US academic watches in despair as Egypt unravels

Raymond Stock “pained” to see country drifting toward lawlessness, economic collapse, religious extremism.

By OREN KESSLER
May 13, 2012 23:28
RAYMOND STOCK with Naguib Mahfouz

RAYMOND STOCK with Naguib Mahfouz 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Raymond Stock)

 
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An American academic and translator who spent two decades in Egypt writing a biography of the country’s best-known writer says he is “pained” to see the country drifting toward lawlessness, economic collapse and religious extremism.

Raymond Stock moved to Egypt in 1990 and lived there until 2010, when he was deported after writing an article in a US magazine highlighting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments by the Egyptian nominee to head the UN cultural agency. Today he lives in Michigan, awaiting permission to return to a country he fears ousted an autocratic president only to replace him with still more repressive Islamists.

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“It’s generally an Islamist direction, but not all in one channel,” he said. “There is a major wave – there are some backwashes and rivulets that are different from each other in some ways, but ultimately they are all part of the same Islamist current that has completely overwhelmed the tiny secular stream.”

Stock says he could sense Egypt’s Islamists gaining strength as early as the 1970s, but that the influence was tempered by a wave of domestic terrorism in the 1990s that cost hundred of lives and ground tourism to a halt. “Even though I saw it coming, it pained me to see more and more Islamists on the street while I was still in Egypt,” he said. “By 2010 it was apparent the Islamists had really taken off.”

“Like most everyone, I was deeply moved by the scenes of heroism and Christian-Muslim solidarity shown in the demonstrations against [president Hosni] Mubarak. But I also knew, given the growing levels of anti-Christian feeling in the country in recent decades, that this miracle wouldn’t last,” he said.

The 60-year-old academic is disparaging of the youth activists whom he believes did the Islamists’ bidding in waging the 18-day revolution that toppled Mubarak over a year ago.

“The April 6 movement which took credit for starting the revolution in the social media was itself long in league with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “When Mubarak fell, it was the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi whom the army called back to lead the victory celebration the next Friday in Tahrir. He is a man who has called upon the Muslims to complete Hitler’s work against the Jews, and that on joyous occasion, he called for jihad against Israel. At that moment, people should have realized who really owned the ‘revolution,’ and it wasn’t the liberals – it never really was.”



Stock was raised in a Catholic family in Detroit and began intensive Arabic studies as a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

After moving to Egypt he translated seven books and numerous short stories by the late Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2008 Stock earned a PhD on Mahfouz's work from the University of Pennsylvania, and he is currently working on the first full-length biography of the author for the US publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Mahfouz – whom the translator counted as a close friend until his death in 2006 – was a rare voice among Egyptian intellectuals for normalization with Israel. Today, Stock said, neither of Egypt’s two leading presidential candidates can be expected to pursue anything short of hostile relations with the Jewish state.

“Amr Moussa will go with the flow—but within certain limits.

He has repeatedly declared that if there is an Islamist parliament, he would work with it intimately.

Still, he would be much more cautious about going to war than the Islamists,” he said.

Moussa is a populist former foreign minister and Arab League chief who along with independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh is the most likely candidate to replace Mubarak.

“Moussa is not a friend of Israel, but he’s not a reckless adventurer either,” Stock said, “whereas Abol Fotouh has sounded very militant to appeal to the Salafis.”

Abol Fotouh is a former top figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, the once-banned Islamist group that took half of seats in parliamentary voting earlier this year. The 60-year-old has won the backing of several comparatively liberal non-Islamists – including the iconic young Google executive Wael Ghonim – as well as the hardline Salafi extremists who have garnered a quarter of seats in Cairo’s parliament. Egypt’s electoral board has disqualified the main hopefuls of both the Brotherhood and the Salafis, and many pious Egyptians who may have considered opting for those candidates may now switch their vote to Abol Fotouh instead.

A Pew poll released last week showed 81 percent of Egyptians voicing support for Moussa, compared to 58% for Abol Fotouh. The survey, however, was conducted between mid- March and early April, prior to Abol Fotouh’s wave of endorsements from Islamists and non- Islamists alike.

The survey was also conducted prior to Thursday’s televised presidential debate, Egypt’s first ever. Asked about relations with Israel, Moussa called for “responsible” leadership, even while acknowledging that most Egyptians view the Jewish state as an adversary.

