Who can lead Egypt into the light?

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen


Three conditions are required to establish good governance in Egypt: An organized political group, the clear articulation of public policies that have the potential to reverse state failure, and the building of sustained support among the poor majority and significant social groups. Today, none of the current political actors meet these three conditions.

As I argued in parts 1 and 2 of this series, the ruling military elite is incapable of reversing state failure, and therefore will lose public support and eventually be compelled to retreat. I also suggested that current oppositional groups are no different from the ruling military in this regard, and consequently have little chance of succeeding.

In this article, I argue that a third “group” is the only actor with the potential to rescue Egypt from chronic failure.

A group unconscious of itself

It wasn’t a dream! — Seven years ago a revolution took place in Egypt. Millions took to the streets calling for “bread, freedom and social justice!” The world — and many Egyptians — took note of how different these protesters were from the stereotypical apathetic Egyptian. Where did these crowds disappear to? — Did they realize they were “pawns in a global conspiracy against Egyptian security agencies” and repent?

Of course not. They are merely lying dormant, waiting, still desiring to change the regime and build a new state. The state they dream of is one that empowers its citizens instead of using them in a quest for power; its rulers are accountable to the people, not the other way around; its laws protect citizens rather than threaten them, and it seeks to be part of the world and not to antagonize it.

Nevertheless, these millions are waiting for their dream to materialize instead of actively seeking it. They constitute an audience, not an organized political actor capable of taking on its rivals and pursuing its agenda. And this is precisely my point. What would happen if these millions became conscious that they form a distinct group, with common interests and visions? And, if they were to develop a collective consciousness, would a political group emerge from among them that might seek to transform their dreams of change into public policies that they might build support around? Or, would they opt to remain spectators, waiting for the old political players to achieve their dreams?

Who is this ‘new group’?

What makes this group distinct is its emerging culture, with values, mindsets and visions of the self and the other that were previously only present at the margins of mainstream Egyptian society. And, like all great social transformations, this “new culture” is still in flux; it is neither complete nor coherent … yet. Its adherents are still struggling between its values and those of an older, more mainstream culture.

This struggle includes debates around the meaning and boundaries of equality, freedom and individual responsibility. Having grown up with limited understandings of equality and personal freedoms under the law, the members of this group have expanded such notions to include the personal and physical, not just political. A similar trajectory took place regarding the concept of individual responsibility. Members of this group grew up rejecting their historical treatment as subjects and demanding their rights as citizens, and this notion too has been expanded to include the rejection of other forms of authority. The struggle takes place daily, in both the public and private domains, and includes aspects such as gender dynamics, inheritance laws, sexual freedoms, divorce, religious freedoms, and so on. And, while there is no consensus yet on the parameters ascribed to these values, the fact that they are subject to questioning and review is in itself a new dynamic.  

Members of this potential new group also struggle with new modes of thought that question received knowledge and established “truths.” They ask whether religious fatwas should be followed or scrutinized using reason; whether “sacred” texts should be accepted at face value or debated, and what might be the limitations of interpretation. They question established notions of faith, religion and deity. They also question inherited world views about Egypt being “the mother of the world,” or Palestine being the central national cause, all the way to the very notions of nationalism and patriotism. They generally display a higher degree of pragmatism, moving away from evaluating the validity of a proposition based on its conformity with ancestral references (holy books or traditions), to evaluating the potential consequences of their actions.

Finally, this group tends to favor interest over identity. Historically, Egyptians have been obsessed with their identities, whether Arab, Islamic or something other. These identities often informed their relationship to the state and to the rest of the world. Members of this potential new group are more skeptical about such delineations: they understand that individuals and groups have identities, but they don’t necessarily believe the state should involve itself in such matters. For them, states manage the rights and interests of citizens, enforce law and order and ensure the provision of social services. This new group also aspires to become part of the world, not to oppose or antagnozie it on account of historical, identity-based grievances.

