Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Art of Saying Nothing

Lucky me, three of my absolute favorite pundits made interventions this week, I feel giddy like a kid in a candy store. First, the unctuous Thomas Friedman shared his unsolicited thoughts on democracy in the Middle East. He even brought himself to write about—gasp!—Israeli extremists, typified by the settlers, and equates them with “Nasserists and fundamentalists” as “bad guys” for democracy. Um, no. Nasserists and “fundamentalists” are Friedman’s intellectual foes, not dangers to democracy. His attempt to demonize his opponents as threats to democracy (with absolutely no evidence) is exactly like our oh-so-democratic Arab leaders excluding Islamists and then saying, “But they’ll destroy democracy.” Exclude people and call them “bad guys” and you have a sure recipe for social violence. Exclude your opponents and competitors and claim they're bad for democracy and you’re just a threatened, disingenuous autocrat cynically pleading democracy to crush your foes. I would’ve expected Friedman to evade this obvious trap, but perhaps I expect overmuch.

I certainly don’t expect Friedman to know that writing about democracy in terms of valorized “good guys” and vilified “bad guys” is acceptable for a fifth grader but not for a thinking adult. You see, Tom (and tell me if I need to speak more slowly), democracy works precisely because it envelops all social forces within an electoral/parliamentary frame, and forces them to duke it out with each other peacefully. That’s why radical parties become astute horse-traders when they get into parliament. Jewish settlers, however, have spurned parliamentarism in favor of Biblical directives, while Islamists and Nasserists haven’t and instead have been nearly begging for parliamentary inclusion for decades, lapping up whatever crumbs their governments throw them here and there. So what’s Friedman equating? I don’t understand, unless with a sleight of hand he wants to discredit his ideological foes to an unsuspecting American readership by claiming Islamists and Nasserists are as violent as the settlers when they’re plainly not. It makes me ill to think that many Americans get their foreign policy knowledge from Friedman and Co.

Next, our fair Hala Mustafa is back with some more from her bottomless pit of earth-shattering revelations. Please do read her latest piece and marvel at the writerly lucidity, intellectual profundity, and analytical probity. And contemplate her revealing and expressive titles: “Confronting present and past”. I do declare, Egyptians are so fortunate to have minds of Mustafa’s caliber revivifying and profundifying our public discourse, blazing trails and shattering received truths, pushing us out of our complacency to ponder Dr. Hala’s priceless nuggets of wisdom. Listen as she holds forth, “There is always a time when a given political system confronts change. That critical juncture may usher in a point of no return just as it pulls others back.” When I read this breathtaking opening clause, I put down the newspaper and gazed into the distance, letting the full effect of her words do their magic on my enervated brain.

Truly, may Dr. Hala continue to brighten our days and illuminate our nights with her courage and intellectual independence, her angelic visage gracing her stupendous articles, her matchless sartorial elegance setting the standard for the modern career woman. What an inspiring role model Dr. Hala is for other Egyptian women like myself; verily I will be overjoyed if I attain but a quintile of what she has accomplished. Every time I am in the vicinity of the al-Ahram buildings, I cast about anxiously for a glimpse of the beauteous doctor. But when fortune invariably frowns upon me and we fail to cross paths, I feel secure at the thought of her ensconced in her office, engrossed in deep reflections on the Egyptian condition.

Finally, another titan from our punditocracy adorns the newspapers this week. As with all of Dr. Mustafa El-Feki’s pieces, the latest requires, nay demands repeated perusal for a thorough and penetrating understanding. Superficial and indolent minds will complain that Dr. El-Feki is stating the obvious, dressing up banalities as insights, and packaging apologetics for Mubarak’s foreign policy as dispassionate analysis. To them I say: shame on you. Clearly you’re not applying yourself if that’s all you can come up with after reading Dr. El-Feki’s far-sighted analysis. Do you know who Dr. El-Feki is? He’s the former ambassador to Vienna, don’t you realize that? It’s because of such hapless souls that Dr. El-Feki feels compelled to preface all his remarks by reminding us that he was the former ambassador to Vienna, for God’s sake. Historically, of course, former ambassadors to Vienna have returned to Egypt to become leading opinion-makers. Please read up on your Egyptian history, will you?

Not only is Dr. El-Feki a career diplomat, he also proudly tells us that he’s never had to do the scutwork for the posts he’s held, always parachuting in by presidential decree. “I didn't sit any exams to enter the foreign service, or contest the elections to enter parliament.” Between 1985 and 1992, Dr. El-Feki was president Mubarak’s “Secretary of Information and Follow-up.” Of president Mubarak he says, “He's very objective. I have never seen anyone like him. He may like someone 100 per cent, but he will end his service if he makes a mistake. He makes a clear distinction between the personal and professional. I was one of the closest people to him on the personal level, but when he was convinced that I made a mistake on the job, he did not hesitate to end my service at the presidency. He is a hard worker, very nationalistic in a practical way. Not a man of slogans, but one of action.” El-Feqi also greatly “admires and respects” Mrs Mubarak, whom he describes as “a good scholar and a bright woman.”

The disciplined Dr. El-Feki likes to start his day at 7 am, by dictating his article du jour. “I prefer to dictate because you can just close your eyes and say what you want. My concentration is focused on thinking only and not divided between thinking and writing.” Then he’s tied up for the rest of the day in parliamentary sessions, cultural salons, and so forth. To recharge his batteries, Dr. El-Feki confides, "I have a special weakness for London. For 30 years I have kept a flat in this cosmopolitan city, where you can do anything and everything; shopping, studying, medical treatment." You’d do well to recall that Dr. El-Feki is also former U.S. ambassador David Welch’s favorite writer, in contrast to Salama Ahmed Salama, whom Welch dismissed as possessing "obtuse judgment." Someone who's had the enthusiastic patronage of the powerful throughout his long career perforce commands awe and approbation. I can hardly get enough of Dr. El-Feki's wisdom and insight, and thankfully every time I go to al-Shuruq bookshop his books are always plentifully stocked, seemingly untouched by the insufficiently subtle minds that populate our woefully obtuse city. Sigh.