The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul
Can there be an Arab world without Egypt?
Can there be an Arab world without Egypt? Egypt is a centerpiece of that world; its diplomatic defection raises awesome geopolitical and cultural problems. Other Arabs may shout and call for sanctions, but what are they to do without a society that, for all its problems, remains the heart of the Arab-Muslim order? Likewise, what are the prospects for an Egypt alienated from her Arab habitat? Will Egypt's American connection payoff and sustain her in the short run? Will it bring other Arab states around, or will it deepen the crisis of the Egyptian order, pushing Egypt's isolation beyond tolerable economic and cultural limits?
Can there be an Arab world without Egypt? Egypt is a centerpiece of that world; its diplomatic defection raises awesome geopolitical and cultural problems. Other Arabs may shout and call for sanctions, but what are they to do without a society that, for all its problems, remains the heart of the Arab-Muslim order? Likewise, what are the prospects for an Egypt alienated from her Arab habitat? Will Egypt’s American connection payoff and sustain her in the short run? Will it bring other Arab states around, or will it deepen the crisis of the Egyptian order, pushing Egypt’s isolation beyond tolerable economic and cultural limits?
The struggle for Egypt’s soul is on. On one side is Anwar El-Sadat, on the other his rivals inside and outside Egypt who want to reclaim the country and bring it back into the Arab fold. Sadat, an Egyptian diplomat now says, is a Westerner; "his dream is that his country would become part of Europe. Belonging to Europe is more important than belonging to Africa or the Arab world."
No sooner had the Iranian revolutionaries brought down the Pahlavi dynasty than they singled out Sadat’s regime as the next candidate for revolutionary overthrow. In Egypt too, they predicted, Islamic fundamentalism and native impulses would bring down a government whose leader feels more comfortable with the ways of the aliens than with those of his own world.
But Iranian categories and sensibilities must not be imposed on Egypt. The notion that national wounds and grievances produce rebellion is a simple and misleading imagery. Societies do not as often rebel as they simply try to make do. For all its seeming deviation, Sadat’s diplomacy seems to have proceeded from an accurate reading of Egyptian constraints and possibilities. Those very same forces had confronted his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, toward the end of his life and even he-the classic Egyptian rebel-had begun a painful adjustment to them. A look at recent Egyptian history may not only illuminate the past, but may also reveal something about the material with which the unfolding struggle for Egypt is being fought and about the concerns, memories and sensibilities the protagonists bring to the fight.
Egyptians have generally taken for granted their pre-eminence in the Arab system. In the first half of the twentieth century, bourgeois Egypt could rightly feel that sense of preeminence: It had a relatively developed economy and sophisticated cities: its exposure to the liberal ideas of Europe had put it decades ahead of the rest of the Arab world; its literary and cultural output far surpassed the achievements of other Arabs. And when it shifted leftward during the Nasser years. it became the Mecca of Arab radicals and progressives. Early advocates of pan-Arabism moved between Damascus and Baghdad, but the League of Arab States was headquartered in Cairo when it was founded in 1945.
But pre-eminence has its risks and costs. It creates burdensome responsibilities. The allies and dependents one acquires can limit one’s freedom and drag one into all kinds of trouble. Precious resources can be wasted without securing the gratitude of others. One ends up fighting others’ fights only to be denounced when one grows weary. Weariness has a way of rewriting history, as the emotions and interests that led to the fight are forgotten and the fights come to be seen in hindsight as selfless sacrifices for others’ dreams and in defense of others’ interests.
In the years that followed the Six-Day War of 1967, both the reality and the image of Egypt’s pre-eminence were tested-sometimes consciously and openly, sometimes in the deep recesses of the mind, where things are often more sensed than seen. The new contrasts were between Egypt’s pride and place, between her limited material resources and her unbounded psychological esteem for herself, between her old glory and her current poverty.
The Egyptian leader feels his way through the dark, takes a step, raises a storm, then rides it out on his way to the next step.
All the currents in the region battled to win Egypt over, to save her from herself or from others. The Arab radicals wanted her to become genuinely revolutionary: the Palestinians wanted her first to step aside and accept that there was a new revolution on the Arab horizon and then to commit herself and her resources to the creation of a Palestinian state. The third bid carne from Muammar Qaddafi, who offered Egypt redemption through radical fundamentalist Islam and a cure for her poverty through a union with Libya. Then there was the conservative bid by Saudi Arabia and the smaller oil states: Arab wealth was willing to help and in return it sought merely an expulsion from Egypt of the atheistic Soviet Union, a dismantling of her public sector, greater deference to Islam, an end to pan-Arabist zeal and the patience to abide by collective Arab will in diplomatic matters.
Finally, there was the regional duel of the two superpowers. For both of them, Egypt was a coveted prize and a main arena. The Soviet Union had to concede its incapacity to comprehend, let alone control, this costly and peculiar ally, while the United States moved all the way from being simply a friend of Egypt’s enemy to Sadat’s and Egypt’s "full partner." The United States had tangible interests to protect, but there were also intangibles, including its desire to be wanted and the excitement of a new frontier.
Despair and Loss
Through all this, Egypt’s path was navigated by two men — Nasser and Sadat — and there is a temptation to see their choices as idiosyncratic, personal ones. Both men have been the subject of much speculation. Nasser was a hero, a tragic figure who occupies a special place in recent Arab history; Sadat is an enigma who surprised the Arab world first with a remarkable deed in October 1973 and then with a psycho-historical shock in November 1977.
