Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Egypt: the Maspero Pogrom and the Failure of Leadership

by Steven A. Cook
October 11, 2011

Egyptian Christian woman mourns at the Coptic Hospital in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters)

If February 11, 2011 demonstrated the very best of Egypt, then October 9, 2011 demonstrated the very worst of Egypt.  The only way to describe what unfolded in front of the state television building (and subsequently Tahrir Square), where Copts were protesting over not-so-subtle official efforts to stoke sectarian tension over a church being constructed in Aswan, was an anti-Christian pogrom.  The death toll stands at 25 with 300 injured.  There have been scattered reports of soldiers and policemen injured, but by far the Copts took the brunt of the violence.  Typically, the partisans have now settled into tightly held narratives about what happened.  The military maintains that rock and knife wielding Coptic activists set upon security personnel who had no choice but to defend themselves.  Copts and those Muslims who sought to defend their fellow Egyptians tell of a different, far more harrowing story of thugs and Salafi activists attacking them for no apparent reason with the complicity of soldiers and policemen.  Both sides claim to have video proof of their accounts.

The specific rights and wrongs of this disturbing episode will be litigated on Twitter, Facebook, and Egypt’s lively talk shows, but largely to no real good or progress.  Egypt is a society that is increasingly polarized—a stunning turn from the apparent national unity of late January and the first eleven days of February.  The violence of the 9th and the lingering mistrust make a mockery of the billboards declaring “We are all Egyptians” that now dot Egypt’s roadways and buildings.   What happened?  How did the Egyptians get here?

From my vantage point (which, as I write, is at 35,000 feet and a few hundred miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia), there are three interrelated reasons for the seeming breakdown of social cohesion.

1.      The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces may hold executive power, but it has exercised precious little in the way of national leadership.  Rather than provide a clear political horizon for Egyptians, Field Marshal Tantawi prefers to issue communiqués (really trial balloons) that are then subject to an unpredictable political process that pits Egypt’s myriad social forces against each other, with the military compromising or taking sides as its interests dictate.  This has only contributed to confusion, discontent, polarization, and ultimately violence.   This does not seem to be the result of some nefarious plot—though instability could, like the Free Officers in 1954, conceivably serve the SCAF’s interests—but rather a distinct lack of strategic thinking and a fair amount of incompetence.

2.      There is no moral leadership in Egypt right now.  Liberals had hoped that Mohammed ElBaradei would play that role even before the uprising.  ElBaradei is in many ways an appealing politician, but there are big questions whether he can attract Egyptians beyond a relatively small group of liberals.  In addition, he has been cagey about getting directly involved in Egypt’s tumultuous political arena.  He seems to want to play it safe for the moment for fear of undermining his credibility by riding the news cycles, but the tweets and statements from behind the walls of Garana compound just won’t do it.  If ElBaradei wants to be the moral conscience and leader of a new political order like so many had hoped when he returned to Egypt in February 2010, he had better get more engaged before the opportunity passes him by, unless it already has.  Who else is out there?  Abdel Monem Aboul Futouh—the self proclaimed “Egyptian Erdogan?”  He is seems suspect in the eyes of many.  Selim al Awa?  Unlikely.  Ahmad Shafiq?  Moral authority?  Omar Suleiman?  Only in the wildest dream of the Israelis.  Who is the Egyptian who has the prestige across communities, political groups, social movements, and activists who can be the badly needed moral conscience necessary to midwifing a new, more decent political order?  I don’t know.

3.      Finally, the ghosts of the past regime have come back to haunt Egyptians.  Mubarak and his henchmen did not create sectarian tension, but they accentuated it for their own ends.  Mubarak and Habib al Adly did not invent the Salafist current, but they gave it succor.  Mubarak and his associates did not invent manipulation, but they made it a high art form. The former president perniciously manipulated Egyptian society, slicing and dicing it through three decades of power all in the service of perpetuating Mubarakism.  Egyptians are now paying the price for this cynicism.

In a recent piece, I was generally optimistic that Egyptians were debating openly and intensely what kind of society they want.  The recent spasm of sectarian violence has the potential to shut down that healthy development.  I hope it doesn’t.

N.B.  For those of you who may not have noticed, my book, The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square is now out (please click on the title for the book’s webpage).  You might be interested in the mini-documentary that I put together with the help of my talented colleagues from CFR’s Media department.  Please click here: Egypt’s Quest for Democracy: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.  Please let me know what you think of both the book and the video.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Dalia Elsokari

    Dear Sir,

    Whilst you touch upon some interesting points about Egypt and it’s quest for Democracy, I fear your article just skims the surface and does not go into any detail.

