Egypt: A Difficult Learning Curve
Entering its second year, the uprising that brought down President Mubarak is still trying to define itself. Would it evolve into full-fledged revolution with ALL the risks involved? Or will it be a parenthesis between two military regimes? Judging by events of the past week Egypt may appear to be bracing for a giant revolutionary leap into the unknown. Footage of hooded youths in street battles against the security forces, with burning vehicles in the background, depicted scenes of urban guerrilla. Groups using the Black Bloc brand name have been on hand to add color, recalling anarchist violence in Europe in the 1960s.
However, the possibility of the second option, that of a new military-dominated regime, also looks serious if only thanks to General Abdul-Fattah al-Sissi’s musings on his Facebook page.
The general has warned that differences concerning the management of the country could lead to a collapse of the state and threaten the future generations. I think a third option may be possible and, hopefully, more likely. Egypt is neither moving towards revolution nor a new military dictatorship.
The rioters, including Black Bloc, have nothing positive to offer the Egyptian people. As for the military, they would do well to find other subjects to play with on their Facebook page.
Of the three options available, the third one, building the institutions of a pluralist state is hardest to achieve. It requires patience and imagination on the part of President Muhammad Mursi and those of his opponents who take a longer view of things.
Mursi must never forget that he is president of all Egyptians and as such must bear even with those who challenge him with street riots. In the past week or so, however, he has overreacted, triggering the reflex of the old regime by calling in the army. Imposing he state of emergency was a mistake, not only because it reminded people of the bad old days but because it exposed his government’s nervousness.
Facing opponents who want to provoke him, Mursi’s best bet was not to be provoked. Mursi, however, played into the hands of the party of provocation.
The party of provocation is divided into two camps.
One wants to pull the nation’s politics into the streets and provoke the Muslim Brotherhood into urban guerrilla. It would then use such an event as the excuse to call on the military to save the nation from annihilation as suggested on General al-Sissi’s Facebook page.
A second camp hopes to turn the street into a counter-weight to a presidency backed by the Brotherhood’s shadowy underground networks.
In both cases, the politics of provocation could bring nothing but misery for Egypt. The last thing Egypt wants is another military dictatorship. Also, putting the street in the driving seat could prevent Egypt from dealing with its problems in a serious manner.
Contrary to al-Sissi’s claim, street riots do not threaten the survival of the state. The general should also know that differences concerning the management of the country are normal in any civlised society.
Mursi and his government do not have a monopoly on wisdom and patriotism and should be challenged where and when necessary.
However, the opposition also needs to review its copy. Right now, we have a great deal of dissent but little real opposition in Egypt.
Dissent means rejecting the options offered by the power in place without subjecting them to critical analysis and offering alternatives.
A dissenter says: I don’t like this! But he cannot say what he does want. In the politics of dissent those in charge of government are judged by intentions attributed to them. The dissident rejects the man in charge because of what that man did in the past or might do in the future.
Opposition is something different. Real opposition is capable of indicating both what it does not like and what it does want. More importantly, it judges those in charge not on the basis of assumed intentions but concrete acts.
Thus, Mursi should be judged not by what he might do but by what he has done and is doing.
In virtually all circumstances, governments and oppositions learn from one another and modulate their respective strategies accordingly. An opposition that pushes politics towards violence is bound to end up facing violence from the state. Conversely, a government using violence against opponents sows the seeds of violence against itself.
An intellectually lazy government breeds an opposition that is equally lazy intellectually. Birds of the same feather not only fly together but, in politics at least, also fight one another.
Unleashing the police to bludgeon demonstrators into silence is a sign of intellectual laziness on the part of Mursi’s government. At the same time, setting dustbins on fire, to the chagrin of the zabbaleen in Cairo, exposes dissidents who cannot offer credible opposition to Mursi’s fragile government.
Mursi and “street” dissidents are in the same boat. If the boots return to the presidential palace both Mursi and the Black Bloc could share the same dungeon. If on the other hand, Egyptian cities are turned into battlegrounds for rival armed bands there would be no place for Mursi, who is not a street-fighter, and the opportunist politicians who are trying to surf to power on a wave of “street” anger.
New Egypt is on a learning curve. Both Mursi and those of his opponents who want a democratic Egypt must take a deep breath. Mursi should learn to behave like a president rather than a party leader. His opponents should learn to behave like an opposition not a bunch of dissidents.