On Pain And Hope

Bassem Sabry , Monday 31 Dec 2012

After a tumultuous year that has seen a widening chasm between Egypt's ideological and political forces, writer and blogger Bassem Sabry believes the country has witnessed profound and positive changes

It’s the end of an excruciating year, and I am almost depleted of energy. Instead of the usual long and cold analysis, I would like, for a change, to write a more personal note.

As I walk the streets of Cairo today, I can feel a profound change. Despite my own bias towards positivism, I cannot logically deny what I believe to be seeing or what my senses tell me I am feeling.

Cairo feels darker, more sombre. 

The looks on many people’s faces, as I absorb their expressions, are often various forms of utter exhaustion, frustration and even anger. Other times it is a blank look: the look of someone who wants to just get whatever he’s doing over with.

Some walls in Cairo are almost entirely covered in graffiti sprayed over successive periods, and they tell an evolving story. The first wave of graffiti celebrated renewed national vigour and pride after the revolution.

Then there were stencils and images against the military’s draconian grip over the country as well as in support of freedoms and liberties – drawn with amazing precision, detail and artistry. Graffiti then began to speak more and more about Egyptians who continued to die in violent episodes – the younger more than the older – with no form of justice ever seeming to take its course. Then darker graffiti began to emerge, expressing a degree of bitterness with the nation's progress, at times employing black humour. The visual tales of human loss painfully continue.

Much of the newer graffiti is quicker, less artistically-demanding and visibly filled with angst. If not in content, the angst is in the shakiness of the hands that sprayed them, the dripping of the ink.

Of course, it is not universally gloomy, and many do manage to maintain a positive spirit of some form. Some see everything that has been happening in Egypt as a natural and inevitable logical progression towards a better and not-so-far-ahead chapter or ending.

Personally, I agree to some extent with that dialectical hypothesis. Others, though, share a more negative sentiment still but are endlessly capable of finding positive stories within the events: ones that renew their energy and faith in the country, its revolution and its alleged rebuilding.

But no matter which way we see things, I don’t think anyone would disagree that the country is different. During the days of Mubarak, most people were largely apathetic. In the months following the revolution, there was euphoria, a renewed sense of hope and belonging, a towering sense of dignity. Today, everyone agrees the country is on a horrendously wrong track. We just often disagree on what the ailment is, how the infection happened and what the remedy looks like.

On the one hand, many within the country have become politically involved. They now have favourite (or at least “preferred”) politicians, they watch the talk shows and read papers more than they watch films and television serials and the street is now filled with increasingly sophisticated and more informed conversations about politics rather than football.

On the other hand, a once harmonious society has been divided, often in painful ways. The Islamist-liberal divide (and often the Islamist-more Islamist divide) has destroyed old friendships, divided families and hurt relationships. Each successive election, vote or political conflict has widened the schisms or created new ones.

Some might say this is the nature of democracy and they’d be partially right. But this is different. This is not a French debate on taxes and the role of state in the economy. This has become a divide over the identity of a nation, over its values and how any such values could or should be a part of politics and government, and many are willing to see this as an all out fight. The result has seen normal people, who would otherwise unobtrusively cross paths every day, now clashing on several occasions in the streets, where blood is spilt. Some openly see no inviolable sacredness in the lives and liberties of others.

Within organised party politics, the situation perhaps gets grimmer. Many on the Islamist side are convinced that the opposition only wants to put them back in jail, while many on the opposition’s side feel the Islamists only want to put them in jail. The result of such increasingly heated sentiments is a form of angry and confrontational politics fashioned around one’s own survival and the crushing defeat of the other, which is not a form you can build a country with. It is often the form that destroys a country.

My country, or at least its leadership, has been wasting one golden opportunity after another. As a nation, we wasted a chance to create a constituent assembly we could rally around. We wasted a chance to draft a constitution we could all relate to and not feel a genuine sense of trepidation from. We wasted a chance to hold a proper referendum, whose proceedings no one could question. We wasted a chance to unite behind a common and wider dream: one that could unite us all.

The president and his organisation have also wasted more than one chance at placing themselves at the centre and heart of the country and have instead catered increasingly to their own political base and goals, aggressively expanded their influence over the state and its official media. They have done so in a manner that is perhaps partially more acceptable in a time of traditional politics not while a country is being rebuilt after a revolution. But then, maybe I am too idealistic.

The country is also being run by an insufficiently capable government: one largely composed of trusted rather than qualified men. It is a government that has been – in some ways – increasingly even less transparent and top-down than Mubarak’s governments had been in his final decade and whose approach has been profoundly shaky and lacking. And so many Egyptians politicians and public figures to whom we attributed a modicum of greatness or self-respecting integrity – some of whom we had already known for year – turned out to be nothing more than caricatures, footnotes at best.

It is also much easier to hear hateful language these days. It could be hateful against a different ideological group, a different religious group or any one. Some claim there has been a rise in hateful speech, but I think we have only been exposed to it more openly. Some have become emboldened to speak up more, while some have always existed on television channels that no one ever watched – finally gaining real visibility in large part perhaps because of social media. We are now literally tapped into the minds of every single connected individual there is, with all of his thoughts and subconscious utterances: more than any person is perhaps supposed to reveal.

The economy is achingly suffering, between shock and mismanagement. During the days of Mubarak, the adage went: “The rich got richer, the poor got poorer.” Today, it seems the adage is: “The rich got poorer, the poor got poorer.” Tourism is down, investment is down, savings are being strained, and more people are struggling to make ends meet.

And yet, in the midst of all of this, I somehow see so many good and remarkable things.

There is more courage than ever, more people willing to put themselves on the line. There is more volunteerism, more people willing to selflessly work behind the scenes and on the front lines for the betterment of their country and their communities. Many people are being offered lucrative chances to go abroad, and yet they choose to stay and build their country against Sisyphean odds.

Egypt is also a young country, and its youth are brimming with energy and determination. They will not be subdued. They cannot be subdued.

There is more art than ever. Individuals are more creative and prolific in their self expression, with more channels for them to speak out. They are bolder, less intimidated by guilt-inducing speeches or fear-mongering rhetoric. They are no longer afraid of batons and guns. They react to teargas as they react to car fresheners, and they fearlessly stare the once frightening police officer in the eye and aren’t afraid to go further if they must. They refuse, more and more, to idolise fellow men and sanctify them anymore. People have become more knowledgeable of their situation, more involved and their collective voice as citizens is louder.

The government now substantially fears the people. This should be the norm in a democracy, not the other way around as it used to be.

The entrepreneurial spirit is in full throttle, and some are finding new and unique ways to thrive and bring wellbeing to others. Political parties are growing, diversified ideologies are evolving and gaining further sophistication, reality is reforming old slogans. Stale and hateful ideas are being gradually burned or forcibly ironed out by better, more inclusive ones. Independent media might be under pressure, but it is still capable of confronting the presidency and the powers that be publicly if need be.

There is finally a living “former president” in Egypt, one who also happens to be behind bars following a public uprising against corruption, oppression and years of dictatorship. His story and that of his regime’s will remain a cautionary tale for years to come. Regrettably, some in power appear to be misreading or forgetting those lessons all too soon, but the people have been reminding them, all too loudly. The people are more in charge of their own country, and I believe they will not let themselves down.

There is a lot of hope within Egypt, and I still do believe the direction of history is inevitably on the side of democracy, human rights and development. This was not the best year Egypt could have had, nor is this new the constitution I had hoped for. We could have been a more united nation in this historic turning point. Instead, we are a country quite torn apart. Nevertheless, I see inevitable good, and I do see much of it now. I see hope.

Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian writer and blogger who writes on Egypt, the region and current affairs. Follow him on twitter at @Bassem_Sabry


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