Thursday 18 September 2014

A personal account of Egypt at a crossroad

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What next for Egypt?

A lot can be said about the revolution in Egypt, the bravery of the participants, the savagery of the police and Mubarak’s goons, the acquiescence of the military to the revolution and Mubarak’s eventual and humiliating departure can all be commented upon and agreed upon.

But what cannot be said is that the leaders or the people had any cause other than the removal of Mubarak in common with each other. Furthermore it can be said with a high degree of certainty. It is clear that Al Baredi and others are at the moment looking at each other’s faces, scratching their heads and wondering what to do now, as this revolution was not based on any defined system of government democratic, Islamic or otherwise.

This may sound a bit farfetched but to help in understanding the situation in Egypt I will relate an anecdote. An Egyptian friend was walking through Maadi, which is a relatively up market part of Cairo. He was stopped without any justification by some policemen and asked to accompany them to the police station. After sustaining what the police officers describe as few falls, he was asked to phone his family so that they can bring the cost of the hospitality that he had just enjoyed, which amounted to about five hundred Egyptian pounds. In total his ordeal lasted 8 hours. He considered himself lucky to have got off so lightly, as many others have spent days and lost several teeth in these encounters. To put it succinctly the emergency laws under which anyone can be arrested and held indefinably, are basically used as an extortion racket by the police and other security services.

To further help in understanding the factors which lead to such a thought-devoid revolution, I can relate the conversation between myself and another close friend, who is somewhat older than the first and who like me has several daughters. I asked him that how is it possible that a father who is obviously religious to permit his daughter to go out of the house dressed in the manner that many young Egyptian women dress. Who although have their head covered with the hijab don’t follow the directives of Islam concerning modest dress. His answer was somewhat surprising, he stated that the father probably hopes she catches the eye of a rich bachelor and gets married as nobody of a mediocre background can afford to marry.

It is hard to imagine the frustration that exists in this society. It can be fairly said that Egypt as a nation has stagnated for the last thirty years. This stagnation pervades all spheres of Egyptian life from the vintage model cars that are currently manufactured by the national carmaker to octogenarian cabal that runs the country.

When travelling around Cairo, the euphoria of the post Mubarak days is palpable. People are genuinely happier now than a few short days ago, but the euphoria is slowly being replaced by a sense of uncertainty. To state the obvious, in order to realise any long term aims of any given revolution there have to be some stated aims apart from getting rid of a hated dictator as when he is gone, you are left to govern. In these circumstances revolutions are often stolen by vested interests, which seems to be the likely scenario in this case.

The question is then what to govern with. Western leaders and media have depicted the revolution in Egypt as a western liberal democracy inspired revolution. They espouse the mantra of the universal applicability of western liberal democracy to all times and places. It is unfortunate for them that apart from a few academics in ivory towers no one here is seeking liberal values, for example a young man may be searching for a girlfriend for himself but if said to him that the same permissive behaviour should be acceptable from his sister it will be met with considerable violence.

The truth is that no one is nailing copies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du contrat social on the Mubarak’s palace door nor do they believe in the liberal principle namely “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” which is often attributed to Voltaire. If you insult the religion of a man here whether Christian or Muslim he’ll more than likely punch you square in the face.

The people in Tahrir square were not ideologues fighting for Liberty, Egality, Fraternity

as the western media would have us believe rather they were driven by the need for decent lives where a man can at least get married and then provide even a basic living standard for his family. They were protesting against rampant corruption and unaccountable governance and the right to walk down the street without fear of molestation by the authorities. The idea that the solution to these problems is the sole domain of western liberal democracy was far from the minds of most protestors.

And here lies the conundrum for the west, just because a young man eats a McDonalds cheeseburger doesn’t mean he has become libertine. The politicians in Egypt from all shades of the political spectrum, have one thing in common, they all lack a belief in western liberal values, a large number from them support the idea of a autocratic centrally planned Nasserite state, which is probably more akin to a north Korean rather than a Swedish model of governance. And most troubling for the west in the mind of the majority of Egyptians is that this revolution is the first step in the long journey to the imposition of some form of Islamic governance.

Furthermore the problems of Egypt are likely to be exacerbated by the imposition of some form of military controlled pseudo-democracy. Western dogma that democracy is the panacea of all evils and that it is a necessary prerequisite for good governance does not stand up to scrutiny. Rather good governance is achieved when the people who rule, actually believe in the system that they are ruling by, which unfortunately for western advocate of liberalism is severely lacking in Egypt. Democracy in Egypt is seen as akin to investment a politicians who spend a million Egyptian pounds fighting an election is seeking a return of at least three million Egyptian pounds during their tenure, and that if he has any intention of ever vacating the seat. The November elections highlighted this farce with up to six candidates from the same party squabbling for the same seat. It was interesting to see the first pages of the ballot booklet ( not paper) filled with candidates from the National democratic party.

The reality on the ground is that the Egyptian people are hitherto undecided about the system of government they would like. The stifling of debate during Mubarak’s reign has postponed this question till now.

The democrats are probably in the worst position as promises made will have to be fulfilled, which they have little or no chance of fulfilling as the deep structural problems of Egypt are not going to be solved by the piecemeal change suggested at the moment. Rather a radical overhaul of the system is required to achieve even the partial solutions to ingrained deficiencies.

The Islamic parties are probably in the strongest position as this society remains a deeply conservative and Islamic and in many ways is more conservative than Egypt of the 1950’s. As time progresses and the power of America wanes it is expected that the army will adopt a more independent posture and relent on its American inspired fanatical opposition to Islamic rule. Also as the army bathes in the glory and respect it has gained by siding with the people against Mubarak. The danger to them is indulgence in theological debate, which is far from the minds of all but a few. Rather the majority, including the kingmakers want to see policy and solutions to real world problems and not polemics about dogma. So the ball is in the court of the Islamic parties, who need to convince a still undecided public to their cause by clearly elucidating the sublime solutions offered by Islam to the ills of capitalism.

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