DOSSIER EGYPT: Historic Hours and Tumultuous Times - I

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Picture Ismail Serageldin, Credit: Library of AlexandriaBy Ismail Serageldin*

This is the first of a three-part series reflecting on the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011, launched by millions of people from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds, demanding the overthrow of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had been at the helm of affairs since 1981.

ALEXANDRIA (IDN) - January 25 was the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. A milestone that calls for reflection on those three years of chaotic action, great moments, dashed dreams, big achievements, sacrifice and betrayal, and all the components of a human drama of the highest order. Tumultuous times, historic hours… greatness achieved, then lost, retrieved and lost again in the fog of uncertainty as the elusive dream of building our new republic on an inclusive society and a system of laws seems to be overtaken by an active war on terror.

Recently, four bombs killed and maimed many innocent victims in Cairo, and destroyed part of the Museum of Islamic Art. An unbelievable jewel, one of the finest museums in the world, irreplaceable pieces shattered and lost to future generations. Umayyad artifacts, Mamluk lanterns, Fatimid woodwork, medieval manuscripts… some of the finest legacies of our history are destroyed. It is amazing how artifacts of bygone times should touch us so deeply in the midst of the real blood of real people, but they do. People are not defined just by current bonds; they are defined by their culture and historical legacy. Our heritage counts.

The promoters of political Islam having lost the support of large parts of the public, and having failed to undo the removal of their regime, have opted for terrorism. We are no longer talking of violence during massive public demonstrations, we are no longer talking of individuals killed in massive confrontations in the street, we are now witnessing bombs, sometimes targeted at the symbols of state power, sometimes against ordinary people, always intended to terrorize and intimidate.

But the people are not intimidated. They demand the repression of the fanatics by the army and the police. The calls for law and order and for an iron hand are widespread, and they are demonstrating a strong streak of determination among the public, but they are also raising the ever-present spectre of the autocratic state and its apparatus of repression.

The revolution started with a magnificent grandeur in its waves of youthful peaceful protesters, armed only with their convictions. Violence and the scramble for power tainted that greatness. Blood has been spilled. Violence has taken its toll. And today we are locked into an epic struggle, between the forces of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Jihadist allies, and the forces of the state being cheered on by the vast majority of the population, and an incessant stream of attacks in the national media.

Today, Egypt is at a difficult cross-roads. It is affirming its right to build a democratic system where human rights shall be respected and protected. But forces are pulling in different directions. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Jihadists seem determined to use violence and terror. The machinery of the state is determined to stop them. And the people with a profound anger against the Brotherhood and their Jihadist allies are calling for that machinery of state to crush them, to destroy them. They are willingly calling upon and egging on the forces of the state.

But that same machinery will also unleash the forces of the autocratic state. And there, our dreams of democracy and pluralism are themselves at risk. That is the price we pay for waging a “war on terror”, for wanting security at any cost, order by any means… we risk embarking on a slippery slope towards the autocratic state.

The terrorism of the MB and its allies will eventually fail, for ultimately terrorism always does. But it leaves its legacy of dead and maimed behind. The chaos they try to launch, mostly at universities, brings the forces of government to restore order and inevitably lives are lost. Sometimes local residents, not the police, take on the MB and their allies. But violence still erupts, with its horrors and its anguish, and brings sad stories of innocent lives lost, whether police or demonstrators. We as a nation have to end this spiral of death and destruction.

But what makes the usually mild Egyptian people so fierce in their opposition to the MB and its Jihadist allies? It is that when unable to manipulate and mobilize large enough numbers of people to publicly support their cause, the MB and its Jihadist allies have turned to violence and terror. Mistaking the mild temper of the average Egyptian to be a weakness that would succumb to intimidation, they completely missed the real dimension of the unique phenomenon that is the Egyptian Revolution.

That revolution, peaceful though it was, broke the traditional docility of the people, broke the barrier of fear that erstwhile repressive services had imposed. The people are no longer afraid. They will not be intimidated. Their caring side is transformed into anger by the loss of life that has become a staple of Egyptian politics today.

