No mud. No lotus

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By Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Ever thought who thought up yin and yang, the opposites that make a whole? Hot and cold, day and night. Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) the Chinese philosopher considered a worthy life balanced humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and faithfulness.

Would that Egypt moved towards equilibrium? The revolution has opened up chasms of disagreement. I had no idea people felt this way, a doctor who happens to be a Christian told me a couple of days ago.

People I have known for years now refuse to shake my hand.

I’m in shock. Egypt is becoming polarized — against the grain of what I’d thought of society, he said. I’d always imagined we Egyptians to be tolerant and forgiving. Neither is true. I experience unforgiving intolerance.

He blames Saudi Arabia. Egyptians working in the kingdom come back brainwashed, I hear him say.

The imbalance is also reflected in foreign relations: The debacle over NGOs; foreign lenders and investors reluctant to put their money where their mouth is; foreign tourists’ unease. None of these cohorts are comfortable with new Egypt.

The spirit of Tahrir Square’s call for change has not galvanized new thinking. Egypt’s quest for a president has only unearthed Mubarak mutton dressed up as liberation lamb.

To date it’s a humdrum dialogue, the kind of pabulum you’d expect to hear in a town council race in Hometown, USA or Bletchley, Kent — absent the bold ideas, imagination and soaring rhetoric moments such as this require.

Martin Luther King Jr., in front of a quarter of a million black marchers at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

I have a dream…to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream…an oasis of freedom and justice.

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred…

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…we refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.

The absence of a voice reflecting Egyptians’ forbearance and magnanimity could be the revolution’s undoing.

If anything, the opportunity that brought people onto the streets in the first place has been hijacked by religious conservatives who only joined in after they sniffed the way the wind was blowing.

The people who swarmed into Tahrir Square and stayed to see Mubarak go were united in wanting progress, not atavism. And for a while the Islamist politicians seemed to respect their wishes.

The tone has changed in recent times, no doubt prompted by the urgency to endorse candidates for the presidency within the next couple of weeks.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafis’ Al-Nour Party have hardened their line.

The Brotherhood says the candidate they’ll support must have an Islamist background. That overturns their previous pledge to support a candidate that was acceptable to all.

The Salafis have never made any bones about their religiosity and support for Islamist governance and sharia. They’re more outspoken than before.

Let’s just remind ourselves that philosophers such as China’s Zhou Dunyi, the Greeks, the Romans; those from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were led by visionaries that focused on humankind’s moral purpose and ethics.

How did Nelson Mandela lead South Africa out of its dark place?

Facing death for opposing the white apartheid South African regime, Mandela said this: I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

In the event, Mandela was found guilty on four charges of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was imprisoned with others in a tiny square cell with only a slit of a window. He slept on straw with a bucket for a toilet. His eyesight was seriously imperiled working in a lime quarry, a condition that remains to this day.

Yet released after 27 years, Mandela was more cogent and more inspiring than ever.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb, he said.

I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.

Tahrir Square inspired 95 occupations in 82 major cities around the world and thousands of smaller community events, including at least 600 in America.

It’s a pity the awakening in Egypt has failed to inspire a communal thrust towards freedom equal to South Africa’s emergence or the change of attitude in America that eventually led to Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency.

Shameful are the contumacious, recalcitrant stick-in-the-muds who’ve
reverted to the old political ways, bargaining in backrooms, nearing fisticuffs in the parliament at the least hint of discord.

The Stone Age didn’t end because the world ran out of stone. Mankind’s resourcefulness developed smelting metal to make more effective tools.

Egypt needs a presidential election worthy of the call for democracy that led to this moment.

No mud. No lotus. Out of suffering should come enlightenment and happiness.

A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people — Mahatma Gandhi.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


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