Part of Nasser no doubt died on June 5, 1967, but another part of him somehow survived for another three years at the helm, assumed the role of a resister and went on to preside over the redefinition and transformation of Nasserism. The charismatic relationship between him and the masses formed during the bright youthful days of Suez and the nonaligned movement was shattered with the 1967 defeat; another variant, born out of despair and a sense of loss, sustained him until his death. He would stay in power not as a confident, vibrant hero, but as a tragic figure, a symbol of better days, a sign of the will to resist.
Nasser’s genius and the popular need for belief — in someone, in anything — enabled him to rise above the defeat. The leader was dissociated from the defeat and invited to go beyond his political apparatus to purge the elements that had supposedly captured and undermined his revolution. Nasser’s mandate was to become purely defensive. He had to calculate how to deal with his own legacy and previous ambitions, how to shore up the popular will in the face of despair, how to absorb the frustrations and anger of youth and how to cope with the Israeli occupation, inter-Arab matters and the frustrations of international diplomacy. All this he had to do while his own health continued to falter. His own health was a metaphor for what had gone wrong — his revolution was, like him, exhausted and finished; the daring of youth had ended in tragedy — and it was an incentive to redeem himself before death caught up with him.
Egypt was Nasser’s principal arena, but he also had to worry about the wider Arab theater. The immediate motivation was to secure the economic help of the oil states; further down the road he had to check the radicalism that erupted in the fertile crescent. The first task required a deal with a former rival, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and that was negotiated by the Sudanese prime minister, Mohammad Ahmad Mahjub, during the Khartoum summit conference of August 1967. As Mahjub recalls it in his memoirs, he reportedly told Faisal that as a "noble Arab" he should refrain from killing a wounded rival, but should instead nurse him to health and offer him a choice between a duel and an understanding. The radical delegates to the Khartoum summit conference — Algeria, Iraq and the Palestine Liberation Organization — had come to the meeting expecting a fight with the conservative oil states, but now they had to face Nasser.
Nasser’s course at Khartoum was novel; it was a realistic reading of what he had at hand. He privately conceded to Mahjub and others that Egypt was on the verge of breakdown, that there were plots and schemes in the military and dissatisfaction among the population, that he was not sure he could keep things under control. Exporting revolution and supporting "progressive forces" were the luxuries of a more youthful era. The Egyptian state was face to face with its limits and it had to fight for its survival. A dialogue with the United States, he said, was hopeless. The best he could do was to set the stage for his successor, someone who might be able to initiate such a dialogue. Meanwhile, he had to keep the troubles and the doubts within Egypt from tearing it apart.
The confusions and frustrations of the country found expression in a deep generational split between the custodians of the regime on one side and the students on the other. The seemingly invincible leadership suddenly looked vulnerable and there were all kinds of demands. There were Communists on one extreme and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other: there was a world of difference between those who wanted to liberalize the economy and those who wanted to make sure that the populist gains were not deleted, between those who wanted an all-out war of national liberation and those consumed with the understandable human desire to be left alone to pursue normal lives.
In between was the bourgeoisie, whose support the regime had to bid for. Nasser understood this and he made an offer to share political power. He was willing to change the symbols and the style of the regime that had alienated them. Instead of the language of revolution, he would now speak of efficiency and science: where he had generally appealed to emotions and instincts, he would use more sober, technical language. Instead of the noise about justice and equity, he would pay homage to efficiency, productivity and work.
Together with the change in symbols went some economic concessions: If the regime could not engage in a full-scale war, it could lower the barriers on imports, bring in more cars and other consumer durables and give the middle class peasantry more incentives. A critical political decision was made after 1967 to keep private consumption at the same level. Rearmament was to be financed at the expense of the investment sector, which dropped from a high of 18 per cent of gross national product prior to the Six-Day War to a low of 13 percent in its aftermath.
This was a decision with awesome consequences for the years ahead: Consumption levels had to be maintained while the infrastructure would continue to deteriorate. The moment of reckoning was postponed; others — Russians, Arab oil states, Americans — were to help keep things from falling apart. The dependency that Nasser had found so repugnant was now to become a fact of life. The choices available to the men in command would be reduced to a choice among different backers.
The economic concessions to the middle class were one side to the regime’s response to its crisis; the war of attrition across the Suez Canal was another. Where the first sought to create a sense of normalcy and pre-empt the potential opposition of the middle class, the second was to appeal to the patriotism 6f all Egyptians. Moreover, the fight across the canal served to underline Egypt’s role as the critical Arab actor.
When the Palestinians struck out on their own in early 1968 and proclaimed the beginning of a guerrilla war of national liberation, they posed a deep psychological challenge to Egypt’s sense of pre-eminence and confronted the Egyptian leader with a set of thorny problems. For more than a decade, it had been an article of faith that the hope for doing something for the Palestinians rested on Nasser and his army: That was Egypt’s burden and role. Now Egypt stood paralyzed and ineffective, while the Palestinians were raising bright banners and offering the desperately anxious and demoralized Arab world a sign of manliness and courage. The Arabs, in their folklore a martial race fed on a diet of tales of courage and sacrifice, had come face to face with a reality that contradicted that image. At that bleak moment, Palestinian defiance and guerrilla incursions provided reassurance that all was not lost. For a while, the Palestinians were able to beat Nasser at his own game: Their communiques exaggerated their achievements; they offered grand solutions and some hope. Where he and Egypt seemed resigned to an unattractive status quo, they rejected it; while he pleaded before the world, they resorted to force. They were new and he was old; they were now the revolution and he a missed opportunity.