True, it is proportionately far less than the violence that is found in other Arab countries, but it is still a very significant departure from the Egyptian norm, enough so to be recognized as a qualitatively different situation. We are – literally – in a new world, fashioned by the events of the last three years. It is a different Egypt.

In that different Egypt, the loss of life has taken its toll… Death is the ultimate price that a human being can pay. And today, as I reflect on the three years of the revolution, I must write of terrorism and its repression, I must write of death.

So how can one write of events that bring repression and death and threaten even more? How can we communicate the passion and tumult, the chaos and purpose that gives crowds their character and individuals their resolve? O to be able to write in a strict, distant prose in a swift and uncompromising manner that feels like sudden death… a surprise, yes for death always is a surprise, even when it is expected.   For it is the finality of death that surprises us. For we continue to advance, day to day, in the narrative of life, but the dead have aborted their narrative in mid-sentence so to speak.

Every life is precious. Every death touches many hearts.

Death and its aftermath

People react differently to death. Not death in the abstract, but death of a loved one, especially the death of someone young who is killed in the flower of youth, without warning. And every death is connected to many lives, and it affects each of them.

Families and friends can perhaps find in themselves the emotional resources to cope with the pain of separation in the case of prison, and may even be able to marshal the tenderness and support that can help overcome the legacy of prison, but they have no recourse to deal with the finality of death, except grief and mourning. Some scream and wail as if to exorcise the devilish anger and searing pain they feel. Others keep it locked up in silence and sadness, a veritable miracle of restraint. But wherever you look, wherever the violence took its toll, the grief of mourning in all its searing agony, writhing incoherence, painful confusion, and frustrated anger is there….

The process of mourning the dead creates a bond cemented by the grief that binds together the dead and the living they leave behind.   To me, the manner of mourning is important. I remain convinced that it is most true and powerful when it occurs in the dignity of internal reflection, not in the practiced forms of public howling and crying in a ritualized process. These societally sanctioned rituals have even developed a professional caste of performers who ensure for the grieving family that there is enough wailing at a commemorative event for the departed. But whatever the manner of its expression, the grief is real. It is palpable. It leaves scars on the living.

Egypt has had more than its share of such death and anguish in the last few years, and every one of them needs to be accounted for. It needs to be properly investigated, with the responsible parties brought to a court of law. We cannot simply turn a blind eye to the loss of life. Every human life is precious, and the murder and mayhem of terrorism cannot be justified no matter what the political cause the terrorists are trying to advance. Killing and maiming innocent people can never be justified.

It is usually the young who die in such conflicts. Whether they are the ones who strap explosives to themselves or who shoot and are shot at. Whether they serve in uniform or are caught in the crossfire. The mothers weep for their sons; the fathers are shattered. Parents expect to be buried by their children, not to have to bury their offspring. It is the most devastating loss. The lives unlived, the dreams unfulfilled, the story of a life’s journey aborted at its very beginning, in the flower of youth.

The siblings and friends are also overwhelmed by the loss and shaken to the core. For in youth we feel invincible, we think death is far away in the future. Now it becomes close and personal.

There is a finality in death that is insurmountable. The loss, even if expected after a long illness, is still a painful and difficult transition. It forces us to confront our own mortality, our own lives. And the loved one leaves a vacuum in our lives. But the loss of the flower of youth brings pain and anger not just sadness and grief.

Egypt has had a lot of that pain and anger in the last three years, and at an accelerating pace in the last few months. Mothers burying their sons in Northern Sinai, or receiving the coffins of bodies of officers and service men killed in action there; wondering “Why? Why him?”

The pain. The anger. These are deep felt emotions that touch all those who lose a loved one. But all of us feel another form of pain and anger. The pain of dreams unfulfilled, the anger at feeling that our revolution has been betrayed, time and again. The dreams of freedom, social justice and human dignity for all has eluded us in successive regimes. The dream of an inclusive participatory democratic republic that involves all and protects all as equal citizens in a system of just laws remains elusive.

