Egyptian Intellectual Speaks Of the Arab World's Despair
By SUSAN SACHS
NYTimes - 8 April - [C]AIRO, April 6 — Early in the morning, while most of Cairo is
asleep, Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd watches the war on television and
despairs over the path taken by the United States. Even in the gloom
of 4 a.m., this is not a normal emotion for Mr. Aboulmagd, a
sprightly man of 72 who has lived through more than his share of
revolutions, wars and international crises, yet has maintained a
marvelously sunny outlook.
"We should never lose hope," he remarked the other day from his
18th-floor law office overlooking the Nile, a room crammed with books
and brightened with paintings of sailboats on calm waters.
"Frustration is not an option."
But in truth, Mr. Aboulmagd admitted, he is just whistling in the
dark. Never have America's Arab friends, he said, felt so estranged
from the United States.
"People in Egypt and many parts of the Arab world used to love
America, and now they have a sense of being betrayed, misunderstood,
taken lightly," he said. "And when it comes to the central problem of
the Middle East — the Arab-Israeli conflict — we feel that even a
minimum of American even-handedness is missing."
Mr. Aboulmagd is one of Egypt's best-known intellectuals, a senior
aide to former President Anwar el Sadat, consultant to the United
Nations and ever-curious polymath whose interests range across the
fields of Islamic jurisprudence, comparative religions, literature,
history and commercial law.
Like many educated Egyptians of his generation, he is a man whose
views on democracy and political values were shaped by reading the
United States Constitution, the Federalist papers and the writings of
Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson.
For him the United States was a "dream," a paragon of liberal values
to be emulated by Arabs and Muslims seeking to have a voice in the
One of his daughters lived in the United States. Mr. Aboulmagd
studied there, earning a master's degree in comparative law at the
University of Michigan in 1959. He served as president of the
administrative tribunal of the World Bank in Washington. And he has
spent more than 20 years of his life working on projects aimed at
promoting dialogue between the Western, non-Muslim civilization and
the Arab-Muslim world.
Yet these days, in his opinion, something has gone terribly wrong.
"Under the present situation, I cannot think of defending the United
States," said Mr. Aboulmagd, a small man with thinning white hair who
juggles a constant stream of phone calls and invitations to speak
about modernizing the Arab world.
"I would not be listened to," he added. "To most people in this area,
the United States is the source of evil on planet earth. And whether
we like it or not, it is the Bush administration that is to blame."
When speaking of President Bush and his administration, Mr. Aboulmagd
uses words like narrow-minded, pathological, obstinate and
simplistic. The war on Iraq, he said bluntly, is the act of a "weak
person who wants to show toughness" and, quite frankly, seems
Such language from a man of Mr. Aboulmagd's stature is a warning sign
of the deep distress that has seized the Arab elite, those who preach
moderation in the face of rising Islamic radicalism and embrace
liberalism over the tired slogans of Arab nationalism.
Similar opinions can also be heard these days from wealthy Arab
businessmen, university professors, senior government officials and
Western-leaning political analysts — the people whose support could
help advance the Bush administration's professed mission: to bring
democracy to the Arab world.
Mr. Aboulmagd has a hand in just about every institution or board
that counts in Egypt, including al Azhar, the authoritative
institution of Sunni Muslim learning. He is consulted on
inter-cultural dialogue by the United Nations, the Arab League and
the European Union. He has taught law in universities in Egypt, Sudan
He is the epitome of the Arab establishment. Sprinkled throughout his
conversation are anecdotes about President Sadat and recollections of
discussions with luminaries like the United Nations general
secretary, Kofi Annan. He receives phone calls from Arab presidents
and kings. His office is filled with mementos from trips around the
world as a lecturer and consultant. An oversize Koran in a green
leather case rests on a coffee table along with a rendition of the
scales of justice in brass and alabaster.
He has devoted decades of his life and his writings to the cause of
modernizing Islamic life and promoting understanding between Muslims
Now those efforts, Mr. Aboulmagd said, have been set back by
President Bush's "exaggerated" response to the terror attacks of
Sept. 11, a response he believes only encouraged mutual enmity and
suspicion by painting Muslims and Arabs as potential enemies to be
reformed or destroyed.
"I find what is happening to be a serious setback in the endeavors of
noble people who have realized the commonalities among different
civilizations and nations," he said.
The problem, he said, is that the war on Iraq is widely seen in the
Arab world as an attack on all Arabs, meant to serve the interests of
Israel with no compensating outreach to aggrieved Arabs.
While the 1991 Persian Gulf war, under Mr. Bush's father, was waged
with the understanding that the United States would engage itself in
the search for peace, he said, this war was launched without a
parallel American effort to compel Israel to forge a genuine peace
with the Palestinians.
"The United States has played a destructive role by giving direct or
indirect green lights to the Israeli government to do what it
pleases," Mr. Aboulmagd said. "This is ruining Israel's future in the
area. And whatever, even if all the Arabs sign up, this is a truce,
this is a ceasefire, this is not peace. It is not peace. If you want
peace you must have genuine desire for peace."
If the Iraq war comes to be seen as an American war against Islam, he
added, President Bush may be partly to blame. "He believes he was
chosen by the Almighty to fulfill a Christian mission," Mr. Aboulmagd
said. "Or at least he was made to believe that by the people around
Still, at the end of three hours of discussion, he returned to an
optimistic viewpoint — a position that clearly fits his nature.
"Many people are talking about planet earth being no more a safe
place for anyone, but I am optimistic," he said. "I believe dialogue
is needed now, so we should not give in to desperation, to loss of
hope, to pessimism. Rather we should act actively and continue the
path of dialogue and the path of understanding, simply because we
cannot afford the other consequence."