Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Comment on What Happened

by Tarek Heggy

The title of these observations comes from a poem, "Comment on What Happened," published in September 1970 by Amal Dunqal, one of the finest Arab poets of the twentieth century. The poem is known to every Arab intellectual, and inspired these thoughts:

- Recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen in have some common denominators, among which the most important are that these events occurred in three countries ruled by "an army," and ruled by men who have been sitting on their seats of power for decades (21 years for Tunisia, 30 years for Egypt, and 33 years for Yemen). In all three instances there was a perverse desire to pass sovereignty to a son (because no woman would be able to do that) or a family member --as they say in Egypt: "Good blood does not lie"! In all three instances, legendary corruption reigns at the highest levels. Moreover, in all three, there is a presidential system in which the Constitution gives the President broad powers that make him able to do anything, except to resurrect the dead and make the sun rise from the west.

- The pillars of the regime underestimated, in Tunisia -- and are still underestimating today in Egypt and Yemen -- the size and value of what has happened; instead, they project blame for it on "infiltration" and "foreign agents"-- a well known pattern of response in these totalitarian regimes.

- The three political systems have watched (and are still watching, in Egypt and Yemen) what is happening, and are seeking to handle the situation from the standpoint of safety alone, without giving rise to any political, cultural and social analysis. This too is natural for totalitarian regimes, where culture is regarded with little respect, as if it were a profession of "windbags" or, as I was told over twenty years ago by a member of one of these regimes, they believe that "culture is the profession of those who can not do any work."

- The regimes against which the people in the streets are demonstrating (in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen) are not loved at all: people are demanding they be removed. Over the years they have become "oligarchies" (a band of rogues), whose members are united by a Catholic marriage between the rulers and a number of "entrepreneurs," who all have become incredibly rich without any effort, without efficiency or excellence, but only through powerful political muscle provided by these same groups under the auspices of a rigid monopoly.

- The regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have "sold" to the only superpower in the world (which is immersed up to its neck in naivety and superficiality, and which pays attention only to material goods, even if this attitude is to the detriment of the foundations of civilization), the idea that in the three countries, the choice is between "the gang in power" or "the Islamists." The tragedy lies in the situation created by these rulers -- a situation that led the superpower (which also needs intensive courses in history and geography) to believe these rulers are the lesser of two evils -- a "better disaster." The ruling regimes in the countries afflicted by political and financial ideologies have wasted all their energy focusing -- both internally and externally -- instead of on the primary issues of establishing institutions of democracy -- such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, property rights, and equal justice under law, and free elections -- on the Gaza Strip. How many times has the president of one of these countries repeated -- of course, in all his undeniable wisdom, the declaration: "I have suggested to America, I told them, but they did not follow my advice!" ?

- There is, in these the three countries, a huge gap -- a frightening chasm -- between "the haves" and "have-nots." The worst example undoubtedly comes from Egypt, where about 40 million people (a bit fewer than half) live below the poverty line, or on two dollars or less per day. One can dd to this a high illiteracy rate (only half of Egyptians are literate), and the fact that about 60% of those who are literate are victims of the consequences of corrupt and horrible education systems, as well as suffering from "cultural illiteracy," unhitched from reality. It is the combination of these twin diseases -- poverty and ignorance -- that makes Egypt the most serious political in the Arab region, and the Egyptian situation the most likely to explode, and perhaps in a less systematic and in a way more harmful to Western values of freedom, pluralism and economic opportunity, than what we saw in Tunisia.

Although one can find other common denominators between the "popular uprising in Tunisia" and the "popular uprising in Egypt", these are the six factors that identify the main similarities between them. If, however, one can speak of common factors, logic requires also shedding some light on the differences between "the Tunisian case" and "the Egyptian case."

The most important differences lie in the specificity, education, culture and economic status of the segments of the middle classes (medium-high, medium, and medium-low) of the two countries.

The quality of Tunisia's middle class is broader, more advanced and closer to European standards compared to Egyptian education, which lives on the edge of degradation at all levels and which has been penetrated by a backward and horrifying Wahhabi-Saudi culture.

Tunisian culture in the middle class is more marked by the progress of the modern world, and less influenced by traditional and conservative values that intellectually paralyze large segments of the Egyptian middle class.

In addition, the economic condition of the Tunisian middle class is much higher than the miserable economic condition of the Egyptian middle class, primarily based on the differences between in both their literacy rates, which in Tunisia is vastly higher, and their educational systems, as described above.

The second major difference concerns the trade unions in general and workers in particular. In Tunisia, union leaders have been appointed in a completely independent way, not by the political leadership and the government; the Egyptian trade union leaders, however, are mere "followers" of power. While union leaders in Tunisia belong to the left, trade union leaders in Egypt either serve the central government or are "closer to Islamists."

The third difference between Egypt and Tunisia is geographic: Whereas Egypt is close to Saudi Arabia, Gaza and Sudan, Tunisia is close to France, Italy and Spain. The cultural consequences of this geographical circumstance need not be explained.

It might help to address some questions circulating these days in Egypt: What will happen next? What should we expect in the days and weeks to come?

The government appears to be failing to contain and suppress the uprising that began on the morning of January 25, 2011. The "attempt to minimize the size and significance of what is happening," and to block protests and communications, are being made by the government and its followers (including the "big" government-appointed journalists, who are swapped in and out, as needed) to try to retain power. The snowball will most likely continue, however, to roll and grow in size and mass to force the government and its followers to face reality.

The most likely scenario is that the President will make certain concessions to the "rioters;" he has already appointed a new government, and might declare his intention not to run for a sixth term of office (it was enough to rule Egypt for 30 years!), as well assuring the people that his son will not be his successor (Gamal Mubarak's candidacy -- with the office of President is criticized by most of the demonstrators, an idea that the majority of Egyptians, with the sole exception of people linked to the current regime -- was considered offensive to the dignity of Egypt and the Egyptians). The President will offer a handful of promises of political and economic reforms; this offer will will probably occur after the revolt worsens and he will have realised the impossibility of controlling it without using a very large dose of violence, with the loss of many lives --consequently ruling out this scenario for national and international reasons. There is also the less-likely chance that the regime chooses not to take sides in the middle of the storm, but this scenario could lead to involvement in the crisis of "armed forces," placing Egypt in the hands of the army. This would hurt Egypt politically, economically and culturally, and it would do much damage to its strategic value.

There is still a crucial question: Are not Egyptians known, as the Muslim commander, Amr ibn al-As,who led the conquest of Egypt, said, as "a people who instinctively rebel only when there is no bread"? History (that of Ibn Iyas for example) tells us that in times of famine, the Egyptians were eating dogs and cats, but they did not turn their anger directly against the king or Pharaoh.The current president ascended to power in 1981; the Egyptians who rebel today are completely different from the Egyptians who saw Hosni Mubarak in power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6th, 1981. The Egyptians of the Eighties were the "sons and daughters" of the Egyptian state, spineless citizens, employees working for the state, ruled by the Pharaoh. The Egyptians who rebel today are children of globalization, the Internet and Facebook. Most of them are not employed by the State, and thanks to modern technology, they are well informed about the outside world, perfectly familiar with the terrible difference between governing-governments and servile-governments. These are the people feeding the snowball that will gather mass and force a change, while at the same time bring the insurgency to a "critical threshold" so that things will no longer be as before ... Let us just hope that what follows will be for the better.

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Tarek Heggy
Translated from the Arabic by Valentina Colombo

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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