A master of street politics who knew the political power of images and impressions, Nasser realized that this was a fight he could easily lose and that sooner or later he had to give substance to his view that the fight with Israel was an interstate matter that required the skills and weight of regular armies. Afraid of the potential for disorder inherent in the politics of his rivals, determined to maintain the initiative in inter-Arab politics and to keep the fragile balance within Egypt itself intact, he threw the war of attrition into the equation. The enemy’s fire and punishment were preferable to domestic and Arab disorder. This was to provide an antidote to his Arab rivals’ romanticism, proof that the stable, orderly politics he represented was the Arab world’s only hope.
The need to appear modern to a Western audience erodes the base at home.
The fight across the canal was both a fight against Israel and a response to Nasser’s new rivals in the Arab world. His calculations were mostly accurate: The stiff response of Israel to the war of attrition inflicted great damage, but it bought time; it supplied proof of the will to resist. And when Israeli statements began to suggest that the aim of Israel’s deep penetration bombing was to topple the Egyptian regime and make the costs of war intolerable, that was the kind of politics that Nasser could thrive on.
Caught between the pressures of those who wanted him to negotiate and normalize a world that had been in constant turmoil and those who were fired up by the need for revenge and restoration of pride, between one superpower committed to his enemy and one that now could take him for granted. between young revolutionaries who could suddenly see that he had failed to be heretical and rebellious enough and a traditional Arab order that had gained a new lease on life after 1967, there was very little Nasser could do but try to juggle all these things. There was no longer a big project under way. Worse yet, he had lost the land in a country where ownership of land takes on obsessional overtones. Under him, a country that had been plundered. Invaded, occupied — where occupiers came and managed to stay long stretches of time — was witnessing yet another occupation.
Nasser died leaving a mixed legacy, enabling someone like Qaddafi to carry on with his own brand of Nasserism — to claim as he does on the cover of his pamphlets and books that Nasser designated him as the trustee of Arab nationalism.
But Qaddafi’s version of Nasserism and the Nasserism of the die-hard believers in West Beirut share very little with the late stage of Nasserism Egyptian-style. Qaddafi’s is more buoyant, because it is the philosophy of loud, rebellious youth sheltered from the wounds, the constraints and the traumas of the original Nasserism. It is a desert philosophy engendered by wealth. Because his baggage is light-a small population and a high income — Qaddafi can usually afford to fly as high as his imagination will take him. Nasser’s base was an impoverished, crowded land and it set limits to his expectations and possibilities — particularly in the latter part of his career. Whereas Qaddafi’s philosophy is Bedouin, Nasser’s bore the mark of a crowded, wise and cynical city that had long been used to applauding the winners, forgetting the losers and coming to terms with things it did not like.
While others outside Egypt preserved their own memory of Nasser, the people who actually lived there went on debating war and peace, civilization and religion, who won and who lost in 1967, the real intentions of the Soviet Union and so on. The same debates repeatedly took place in the higher councils. The new man at the helm, Sadat, less sure of himself and perhaps less entitled to his position, would say that there was no other choice but to fight, that it was a matter of survival: to be or not to be. But sooner or later the chatter had to end, if the Egyptian state was to remain in command at home, to redeem its standing in the Arab system, to check the appeal of Qaddafi and to challenge the detente of the superpowers and the complacency of Israel. Above all, it had to do something to resolve its own doubts about its capabilities and integrity, to open a new path. Sadat presided, but he seemed paralyzed; he needed his own great act if his own Egypt was to come into being.
The word that the Egyptians and other Arabs had used so frequently-"the battle"-had to be redeemed if their governments were to survive and it was in Egypt where the psychological burden of the defeat was heaviest. The frequency with which "the battle" was invoked itself became a political issue. In January 1973 a group of the country’s most celebrated writers and intellectuals issued a public statement asking the regime not to cheapen further a word that had already "lost its power, effectiveness, as well as credibility." It said that the references to "the battle" had confused the young, whose "path was blocked" and who worked for their diplomas only to be sent to the front "where they forget what they learned and don’t find an enemy to fight." Recurring like a litany in the statements of officials and critics alike, in works of fiction as well as more conventional social discourse, was the reference to the path that had to be cleared, the corner that had to be turned. The country’s doubts had to be resolved, its fears exorcised.
In the limited war of October 1973, the leadership was to find a way out of the fog and confusions. It was a gamble, because there were bound to be new problems; but at least the oppressive stalemate was broken. The October war provided Sadat with his great act. The crossing of the Suez Canal became the license to create-or restore-his kind of Egypt, to move out of his predecessor’s shadow. It was a concrete act-a relief and a needed contrast to the endless words and scenarios. It was an answer to the skeptics in Libya, the Fertile Crescent and the oil states.
The crossing was also a metaphor. Men like Mustapha Amin and Ahmad Abu al-fath, two ancien regime journalists (the first of whom was imprisoned by Nasser and the other exiled to Switzerland), used the crossing to symbolize the break between Nasser’s Egypt and Sadat’s. In Amin’s exuberant style, it was a "crossing from defeat to victory, division to unity, shame to dignity, oppression to justice, terror to security." Nasser’s Egypt stood for defeat, socialism and pan-Arabism; the new, triumphant Egypt for a "free economy," a more responsible order, an Egyptian Egypt. June’s Egypt had lost its way; October’s Egypt regained its soul. The talk of revolution vanished. The Egyptian order began its march forward — into the past.
Prominent men of letters, in fact, began to feel a nostalgia for another period of Egyptian history-the bourgeois, nationalist revolution of 1919. That revolution, wrote Tawfiq al Hakim, was the work of Egyptian society "looking for itself, resurrecting its spirit and civilization." Nasser’s revolution was made by the state; it was revolution from above, the will of one man whose socialism turned out to be a mere replacement of an old class with a new one, whose deeds were mere sound and fury and achievements nowhere to be seen. So the Egyptian revolution had come full circle: The Nasserite order had imposed a near blackout on the liberal, nationalist phase of Egyptian history. Sadat’s post-October 1973 mandate was to rediscover that phase. In it, the political archeologists saw a better, saner, more proper Egypt, a place where the right men made the decisions, where people knew and kept their place, where the state was kept at bay. (Its claims were limited. but so too was its reach into the private lives of individuals.) Where the Nasserite experiment insisted on Egypt’s "Arabism." the new order appealed to a narrower, old-fashioned patriotism.
