arab League for its decision to have peace with Israel. And with the Arab League leaving Cairo and a non-Egyptian becoming the head of it, with the Arabs abandoning Egypt, the option for Egypt was to hope that the Americans will deliver for it what it had lost from that Arab world.
Today, it is often common to speak of President Sisi’s foreign policy as a reflection of his internal policy. The guy is fighting Islamists internally, so he’s fighting Islamists abroad or to think of Egypt as a potential ally, a Sunni power that can play a role in countering Iran in the region. In reality, Egypt has very little to offer in any of these regional questions. The country simply cannot play a role that it cannot deliver anything to. Nor is that Sunni-Shia conflict of any meaning to a country that simply doesn’t understand. These conflicts of the Levant between Sunnis and Shia are completely separate from the reality of Egypt.
But if there is a foreign policy question that today dominates Egypt, it is the question of Ethiopia. Egypt and Ethiopia, the two countries that are connected by the Nile, had an interesting history in the past. Ethiopia was never of interest to the rulers of Egypt. The Nile was, of course. The Pharaohs had expanded the rule a bit to the south, but there was nothing in the south to offer. Even later on under the Roman Empire or various Islamic states that developed and took root in Egypt, the south really had nothing to offer Egypt. Egypt’s gaze has always been to the east where religions and invaders came from or towards the north, towards Europe and the Mediterranean. That was where the future of Egypt lay.
When Muhammad Ali occupied the Sudan later in the 1820s, Ethiopia was still not a concern to Egypt. The only connection between the two countries being the reality of the Nile River, the bloodline of Egypt, and the connection between Egypt’s Coptic Church and its daughter church in Ethiopia. His grandson, Muhammad Ali’s grandson, Ismail, would have different ideas. Informed that all great European countries had empires in Africa, well, he decided he wanted to be part of Europe, sending his military to go to war with Ethiopia. He gathered the foreign consuls, the French and the British, and the Austro-Hungarian, and the Prussian, and told them, “Today, my country is no longer in Africa. It is now part of Europe,” because we’re going to get an empire in Africa like you guys.
The war was a great humiliation. Egypt lost the two wars it would have with Ethiopia. In fact, in an episode that would be repeated later on, Egypt after the second war that was completely lost with Ethiopia, instead of informing the population of the loss, they started the celebrations, and the cannons being done, and all these things. The previous Prime Minister, Nubar Basha, didn’t know that we had lost the war, so thinking that we had won, he visited the Khedive to offer his congratulations for the great victory and described this weird scene of the Khedive, receiving congratulations that they only discovered a couple of days later for a great defeat for the Egyptian Army.
But if Ethiopia was ignored in the past, Ethiopia cannot be ignored today. Ethiopia today has a population larger than Egypt. It is a country that is looking for all means of industrialization and growth in order to deal with this growing population. It is a country that looks at the Nile as theirs, as a source of both water and energy, both required if that country is to move forward. With a dam being built at the Nile of Ethiopia, Egypt is looking at it as a threat for its future. If there is a foreign policy question that Sisi will have to confront in the years to come, it is the question of how to deal with Ethiopia.
Will Egypt go to war there? Many people look at those weapons that Egypt is buying from France, from Russia. What use are these weapons? What will they serve? It is perhaps in Ethiopia that the greatest challenge for Sisi and for Egypt will come in the future. But if we are to end Egypt’s relation with the world, one issue cannot be ignored. Namely, its relationship to the United States.
In the article, I tell the story of a movie that’s today completely forgotten. It’s called the Visit of the President. The movie was produced in 1994. It tells of an episode in 1974 when in a village in the Delta in Egypt, they are informed that the American President, Nixon, and the Egyptian President will be taking a train that will stop in the village. The visit becomes a moment of dreams. Everyone thinks that the visit by the Americans will be a complete transformation for the reality. This obscure village will now be on the world map.
