Saturday, April 02, 2005

Whither Egypt?

Now that the whole region is in the midst of a supposed "Arab Spring" and anyone and everyone is pontificating on the topic of democracy and the Arabs, everyone is also (again) making claims about what the Arabs want, think, will and won't do, feel and don't feel, etc. Usually based on an interview with a talking head and the obligatory "representative" taxi driver or coffee shop denizen, news reports conclude that Arabs are "fearful", "apathetic", "hopeful" and a whole list of other adjectives.

Consider the recent journalistic contest to diagnose the situation in Egypt. A recent Associated Press story informs us, "Apathy - not anger - sums up the mood here." But lo and behold, another AP story two days later by the same reporter discerns a nation in "turmoil" and a "potentially explosive mix" in Masr al-Mahrousa. Al-Quds al-Arabi's editor Abdel Bari Atwan asserts that the pace of change in Egypt has reached a point of no return, while Hasan Abu Taleb in al-Hayat contributes intriguing reflections on the logic of regime change in Egypt and elsewhere. As per usual, political scientist Osama El-Ghazali Harb contributes nothing at all.

How do we know what is going on in Egypt? Can talking to 2 or 3 people for a newspaper article really "sum up the mood" anywhere, much less a nation as huge as Egypt? And why the need to "sum up" slippery entities like "national moods" anyway? Why not explore the various different moods and sub-moods, why the insistence on one and always one mood? I can almost hear Edward Said, whose pen I miss terribly, wondering acidly why it is that everyone is always ready to generalize about the Arabs at the drop of a hat, without talking to any Arabs or worse, deputizing one or two "representative" Arabs to stand in for the supposed wants and aspirations of millions of people.

Let's be clear: it's very difficult to get a handle on what is going in Egypt in these unsettled times. Some days I can just smell the impending change in the air, in the bursting nodes of spring color here and there amidst our concrete jungle, or the balmy evenings laced with hints of jasmine and citrus, or the shouts and murmurs in city squares and living rooms. Other days I scan Cairenes' faces and see only weariness, resignation, and defeat, in the sluggishness of pedestrians' gait, the aggression and coarseness permeating our daily lives, the gray-yellow blanket of khamaseen dust hovering over the cityscape. Is Egypt on the cusp of dramatic, paradigm-shifting change or is Egypt just stretching and going back to a heavy slumber? How do we de-couple what we want to happen from what will actually happen?

One of the world's most graceful journalists, the magnificent Ryszard Kapuscinski, wrote a passage that's particularly apposite in these inscrutable times:

It is authority that provokes revolution. Certainly, it does not do so consciously. Yet its style of life and way of ruling finally become a provocation. This occurs when a feeling of impunity takes root among the elite: We are allowed anything, we can do anything. This is a delusion, but it rests on a certain rational foundation. For a while it does indeed look as if they can do whatever they want. Scandal after scandal and illegality after illegality go unpunished. The people remain silent, patient, wary. They are afraid and do not yet feel their own strength. At the same time, they keep a detailed account of the wrongs, which at one particular moment are to be added up. The choice of that moment is the greatest riddle known to history. Why did it happen on that day, and not on another? Why did this event, and not some other, bring it about? After all, the government was indulging in even worse excesses only yesterday, and there was no reaction at all. "What have I done?" asks the ruler, at a loss. "What has possessed them all of a sudden?" This is what he has done: He has abused the patience of the people. But where is the limit of that patience? How can it be defined? If the answer can be determined at all, it will be different in each case. The only certain thing is
that rulers who know that such a limit exists and know how to respect it can
count on holding power for a long time. But there are few such rulers