On one level, the Egyptian-Arab disagreements over the diplomatic aftermath of the October war — the first disengagement accord, the Sinai accord, the Jerusalem initiative, Camp David — build on top of one another. One step leads to the next; the Egyptian leader feels his way through the dark, takes a step, raises a storm, then rides it out on his way to the next step. Yet there are also different assumptions about the war itself. The Egyptians fought in order to give themselves more maneuverability on the Egyptian-Israeli front, in the Arab system and between the two superpowers. In their eyes, the October war was a single-shot affair, a way of breaking out of the nightmare of the 1967 defeat. The men who made Egypt’s difficult decisions in 1973 did not intend that war to be the beginning of a new, sustained, struggle with Israel or of another submission to inter-Arab politics. On the contrary, it was an extension of Nasser’s war of attrition, a way of regaining the initiative in Arab politics.
Sadat gave a due to what lay ahead in his "October Paper," published in early 1974. "The world after October 1973," he confidently observed, "is not the same as it was before." Some homage was paid to pan-Arabism and the brave Syrian "brothers," but the first and primary element in the victory, he said, was Egyptian patriotism. It was the accomplishment of an ancient, homogeneous people who had lived on the same plot of land for seven thousand years. The country had been repeatedly invaded, but it had managed to escape the tribal and sectarian divisions that plague other societies. The Egyptian state was pushing its case for a new deal in the Arab order and reminding others of its advantages: a centralized authority, a homogeneous population, an independent nationalism.
It is now clear from the memoirs and revelations of some of Sadat’s close associates that there was an urge at the time to prove Egypt’s capabilities to other Arab states, which were not going to help Egypt so long as she did not perform her role as the Arab world’s principal fighting force. That is why the first shot had to be fired and the crossing accomplished before Sadat dispatched Sayed Marei, one of his closest associates, to Saudi Arabia and the other oil states. There Marei and his delegation were to explain Egypt’s accomplishments and her needs, but not to ask for any specific sums of money; others had to confront their obligations.
The poignant questions in these meetings were how to calculate the value of Egyptian sacrifices; how to reconcile Egypt’s grim and terrifying war with the demand of Faisal and others for a longer and more substantial war; and how to calculate the balance between Saudi Arabia’s $400 million contribution and Egypt’s human sacrifice. Such questions acquired greater salience after the guns fell silent and the diplomacy began.
War, says one Egyptian diplomat versed in inter-Arab affairs, is a "spectator sport." Having helped subsidize the war, the other Arabs wanted a longer one; they believed the October war was but one battle in a sustained military encounter. But the Egyptian elites viewed it as a way of regaining honor, opening up new possibilities and horizons and setting straight the pecking order in the Arab world. What the Egyptian decision makers dreaded most was another stalemate, but that was precisely what the war had produced. A still more intractable stalemate-and probably another war-loomed on the horizon, if Egypt were to try for a collective bargain.
Sadat reasoned that Egypt had enough weight to get its own terms and that was what he opted for. He could have done otherwise. For example, he could have provided the true facts about the October war, conceding that the Israelis had crossed to the other side of the canal and that he needed Henry Kissinger’s mediation to save Egypt’s Third Army. But Sadat and others in the Egyptian leadership had experienced the trauma and the shock of the 1967 defeat. It would have been difficult for them to concede that the battle-for which Egypt waited so long and prepared so diligently–had an unfavorable outcome. The national pride of the society, the maneuverability of the state and Sadat’s leadership were all at stake. The October war was his war, the source of his legitimacy, a chance to be something more than Nasser’s accidental successor.
As the October war took on almost mythical dimensions, Sadat was called upon to make good on his promise of peace and prosperity. Sadat’s new order entailed territorial concessions from Israel, help and sympathy from the United States, acquiescence on the part of the oil states and the cooperation of Jordan. He believed that Syria had no place to go and would be forced to play on his terms and that Saudi Arabia’s innate conservatism and its links to the United States would force it to go along. This was obviously a tall order, which required the cooperation of many uncontrolled players. But if some of Sadat’s subsequent troubles were beyond his reach-he could not deliver the Saudis and Kuwait, or force Jordan and Syria to see matters his way–many other problems were caused by his style.
Sadat’s preference for what he proudly called his "electric-shock diplomacy" presented others in the Arab system with serious dilemmas. Operating from a belief in Egypt’s centrality to the Arab world, he tended to underestimate the resources of others: sitting at the helm of a stable polity, he underestimated the troubles of other rulers who presided over countries more difficult to govern. Syrian President Hafez Al Assad, for example, as a member of a minority group governing a volatile country, could not take the same gambles and political risks as Sadat. From Cairo, Sadat could take a relaxed view of Lebanon’s troubles and Palestinian radicalism. But for Assad the stakes in Lebanon, his next-door neighbor, were different. He was caught between the sympathy of Syria’s Sunni majority for the Muslim-Palestinian-Leftist alliance and his own fear that a victory by that alliance would trigger an Israeli intervention. Assad had to prove, at least to his own population, that he was shackling the Palestinians in order to enhance the Palestinian cause by ridding it of its extremism, that he was helping prevent a radical Lebanese regime that might drag Syria into an untimely war with Israel. That is why Assad could not go as far as Sadat and why he dissociated himself from Sadat’s journey.
