Friday, August 19, 2005

Who's Afraid of Change?

There are a lot of good reasons to be anxious and worried about what’s happening and what might happen in Egypt these days. Fearing change is not in our “national character” (whatever that is), but after 24 years of the same president and pretty much the same political system, it’s natural to cling to the status quo rather than wager on the unknown. “The one you know is better than the one you don’t know,” goes our popular adage, nicely captured by Anthony Shadid in his wonderful article summing up the Egyptian zeitgeist.

But there’s a world of difference between sincere fear of the unknown and intentional hatred of change. For the past two months, there’s been a rising tide of tendentious criticism of the Egyptian reform movements. Sometimes it assumes a tone of blasé dismissal, other times outright belittlement. Whether at family gatherings or on the pages of newspapers, there’s bound to be some holier-than-thou sage pontificating about why all of this means nothing and things will go back to “normal” after the elections. Finding fault with and second-guessing Kifaya, the Ikhwan, Youth for Change, Hizb al-Wasat, judges, and all the other movements daring to call for change has become something of a trendy pastime, an emblem of political sophistication, if you will.

Now, I’ve made my preferences clear. I’m thrilled by the pro-democracy ferment. I see in it such strong echoes of pivotal moments in our political history: the 1930s movement to restore the 1923 constitution, the intense mobilisation of the 1940s, the student, worker, and judges’ activism of February 1968-January 1972, and the society-wide dissidence of January 1977-September 1981. I’m happy I’m alive in these times, fleeting and reversible as they may be, and I know many Egyptians who feel the same. Even if everything ends tomorrow, Egypt’s society in movement has already made a huge imprint on the palimpsest of democratic struggle in this country.

But there are others who are scared and threatened by the spirit of the times, not simply concerned or contributing to the public debate. Ragab al-Banna’s rant against street protests in last Sunday’s al-Ahram is but one example. Ruz al-Yusuf and Akhbar al-Yom’s recent attacks against Kifaya are others. My favourite is the claim that Kifaya is “a TV phenomenon,” circulated by Mr. Abdel Moneim Said of the Ahram Strategic Studies Centre (strategic, indeed) and parroted dutifully by Banna and other fifth-rate scribblers. And let’s not forget Hosni Mubarak’s brilliant contention that Kifaya is nothing but a bunch of foreign agents.

When run-of-the-mill slurs fall flat, other tacks are tried. Ahmad Kamal Abul Magd styles himself an “enlightened Islamist” and leading public intellectual. But reading his extremely long intervention in al-Ahram of August 4th, one gets a sense of a confused mind unable to string together a coherent claim. Abul Magd, it appears, is peeved that certain ceilings have been shattered in Egyptian public debate. He’s offended that decorum hasn’t been preserved. He’s upset at “a general wave of criticism and opposition,” proceeds to school us on several abstruse points of law, and then calls for “unity of the ranks to face the future.”

‘Unity of the ranks’ or shutting down vibrant public debate? How sad to see a constitutional law expert make the most disingenuous use of words to mystify and mislead. Abul Magd would do well to abandon his intellectual pretensions and focus on his day job: vice-president of the governmental National Council on Human Rights and loyal servant of successive Egyptian regimes, from his short stint as a minister in the 1970s to his various tours of duty as one-size-fits-all adviser to the Mubarak family.

It’s elementary: real intellectuals don’t lecture the public as if they’re a bunch of sophomoric twits. Real intellectuals don’t seek to shut down the most intense public debate Egypt has seen in years. Real intellectuals don’t cramp our horizons but push them to areas we scarcely thought possible. Real intellectuals don’t tell us what’s “proper” or not, but nudge us to probe deeper and to ask the right questions. Abul Magd and his ilk are no intellectuals.