Economic well-being, a booming economy with opportunities for youth to find gainful and dignified employment, has been promised but remains feasible, but just beyond reach. The millions of unemployed youths that swell our cities were the prime artisans of our peaceful people-power movements, those human waves that surprised our rulers and impressed the world. Today many of them have been manipulated into becoming the spearhead of the forces of disruption of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Jihadist allies, wreaking havoc in universities and desperately trying to show that they can disrupt the pattern of normal life and activity, or even the cannon fodder of the acts of terrorism that punctuate the Brotherhood’s campaign for political power after the removal of President Morsi.

The pain and the anger that spreads in Egypt like wildfire, is mobilizing the Egyptian people against the Brotherhood and its Jihadist allies and is strengthening calls for ever stronger actions against them. The calls are morphing from concern for stamping out terror into demanding a strong hand, if not directly an iron fist, to rule the country and crush them. And there’s the rub. Such governments may well succeed in the appointed task of destroying the forces of terrorism, but they invariably limit our democratic processes, and challenge our conceptions of a state devoted to freedom and pluralism.  

The pain and the anger motivate the calls for such actions. And the horror of terrorism and its destructive violence and the barbarism of its actions does require a state capable of providing basic safety for its citizens. But beware the vortex of violence and the slippery slope of necessary shortcuts. This is not just about Egypt, but about all states that have found, or will find, themselves confronted with the challenge of dealing with terror and those who choose violence as a means of advancing their political agenda.

The Vortex of Violence: the Downward Spiral of Repression

Political regimes dealing with opponents who have adopted violence as a means of pushing their political agenda have to be firm and use force. But that usually also puts them in the difficult position of having to gauge, monitor and judge how harsh their own forces should be. Violence by opponents turns to terrorism, and terrorism can never be justified, no matter what the political agenda. It must be dealt with firmly, for every citizen has a basic human right to safety.

But not all opponents of the regime, not even most of those who are active members in the opposing movement, are terrorists. Where and how does the decision-maker draw the line? It is tempting to justify harsh measures against that opposition by asserting that they were planning and plotting the killing and maiming of innocent citizens. Some undoubtedly were. Others may have sympathized with their cause but had misgivings about the methods they wanted to use.   Others, doubtless more numerous, simply sympathize with the cause in very general terms. Still others were not involved with the cause but were opposed to the regime in power, and thus found themselves making common cause with those who advocated, and even executed, terrorist acts.

But just as rounds of cyclical violence between feuding tribes claims a basis in previous rights denied, or previous assaults by the “other party”, the regime and its opponents enter into that treacherous terrain at the risk of destroying that which they claim to protect and defend. Soon blood flows on both sides. Soon calls for harsh measures initially to stem the flow of blood, then to break the back of those who plan the violence are commonplace. Then the harsh measures begin. They initially are cheered on by crowds tired of insecurity and demanding law and order. But the violence of the opposition soon turns to terrorism, and the harsh measures of the regime soon extend not just to those caught in the act, but more broadly to those who support them. The deadly machinery of repression starts taking hold.

The decision-makers become embarked on a slippery slope where soon speed picks up and you can neither stop, nor slow down, nor get off. It takes a very able and self-assured hand to steer a course that balances the different concerns well, and gauges the dose of harshness to keep focused on where it will avoid the spilling of innocent blood, and to keep it bound by the norms of justice, and to mete out justice tempered by mercy and compassion.

Most regimes rarely succeed at that. Confronted by opposition that turns to violence and terrorism, they succeed in stopping the violence and in stamping out the terrorism, but they do so at enormous moral cost, and with a loss of the legitimacy of their actions by the excesses of their agents. Even when there is a watchful press and an active political opposition and a well-informed public, excesses do occur. Vast numbers are deprived of their freedom on the flimsiest of reasons, and worse, far worse, despite what the legal texts say, the merciless logic of the downwards spiral of repression takes hold. The prisoners are questioned, then abused and ultimately tortured.

*Ismail Serageldin is Director of Egypt’s centre of excellence, Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria). He is a member of IDN’s Editorial Advisory Committee. He was a former Vice President of the World Bank and Chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. He has published over 60 books and monographs and over 200 papers on a variety of topics. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cairo University and a Master's degree and a PhD from Harvard University and has received 33 honorary doctorates. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 27, 2014]

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