Egyptian patriotism, Sadat-style, was quick to respond and put Syria beyond the pale of civilized humanity. The brave Syrian brothers of October 1973 now became dispensable; they had never been understood or appreciated by the average Egyptian anyway. Damascus was far away, its politics and ways not easily comprehended in Egyptian categories. In the conservative Egyptian view, Syria’s politics — not to mention those of Libya and Iraq — were a whirlwind of blood and violence. "They are nothing," said the Egyptian daily Al Akhbar of those three countries, implying that they were more like insane asylums than modern states. By contrast, in this official imagery, Egypt’s stability makes it the oasis of the area.
Dispensing with Syria and Iraq was a relatively easy matter. But the impasse with Saudi Arabia was more problematic, if only because the financial stakes for Egypt were considerable. Sadat had assigned Saudi Arabia the role of financing his new order: He assumed that Saudi Arabia would accept the shift of his country’s role from that of the Arab world’s military force to its cultural and economic oasis. But the Saudis were not interested in turning Egypt into a viable economic entity, even if that was within the realm of the possible. Egypt’s demographic weight is awesome, while Saudi Arabia is a sparsely populated society that must worry about the ambitions and claims of its neighbors. In Saudi Arabia’s scheme of things, the Egyptian decision maker could move on his own, so long as he stayed within the overall Arab consensus. The Egyptians’ urge to break out and do things on their own was precisely what Saudi Arabia did not want.
The contrast between Saudi Arabia’s tribal ways and Sadat’s preference for dramatic solo performances goes a long way toward explaining Egyptian-Saudi troubles. Sadat’s irreverence toward the accepted ways, his daring to do the unthinkable in going to Jerusalem, could only offend the conservative sensibilities of a tribal society that sets strict limits on social behavior. Like a tribe, the Saudis generally wait for members who go astray to return to the fold. When they participated in the Baghdad summit in late 1978, it appeared that they had lost hope. Sadat was lost for good as a brother; his ways had become too eccentric for a world where innovation is prohibited.
In Egypt’s turn to the West, other Arabs could see how short-lived was the thought that the Arab world had become an autonomous center of power.
There were also important new differences in the Egyptians’ and the Saudis’ perceptions of each other. To the Saudis, Egypt was a bottomless pit, a lethargic, scarred country unable to win a war or to stick to it. The Egyptians, on the other hand, felt the pride of the great city, the traditional urban contempt for the men of the desert. For all the romantic talk of rural values and the mystique of the desert, Muslim Arabs have mostly been firm believers in the supremacy of the city. The desert appeals to Westerners; the Arabs’ romance is with the city. The hostility of, say, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge toward Phnom Penh as a soulless transplant of the West does not really find a powerful echo in the Arab-Muslim order. Some of that hostility can be sensed in Qaddafi’s sermons about Cairo’s nightclubs and her unveiled, liberated women; but Islam has traditionally been a religion of the city and Cairo was built by Islam.
Cairenes have long held the notion that they could reconcile the outside world and the world of Islam. During the heyday of liberal Egypt’s experiment, Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula could be looked on with condescension. Nasser’s Egypt had the same low opinion of the Saudi state; in that case, it was a radical regime patronizing a decadent, feudal one, but the message was the same. Nations persist in their memories and illusions. Whatever ideas others may have, the Egyptians maintain that Cairo is the capital of the Arab-Muslim order.
Beyond the confines of diplomacy and politics, two popular concerns gave Egypt’s diplomatic defection and its battle with the oil states personal meaning and drama. In a country where land is scarce and valuable, concern was developing over real estate acquisitions by rich Arabs; there was a feeling that outside Arab capital was making Egyptians strangers in their own land. There was also widespread discontent over the fact that Cairo had become the Bangkok of the Arab world, that outside Arab capital was violating Egypt’s honor and integrity and its women. The land acquisitions and the issue of sexual liberties were serious and sensitive matters. The leadership did not have to dwell on these themes; they were there in the country’s popular films and magazines and in Egypt’s endless chatter. Arab wealth challenged Egypt’s sense of self: Possessed by arriviste Bedouins, it underlined the cruelty of a world that had gone awry.
Sadat was to ride these sentiments all the way to Jerusalem and then to exploit them in the aftermath of his deed. His initiative administered a psycho-historical shock to other Arabs. In its wake they would ask questions about him as an individual, but also about Egypt. Was his trip an act of surrender, an expression of his own and his country’s despair? Or was it, as he himself claimed, an initiation of the Arabs into the modern world of states? Was his act the whim of an isolated sultan or an expression of Egypt’s will? Was not his embrace of the West proof of his own alienation from the Arab world and, by implication, of his country’s as well? There were doubts about Egypt’s integrity, doubts to which no Egyptians are insensitive.
What was the dividing line between Sadat’s own transgressions and Egypt’s will? The other Arabs could go through the motions of distinguishing between their denunciation of Sadat and their professed respect for the Egyptian people. But the distinction was difficult to make in practice and many suspected that Sadat was not a solitary individual, that he really did represent Egypt’s inner self, her willingness to set aside the sacred struggle and accept a separate peace. The political gap that separated the Sadat regime from the rest of the Arab world has cultural and psychological foundations. Whatever his faults and shortcomings as a political operator, Sadat fully grasped this and exploited it: The allegedly weak country with its compromised capital and its patient, obedient peasantry would no longer fight and bleed for others; it had other options. Such, at any rate, was its president’s gamble.