Besides those who dearly want to shut down debate and like to attack Kifaya and vilify the Ikhwan and curse Ayman Nour and have us continue to live a life of tutelage, there are those who are, frankly, clueless. Take this recent editorial in the Daily Star, which advised, “But if regime change is to be achieved, Kefaya will need to offer an alternative to Egyptians other than anarchy.” That’s rich. Whence comes the notion that anything other than Mubarak is “anarchy”? Who said that Kifaya hasn’t offered detailed alternative visions and proposals, easily accessed through its website or any of its articulate representatives or myriad policy papers? Indeed, every Egyptian group has a blueprint for the good society available through a website and ample documents, from Ayman Nour to Hizb al-Wasat to Hizb al-Karama to the Ikhwan to the Socialists. (Let me not forget the spanking new ideas of candidate Mubarak, post-facelift). The notion that “there’s no alternative” is utterly false, at best. Parroting it 50 times won’t make it true.

There’s a deeper problem. The idea that any or all of the current democratic forces are aiming to either take over or undermine state power is ludicrous. The Egyptian groupings for change want an end to Mubarak’s tenure, an end to many of his policies, and new rules of the political game to allow for maximum participation and the rule of law. All want a new constitution. What precisely is “anarchic” about any of this? Once again, an elementary point: social movements don’t aim to take over the state. Granted, powerful currents within the Ikhwan might see themselves as a regime-in-waiting, but there are equally powerful currents in that divided organisation that simply want more political participation. So when did this become a crime?

There are some serious critics, of course. The sharp Wahid Abdel Meguid takes to task Egypt’s “new opposition” for failing to dialogue with the regime over what he calls “a program for democratic transformation.” But it seems to me rather obvious that it’s not the reform groups who have refused dialogue, but the regime. Need this really be rehearsed? I respect Abdel Meguid but disagree with him entirely. He seems to pine for the days when the regime called all the shots and everyone adjusted accordingly. I’m afraid we’re well past that now, as many now realise the regime’s insoluble credibility problems.

To read the papers these days, you’d think social movements just can’t do anything right. Déjà vu. A couple of years ago, a commentator first branded Arabs as cowardly “mice” for not protesting the Iraq war to his liking. Then, when protests did break out, pundits waved them off for allegedly steering clear of Arab regimes (utterly false, but never mind). Now, when “Down with Mubarak” is a weekly slogan shouted in public on Egyptian streets, the reform movement is shrugged off as either lacking an “alternative vision,” or my favourite, really “tolerated” by Mubarak. What’s going on here? Is it reflexive contrarianism, sheer ignorance, laziness, or something more sinister?

Who cares? Let the regime hacks bark all they want and the uninformed pundits blather on. I think their motives are transparent enough. It’s ordinary people with their legitimate fears and doubts who really matter. They have every right to wonder what comes next. From experience, they know that even if there is regime change, their quality of life stays the same. Or gets worse. Will regime change mean decent schools, adequate and affordable public services, and a dignified life? Ordinary Egyptians have every right to invoke these bottom lines. And to hold fast to bits of homespun wisdom whose logic is impeccable. A man who works in the Ministry of Manpower and moonlights as a taxi driver said to me, “I don’t want Hosni Mubarak, but who knows what comes after him? At least he’s eaten and had his fill, a new one will start robbing us all over again.”

There’s a big difference between these sincere fears, and the efforts of mediocre wordsmiths who belittle and malign the extremely brave and noble actions of Egypt’s activists. So let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s clear that many interests are threatened and bad old ways challenged by the current crest of activism. But this cannot be conflated with the wary sentiments of the public. And these sentiments in turn cannot be marshalled as “reasons” to impugn Egyptian democracy activists. Trepidation toward wholesale change is common even among publics in strong democracies. How much more so for a public suffering from two decades of political repression and economic dysfunction.

I can think of no better response to knee-jerk critics than Czech activist and (later president) Václav Havel’s calm retort to similar carping about his movement. In the The Power of the Powerless, Havel wrote: “Our concern is whether we can live with dignity in such a system, whether it serves people rather than people serving it. We are struggling to achieve this with the means available to us, and the means it makes sense to employ. Western journalists, submerged in the political banalities in which they live, may label our approach as overly legalistic, as too risky, revisionist, counter-revolutionary, bourgeois, communist, or as too right-wing or left-wing. But this is the very last thing that interests us.”

*AP Photo, Kifaya demonstration in Alexandria, August 10, 2005.