By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: Apt lines from The Phoenix. Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled, made nothing? If not, you will never really change. The phoenix renews her youth only when she is burnt down to hot and flocculent ash.
Approaching January 25 prods sober reflection. Martyrs are in our everyday vocabulary. Lives lost. Youth blinded. Agile lamed. Love snuffed out. Dreams beaten. All scarred.
Was D.H. Lawrence right? Then the small stirring of a new small bub in the nest with strands of down like floating ash shows that she is renewing her youth like the eagle, immortal bird.
Perhaps. Or is a cuckoo in the nest?
At times it’s easy to lapse into Samuel Huntington’s trap; to accept humankind’s destiny is predetermined by insurmountable cultural chasms. That I, born in the West, cannot assimilate with my Egyptian neighbors, my colleagues — these people next to me on the bus; those people hurrying home, like me, out of the cold to a hot pot of tea, warm buttered toast and honey and an extra blanket on the bed.
Huntington’s assertion is absurd, that the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics; the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
When I go for my check-up at the doctor’s I put every ounce of my trust in a nurse sticking me with a needle as I do with people whose belief says I shouldn’t receive interest on what little capital I have in the bank yet allow a computer to do just that. Just as I do when I dig my teeth into a watermelon handed me by the barrow boy at the end of my street on an excruciatingly hot afternoon.
Just as westerners and Egyptians do in Europe and the Americas because all of those interactions are conducted every day. They’re so commonplace nobody gives them a second thought.
Britain’s National Health Service would fall apart without immigrant doctors and nurses. The finest include Egyptians. Just as my wonderful GP in Mohandiseen says he received the best training courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in London.
The Clash of Civilizations is a flawed hypothesis. It’s an egghead’s idiotic idea, a nifty title to sell a book. It resonates in Egypt because the military commanders ache for recognition and superiority. They mislabel their misdemeanors sabotage by foreign influences, implying dark deeds by dastardly disrupters.
That’s the military mind for you. They want to divert attention from their own foibles. Anyone captured in a pair of binoculars is suspect, preferably anyone who speaks a different language. It’s as racist as a Cockney shouting Arab as a term of abuse. You’ll hear that in London and for that matter in any cosmopolitan city. It’s the voice of ignorance or even the voice of fear. Or perhaps the voice of fearful ignorance.
When my uncle came home from serving in the Kings Regiment in North Africa after World War II a new phrase entered our family’s vocabulary. My mother would caution as I ran out of the backdoor for a fresh loaf of bread for tea: Don’t be ‘gyped’ meaning: Check the change you get. Neither she nor me knew the etymology. We spoke out of ignorance, not malice.
Huntingdon’s critics denigrate his Clash of Civilizations. They point to the rise of Islamic caliphates and Ottoman rule during Roman rule. They say it wasn’t to do with religion. It had everything to do with politics and the assertion of a culture that happened to be Islamic opposed to a culture that happened to be Christian.
As people prepare for January 25 it seems to me there are specific considerations to be taken into account. Is the date symbolic? Does it mark a historic change? Should it be ignored? The answer is No to each.
An uprising that had been planned for years began on January 25 and took a military coup d’état to get rid of Mubarak. It beggars belief that Mubarak didn’t impose terms. I don’t know what they were or whether the dealers welched on it. What I do know is that a man in a double-breasted worsted suit was replaced by a man in a military uniform who until then had enjoyed being seen with the man in the suit.
Powerful ministers fled the country, some laden with gold and millions of pounds. Powerful generals took over running enterprises that yield gold and millions of pounds.
What of freedom, justice and liberty? Nothing was achieved. Thousands were locked up. Justice is absent in the secretive courts that pervade a secretive society. Liberty throwing off the shackles of despotism isn’t even a glint in the nation’s eye.
Should January 25 be ignored? Certainly not. Neither should it be a National Day designated by SCAF as an opportunity to decorate themselves with medals and to hire professional singers and dancers to cavort around.
They shouldn’t be allowed to convert Tahrir Square into a Strictly Come Dancing stage. It’s a grotesque sacrilege of a shrine. SCAF’s ill-advised leaders seem to harbor a notion that people will forgive and forget.
The military has no shame. But people can display their dignity, rich or poor, high or low. January 25 is an opportunity to assemble in memoriam to those who fell.
More pointedly it is an opportunity to reignite the joy of togetherness. It’s an opportunity to show, as Egypt’s women did, unity is more piercing than bullets; that sweet choruses disarm shield-wielding men and melt the hearts of the woebegone.
The reason for marking the beginning of Egypt’s march to democracy is to renew commitments never truly fulfilled in the rush that followed January 25.
There is no victory in the result. Islamists in cahoots with the military gives the military a higher blessing than Mubarak ever could. It’s a step away from religious dictatorship.
Men in armored trucks, others kitted out with staves and guns are not courageous. They’re indentured thugs sent to cajole and bully. Politicians who hide behind religious tracts are cowards in the face of democracy. They’re ideologically bankrupt and orally suspect. Mark Twain said it’s curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.
Picking up where January 25 left off is harder than at first.
For more than a century black American women refused to bow to white harassment. Rosa Parks stayed put in her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955. Twelve years before, the same bus driver, James Blake ordered Rosa off the bus in Cleveland Avenue and drove off leaving her to walk home in the rain.
Rosa Parks lived to the age of 92 and died in 2005, three years short of seeing the first African American become president, but wise enough to know her steadfastness had made it possible.
Why go to Tahrir Square next week?
To restore hope.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.