Monday, December 12, 2011

Between Slaughter and Elections

A harrowing picture to add to the most memorable about 2011: a lone girl standing over a pile of death, some faces barely in their teens; some still in babyhood. The contortions of anguish, you think, as she registers the horrific sight that engulfs her. A family gone, perhaps; a life, hers, theirs, ended by unfathomable, unfathomable, you keep repeating to yourself, cruelty and madness.

You stare and then you click, desperate to leave her, because the moment is you at your most ridiculous.

Not that the murderers in Afghanistan who harvested 63 Shiite souls last Tuesday had it in mind, but the picture of a people dying there while another in Egypt were rambunctiously voting is sort of apt: a juxtaposition of yearnings, one for a nightmarish kind of silence, the other for a less painful existence; two orgies, of death and of life; a clean break between future and past…you pray.

I wonder if I am reading too much into these two events, drawing a line between them that’s not there, or even scrubbing out of them the messy realities that bind trauma to joy in this embattled region.  

In any case, it is early days yet. “Spring” is barely behind us, and already elections are being oversold as good behavior certificates. That’s the thing about elections: they’re so damned convenient. They could be the most visible manifestation of a people’s will or the easiest forgeries of it; they’re the quickest fix for revolution, or war, or peace…when it starts itching for tangible yields.  

And the yield in Egypt, as disheartening as it seems to many, is nothing short of enlightening. You’re too quick to the trigger if you think I am about to marvel at the Islamists’ win. As surprising as it is to those who must have been living on Mars for the past few decades, it is in fact the least interesting revelation about Egypt’s mood and our reactions to it.  

By way of the obligatory preface, let me stress that the motive here is not to debunk the ballot’s judgment in this first round, however imperfect the performance has been: the disorganization, the tricks, the miles-long lines, the money flooding in from some friendly folks in the area looking to elbow their way of life in... It is almost impossible to measure this imperfection’s impact on the final tally, although there is much benefit to the public good in harping loudly and frequently about the point.

And, yes, much can be (and has already been) said against a bizarre electoral process that defies—because, of course, it means to—all sense. In this, the Egyptians are not alone, although they do stand at the extreme end of electoral systems that insist on convoluted interpretations of the people’s intent.

But such are the current rules of this Egyptian game, such are its weaknesses and such is the upshot: the Islamists, combined, are almost sure to enjoy more than 60 percent of the vote and constitute the majority in parliament.

This is not, however, where I really want to go. The elections in Egypt are only a small part of a much bigger, still blank canvas of change. What they draw for us are just a few pieces of the final picture. It’s the trends that dance around them that are worth a lingering thought.  

And one very clear thought for the jubilant and the defeated is that victory should never beget silence—not when the soul of a nation is being negotiated between its people. There is nothing run-of-the-mill about these times and nothing ordinary about the winds that have converged to rid us of a certain way of politics and life. Even when we ought to nod to the ballot’s verdict, there is no tyranny that should attach itself to the fundamentals that will govern the space to which we all need to belong. Otherwise, elections become little more than shortcuts to dictatorship, the most dangerous chinks in the democratic edifice they are meant to protect.

In my last post about Arab Women and Revolution, a few of Islamism’s fans insisted that this is the time to let the winning side show its stuff in quietude. But consensus is never born in silence, it emerges only when the discussion remains vibrant. Track records, ideology, convictions, hope, indeed skepticism, have a role to play in plotting the future’s trajectory, because the future is for everybody, winners and losers alike. Otherwise, let your eyes never leave that lone woman.

Here’s another thought, for what it’s worth: In this first round, voter turnout stood at 52 percent, of which the Muslim Brothers’ party list won around 37 percent, the Salafists' 24 percent. Almost half of eligible voters in these districts did not vote. That leaves the MB and the Salafists with 31 percent (19 and 12 percent, respectively) of the entire spectrum of voters—respectable by any standard but nowhere near enough to put a halt to the country’s momentous discourse.  

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Now for the Women of Egypt?

