Before moving here I saw an Aljazeera documentary about Egypt’s 83 year old revolutionary poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. Never knew this was such a poetic country, but as life goes, the insight quickly collected dust in some forgotten mental drawer. Yesterday evening the Netherlands-Flemish Instituut screened Ahmed Abdallah’s pre-revolutionary (2010) award winning Microphone and I’m sure that reminder ensures the insight is gonna stay around for a bit longer.
Unfortunately I cannot find the particular sequence online but it includes a love poem/song that just blew us (Marjan and me that is) away. The movie is about the underground artists of Alexandria before Mubarak’s fall and again there is a strong albeit different link between poetry and violence and repression.
I must admit that this connection between the beauty and the beast is confusing me. But that is perfectly in tune with everything my new home is doing to me at the moment. One, admittedly very risky way of dealing with it is to read English medium newspapers and as much else that pretends to describe and analyze what’s going on. Very risky because for reasons I’ve hinted at earlier but nevertheless worthwhile, because I like reading, because what other choices do I have? and because it might at least give me some grip on the the variety of perspectives, something I’ve illustrated elsewhere with reading about the financial crisis.
Two recent assessments from the media that tend to reflect and influence “international community” opinion confirm that my gut felt uncomfortable confusion is in line with circles of influential Egypt-watchers. The Economist published an assessment of the current situation and some excerpts will give you a flavour of its tone:
Egypt’s economy has foundered dangerously in the absence of firm government policy. Politics has polarised between an ostensibly empowered Islamist camp and a disgruntled, alienated or outright hostile minority that includes much of the educated, urban elite. Amid this mess, fearful for the future and dispirited by haggling politicians, most Egyptians have little appetite for another big upheaval. The army, which stepped in to shunt Mr Mubarak aside and then lingered too long, is reluctant to dirty its hands again…
Mr Morsi is trying harder to coax the NSF into his hitherto vacuous dialogue. He speaks with new seriousness of being open to revising the constitution. He is working on securing backing from the International Monetary Fund for economic reform. Without broad support, though, enacting such reform will be impossible, and so far he has rejected demands to form a broader-based government of national unity, an idea endorsed by leading Salafists as well as the NSF. If he could summon to such a task of reconciliation the boldness he has previously displayed in his own interest, his country might move forward. If he does not, Egypt’s divided narratives will split further asunder. Radical Islamists could seek to settle scores with those they see as challenging “their” revolution. If so their opponents will fight back, and the world’s willingness to help would fade. Miserably, his people might just decide that things were better in the old days.
The international Crisis Group released a conflict alert that reads even more gloomy. This is its first paragraph…
It is difficult to know which is most dangerous: the serious uptick in street violence; President Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s serial inability to reach out to the rest of the political class inclusively; or the opposition clinging to the hope of some extraneous event (demonstrations, foreign pressure, judicial rulings or military intervention) allowing it to gain power while bypassing arduous compromise and politics. They are tied of course: the president’s cavalier treatment of the constitution-writing process and the judiciary and the opposition’s lethargic approach to politics and rejection of Islamist legitimacy alike have eroded the authority of state institutions. This encourages in turn unrest and contributes to the economic slide. Together, these heighten risks of a complete breakdown of law and order. For two years, political factions repeatedly have failed to reach consensus on basic rules of the game, producing a transition persistently threatening to veer off the road. It is past time for the president and opposition to reach an accommodation to restore and preserve the state’s integrity.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the Arab Spring, given the post-revolutionary turmoil the Middle East is now experiencing. But critics forget that it takes time for new democracies to transcend their authoritarian pasts. As the history of political development elsewhere shows, things get better.
I fully agree with the gist of her analysis (my agreement tells you nothing, but hey, it’s my blog…):
In addition to blaming new democratic regimes for the sins of their authoritarian predecessors, critics also set absurdly high benchmarks for success, ones that lack any historical perspective. They interpret post-transition violence, corruption, confusion, and incompetence as signs that particular countries (or even entire regions or religions) are not ready for democracy, as if normal democratic transitions lead smoothly and directly to stable liberal outcomes and countries that stumble along the way must have something wrong with them. In fact, stable liberal democracy usually emerges only at the end of long, often violent struggles, with many twists, turns, false starts, and detours.
But should this make me happy and less confused? What I read is that it may take a life time for the confusion to settle. It’s difficult not to be impatient if one only has one lifetime, and I share that with Egyptians so seems bad news for them also.
This weekend’s Egypt independent had a review of another, more recent film, by a foreign director, that also tries to capture this weird mix of very harsh realities and unexpected beauty.
In all of this what gives me hope is that my background doesn’t prepare me well for big city, big country confusion. To show you where I come from, have a look at what the Dutch think is a big city. It’s old (1978) but the choice is deliberate:
- since then, so much less has changed in this city than in a city like Cairo
- the kind of cars driving 1978 Amsterdam streets still cruise Cairo streets
- the song mentions an Arab (for the lyrics go here)