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02.14.11

Mohammed Atta and the Egypt Revolution

Egypt’s future was changed last week by a revolution. What would the leader of the September 11 attacks have made of the historic events in his homeland?

Hosni Mubarak resigns. The streets of Cairo fill with jubilation. Hope has been a rare commodity in recent Egyptian affairs, but it overflowed in Tahrir Square on Friday night. What happens next, what sort of government is formed, what role the people will have in its formation, what degree of democratization (if any) takes place are questions of great – even existential - weight to the 82 million people of Egypt.

Egypt with its long history and huge population is the center of gravity in the Arab world. As much as those in other, wealthier capitals are loath to admit it, the future of Islam is apt to be written there. Egyptian theorists were the first to articulate the rationale for a modern Islamist state and its surplus production of frustrated young men has provided more than its share of the Islamist army’s foot soldiers. Other Egyptians were also among the first to articulate the rationale for a modern, secular state. Which way will it go?

The United States has much less at stake here, but the questions matter in at least one important way. What effect will the society Egypt becomes have on the hopes and dreams of future generations of young Egyptians?

It has been written that Atta was somehow anti-modern, that he hated the West and its modern commercial culture. The facts of his life don’t support this.

To put the question more specifically: Imagine Mohammed Atta at Tahrir Square last week. What would Atta, the lead pilot in the September 11 attacks against the United States, have made of events in the square? Would they have altered his course?

Had these events occurred 15 years ago, rather than now, he surely would have been there. He grew up in Abdin, a cramped, faded residential quarter, barely a mile away.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Egypt’s Leaderless Revolution

Peter Beinart: America’s Proud Egypt Moment

Niall Ferguson: How Obama Blew Egypt

Full coverage of the Egypt revolution
Every man is singular, but part of a whole, too. One of the revelations after 9/11 was that the hijackers and their cohorts were not the poor and dispossessed. Far from it, they were largely middle-class. The four pilots came from well-to-do families in Beirut, Cairo, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Members of Atta’s family in particular were strivers, part of the meritocratic middle class.

His father is a lawyer; his mother came from a commercial family in the Nile Delta. His two older sisters are accomplished – a cardiologist and a Ph.D. zoologist. Atta himself was a graduate of the prestigious architecture and engineering school at Cairo University.

Atta’s father was notoriously apolitical and forbid the family any display of anything remotely activist. This extended even to barring the family from attending prayers at their local mosque, not because he was anti-religious - he seems quite devout - but because he did not want the family associated with the political opposition, which, in the years of Atta’s youth, was centered in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

It has been written that Atta was somehow anti-modern, that he hated the West and its modern commercial culture. The facts of his life don’t support this. He went abroad to Hamburg, Germany for graduate work in city planning, an occupation that generally concerns itself with the progress of people and the places in which they live. Atta certainly saw his prospective career this way. He was actively engaged in class redevelopment projects. His graduate thesis imagines a method to reinforce Islam through the design of its neighborhoods. Whatever the merits of his scholarship (and they seem slight), it was actively engaged with society.

For example, in 1995 Atta returned to Cairo for his lengthiest stay in Egypt since leaving for Germany. He and two classmates from Hamburg had a grant to study and critique a redevelopment project in Old Cairo. They were appalled by what they viewed as an ill-advised attempt to recreate the past. It was tacky mimicry, they felt. Atta’s classmates were both European. He felt embarrassed at this example of inept Egyptian planning and spoke of his desire to return to Cairo and change the way things were done. Ralph Bodenstein, one of the other students, said later that Atta made the rounds looking for work to follow his graduate studies. He was rebuffed at every turn.

“He did not belong to the network, where jobs were handed down from one generation to the next, to political allies,” Bodenstein said later.

Atta was hardly alone in being unable to find appropriate work. Egypt has built a vast, ambitious system of higher education that trains thousands of ambitious Egyptians for jobs that don’t exist. In the years that Atta attended, Cairo University alone produced a thousand engineers and architects annually.

The signal facts of Egyptian social and economic life of the past decades have been its inflexibility. Even when the economy grew, its new wealth largely was available only to those already born to it. There was very little upward mobility; generation after generation fell to the wayside.

Much of Atta’s intellectual cargo went up in flames with him and thousands of others on September 11, 2001, but we know enough about his personal history to at least speculate what Atta would have made of Tahrir Square. More to the point, what would future Mohammed Attas make of this month’s events? Quite a lot, I think. They would see a future where before there was none.

Terry McDermott is the author of Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers—Who They Were and Why They Did It and most recently of 101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory.