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A Brave and Confused New World

A movement that grew out of frustration has redefined the whole country and its future. But this week of hope has also exposed dissent and differences that can rupture the fabric of Egypt

Hania Sholkamy , Sunday 6 Feb 2011
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The week has been a turbulent one! Egypt has rediscovered politics and freedom.

On Tuesday the 25th of January a process of change began slowly and surely in tens of cities.  A broad alliance of social and political movements took to the streets demanding the end of the regime. At first they were dismissed as elites, as youth, as a movement with no strategy, no clout, no following! The movement grew and attracted non-usual suspects! Men, women and children never before heard or listened to became politicized and vocal over night. The regime should have listened but instead the hundreds of thousands on the streets were brutally attacked with truncheons, rubber bullets and doused with water canons and tear gas. Meanwhile those not on the streets but fascinated and thrilled at home were also punished when the police withdrew their ‘un-appreciated’ services thus leaving Egyptians to the mercy of criminals and thugs.

There is a world of difference between that Friday when fear and fury ruled the hearts and minds of Egyptians and today when we are all deliberating our new future. Today the rally to oust the president continued and the voices and initiatives to find a resolution for this revolution have appeared. I dare say that this Friday is a happier one if only because the dust is beginning to settle and the variety of interest and scenarios for the future have become more apparent. Politicians, ideologues, and public figures are clambering to catch some of the limelight and to impose themselves as possible alternatives to the fleeing power elites. Western governments are riding many a high horse while ‘closely observing the situation’ and willing a transition but from a safe distance! The ‘shabab’ who led the revolution have yet to produce a leadership that can negotiate on their behalf. But are clear in their persistence and ability to stay committed to their ideals and demands.  The new government meanwhile is pursuing populist politics trying to appease people with a purge of its own ranks and promising political reforms and economic benefits.

The coming days will surely bring some closure but the past days have revealed a number of nascent problems and left some concerns. I would like to discuss three troubling development looming large on our horizon.

The first is an emerging class war, albeit an unusual one as it is a war against both the rich and the poor. The defamation of ‘business men’ as the culprits that precipitated the fall of Egypt is a worrying and dangerous development. This revolution is demanding the rule of law not the rule of the mob! Why are certain people being prosecuted for unspecified crimes? Is this to appease the masses or to rectify a wrong? Is this a continuation of paternalist politics that produce scapegoats so as not to face-up to the complicities and complexity of what we call corruption? What are the crimes for which the named officials are being investigated? In our post revolution era we need to know the crime not just relish the fall of the once rich or mighty!

On the other hand we are also going to live with the fear of the poor! When the thugs and criminals took over our streets, a deep suspicion of slum dwellers and of marginal’s and the ultra poor seeped through our national psyche. Property owners defending their property, creating blockades and barricades, armed with rifles, small firearms, golf clubs (in wealthy neighborhoods) and knives preventing strangers particularly poor ones from walking down the street. How can we restore the dignity of the needy and the marginalized?  How can our new benign and brave vigilante go back to their living rooms and trust that that the poor will not storm their doors?

Egypt is also facing a dangerous prospect of mutual exclusions and suspicions. The brilliant achievements of the demonstrators is appreciated by most but resented by some. There are those who have their sinister reasons for feeling angry and frustrated. They are the parliamentarians who paid there way through a rigged election, the police officers who rigged these elections, the cronies, and their cronies. But perhaps we need not worry about these ugly elements. However there are millions of ‘good people’ who also are un-happy with the continued protests because they fear the insecurity of rapid change or because they want daily life and daily livelihoods to resume. Unfortunately the western media has by and large dismissed the legitimate desires of these millions.  The media machine in general cannot handle complexity or the nuances of social change and its turbulent currents. However we in Egypt need to desist from dismissing each other. After all, the youth of this revolt have suffered from their own exclusion from public life and its politics and it would be a shame if they dismissed those who respect but beg to differ with their current demands. It is easy to condemn others but much more difficult to listen and understand their differences.

We have a third emerging and major confusion and that is our relationship with the outside world. The regime’s thugs attacked foreigners while the regime itself consulted with foreign governments. The protesters defended their foreign supporters who have been bolstering their cause virtually on the internet or physically by standing in their midst but also condemned America and the foreign policy of the regime that looked towards the west. Television stations have for the past week aired the views of state defenders who claim they have proof that this revolution is sponsored, funded, fueled and manipulated by foreigners. While the talking heads on other channels have jeered and rolled their eyes at the complicity of the regime with the same foreign governments and interests.  The possible negotiators in this standoff between the regime and its young opponents condemn the west and its pressure to impose foreign policy decisions but almost exclusively talk to this west and its governments and their people. Why are we confused about our nationalism and why is there a persistent love/hate with the rest of the world? This is perhaps the most revealing confusion as it intimates a weak and narrow vision of what Egypt can become as it naively diagnosis the problems of the past.

If we are to redefine the science of revolutions and live to see a day when Egypt is a free and robust democracy that is a beacon of hope for the rest of the Arab world, we need to look at the problems that are emerging from this virtuous turn of events and face the fractures in Egyptian society and its polity.

The writer is assistant professor at the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo

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