But before we can welcome the U.S. President, he can’t come and see us as we live in reality, right? We need to clean the streets. We need to wear different. We follow for an hour-and-a-half the villagers as their lives are transformed. You start seeing cowboy hats and jeans and people start learning the American anthem. They have a band that’s going to play the American anthem for the U.S. President as he comes. The climax for the movie, the last scene, the whole village is standing there at the train station and the band is there, they’re all wearing the nice clothes, and they begin to play the American national anthem as the train approaches. The train however, never stops. No windows even opened from the train. And it leaves nothing behind it but dust.
It is common today to talk about the frustrations that Washington has with Egypt. In fact, these frustrations are not new. President Mubarak’s conduct during the Palestinian kidnapping of the ship in the Mediterranean in 1985, his attempt to spy on his Minister of Defense to smuggle rocket parts outside of the United States to use for Egypt’s secret missile program under President Reagan, his pressure on Yasser Arafat not to give any concessions during the Camp David summit that would lead Thomas Friedman to pen an open letter to him in The New York Times, criticizing him and questioning why is Egypt an ally in the first place. His refusal to listen to any American advice under President George W. Bush of democratization or anything.
In fact, in perhaps a scene that captures the frustration of Washington, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in an article, describing President Obama’s relationships with various world leaders had this to say in Egypt, a quote from someone at the NSC, “That if you want to put Obama in a bad mood, tell him he has to attend another NSC meeting about Egypt.” That’s how frustrating Egypt has become. Even President Trump, who’s called Sisi a fantastic guy, complimented him on his shoe, among others, was the one who took the decision to cut part of that military aid to Egypt.
But if Washington has its frustrations, we must also remember that Egypt has its own. Perhaps, they were unrealistic expectations from the very beginning, but for a moment, that movie captured something in Egypt. It captured something in the thinking of President Sadat, but not only him, of many in Egypt, that what we had gotten from the Russians, the Americans can give us something better. Many of Egypt’s military officers of the time had been trained in the Soviet Union. They hated life there. Mubarak, who was one of those officers under Nasser, described later the horrible things. It was dark, it was ugly, it wasn’t America, it was different.
For a moment, Egypt thought that America would save it, that the American dream in a sense, would be what would change Egypt. Nixon’s actual visit, he did go to Egypt, in 1974, may pale next to his visit to China, but perhaps, for the Egyptians, that visit was as important. Disappointment would follow.
Again, the expectations were always unrealistic. But then, the price Egypt paid for its alliance with the United States, the loss of its connection to the Arabic-speaking world, the fact that its economy never developed despite the fact of U.S. generosity of billions of dollars that poured into the country, all added to Egypt’s frustrations, and more would come. President George W. Bush’s pressure about democratization was, for the Egyptian ears, ‘that’s not what we signed up for. We had signed up for an alliance with the United States and, in return for this, we would get economic aid and military aid. We didn’t sign up for this democracy talk.’
It is within that context that we are to understand Egypt’s pivot toward Russia. Many people look at Egypt’s regional military purchases from Russia to the growing relationship between Egypt and Russia as an attempt to balance the two superpowers. Of course, Russia perhaps doesn’t even deserve that title of a superpower in the first place nor can it give Egypt what the U.S. is giving it currently. But perhaps it can deliver other things.
Just before the revolution, more than three million Russians came to Egypt as tourists. After the bombing by the Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai of the Russian plane, that source of income disappeared. The return of Russian tourists hence, is a top priority for President Sisi. No three million Americans are going to go visit the country no matter what.
But more importantly, perhaps President Sisi sees a better version, a more successful version in President Putin, an intelligence officer that jumps in the right moment, to save the country from chaos, to put it back into the important countries, to make it great again. Sisi looks at Putin as a model for what he hopes Egypt would become.
This picture that I have drawn is not a good picture, it’s not an optimistic picture at all. It is a picture that many in the region and around the world stop at it and wonder, what has happened to Egypt? How has Egypt reached this level? This was, the capital Cairo, that the Arab world looked up to. Even despite the fact of Egypt’s decline on all levels, there’s still something of this Egypt of imagination that is remaining in the Arab’s collective consciousness. What has happened to the Egyptians? How does the country accept such a President that makes the most ridiculous of speeches, once offering to sell himself if he could if that would make the country better? Of course, with the Egyptian sense of humor, in five minutes he was being offered on eBay for sale. I mean the description was fascinating, “a used president from a military background.” And after The BBC, and CNN, and others reported it, of course, eBay had to remove the thing. Who famously said that he spent ten years of his life with nothing but water in his refrigerator. No idea how he survived.
