By Philip Whitfield
The cry for justice cuts the air as caustically as CS gas. Phrases dot the papers as if from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand” – Atticus Finch, the sagely white lawyer defending a wronged black.
Are we returned to the Book of Exodus: An eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot – the lex talionis: the law of retaliation? After 4,000 years creating civilisation, its cradle disgorges hellfire as ferociously as the burning brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah, then Red Sea resorts.
We’re the petrified ones this time round; dwelling on death, too washed out to switch the TV channel; etiolated: languid and limp.
The quest for justice is older than Methuselah. Who are we: accuser or accused? Witness or juryman; advocate or judge? Are we captives or free, victors or victims? Where are we: fled or abed?
The lenses on the Nile scan a minim of the panorama. The eruption has been heading this way for a lifetime: seven decades of sloth currying indolence; dispossessing Palestinians; ignoring the squalls of babes; consigning their parents to the vicissitudes of fate.
We fret when the pumps dry up, or the lights flicker. We go bananas when there’s no sliced bread on the shelves. Yet 400 million kinfolk hereabouts have neither adequate nourishment nor habitation worth calling a home. Call that justice?
Their ignorance is their undoing, not of their doing. Where did your learning come from? Like mine perhaps from a grammar school guided by a caring mum who set me up with a fry-up in the morning, lovingly provided in the hope of nurturing an inquiring mind. Cairo is emulating the warlords of my mother’s time destroying every atom of repute in their butcheries.
My choice has been to observe first hand a re-run of antediluvian history. London rioting; Irish insurrection; the debacles of Middle Eastern wars including October 1973, kidnapping in Beirut, Iran versus Iraq; the Fall of Saigon and the flight from Angola; tolerating Americans’ oversimplification and the sanctimonious tut-tutting of Europeans.
Now to observe more antagonistic communities pitting Egypt on Algeria’s course: decades of disorder then decay. The military and the Muslim Brotherhood have occluded democracy. Mourn the death of an all-embracing constitution, a president or parliament that represents the people’s bidding.
All ignore the canker festering in society, the issue politicians dare not name because they’re culpable. More than half their flock lives in poverty. A third can’t find work. Millions would give their eyeteeth for jobs so that they can get married and raise a family. They’re fed up being patronised. They yearn for a decent education to set their kids up.
Did the 30 June march for democracy give General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi a mandate? Not to unleash his sharp shooters on crowds of legitimate protesters. Did the inconvenience of taking a couple of rights and lefts to bypass the sit-ins justify a bloodbath?
Would those so quick to garland Al-Sisi eat their words? Has Al-Sisi an inkling of the scope of the misery? Ask not. Civilians aren’t his domain.
How dare the Brotherhood sanctify life dishing out AK47s? Their claim to sacerdotal pre-eminence is bogus hypocrisy. They’ve latched on to a religion, defiling its fidelity, using it as a rod to browbeat a following.
Their gunmen have as much right to kill in the name of God as the Provisional IRA had after Pope John Paul II begged them in 1979 to “turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace.”
Adly Mansour is no fool. Is he willing to be dubbed the quisling president ‘til his dying day? And the interim saps duped to serve? The mob guillotined their reputations. Surely none with an ounce of conscience will stay and stomach abasement.
In similar circumstances nations have turned to transitional justice for a way out, among them Chile, Argentina, Kenya, Rwanda, the Congo, Bosnia and Bangladesh, as has South Africa to weather the storm.
It’s complex. Judicial and non-judicial measures include truth commissions, reparations programmes and various kinds of institutional reforms. It requires humility absent in this climate.
It’s not Al-Sisi’s role to play God. It is the people’s duty to honour their faiths. Hellfire won’t bring the antagonists to their senses. Nor will eye-for-an-eye requital or the Brotherhood’s venomous spite. The liberals’ ill-conceived dalliance with the generals has cashiered their aspirations to influence, yet alone to rule.
Where to begin reconciliation? Muslims, Christians and Jews are familiar with the story of Lut and Ibrahim (Lot and Abram in Genesis) fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah under a rain of red-hot sulphur.
Lut’s wife takes a wistful look at the scene of her decadence. And is turned to stone. Is no going back the metaphor for today?
Atticus Finch would agree: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” he opined.
Philip Whitfield, formerly a BBC foreign correspondent, is Principal Partner in IDPlus LLC, a Middle East communications agency with headquarters in Cairo. Email: [email protected].