The Yearning for the West
Two themes have battled one another in recent Egyptian history: the push of the desert and the pull of the Mediterranean. The first suggests a shared destiny with other Muslim Arabs and provides the raw material for recent pan-Arab ambitions. The second theme is the product of Egypt’s relatively early initiation into the world system, dragged as she was into the modern economy in the mid-nineteenth century. The first was Nasser’s universe: the second is Sadat’s.
The yearning for the West by Sadat’s Egypt is a complex psychological and historical phenomenon: It can be located in today’s currents and needs and in the personality of the ruler, but it has a history. So, too, does the resistance to it. The issue of a separate peace was bound to become a civilizational and cultural issue. But Sadat’s style and choices aggravated the crisis. Isolated from his brethren, he slipped into greater dependence on his American partner. This gave a new lease on life to cultural pretensions that had once been vanquished; it revived old fears and doubts about the powerful aliens and their ways, about the integrity of the culture and its wholeness. At the heart of the crisis lay the explosive problem of cultural dualism between an Oriental interior and a modern wrapping, between a traditional culture below and more modern sectors on top. Whether he meant it or not, Sadat became heir to a particular legacy, lured by its temptations. So did his critics at home; in brandishing what they thought to be new weapons, they discovered that the issues and the weapons were old indeed.
There is no doubt that Sadat underwent a profound psychological transformation. The man who in the early 1950s had complained to an American journalist that "the West hates the Arabs because they think we’re Negroes" became one of America’s most popular figures; the man who once hated the West moved to a full partnership with the United States, offering his society as a sentry for a barbarian region in turmoil. Sadat, a peasant from the small dusty village of Mit Abu al Qom, exceeded his own expectations and traveled far beyond the bounds of his world; he became more comfortable with American television reporters and French visitors than with former colleagues and friends.
To see his poor village is to come to terms with the drama and, ultimately, with the limits and the tragedy of Anwar El-Sadat’s epic. The personal dimension is undeniably grand-from Mit Abu al Qom to the Nobel Peace Prize; from a lower middle class agrarian base in the Nile Delta to the world as his theater. This has all seduced and propelled Sadat. He himself speaks of it with genuine astonishment at times. In setting aside for his village the royalties of his autobiography and the stipend of the Nobel award — altogether an estimated million dollars — he marveled about Allah’s will and the hand of fate. He would be what every Egyptian boy playing on the banks of the Nile would dream of being; he would go places for them. Everyman becomes king.
But there is a public tragedy in all this. Sadat’s dream of turning his impoverished village into a replica of the quaint English countryside-he insists that the houses built with his contribution be painted white-is an escape from Egypt’s troubles. That the small miracle is furthermore to be accomplished by Egypt’s biggest tycoon, Uthman Ahmad Uthman (a relative of Sadat and a man whose financial dealings have become a shorthand for corruption and inequity) conveys the futility of the act, an incapacity to see and solve problems. But for Sadat, goodness is in the village, where life goes on as before, where men scratch out a living and do it with dignity.
The myth of the village is connected with Sadat’s courtship of the West. One even wonders whether Mit Abu al Qom was dusted off for the sake of the West. It has no mystique for a Saudi or a Kuwaiti or an urban Palestinian or Lebanese. When they go to Egypt, they go for the lights of Cairo or for the civility and climate of Alexandria; the rest of Egypt is unknown to them. The people who now go to Mit Abu al Qom to find Sadat’s roots on the banks of the Nile are Germans, French and Americans. Arabs simply would not be moved or taken in by the myth of the village.
The American connection provides Sadat economic protection and it also gives him a sense of psychological mobility. Egypt is a world with strict normative, economic and ecological limits. Sadat’s discovery of America at a late stage in his life is an exciting personal saga. The world’s mightiest power — and a civilized one at that — becomes Egypt’s full partner. Libya, Syriaand Iraq fade into cosmic insignificance, while Egypt and her president break out in grand style. "Dr. Henry" becomes the president’s friend; Jimmy Carter becomes a brother. The rich, civilized power from afar will see to it that Egypt pulls through. The United States has both money and civilization, a reassuring contrast to neighbors who have plenty of the former but none of the latter. Sadat’s success in courting America becomes Egypt’s success. As for independence, it is a relative thing in today’s world anyway.
Besides, if Egypt had to choose between the patronage and conditions of the United States on the one hand and those of the oil states on the other, then surely the American way is more appealing and less offensive to dignity and pride. Meanwhile, the donors have no choice but to continue to give. Egypt’s and Sadat’s weaknesses become a source of power; both must be propped up if civility and order in the region are to have a chance. The collapse of Iran made the Egyptian case even more compelling for the United States; an oasis of stability must be kept afloat if the area is not to sink into further barbarism and disorder.
Yet the Mediterranean pull has always generated a cross-current. The language of opposition may have differed from time to time, but there is a common denominator: Islam, Arabism and authenticity. The tragedy of liberal nationalism was its incapacity to stay at home with its own world, to keep a safe and respectable distance from the West. This may have something to do with the poor resource base, but it also relates to cultural dependency. What begins as a dialogue with the West ends in embrace and surrender. Then the legitimacy vanishes and the adherents are exposed as collaborators. The need to appear modern to a Western audience erodes the base at home; the voice of authenticity inevitably re-emerges to redeem self and pride. The failure of liberal nationalism and its incapacity to build an autonomous liberal path brought about the free officers’ revolt in 1952-a local breed hostile to Europe. Whether Sadat’s order will fall before the same wave remains to be seen.