Anyway, how has Egypt reached this level? It’s common for many to blame Sisi, to see Sisi as a reason for Egypt’s decline, to see Sisi as the reason for the frustration. Egypt didn’t live up to people’s expectations of it. In reality however, Sisi is not the reason for Egypt’s decline, neither was Mubarak before him, but merely a reflection of the reality of the country, merely a reflection of the burdens of Egypt, of the sorrows, of that continuous attempt to reach that place under the sun, and of the continuous failures.
Egypt, if it is to be best described, is a ship that has been sailing for centuries neither sinking nor reaching a destination. The mast and everything has been broken. Every decade, every couple of decades, someone comes on the ship and tells the people of the ship, ‘I see land and it’s full of honey and wonderful land.’ And the people of the ship get excited. And with their hands, for there’s nothing else left, they attempt to reach that destination, only discovering that there was nothing there. The frustrations added to previous frustrations. That’s the burden, that’s the reality, that’s the country that the United States is attempting to deal with. If Washington is to ever to succeed in building an alliance with this troublesome ally, it is by dealing with that real Egypt and not the Egypt of imagination that would lead the region to peace or to democracy, not the one that policymakers and pundits have been imagining, but the country that is filled with these sorrows. Thank you.
I promised a depressing talk. I hope I delivered. So I guess we’re open for questions.
Hi, that was a brilliant talk and a work of art at the same time. Thank you. It really makes me think a lot. It seems to me that what you’ve presented is an Egypt that remembers back when the Nile gave it a comparative advantage 3,000 years ago and was a leading civilization, and will always be unhappy that that comparative advantage has long since flowed out into the Mediterranean.
The questions in my mind are it seems to me you presented in fact Mubarak got it just right even though you may not have phrased it that [way], just pursue our national interest, which is to align ourselves with the leading powers in the world, don’t fight wars with Israel that we’re going to lose every time, pretend that we want to, and make the best of it.
It leads to the question of what can America do to give dignity to allies that do find that common sense to live in the reflected glory where America leads rather than trying to regain an exaggerated nationalist glory? But there is the converse question how for America to deal with its own psychological maladaptation. We’ve had four presidents in a row – few people realize this, but all four last presidents ran on a platform of America ceasing to act as really the leading power in the world and instead just pursuing national interests.
We have the inevitable role in fact as the leading power of the West, which is the leading civilization of the world. We can’t give it up no matter how hard Bush tried or how hard Clinton ran on it – unfortunately, he didn’t believe in it – or how hard Trump talks about it. He may or may not really believe in it – or how hard Obama really tried to implement it with devastating consequences. How can we get out of our psychological maladaptations? How can we pursue consistently our real world role not just constantly be running against it?
Well, that’s a lot of dealing with Egypt’s psychology and the U.S.’s psychology. I mean before you added the part about the U.S. having the began by saying is the U.S. interested in the first place in maintaining that world role because there are many in Washington who question not necessarily the U.S. role in the world, but the U.S. role in the Middle East, particularly the importance of the Middle East to the United States. The decline of the importance of oil, the U.S. success in shale oil, has led many to look at the region as nothing but a source of trouble.
Now, the reality of course is that as long as we produce jihadis – and we’re going to continue producing them for a very long time – and as long as there is the Suez Canal where 10% of world trade passes by, Egypt is going to matter no matter what.
Now, I wish I had a perfect policy prescription for how the United States should deal with Egypt. I think it begins by saying that let’s think about our expectations. Egypt is not going to become a democracy. That’s a fact. It might be disappointing, frustrating, but it will not become a democracy not because Egyptians are from Mars and democracy doesn’t work with them, but because democracy cannot develop without democrats, at least not liberal democracy. And when you have a country where there are no liberal democrats, it will not become a liberal democracy.