Abol Fotouh was less diplomatic: “Israel is an enemy which is built on occupation, owns 200 nuclear warheads, doesn’t respect international decisions and attacks religious symbols.”

Stock said the Islamist candidate’s antipathy for the Jewish state is genuine: “Their hatred is sincere. But Abol Fotouh was very careful to appear even stronger on that issue than Moussa might have been. Everyone knows Moussa doesn’t like Israel – he doesn’t have to prove it.”

Moussa, 75, is a demagogic populist and longtime critic of Israel (the pop song “I Hate Israel and Love Amr Moussa” was a hit in 2001), and in 2010 became the first Arab League official to visit Gaza since Hamas took over the Strip four years prior.

Nevertheless, Stock said, the veteran diplomat has displayed a consistent pragmatism: “Moussa knows he would have to sit down and talk to the Israelis.”

By contrast, he predicted, an Abol Fotouh presidency would be far more likely to see Egypt- Israel tension escalate into confrontation.

“Abol Fotouh will sometimes sound like a liberal democrat, but he will be pushing for Shari’a and will be at a much higher pitch of rhetoric than Moussa about the Arab-Israeli problem,” he said. “He will also be less likely to restrain radicals if there were incidents at the border, which could spiral out of control.”

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has grown increasingly lawless since the fall of Mubarak, with crime, smuggling and terrorism steeply on the rise.

“The big danger between Israel and Egypt in the future is not so much that the Egyptians would immediately cancel the treaty and then go straight to war, but that they would tolerate the buildup of radical forces at the border, then act violently if Israel tries to defend itself in Egyptian territory,” he said.

In August, eight people were killed and 40 wounded in a string of attacks in southern Israel. Some of the gunmen – believed to have crossed into Israel from Sinai – had been wearing Egyptian army uniforms, and five Egyptian troops were accidentally killed when Israeli forces gave chase across the border. Shortly after, hundreds of Egyptians rushed the Israeli embassy in Cairo in protest, prompting Jerusalem to evacuate most of its diplomatic staff including the ambassador.

Months earlier, Stock had himself fallen afoul of Egyptian authorities over his article on Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, a leading candidate to head the UN cultural agency UNESCO.

In December 2010, the academic was detained overnight and deported to the United States on unspecified grounds of “security.” Egyptian authorities later said he had been expelled for “actions against the Egyptian regime” and the country’s “image.”

“To say that Farouk Hosni doesn’t much like Israel is putting it lightly,” Stock had written in Foreign Policy magazine in late 2009, citing the minister’s previous remarks denouncing the Jewish state as “inhuman” and “racist” and vowing to burn any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries.

“Also sadly true is that Hosni’s opinions about Israeli culture are par for the course among Egypt’s intelligentsia, for whom 30 years of official peace with the Jewish state, the longest of any Arab country, have done virtually nothing to moderate its rampant Judeophobia. If anything, the opposite might be true,” he wrote.

Hosni ultimately lost his bid to head UNESCO, blaming his loss on “Zionist pressures” and a conspiracy by “a group of the world’s Jews who had major influence in the elections.”

In his piece, Stock lambasted the “Egyptian literati’s generally hateful and hidebound views of Israel, which are often more virulent than those of the Egyptian public at large. To this day, Egyptian cultural figures and academics are professionally barred from contacts with Israelis. Even the faculty senate at the American University in Cairo passed a resolution urging a boycott of Israeli scholars and schools.”

Stock wrote that Egyptian intellectuals couch their hostility in pretexts of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, but that “what most of them mean is that Israel’s existence itself is the barrier to peace in the region.”

He recalled that Mahfouz had told him in the early 1990s that intellectuals who had grown up in the 1950s and 60s under the Arab nationalism of president Gamal Abdel Nasser would never accept Israel. “They imbibed hatred of Israel with their mothers’ milk” – he told him – “it is deep in their blood.”

Stock lamented that little has changed to this day.

“All along we were told, rather smugly, that the movement was entirely focused on domestic issues, like the economy and corruption. But sadly, I knew the obsession of the Egyptian Left with the Jewish State – and was not surprised that that illusion was so soon dispelled – for those who cared to see it,” he said. “In the new Egypt, especially among the young and the educated, the poison just keeps spreading. Let’s hope we find an antidote before it is too late.”

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