Speaking truth to power – Part 2

Today marks the end of the glorious 18 days of the January 25 uprising, which had bred a revolution. It was, no doubt, an ecstatic historical moment, where everyone who believed in the revolution felt free. As mentioned in part 1 of this essay, I have come to understand that all these anniversaries are what we make of them. So, I have decided to take January 25, make it my own, and turn it into something a bit different. 

In his New Year’s message to Alaa Abdel Fattah, Belal Fadl, the famous Egyptian writer, made this wish: ‘May every year find you well, and gallant, and free.’ His message gave freedom a whole different meaning. He wrote it knowing that Alaa is held in an Egyptian jail – but nonetheless, he regards him as free. Alaa’s spirit has been tested – it has been tried – and it has been hurt. But the state hasn’t succeeded in confining his spirit. The state can try, but will fail, to silence dissent by jailing activists like Alaa.

Intellectual freedom, and freedom of speech in general, are hard won, and hard kept – refusing to accept the status quo, and insisting upon systematically deconstructing where the status quo is brutalizing and inhumane, requires effort, constant watchfulness, and sacrificing “freedom” — or an aspect of it.

But it is also a trap in and of itself. Before the revolution, as a good friend of mine reminds me, various political forces carved out for themselves spaces of ‘resistance’ within the status quo. Those spaces contributed to the continuation and homeostasis of the modern state, which in turn ultimately ensured that any genuine dissenting voice had to be expressed within the context of a revolution. Typically, those same political forces attempted to leverage that revolutionary moment – indeed, one of them even entered the presidency. But here is where one should wonder if there is an inherent paradox between ‘speaking truth to power’ and acting on grabbing power. I wonder because the basic bedrock of the power structure remains completely the same. And if this is the case, are the revolutionaries destined to be in the opposition, and at the margins?

There is also the trap of being comfortable – too comfortable – in being on the margins. The truth is very often unpopular, and one ought to be prepared to be unpopular. Indeed, it is likely to be the case – but indulging in that is another trap, in and of itself. There is no truth, no value, no courage, in willfully accepting that the truth itself is a marginal position. Only that it is likely that it will be accepted on the margins – and there is a terribly important distinction between the two. One can very easily become comfortable in being on the margins, and in a minority – which would be fine, except that the corollary is that one becomes comfortable and accepting of the fact that the majority don’t hold that truth.

That can never be a voluntary position – it must be resisted. If the truth is indeed, the truth, then at the very least, one ought to wish in their hearts that it be spoken, heard, and understood by others even better than one’s own self understands it. If it isn’t, then it isn’t – and a collected consideration of that is appropriate. But while only a minority may hold the truth, it is nonetheless normative. Mistaking the majority’s position as normative, or normal, is a grave mistake that has nullified many a movement in the past.

One can ask – if this is on the margins, then really, how useful is it? Is it not truly the case that there are two power houses in the midst of this scene, and that they are the primary nodes of power, with those who support the revolution merely on the sidelines? It certainly feels like that to many revolutionaries, one has to admit. It feels as though those two forces that support the present make-up of the state on the one hand, or the ousted Muslim Brotherhood on the other, are the real issues that one has to deal with – with the revolution a passive bi-product that is really not the point. Or, as a friend put it to me: it is that third thing off in the cheap seats in the cinema somewhere.

But when all is said and done… that is, in itself, a complete misreading of the situation.

Firstly, those two camps are in fact reacting to what the revolution itself accomplished – which was to shake the very core of what underpinned the modern, Mubarakite state. Secondly, the issue has never been about power – but about correctness. The revolution was never meant to seek power for itself, but to challenge power to behave ethically, out of an awareness of what is really happening to people, villages, towns, cities and society at large.

This is what is happening. The partisans of former President Mohamed Morsi, and the partisans of the army, are fighting for power. Those who fight for the revolution are trying to fight for what is correct. The revolutionaries made a revolution. The partisans who demand power are those who are scrambling around trying to gather back what they can of what they lost. The revolutionaries are those who are in a position to reach out to people, challenge their perceptions, act, and get others to act.

If there is failure involved here, it is not the failure of the revolution, or the failure of the position of the revolution. Rather, it is the failure of those who believe in that position – and failing to respond to it adequately.

That path, which to my mind underpinned the very nature of the Egyptian revolution, is a hard one to uphold. It means rejecting the binary choice between the deep state and the Brotherhood, and insisting on focusing on holding all parties to account when they engage in different types and measures of oppression. This is a dangerous path to uphold, as I mentioned above – because it is deeply unpopular on both sides of the divide.

The worldviews of the two main forces become more depraved in their views of this being a cosmic war. Dehumanization and demonization does not seem to cease, and at least on the level of rhetoric, if not on the level of capacity and responsibility, there is parity between the most radical of supporters on both sides. Rejection of the two larger camps in Egypt indeed comes at a price – one side describes it as essentially treasonous in the midst of a ‘war on terror’, and the other considers it to be tacit support for a security-state crackdown on dissent.

But it is, at least to my mind, the most honest path to pursue. Yes, it is on the margins – which is where it ought to be, in something of a world gone mad. When the world becomes saner, we can reconsider that positioning – and we ought to keep working for that to happen. We should not forget that.

If nothing else, what we have gained in the past three years is an awareness that indeed, things are truly not as they ought to be. When we feel that actually things are getting better, we must stop, and ask again, never failing to be vigilant against falling into a trap. Our most hard-earned prize of the past few years has been to recognize how things truly are; where we do actually all stand; and how consistent we are to our principles. It is a valuable prize. If nothing else, rejoice in that on January 25 of every year and every day before and after.

I am indebted to Waleed Almusharaf for his thoughts, counsel and sincere friendship – and after that, his deeply insightful comments on this two-part essay, which strengthened it even more. It also made it longer, so one can blame him for that.

H.A. Hellyer 

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