It can become a theocracy, Iran-style, that was what the Muslim Brotherhood attempted with the ballot box if you want to call that democracy. But if we’re talking about liberal democracy, we cannot imagine such a state. I would be hard pressed to recommend to any young Egyptian who wishes to read about liberalism, classical liberalism – not the American version of it, but classical liberalism – to recommend any five books in Arabic that offer liberal discourses. I would be hard pressed to name five truly liberal thinkers in Egypt’s past or present.
It’s the reality that we have in the region. It’s the reality of I think I’ve mentioned in my previous talk here, but it’s something that I never stop repeating: people won’t read Thomas Jefferson and become democrats tomorrow, but if not a single person in the country can access – unless he has English – works from Aristotle until Burke, then there is no hope of a democratic transition in that country. Aristotle that the Arabs have maintained to the world, the last translation of his Politics was done in the 1930s and it’s not available at all. Plato’s Dialogues, translated by Takhsayn in the ’20s, again, not available. In fact, the students in Cairo University’s philosophy department do not actually read Plato. They read the professor’s commentary on Plato because Plato is not available in Arabic. And I can go on to every thinker that we hold dear and we think of as central to the development of liberal ideas in the West.
But if Egypt won’t become a democracy, I think we also need to make sure that it doesn’t become something much worse, so the first challenge I think we face in Egypt is that of a complete collapse of the country. It’s not common to think of state collapse when we talk about Egypt. Egypt has a sense of national identity that’s much stronger than say Syria, Iraq, or any of these countries. In fact, an Egyptian diplomat, Asim Bashir, had a famous comment that became very common in Washington of when the moment of truth comes, there’s only one nationstate in the region and that’s Egypt. The rest are tribes with flags.
Of course, it’s Egyptian sense of grandiosity that captures this. There is a sense national identity in say Morocco, in Tunisia, in other places, but more importantly, the sense of national identity inside Egypt is not as strong as people imagine. Egypt is still tribal to a large extent. You don’t see the tribes because you see Cairo, but it’s different tribes. They’re not necessarily on ethnic grounds, they don’t have sheikhs the way that you look at the Gulf, but there are deep divides in Egypt. There’s a deep divide between Christians and Muslims. There’s a deep divide between supporters of the Brotherhood and those of Sisi. Those divisions are increasing.
There was an article by Muhammad Sultan, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in The New York Times recently where he talked about [how] he was imprisoned after the Raba’a massacre and his uncle was the head of one of the police groups that actually conducted the massacre. And he would describe the relationship. His uncle would never check on him once he was jailed and then his uncle got severely injured in one of the terrorist attacks in the Sinai and these deep divisions even within families is becoming the norm in the country, so I think the first – I know it’s a very long answer if it’s an answer in the first place – but the first thing I would say is the first goal of U.S. strategy should be: avoid state collapse in Egypt.
The second goal is to make sure that adversaries don’t take over Egypt. These adversaries might be Russia, might be the Islamic State, might be any force that is contrary to U.S. interests. In a sense we need to think of Egypt no longer as a player that is going to be our ally in a competition over the region’s future and more as a playing field that is itself being contested, and we need to start contesting it.
Perhaps the greatest failure of U.S. policy in Egypt was when the moment of truth came, when everyone was criticizing the United States in Egypt, when the Muslim Brotherhood was blaming it for support for Sisi, and Sisi supporters claimed the U.S. was supporting the brotherhood, no one stood and defended the United States. That is the ultimate failure: the failure to build a constituency in Egypt despite the fact of how deep the relationship and the amount of money that was poured into the country.
From my own travels in Egypt I have found Egyptians to be desperately poor who are generally happy and cheerful in spite of their poverty. And you said about the links with the Arabs, and I recall a fellow being called an Arab and correcting the host, saying no, he was an Egyptian. But it strikes me that Egypt is like Cairo, suspended between construction and decay.
That is a good line.