We are barely through the first stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections and the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, having clinched well over 50 percent of the vote, are already rhapsodizing about the beauty of democracy which was to the Salafists—until, when was it, yesterday?--a Western concoction alien to the spirit and letter of Islam.

Many are already in a panic. And with good reason. Widen the lens to the larger Middle East and you will very quickly discover that, left to its own devices, Islamism is never in the mood to engage. Witness Iran since 1979, Sudan since 1989, Gaza since 2006… With a majority in parliament, Egyptian Islamists could easily decide there is nothing really to discuss. But what makes these examples uniquely revelatory is the one feature they all share: domination of the state and its tools of coercion by the ruling party. 

Egyptians fretting about their liberties should keep this foremost in their calculus. That, so far, the Muslim Brotherhood is having to argue its case all the way to the altar does suggest that Bayat’s post-Islamist realities have already started creeping into Egypt, but what it also reflects is the MB’s keen awareness of the imperatives of accommodation in a country in which it has considerable reach and influence but one which it does not control--yet. If only for this, Egypt’s future promises to be different from Iran’s or any of these other Islamist polities.

Juxtapose revolutionary Egypt and Iran if you like. You don’t have to peer too closely before the disparities begin to impose themselves. Note how the left quickly sublimated its beliefs to Khomeini’s, and watch the reticence of Egypt’s leftists and liberals, however disorganized they currently are. Register how Iran’s army was swiftly kicked out of the political arena in ‘79, and how Egypt’s very likely will retain much of its heft in Egyptian politics. Mark the fact that Iran’s youth gave all, in awe to the presence and charisma of the septuagenarian Khomeini, and how Egypt’s are just not buying in a marketplace conspicuously empty of such overpowering men.

But, most of all, remember that Egypt’s victorious Islamists will soon populate a government that has already incorporated quite a bit of what they preach, whereas Khomeini had to start practically from scratch. That’s the road Mubarak paved so nicely for his Brothers, and if things turn out badly, that may well turn out to be his most enduring legacy.

But if religious conservatism brings Iran and Egypt together in many social mores and legal codes, so do the years that have tested the solutions of political Islam itself. On that fundamental matter of piety alone, the sure rewards in Iran have been as mocked by burgeoning prostitution and rampant drug abuse as they have been by widespread sexual harassment in Egypt, where close to 80% of adult females are veiled.

The electoral results appear to argue against such talk; after all, how much skepticism can there be in a landslide? And yet, it would be pure folly to assume that the numbers confirm an outright, wholesale embrace of fundamentalist convictions. There is much to disentangle in this unfolding Egyptian story, and we are still on the very first page. What’s more, we all know that only a few of its authors are Egyptian and only some of the events likely to impact it will be homegrown.

As Pankaj Mishra points out in a recent piece, the electoral rise of political Islam may owe much to the Arab people’s deep comfort with Islamic principles as ultimate guidelines in politics as in life. But it doubtless owes just as much to a relentless, decades long hammering of civil society by oppressive regimes that cynically shored up Islamism at the expense of all other trends. 

In any case, we soon will find out, as Mishra puts it, “…whether and how the new Islam-minded rulers of the Arab world will enshrine [diversity and pluralism] in legal and political institutions as opposed to declaring that the Shariah contains all that you need.”  

Needless to say, the quintessential test will be how these rulers proceed on the question of us women. 


The moment, as unnerving as it is, calls for extreme vigilance and grit, not panic and fear.

The Egyptian revolution has forced the political playing field wide open. It is crucial that it remain so. Just as this new climate has already challenged the SCAF, it shall the MB and Salafists. How these three antagonists-cum-allies interact in this crucial stage is, of course, of serious consequence for the future of a democratic Egypt, but without control over the state’s tools of coercion and violence, the Islamists can neither unilaterally impose their will nor circumvent the judgment of future ballots.

Alas, for Egypt’s women, the path forward will be full of pitfalls and setbacks and insults and assaults and groping... The violence that women have been subjected to in Tahrir Square before anywhere else stands as a sad marker of the misogyny that unites many an oppressor and revolutionary. But Egyptian women need only recall Iran’s in reassuring themselves that tenacity and ingenuity can beat even the worst of odds.