Saturday, June 9, 2012

Feeling Good and Bad about Umm al Dunya?

Thoughts on Egypt

It’s a sign of our extraordinary times that you could—and without appearing remotely stupid--feel at once good and bad about Egypt.

The frantic twists and turns of revolt jerk you between dread and anticipation. Adding to the frenzy are the many meanings that accompany every event and the many implications that haunt each one of them. There are those who suspect that Egypt is not in genuine flux and that this is all part of an elaborate show by the old guard to reclaim the initiative. The more plausible explanation is that it is, and what in fact we are experiencing is the tension borne out of a country on the edge which hasn’t quite made up its mind to jump.

Some would call this the inevitable tug of war between revolution and counterrevolution. That’s another easy one, neatly pitting two forces against one another and giving each its slogans and stark colors. The endless barrage of rumors, the intrigue that hovers like a mist over Tahrir, the many cards the SCAF is still holding close to its heart, the barely concealed eagerness of the Muslim Brotherhood to deal, the erratic temperament of the rebels, the it-could-be-this and then again it-could-be-that quality of the general political discourse… all these, they say, are the unmistakable symptoms of a stuttering revolt and a tenacious “deep state” reinforcing its dikes.

“Whatever!” as an Egyptian friend of mine has recently fallen into the habit of repeating like a mantra.

There is, of course, a very heated conversation going on in Egypt, but it is not between protagonists standing on opposite sides of the divide, but between the yearnings and dreams and fears and hopes that keep jumping camps, blurring the lines between enemies and friends and wreaking havoc even within the soul itself. Messy situations are the stuff of revolutionary tumult, one is tempted to surmise, but there is more to it than that. This is a furious people, no doubt, fed up with much of the past but very tentatively feeling their way forward.

This is indeed the changing face of Egypt, and its children haven’t quite decided how much of the new they want to take on and how much of the old they need to hold onto. There is nothing assuredly upbeat about this picture, but the visage is beautiful all the same. Egypt is in pain, traumatized, angry, and unusually defiant but still not free from its old masters’ embrace. That’s the idea, conspiracy talk might persuade you, and who wants to argue with ghosts and shadows? Anyone watching Egypt closely will see the keen turn of the pen of a people reimagining a future once deemed foreordained.  

I was in Cairo last week, right after the first round of the presidential elections. The results tickle and unnerve. Most pundits, not surprisingly, are churning out the easiest takes: the fast one that might have been pulled on the Egyptian voter, leading to a run off between Mubarak—yes, Mubarak!--and the Muslim Brotherhood, the same two old geezers that have dominated state and society for the last 40 years. Politics as usual, the evidence screams, is alive and well on the Nile. Even if you were generous enough to consider the MB’s strides as genuinely “subversive,” the stubborn continuities in the political scene seem to mock the pace and depth of the revolution. At first look, the choice today appears as ugly as it was before January 2011: “Despotism in the name of the state versus despotism in the name of religion,” as leftist candidate Hamdin Sabbahi aptly described it.

And yet, as muddied as the results were, intriguingly they do still tell tales about that changing face of Egypt. In its simplest version, the unfolding setting is of a perky if harried nation that has moved on and a pummeled status quo (the MB included) trying very hard to reconstitute the many shattered pieces of itself.

The politics, by turns volatile and predictable, fascinates. Discussions with friends and colleagues are like miniature impressions of a much larger patchwork. One boycotted the entire process; another struggled between candidates till the very last second, while her “capitalist” parents went with socialist Khaled Ali; a third voted for Sabbahi but will void the ballot in the final round; a fourth voted the same but will go for Ahmad Shafiq this time around… All are bona fide members of the Square, two are longstanding activists...--voters freely strolling up and down the electoral map.

Remarkably, while the elections’ many perceived flaws have further undercut the struggling legitimacy of the political system, they have nowhere touched the deeper trends revealed by these same elections. And, paradoxically, all that went wrong and right about the vote bodes equally bad for the two players that stand behind Shafiq and Mohammad Mursi, the first round’s two winners.  

While the SCAF has to brace itself now for possibly yet another resurrection of Tahrir Square, made more likely by the latest court verdicts that essentially acquitted the security apparatus, the Muslim Brotherhood has to contend with results that brought in Mursi first and last. Around 25% of a low 46% voter turnout and 10% of total eligible votes is a lousy return on an 80-year old investment. This after a grueling campaign as well that dragged God himself down into the muck of the political arena.

This unimpressive performance may not have immediate connotations for the MB’s ability to keep racking up political positions like so many trophies, but it does say plenty about the kind of influence it will be able to wield through those pulpits.

It might be sometime before we can fully discern the vote’s significance for the crucial question of Islam and identity that has harangued us Arabs for the better part of the 20th century. But at this palpably low level of enthusiasm for the Brothers and their plans--a revelation that is but one of many pointing to the challenges unleashed by the emerging political climate—we can more forcefully caution against the rush of ill-considered warnings about Islamism overtaking Arab life.

The primacy of Islam is settled, the argument has it, even among vociferous secularists. There are no ifs anymore in this contested realm, just the hows. One school of thought, different branches. One heaven, different floors. One hydra, different heads. One solution, different applications. The same plate, different recipes…

But, in fact, for years now, there have been clear signs that Arab identity—no less than the Iranian one--is infinitely more capacious than Islamism would like it to be. As Professor Assef Bayat argues, post-Islamist currents within many Islamist movements or regimes are in their essence a response to societies’ insistence on pushing the boundaries. In describing post-Islamism as both a condition and a project, Bayat proposes that its aspiration is “to turn the underlying principles of Islamism on its head by emphasizing rights instead of duties, plurality in place of a singular authoritative voice, historicity rather than fixed scriptures, and the future instead of the past.“ In other words, it promises the end of the Islamist experiment itself.

Presidential contender Abd al Muni’m Abu al Fotouh, dubbed a post-Islamist by many of his admirers, often declares that Islam has won as part of his message that it is time to close the file on Islam’s place in public life. In long evolving landscapes now finally accommodating and possibly nurturing a much more vibrant kind of participatory politics, we will have the chance to find out what Islam has won exactly. But the Egyptian election results tell us that, far from being over, the real debate over the matter of identity has just begun.