The Indigenous Path
The view that Egypt belongs to the world of Islam remains strong. It moves scores of pious young men and women at the nation’s universities; for them, it provides an answer to the complicated problems of a stalemated society. As always, its message is faith and integrity; its material, the failure of the dominant order on the battlefield and in solving economic and social problems. The same message can easily be adapted to new problems — peace, economic crises, the corruption of public officials, among others. This movement’s pamphlets and magazines, some underground and some officially tolerated, offer a refreshing contrast to the banality and hypocrisy of Egypt’s official media. They may offer easy solutions, relying on faith instead of detail, but they also tell the truth about treaties, diplomacy and the corruption of officials.
The fundamentalist call has resonance because it invites men to participate, an invitation that contrasts with the official political culture, which reduces citizens to spectators and asks them to leave everything to the rulers. At a time when people are confused and lost and the future is uncertain, Islamic fundamentalism connects them to a tradition that reduces their bewilderment. The Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition to Camp David was phrased in a familiar idiom: the struggle of the Prophet, the integrity of Islam, the need for sacrifice, the clash between the world of Islam and the Jews, who will "never abandon their belief that they are God’s chosen people." Sadat’s whole design, the Brotherhood said, was a false one. It accepts a "Middle Eastern order." and the Middle East is a repugnant concept to Muslim sensibilities, because it defines the Muslim world in relation to the West. One cannot negotiate with the intruder and surrender historical rights; some conflicts cannot be wished away. Egypt was invaded beforeand she must now again resort to resistance. All the rulers have to do is abandon their fancy palaces, their expensive cars, and their pretensions. Islam taught men to struggle and die for worthwhile causesand the believers must rediscover the will to persevere, the capacity for patience.
Muslim fundamentalism may never carry the day in Egypt. The society may have gone beyond the puritanism of the fundamentalists and reached the point of no return. But the importance and the power of Muslim fundamentalism may lie in its ability to destabilize a regime, to help bring it down by denying it the religious cover that remains an important source of political power. Here the 1952 Egyptian revolution is instructive. The Muslim Brotherhood helped topple the monarchy, but it soon became the victim and target of the new regime. Fundamentalism supplies the fervor, some of the committed manpowerand the willingness to take the risks of political action. But other characters — more capable of making compromises and less likely to frighten modernized young people — inherit the postrevolutionary world.
This is where Muslim fundamentalism intersects with the surviving remnants of Nasserism and pan-Arabism in Egypt. While in power, Nasser was brutal in his persecution of the active, militant Brotherhood. But Nasser’s heirs and the Brotherhood share one thing in common: They are part of the indigenous path. Faced with one another, they discover all the things that separate them; faced with the adherents of the Mediterranean path, they can see what they have in common. The fundamentalists see in that path a betrayal of Islam, while the Nasserites object on more secular, nationalist grounds; but both believe that the Mediterranean temptation is a mirage. For all his faults, Nasser remained at home in Egypt. To be sure, his ambitions exceeded his country’s means; he made more than his share of errors, but he was never a mimic man. Unlike Sadat, he lived and entertained simply; he kept his wife away from the spotlight. These images are powerful in a Muslim society. Gaps between the ruler and the ruled are expected and tolerated, but gaps in culture have a way of compromising the ruler and suggesting that he left his world behind in search of the lights and the glamor of the West. Ayatollah Khomeini’s indictment of the shah was not so much the shah’s excessive power; it was his alienness, his distance from popular culture and religion.
The Egyptian Nasserites’ view, like that of Sadat, proceeds from the centrality and weight of Cairo. But they have a different Cairo in mind. As Mohamed Heikal puts it in a book-length discourse on the Sadat peace initiative, the Cairo that decides on matters of war and peace is the one that embodies the "pan-Arab idea, current, historical movement," Cairo, defined as the capital of the Egyptian state, is a diminished entity. This is why Sadat’ s policy is faulted by Heikal: "Egypt is where the harvest of Arab history comes into focus."
It diminished Egypt; it turned her into a poor, vulnerable state on the banks of the Nile. Amputated, cut off from the rest of the Arab world. she stood vulnerable and exposed. The old European dream of isolating Egypt was accomplished. This left the Arab world confused and without its balancer, but it also left Egypt prey to the schemes and offers of others.
How did this come to pass? In the Nasserite view, expressed by Heikal, the Egyptian leadership should have explained to its population that Egypt was a party to the Arab-Israeli conflict, that she was not fighting others’ wars and there were serious geopolitical issues involved. Furthermore. Nasser and Nasserism mistakenly took Egypt’s Arabism for granted. Where a separate national identity existed, as it did in Egypt, there should have been a more vigorous mass-based Arabization of Egypt. Finally, the absence of a fair inter-Arab division of labor created resentment and disillusionment in Egypt and the other confrontation states. Other reasons include the harsh treatment of Egypt by other Arabs after 1967, including their constant hammering at the worthiness of the Egyptian experiment. This helped foster despair in Egypt and the Sadat diplomacy was the logical product of such despair. If nothing made sense, if Egypt’s revolution had been unauthentic (as the Arab Left had asserted)and if its socialism was a failed state capitalism, then what other course could there be but to seek the safety of peace — any peace — any terms?
But this too shall pass, or so the Nasserites maintain. The Mediterranean temptation will blow over and Egypt will be reclaimed by its authentic habitat. Nasser’s three circles-the Arab, the Islamicand the African-will prevail once again. Their hope evokes an image of Egypt larger than the riverbed it inhabits: and in the aftermath of Iran’s troubles, their view rests on faith in the ability of the culture and geography to assert themselves. Bint al Shati, the pen name of a distinguished woman writer, recalled Lebanon’s dream and fate. The Lebanese too wanted to be safe hotel keepers, a neutral Mediterranean nation. But Lebanon’s collapse was proof that nations that play with their identity and deviate from their habitat play with fire. Others warned that Egypt could not go it alone and lamented the incapacity of the Egyptian pendulum to stop in the middle. Why must cycles of pan-Arabism alternate with isolationist periods, love affairs with the West be followed by calls to revolt and authenticity?