Thank you for a wide-spanning talk. I only look at things from the Indian perspective. Looking at Muhammad Ali the Conqueror and his successors in 1952, in India it was always assumed that these are foreigners from Albania and they are surrogate killers on the behest of Constantinople. I use slightly strong words because it provokes. Second, you did not mention anything about Al Azhar. Indian students who go to Al Azhar are subsidized by the government of India, and I am shocked by the level of Islamic fundamentalism coming out of Al Azhar and Al Azhar’s influence on the rest of the Islamic world, really. Third, Nasir’s attempt at Arabization, the UAR. Could you comment something about that? And I think there are too many other speakers so I will stop there.
On Al Azhar: people do not realize the size of the institution. Let me give you a few figures here. There are 400,000 students in Al Azhar University. It is the largest university in Egypt, larger than Cairo University, which has 330,000 students. 1.7 million Egyptians study in Al Azhar primary, secondary, and high schools. They have a completely separate school system outside of the government one that has a different curriculum. So, we are talking here about two million plus students with their families, with the teachers.
This is a huge segment of Egypt. I often joke with my liberal friends of, ‘Do you know Egypt?’ And they are like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And [I ask them,] ‘do you know any graduates from Al Azhar high school?’ And they are like, no, how would we meet? Well, then you have not met a lot of the country.
Al Azhar’s curriculum is not only fundamentalist but it is also one that does not prepare anyone (which is of course a common criticism to say about Egyptian education in general) for a modern economy, for becoming part of the world. President Sisi has famously called for a religious revolution, for reform of the religious discourse, and has taken stands that have been very much celebrated in the West. Inside Egypt there has been a resistance from Al Azhar for any change. The President was publicly rebuked by the Grand Sheikh. In fact, the relationship between the Grand Sheikh [of] Al Azhar and the President is hardly on any good terms.
Recently, there was a weird presidential decree that was issued that bans all prime minister of prime minister-level positions from traveling outside of the country without the permission of the president. It is weird, I mean why this decree? Well, there is one guy who is at the level officially in the the government of prime minister and that is the Sheikh [of] Al Azhar, basically, so he is basically saying the Sheikh of Al Azhar is not allowed to travel without my permission.
At the same time, of course, Al Azhar is an ally in a sense of the United Arab Emirates, which is Sisi’s main ally and financier. And the Grand Sheikh was used during the visit of Pope Francis to the UAE as the Muslim side to sign that statement with Pope Francis. So I think that the relationship between the state and Al Azhar is an interesting one that we continue to see in the future. How do each manage to keep the relationship because they do have a common enemy?
Al Azhar, no matter what its own ideologies or the things that they teach there, sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat, not the Muslim Brotherhood as an idea but the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. They basically see it as a competitor, and that is the reason why you had the Grand Sheikh [of] Al Azhar participate in that grand meeting where President Morsi was deposed. At the same time they look unfavorably to the policies that Al-Sisi is pursuing and to his calls for religious revolution, so I think we are going to continue to see that in the future.
Concerning the union with Syria, I think it captures best how serious Egypt took Arab nationalism. We united with Syria from 1958 to 1961. You talk to the Syrians, my co-host who Robert mentioned, Ammar Abdulhamid, in the TV program is Syrian himself, and they would tell you that it was nothing but an Egyptian occupation. We sent our officers, headed by Abdel Hakim Amer, the Minister of Defense, and we ruled Syria as a fiefdom, and that was the main reason why the Syrians eventually kicked us out after three years and this unity failed with Syria.
This is all very depressing. I would like to consider the flipside, perhaps. What are the large Sisi projects that you mentioned, and are there any positive economic prospects for Egypt?
President Sisi, unlike Mubarak, is very interested in big things. I mean you could hardly point to something and say this is the grand achievement of Hosni Mubarak after he ruled Egypt for thirty years. President Sisi decided to do a second Suez Canal. Now, everyone said that a second Suez Canal was neither necessary nor do we have the money to spend on it, but we still did it. And they did it in one year despite the fact that it cost much more than doing it according to schedule, in three years, because he likes that. He is obsessed with the big things.
He decided that Egypt is going to reclaim 1.5 million acres in the desert, and make them agricultural land. Now, every agricultural expert in Egypt will tell you that this is impossible, that Egypt has not reclaimed 1.5 million fidans or acres in the past one hundred years, and that we cannot do that with the reality of the water shortage because of the Ethiopian dam project, but this has not stopped him. We are similarly doing a grand new capital in the desert.
