By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: Some causes are worth dying for. None are worth killing for. The nation’s psyche swirls in pools of anger and guilt, innocence, righteousness, contempt, remorse and sorrow. If only the euphoria could echo one year on.
Unlocking Egypt’s potential is proving harder than many had imagined. At times it’s an ideological brawl. Tempers flare. Shouting leads to fisticuffs. On occasion the guns come out. Stretcher-bearers are called. Hearts that are broken grieve inconsolably.
Would the course of events have flowed differently if what is known now was known then? What, if anything has been gained when ideas are imprisoned, dissenting voices locked away in chambers of terror and justice meted out in kangaroo courts?
If we decide to live, Albert Camus wrote as Europe picked up the pieces after World War II, it must be because we have decided that our personal existence has some positive value. If we decide to rebel, it must be because we have decided that society has positive value. It’s better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees, Camus believed.
Without the courage of rebels, Tahrir Square would be a bus stop.
A year of protest and suffering has been revealing. The voice of the revolutionary reverberates around Egypt today louder, more positive, more nuanced and more exact than before.
Rightly so. Who would have given Mubarak and his henchmen a 50/50 chance of walking free? Who would have thought the police assassins would get off scot-free? Who would imagine the army would mow down kids exercising their legal rights?
It’s chilling to reflect that Camus follows a long line of philosopher poets that dwelt on rebellion’s suffering, prophets of the tumult that was to spread and engulf the Middle East in our time. Camus said if nothing has any meaning and if we affirm no values, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.
That’s it. Chance has come at this time to giddy-up the laggards. For all the sounding off, democracy is not making as much progress as it should. It’s being blocked head on and shunted down alleys on a road to nowhere. Many’s the day democracy seems to be stumped.
The old guard’s reliance on force to snuff out the Arab Spring is a gross miscalculation. It’s not a replay of the Springtime of the Peoples in 1848 when hundreds of thousands of Europeans rose up from Paris to Milan, from Prussia across the Austrian and Hapsburg empires only to be brutally massacred.
The tensions and pressures are similar. Cairo expands by 50,000 hungry mouths each month much as Berlin, for example, grew at the time from 200,000 to 500,000 in less than 10 years. Cramped conditions, pressure on wages, inflation, not enough jobs to go round are as bad now as they were in Europe then.
Revolutionary forces rose up through France, Germany, Italy and Austria. Their surge of discontent was aided by the advent of daily newspapers in the same way the internet helped the Arab Spring explode. But by winter much was the same as before though one or two rapscallions were overthrown.
That’s the disillusionment democracy’s standard bearers have to overcome in Egypt.
Revolutions don’t come out of the blue. Before the French Revolution of 1789, rebels were testing the old order: Peasant uprising in Galecia (now Ukraine), German hunger marches, Italians demonstrating against a hated Pope.
Egypt’s outcome may not seem promising at this moment. The absolutists stick their fingers in one leak after another to halt progress. They’re so used to lining their own pockets they’ve forgotten it’s a crime. Neither the government nor the justice system seems overly concerned to repatriate billions and bullion owed to the peasantry as much as to the exchequer. Let alone haul the thieves back.
Egypt’s new parliament is an opportunity for the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood to affirm its election promises not to tinker with the day-to-day freedoms Egyptians enjoy. I have my doubts they will be able to keep those promises once the Salafis get hold of a microphone. In the election the Brotherhood answered questions citing the Quran. It’s going to be tough to rebut the Salafis in parliament.
Look what happened elsewhere: Across Africa in the 60s, in Cyprus, Algeria and Afghanistan, most of Latin America, in Chechnya and in Northern Ireland. Societies claimed their birthright and then were plunged into sectarian and republican strife.
Northern Ireland is a classic case. The ultra-conservatives came from nowhere to rule the land. Like the Salafis they congregated in their own church to challenge the status quo. The Republicans split, some motivated by Mao Zedong’s little Red Book (1964): Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
The Provisionals ran the old hands out of town. A civil war in all but name engulfed Northern Ireland for 40 years. Who won? The extremists. They run everything these days, as they do in tin pot dictatorships across Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
Is that what the Islamists and the military want, a bedraggled Garden of Eden full of weeds, broken down shacks and doddering old men pottering about?
The elections unearthed an intolerant, extremist brand of Islamism that wasn’t foreseen. In time the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will be pressured to the right. There isn’t a smidgen of liberalism in their policies. Their economic plan is derelict. It calls for borrowing foreign money, cutting public spending and lending to start-ups. The truth is the politicians haven’t a clue what to do to fix up their mess.
That’s where the youth who began the rebellion against graft and corruption have their chance. So have the trade unions that supported them with their claims for better pay and conditions and the women from all over Egypt. They are the heroes.
Instead of bland calls for freedom, justice and democracy the veracious voice of the revolution should rise above the swell in this week of commemorating those who died for a cause as old as Adam and Eve — the right for freedom of choice.
Those who wish to claim their patrimony should approach the shrines in Tahrir Square and beyond with commitments to resolve the impasse.
They may not have much of a voice inside the parliament. But where they are actually heard, on the street and across the worldwide web, their voices can drown out the naysayers.
Political labels count for naught in a chorus. Join hands and rejoice in what has been accomplished. Proclaim the truth.
Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth — William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning American novelist and poet, one of the 20th Century’s most influential thinkers.
Justice must not be denied.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.