The Arab Predicament
Egypt is where the harvest of Arab history comes into focus. The way other Arabs have recently turned away from Egypt indicates the depth of the Arab predicament in the modern world. Arabs look at Egypt and they do not like what they see: It is not revolutionary enough, or religious and austere enough, or militant enough and so on. There is in what they say a judgment on things Egyptian, but there is also a wider judgment about the state of Arab civilization.
The Arabs have desperately wanted to ignore their own fragmentation. But Egypt provides the harsh confirmation of Arab disintegration that so many try to avoid. Egypt’s leader was more daring in his break with pan-Arabism than anyone else had ever been and he did his deed without due regard to formalities and appearances. Egypt’s intellectuals were the ones most willing to voice their doubts about Arabism. (Others surely entertained such doubts. but they kept them to themselves.) Egypt was the biggest piece; its breakaway in full daylight, symbolized by Sadat’s short flight to Jerusalem, challenged the dogma of unity. There was bloodshed in Lebanon, poverty and "treason" in Egypt, wealth in the oil states and Algeria was far away. The Arabs wanted to persist in their unionist myths. The intellectuals wanted to engage in the same polemics; the leaders had spoken the language of Arabism for so long that it was difficult for them to change to a new idiom. Egypt forced on all of them an encounter with their own disparateness. The storm over Sadat’s policy was a fight to keep the myth alive.
Likewise. Egypt’s sheer poverty at a moment when Arab wealth had reached its height epitomized the limits — and for many, the selfishness — of Arab wealth. In Egypt’s turn to the West, other Arabs could see how short-lived was the thought that the Arab world had become an autonomous center of power. Other Arab capitals, such as Baghdad and Damascus, were more discreet in their dealings with the West, more inaccessible and remote. The oil states could deal with the West from a position of power and affluence, or so they thought. Cairo lacked the cultural distance and the militant pride of Baghdad and Damascus: it lacked the money of the oil states. She was all too willing to embrace and surrender.
In their disillusionment with Egypt, the Arabs express their disillusionment with the present. Egypt provided the serious and somber reminder that all was not well, that things were falling apart. This larger issue is, after all, something for the other Arabs to settle. Egypt cannot be the laboratory for others’ experiments; she cannot be bigger than herself, for in many ways she remains a hemmed-in riverbed on the Nile.
The absolution of Egypt from responsibility for the greater problems of the Arab world helps bring Egypt into a more honest encounter with her own problems and responsibilities. Egypt’s revolt against Arabism — her search for herself, the vision of a great imagined past — is in part frustration and scapegoating. It is an escape from the serious task of putting together a shattered world, reviving a desperate economy, injecting a sluggish bureaucracy with mission, purpose and skills. The great imagined past is a mirage; it can supply inspiration in moments of doubt, but it can also become a narcotic, a way of avoiding coming to terms with the society’s troubles, of ignoring its stalemate. The July revolution of 1952 is a faded memory. The story of how the young officers overthrew the monarchy has been told over and over again, embellished and distorted. Once upon a time it was an exciting tale, but now it has become dreadfully routine. It survives only as a tired, overworked piece of symbolism; it has become sheer incantation and no longer grips and moves.
Sadat’s symbols-the community of love, the country as family with himself as the eldest-serve the same purpose: escape and a fake harmony of interests. a curious avoidance of politics. The myth of the family serves to freeze the society without resort to outright violence. That is why Sadat formed and then dissolved political parties; opposition was tolerated so long as it did not really oppose. Sadat’s choice of language –"my army," "my party," "my sons," and "my opposition" (to refer to an opposition party that he himself set up) — reveals Egypt’s predicament and stalemate. Sadat does not seem able to move the society; the best he can do is to stay on top, to act more like royalty than like an active executive. He is beyond politics, beyond criticism.
In the midst of disorder and breakdown he maintains cool and serenity and he peddles dreams of prosperity and visions of a static order. Sycophants who flatter, play by the rules and conceal reality enjoy access and power. Those who oppose simply withhold their cooperation, but they deny the country their energy. The machinery of the state is powerful enough to stifle, but too weak to do something about Egypt’s lethargic bureaucracy, to solve the country’s crises, to check population growth, to deal with the urban nightmare. Nasser tried to move and in so doing upset the balance of the country. Sadat will keep that balance intact: no prisons; no great crusades: no ambitious, pushy bureaucrats: but no work either. There is an agreement to ignore troubles and to transcend politics. So-called troublemakers are expelled from parliament, denied access to the media and disowned by the Egyptian family. Once-lively organs have become safe and banal. The Leftist monthly AI-Talia now deals with matters of science and outer space-fitting subjects for a civilized country. Rose el Yousseff, which has a long history of hard-hitting journalism, is pacified. One recent issue carried the prediction of an astrologer for 1979: There will be peace and prosperity in the area. The shah of Iran will survive in power. More Arab countries will follow Egypt’s leadership. Massive oil discoveries will turn Egypt into a wealthy country. More civilized countries will come to Egypt’s aid and give her love and recognition. Wishes substitute for analysis and dreams for work.
Mediterranean European Egypt is no help either. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria is gone; even he could not find it on a recent nostalgic trip. What are left are large, decaying cities and poor villages. Without the human energy to do things. Egypt’s "civilization" becomes a fraudulent wrapping, a pathetic act of mimicry. Cut off from its roots, alienated from its locale, this civilization turns into a nauseating pretension. Then it awaits its death as less sophisticated, less polished sorts, claiming authenticity, push it into its grave.
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