    You entitle it The Maspero Pogrom and The Failure of Leadership but do not discuss either point in any detail. Whilst I admit even one death is one too many, less than 30 people died – four of which were in the army and one Muslim. This was hardly organised; tragic yes but hardly a pogrom.

    You question which Egyptian has the prestige to appeal “across communities, political groups, social movements, and activists who can be the badly needed moral conscience necessary to midwifing a new, more decent political order” and say you don’t know. There are many able and highly respected candidates – some infinitely more qualified than others: Amr Moussa is one such example. Here is an eloquent, well educated and sensible speaking man who appeal across the whole Egyptian spectrum. You sweep Dr Moneim Aboul Fatouh as an “Egyptian Erdogan” but do not mention he separates his religious beliefs to politics.

    In short I would have appreciated a more fact driven article which remained loyal to its title. Unfortunately, Your article is nothing more than scaremongering and dramatisation that Coptic Christians may soon be facing persecution and Egypt has no sense of direction. You fail to offer a solution or advice about the way forward but dramatise the Maspero incident as the very worst of Egypt – sounding very much like a tabloid and not the respected journalist I was expecting to read.

  • Posted by Tom Brady

    Please don’t use the word “pogrom” to describe what happened. It has strong historical connotation and inflate and exaggerates what happened in Cairo. To be clear, what happened was terrible and should have never happened but we cannot call it a pogrom. It was a burst of violence that has come after months of provocation and agitation on the streets and which eventually led to this terrible event. A pogrom connotes that there was something organized about it. This was not the case.

  • Posted by Donna Robinson Divine

    The numbers killed in some of the pogroms against Russian Jews in late 19th-early 20th century were about sometimes a bit more than double the numbers killed in the latest violence in Egypt. So, the term does not necessarily mean large numbers of casualties. But it does mean that the cause of the violence stems from deeply held bias that is supported in one way or another by the government. What I find interesting about most of the comments in the Arab press and from people associated with journals and think tanks is the absence of terms like prejudice, intolerance. Instead, experts refer to the sectarian divide in Egypt which seems to me a way to avoid making a moral judgment on Egyptian society. But the general views of Egyptian’s Christian population are reflected in the SCAF argument that foreigners are responsible for the violence. There needs to be more honest and public self-examination if Egyptians want to lay the groundwork for a better society. It is one thing to condemn violence, but quite another to understand its causes.

  • Posted by Neil Hicks

    While I fully agree with your points one and three, I have my doubts about your second point. Is looking for the leader on the white horse the right way of seeing the Egyptian situation at present? I have my doubts, and calling into question the “moral leadership” qualities of verious Egyptian figures is probably beside the point.

    Egypt is engaged in a process with an uncertain outcome. For various reasons, and regrettably, the momentum that existed in the spring for democratic change has now dissipated. I continue to hope that it is not lost forever, and I am optimistic that a half way decent parliamentary election with a credible timetable for all the other necessary steps (the new Constiution, presidential election etc.)could rekindle that positive spirit that was palpable among many parts of Egyptian society until very recently.
    While hope is not a policy, prophecies of doom can become self-fulfilling. Things in Egypt are messy and opaque, but I would be hesitant to make sweeping judgments based on what we can barely perceive.

  • Posted by Steven Cook

    I am not quite sure what Neil’s concern is about my point number 2. I am merely pointing out Egypt’s present dearth of moral leadership. Someone who has the prestige among a broad enough cross section of society who can call for social peace an people will respond.

    In addition, if anyone who has been reading my work–including my new book–they will know that I have been saying that Egyptian politics will be uncertain and unstable for some time even as I have been downright positive about the robust debate taking place concerning Egypt’s identity. Indeed, the post links to a piece in in which I explored this issue more fully. Neil has picked the wrong target if he thinks I am the prophet of doom on Egypt.

    As for those who took issue with my use of “pogrom,” I stand by it. The fact that “only” 30 people were killed or that “we should be more careful with our words” or allegations that the violence was not organized are unconvincing.

    Thanks for reading.

  • Posted by Patrick

    This was a great analysis Steven, as usual. You are one of the very few western writers who actually understands Egypt. This was a pogrom and it was despicable. The military not only fired on its own citizens but actively incited Muslim civilians to attack Christians through the state media apparatus. The West must take a strong stance against such despicable actions, which are far worse than anything Mubarak’s regime even attempted when he was in power. U.S. aid to Egypt’s military must end now.

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