These struggles are obviously more present among younger generations in society, but this is not to suggest that all young people belong to this “new group.” There are, of course, young authoritarians willing to silence their opponents with bullets, young Islamists willing to excommunicate anyone who diverts from their “true path,” and who believe that the state should protect the faith and fight “apostates.” And there are young leftists and anarchists wishing to bring down the global order and overturn capitalism. Moreover, elements of this new culture can be found in some people alongside some of these worldviews. What sets apart this new group I am speaking of is their tendency to question established values, norms and modes of thinking. They do this in the media, in universities, on social media, on the streets, in courts, in the workplace, as well as in their own private settings. This disrupts the old culture, which rejects any enquiry that calls its established truths into question. And no amount of repression can stop this process of cultural change; this “new group” will continue to expand. And, as it does, the fact that old political players do not represent its interests and visions will become increasingly clear.

The ‘new group’ and politics

Members of this group fall into two categories: The first includes those who engaged in politics post 2000 and subsequently worked on different presidential campaigns, and were involved in parties, movements and initiatives that emerged after January 2011. Many of them were not aware of belonging to a different group, as their efforts were focused on opposing the regime, and many of them were co-opted by traditional oppositional groups. The second category includes those who did not get involved in politics in a direct manner. They may have experimented with protesting or showed enthusiasm for the “democratic transition,” voted in elections, or perhaps volunteered once or twice for a political event. Other than this, they stayed out of direct action, and became quickly disillusioned by the return of old faces toward the end of 2012.

The question now is two-fold: Are these potential new political actors capable of escaping the patronage of old, traditional opposition? — of finding their own voices and chartering their own paths? And if not, might others from the broader group — those who didn’t fully engage in politics yet — feel compelled to step in and build a political movement to defend their unrepresented interests? If the answer to both questions is “no,” then we might as well say goodbye to the prospect of good governance in Egypt for a long while.

While the process of social change is rather unstoppable, without an active and sustained political movement, social change could take decades to have an impact on the political reality. In Spain, Franco killed, displaced and imprisoned as many opponents as he could. He even kidnapped their children and handed them to “good citizens” to raise them. His iron fist persisted until the process of social change transformed the political process and ushered Spain into the very democratization and modernization he sought to restrain. Democracy won, without a strong political movement representing modernizing forces, but after decades of tyranny and at a terrible cost.

Into the light?

No one can foresee how many years a similar process might take in Egypt, or how deep we might fall during these years. In my novel Exit Door (2012), and in other writings, I argued that Egypt will find its way to democracy and build a modern and democratic state. In doing so I was not claiming to foretell the future. I wasn’t suggesting either to see such a future as an inevitability that would unfold independently of the active participation of concerned political players. My “predictions” are based on a simple assumption; that social groups act consistently with their general pattern of behavior and not entirely in opposition to their interests.

Today, we have a collective and strong demand for a modern and functioning state. Millions have expressed their strong desire for it, sometimes paid their own lives to make it happen. Is it more reasonable to expect these millions to sit quietly and watch their interests being ignored or to expect them to build a political force in order to defend those interests?

If I am right in placing trust in reason and self interest, then at least some of the “new politicians” will rid themselves of the chains of the old institutions and doctrines. And others from among the wider ranks of this “new group” will emerge. And both will recognize that they form a distinct group, with distinct interests, and with visions for the state that are fundamentally different from the old nationalist, leftist or Islamist doctrines that have dominated Egyptian politics so far.

When they do, they will face the practical questions of operating a political movement under tyranny: how to organize despite repression? How to build a support base among the poor majority that is strong enough to deter the “sword” and the “tank”? And how to develop public policies that are capable of reversing state failure and build a modern, functioning state.

Egypt is not the first society to face such challenges, and there are many answers to these questions, some more valid than others. The key concern, however, should not be seeking answers, but recognition by this group of its own potential — its shared interests and visions — and the recognition of its need to found a political movement that gradually builds popular support and develops public policies that are capable of governing Egypt effectively. When this “new group” recognizes this, its representatives will ask the more practical questions about what operating under challenging conditions might look like, and may find that the answers are closer than they think.

Ezzedine C. Fishere 

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