So he likes the big things. He is not Mubarak. He thinks that he is sitting at the seat of giants, and in a sense, Egyptians love that idea or at least those of them who support him. The positives? I think that there has been a different message on top towards the Copts of Egypt. It has not translated into a reality in the villages in the south where Copts get attacked on a bi-weekly basis by those mobs, and result in attacks on the community. We have had about five hundred attacks on the Christian community from 2013 until today in Egypt’s villages.
But there is a different message from the top. We saw it in the opening of this grand, big cathedral and the mosque on the seventh of January. We see it in his visits to the Coptic cathedral during Christmas liturgy, so I think that is a different thing.
On the economic side Sisi has been much more courageous than previous presidents in dealing with the subsidy problem, so we have seen important steps in removing parts of the subsidies that have been maintained since Nasser’s rule. He has been completely resistant for the first two or so years for any attempt to devalue the Egyptian Pound despite the fact that it was extremely overvalued, and this resulted in the complete depletion of Egypt’s foreign currency reserves until the central bank finally realized the reality and they allowed not a complete open market for the Egyptian Pound, but a more realistic price for it.
So by the time Mubarak was being removed, 6.25 Egyptian Pounds was [traded for] one dollar. By the time of Al Sisi, I think the official rate was 8 and then they [traded at] 11 [Egyptian Pounds for one U.S. Dollar], and finally they allow now at the range of 18 [Egyptian Pounds for one U.S. Dollar] to be maintained. So I think he has done important things on the subsidies. I think the devaluation was a good step.
Unfortunately, partly because of the realization of the level of employment, we have seen an expansion of the size of state employees under the Sisi regime as well as those before him, so in combination with the Field Marshall Tantawi or the military, who ruled after the  revolution, then-President Morsi and Sisi, more than one million Egyptians have been added to the state bureaucracy. That is a very problematic thing, and how are you going to maintain that in the future?
I see this pessimistic statement you said, but as an Egyptian I want to state that the Egyptians feel much better, optimistic, than you said. Even the economics reports show that there is great progress in the economic status in Egypt. Some of the secret reports, American reports, state that in 2030 Egypt will be one of the seven economic powers in the world. We see the oil, the gas, the projects are coming out in the Egyptian economy. This is a big improvement.
All of this communication, transportation, even the new project, these show a very good future for the Egyptians, who are seeing some honey, and they start to feel that with a lot of people working now in these projects, these are not bureaucratic workers. They are workers in several companies under the direction and control of the Army officers, who are controlling to be sure that everything is going as it was planned. And so, the picture is much better than you are describing, and the people in Egypt are thinking this way, most of them.
I hope so, I mean nothing would make me happier than being wrong. That is not often something that people say, but I am Egyptian. I hope the country becomes better. There is no secret U.S. report that says Egypt is going to be in the top economies. This is a report by one bank, and no one took the report seriously. No amount of gas or oil is going to change the reality of 104 million people in the land of Egypt. Even if we get the size of the oil that the Saudis have or these countries, we still have a very different size of a population.
In the economic side, I think the most [important] thing is something that you mentioned, which is the increasing role of the Egyptian military in the economy. It is problematic because many of the private companies are now suffering from this encroachment by the military, where the private companies are not allowed to play that role and the military is taking over everything. From the building of roads to the production of pasta, the Egyptian military is playing a role in every sector, [every] aspect of Egyptian life, and that is dangerous.
It is not only dangerous economically, it is dangerous because if the moment of collapse comes, if the moment of challenge [comes] – in 2011 when Mubarak was falling, people looked to the military as a unifying force in the country. Today, they no longer see the military in that form. Why? Not just because of its political role, but because they no longer see the officer as the hero of the ’73 war. They see him as the failing guy who cannot run or build a bridge. When a bridge in the south of Egypt collapses six months after the military builds it, it tells us a lot about the competence of the military, and that is a dangerous message for a population that has no other institution that could unite us, so I think that it is extremely worrisome, that role that the military is playing on the economic front.
Robert R. Reilly:
Great, Sam, thank you very much.