Purity and the Egyptian revolution

Abdel-Moneim Said , Friday 24 Jun 2011

To return Egypt to health it is not enough to purge individuals; so much more needs to be overhauled

It’s a mystery to me why the supreme values of the world’s great social revolutions and movements always come in threes. In our own Egyptian history the clarion call after the revolution of 23 July 1952 was “Union, Organisation, Work.”

After the creation of the Arab Socialist Union, which took the place of the Arab National Union, which in turn had taken the place of the Liberation Organisation, we had “Freedom, Socialism, Unity.” Revolutions abroad also had such triads. For the French Revolution it was, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” and the American Revolution that preceded it championed three inalienable human rights: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” So Egypt’s 25 January Revolution did not depart from the historic revolutionary norm in hoisting the trinity, “Freedom, Dignity and Justice.”

Some scholars trace the origin of such trinities to ancient Pharaonic religion while others place it squarely in the Christian tradition. To those with a passion for philosophy and math, triangles epitomise the truth of things while the discoverer of the fourth dimension went beyond the pale of nature. However, it is not such metaphysics that concern us here but rather the fact that the revolutionary slogans encapsulated so many things in a few radiant words, which signified noble values capable of inspiring and stimulating unanimity among different groups of people.

At the same time, they expressed urgent human needs that were felt in a recent history filled with suffering of some form or other, which explains the different components and arrangements of the triads from one revolution to another. But thirdly, and more importantly, they set the signposts that pointed the way to the desired shape of the future. Practically speaking, there is no dispute over the nobility of the slogans or the need for their inherent acknowledgement of a reality of hardship. However, the problem arises and dispute immediately raises its head the moment a society begins the process of translating them into a political reality.

This is not just because the definitions and ramifications of the words may be open to different interpretations, but also because this is the point when various political, economic and social interests start to come out into the open, which accounts for the general surprise and alarm at the loss of innocence that characterised the first golden and jubilant days after the revolution.

Mustafa El-Naggar, one of the leaders of the 25 January Revolution, captured this phenomenon in his first article for Al-Ahram, entitled “Let’s wait, for the nation’s sake.” He speaks of the initial youthful phase of the revolution, the sense of unique historical moment, and the prevailing innocence and purity. Then the horrifying wall of political reality hit. Nor was it just a question of differences of opinion. There was “senseless squabbling, hurtling accusations of treachery, rhetorics of ostracism and exclusion, practices and behaviour that have nothing whatsoever to do with democracy.

Some used religion as a weapon, others traded in the blood of the revolution’s martyrs. Personal animosities were translated into political disputes ... ” The next step is inevitably a purge, the life raft a revolution leaps at to rescue itself from the disputes that follow in its wake (see the French and Bolshevik revolutions) or from various forms of civil strife which turn erstwhile angels heralding the advent of paradise into members of rival camps that settle the scores between them either by deception or with drawn swords.

The story is as old as the hills. It tells of the end of that period of the revolution where innocence and purity prevailed, when the sacrifices were great, when the crescent and the cross embraced, and woman was a citizen and a human being, as opposed to a seductress, a root of evil, a figment of sexual famines who tears off her clothes while the cameras are rolling. Sadly, as prolific as mankind’s ingenuity and inventiveness have been, we have not been able to produce the greatest of all inventions, which is that which would cure human beings of their innate ills and evils. Worse yet, the cleansing attempts that have been made created even greater evils, embodied in those groups that claim to possess the “true” spirit and principles of a revolution and that condemn all who deviate from their doctrine or who attempt to advance their own interests as heretics.

Early Islamic history experienced this phenomenon in the form of the Kharijites. But it is common to virtually all revolutions. Trotsky parted ways with the Bolshevik Revolution in search of a new purity that ultimately led Trotskyist groups to embrace terrorism. The same applies to the Takfir wal-Hijra (Excommunication and Exodus) radical Islamist groups, not to mention some Salafists who stick pictures of Bin Laden, murderer of Egyptians, Muslims and other human beings, on their cars and whose hearts are perpetually set on the quest to become ever purer, guiltless and free of sin, or so they imagine.

