There was a smell of inevitability in the air. We could not make out whether it was the inevitability of change or the permanence of that moment. It conjured up the feeling of a familiar angst that had been buried but was shallow enough to be palpable. It also evoked a panic about the uncharted territory we were about to tread. But who would be expected to take the first step to activate this inevitability? What would lie ahead? Were we staring down the abyss? Or were we on the verge of opening the door into the wide expanse?
The courage to forge forward would have been easier to summon had it not been for our battered bodies, traumatized minds and injured souls. Three years have taught us to celebrate but not rejoice, trust but not believe, serve but not commit, shout but not yell, resolve but not reconcile, hope but not dream, imagine but not fantasize, and forgive but not forget. Battle-worn from struggles waged, we never lost, but hardly won, we knew no allies. How do we take this step when we have adversaries in our midst? How do we take this step when we are summoning our oppressors of yesteryear to rescue us from today’s tyrants?
When Mubarak was comfortably sunbathing in 2010, we didn’t know what inevitability smelled like. Nevertheless, we stared down the unknown and forged forward with blind naiveté. We prevailed, or so it seemed. When the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces shepherded us toward the edge of the abyss, we recognized the smell of inevitability and stood planted on our spot. We prevailed, or so it seemed. Today we stand on the precipice of inevitability once more. The Muslim Brotherhood’s man has torn the very fabric of our being apart. So we mobilized but remained in limbo. We were motivated but hopeless. Divided but not conquered. We misguidedly and masochistically rejoiced at the prospect of our once-oppressor’s return.
For a year, we have been given no option but to watch as a theater of the absurd unfolded before our eyes. Led to believe we controlled the outcomes, that we are masters of our destiny, instead we became spectators in our own downfall. All that we had been promised and had commemorated became a mirage. What prevailed was a visual illusion that obscured our decaying viscera with a glowing façade. Everyone spoke in the name of the revolution — from the Islamists who avoided it from outset, to the military who undermined it, and to the former regime who fought it. In all circumstances, political rivalry seemed to have pitted “the revolution” against “the revolution.” The nebulous authenticity of “revolution” was lost under the weight of a deafening chorus of “legitimacy.” Every group in Egyptian society chanted “Thuwar, ahrar, hankamel el meshwar” (Revolutionaries, the free, we will continue our journey), including the police forces! The revolution had officially begun self-cannibalizing.
On June 30 last week, we stood on the precipice of history. Not because the revolution rediscovered its bearings in the incomprehensible incompetence of those at the helm, but rather because the revolution refused to die at their hands. One need not rehash the logical justifications or morose details about why and how we had reached that point. With a quarter of all Egyptians calling for dramatic and revolutionary change and using their bodies to back their will, there was no rationale to rationalizing. Revolutions are at their core purely irrational. Undemocratic, yet, in their DNA they are the essence of democracy; revolutions are eruptions of popular expression. In a country where disillusionment with the electoral system has yielded a rapid decline in voter participation, popular sovereignty took on new forms. One of the most instrumental of these is a far greater investment than standing in line for a few hours to cast a ballot in a matter of minutes. It is the more entrenched self-sacrificial act of using one’s living corpus to represent in public space for days. The millions of women who came out en mass and unfortunately risked sexual violation to shout down the regime are participating in a hard-earned democratic right far more noble than sliding a paper into a slot once every four years.
Calling it illegitimate in contrast to the ballot box is itself a de-legitimization of the box and all those who valiantly defend it as messianic deliverer. Building democratic institutions is more than indoctrinating the public into systematized and periodic participation in an assembly-line of public opinion-management. The Egyptian public over the past three years has been teeming with democratic engagement and deliberation. Beyond the 12 rounds of voting, tens of millions have regularly participated in protests, strikes and boycotts. Organized yet spontaneous, strategic yet impulsive, this level of public engagement is the envy of long-standing democracies that have become recalcitrant and disconnected from their citizenry. A symptom of established democracies is political lethargy in between voting seasons. Egypt today is the definition of political engagement. A level of democratic entrenchment has made it possible for a petition to gather over 22 million signatures, a quarter of the nation’s population, calling for the toppling of a president who was elected with fewer votes than impeachment signatures. And the call of the petition is the demand for early elections.
In the language of governance and politics, incompetence is not grounds for impeachment or preemptive revocation of privilege. Instead, legitimacy — an elastic abstraction of a term — is often the logic used to sustain the status quo against all odds. A powerful a rhetorical tool, “legitimacy” has become so integral to protecting the status quo that Morsi invoked it 57 times in one hour-long speech. Lest we forget he was elected. But we have not forgotten. We remember his electoral legitimacy. It is unforgettable in its broken campaign promises. It is unforgettable in its torture chambers at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace. It is unforgettable in its divisive constitution, divisive rhetoric, divisive policies, divisive rallies, divisive appointments, divisive posturing and divisive demeanor. In one short year, Morsi has turned political difference and competing visions into intractable irreconcilable divisions between Egyptians that are used to justify violence against one another.
The legitimacy he has so conveniently padded himself with was no longer protective. And while the Constitution only stipulated high treason as grounds for impeachment, Morsi had already crossed that line. Like a surgeon who violates the Hippocratic Oath, Morsi did not simply commit malpractice by giving the wrong dose. He maimed the patient, forgot the scalpel in its body and then erased all evidence of his botched operation. If pushing Egypt to the brink of civil war for the first time in its history in just one year of rule is not grounds for high treason, then I am not sure what is.
Today, and after June 30, with Morsi ousted by the military, the same feeling of inevitability hangs in the air. While we chose radical change over the status quo, we were unsure what tomorrow would bring. Sadly, we have been handed back to our executioners. With the recent massacre of Morsi supporters at the hands of the military, with our principles tested, and allegiances unsettled, we find ourselves once again staring the abyss in the face. Those who promised to deliver us from tyranny have handed us back to it. And while we have attempted to avoid our mistakes of yesteryear, we have fallen into the same trap again. A constitutional declaration from the interim President Adly Mansour released without the consultation of political groups and youth revolutionaries resets the clock back to the SCAF’s 18-month engineered flawed transition.
At this time, Egypt doesn’t need cosmetic adjustments, as all systems are failing. What the country is desperately in need of is the ability to reboot the system. Anything short of a complete Ctl-Alt-Delete will likely render the outcomes inevitably gruesome and disappointing. And despite that, the outcomes of restarting the system could themselves be the very abyss we so desperately avoided.