Fortunately, in the course of its long history, mankind has managed to invent other instruments for dealing with reality as it is, as opposed to how it appears in exceptional moments only for it to revert in a new shape that shares nothing of the rosy glow of those exceptional moments and that will most likely end up inspiring a new revolution, or a revision of or deviation from the revolution. The inventiveness here has always taken as its starting point that perfection is solely a divine attribute and that human beings during their life on earth can only strive to contribute to human progress and development in a way that best fulfils themselves and the cumulative legacy of the great prophetic missions.

It follows that “Freedom, Dignity and Justice” should be set in the framework of the whole of mankind’s historical experience, which has always aspired to the same aims and values. To be perfectly frank, no one in the world today should try to reinvent the wheel. The only way to move forward is to create the objective and material circumstances that will lend themselves to transformation and change, and to restrict mankind’s more selfish and baser tendencies through laws, appropriate institutions and the development of knowledge of the self, the country and the universe. In this sense, “purification” is no longer an individual pursuit to be practiced wherever and whenever a person wants, but a social process that entails elevating the individual citizen by elevating society as a whole.

But exactly how do we go about that? This is the job of revolutionaries, reformers, politicians and intellectuals. It has always been my opinion, which I’ve voiced in hundreds of articles and in such books as The Cost of Reform, Egypt: A developed nation, Egypt: A normal state and Religion and the State in Egypt, that the starting point is to turn Egypt into a “normal” state, just like other countries of the world and particularly like those 120 out of the world’s 190 countries that international reports rank as trying —like we are now —to realise “liberty, dignity and justice.” Now the key to Egypt’s becoming a normal state is to free itself of all those incomparable ways that kept it politically, economically, and socially abnormal for decades.

If shedding our anomalies is the prerequisite for normality then this should be the first consideration during our current deliberations concerning the constitution and the future political system. For example, Egypt has lived far too long under the shadow of emergency laws. If this condition does not necessarily confer extraordinary powers on government authorities it does make “fear” and “security” the prime values of the individual and society, and these do not mesh well with “freedom” and “dignity.” It has been far too long that Egypt has been the only country in the world to give “workers and peasants” at least half the seats in its elected assemblies.

This stipulation is pernicious in many ways. It is a perversion of justice, since it is flagrantly and unjustifiably discriminatory. These classes of people do not make up the majority of the working population, which is actually to be found in the government bureaucracy and the service sectors. Nor do they contribute the most to GDP, and simultaneously they are not amongst the neediest strata of society. In view of the lack of any reasonable justification for discrimination in favour of “workers and peasants” this quota system did nothing to promote an integrated democratic order of any sort and it gave no impetus to the expansion of civil liberties.

Frankly, no democratic system in the world has provided for such a form of discrimination because it actually is demeaning to workers and peasants. The same applies to the quota that is sometimes accorded to women. Such measures granting political privileges effectively warp the political process and render it unstable. At the same time they do not confer “dignity” which comes through toil and sweat in the political domain, not through political handouts or concessions on the part of regimes that have been universally recognised as being miles away from democracy.

For far too long as well, “government” has tyrannised the people by means of assorted instruments that we will discuss in detail in subsequent articles, but suffice to say, here, that another unnatural anomaly that we need rectify is the state of the “national” press since newspapers were nationalised in 1960 and after they were subordinated to the Shura Council.

Again, nothing like this is to be found in any democratic country where freedom, dignity and the quest for justice can prevail, because the job of government there is not to rally and mobilise the masses behind persons in power but to manage public resources in the manner that is best conducive to progress and prosperity. If government in democracies is founded on the peaceful rotation of authority, then there is no need for all that mustering of support for despots and dictators. In any event, as a consequence of technological advances and the evolution in the media market, the state media, whether in printed or audiovisual form, no longer attracts the largest audiences, as distribution figures and spectator rates have shown.

Lastly, we have waited too long for our judicial authority to become fully autonomous from the executive. It is not just that we have had various forms of extraordinary courts and tribunals; the judiciary has been stripped of what democratic countries regard as the very substance of judicial authority, namely its impartiality and integrity. It is clear what needs to be done to restore independence to the judiciary, and our society cannot “purify” itself until the Egyptian judiciary returns to what is the norm in democratic societies.

The foregoing are only a few examples of a “purging” process that has nothing to do with individuals cleansing themselves of sin and everything to do with the development of a system that will lead society back to health.

A version of this article also appears in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper




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