In the wake of horrendous violence and at the precipice of what is surely more to come, it may seem a bit premature or idealistic to talk of moving towards reconciliation. Yet it seems that this has led the discourse surrounding the past week to be focused on the wrong things. Any mention of reconciliation is predicated on the idea that there must be a return to political action. I want to get more basic than that.
There are two main obstacles to overcome if Egypt is to ever move forward towards reconciliation, and it may come as a surprise to many that I don’t consider violence to be one of them. The violence that has erupted, while perhaps unprecedented and certainly abhorrent, is only a bloody symptom of a larger disease.
On one hand, you have the military whose modus operandi has been and always will be violence: precisely the reason why they have no business running a state. Then you have the Muslim Brotherhood, an altogether more complex and diffuse beast, but one that at the end of the day is more than willing to employ violence themselves.
The difference being with the Brotherhood that their violence is enacted in large part through civilians, whether it is through direct arms, the use of innocent supporters as human shields for the leaders who prefer to slip away in the night, or attacks on minority scapegoats. We cannot reasonably expect either the military or the Brotherhood to ever accept culpability for the ongoing loss of innocent life, but any leader willing to sacrifice Egyptian blood has just that on their own hands.
Yet it is crucial to see past this violence and to the real obstacles. Of which, the first to be surmounted must be language. Before Egypt can begin addressing the violent rhetoric espoused on both sides, it must clear its airspace of simplistic voices. Many media outlets, both western and otherwise, continue to paint Egypt in black and white despite the hard reality that there is no easy truth here. Sara Abou Bakr of the Daily News Egypt recently touched on the complexity of the current situation in her most recent piece.
Despite this, a number of editorials sought to describe the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in as Egypt’s Tiananmen. When reading for at least a marginal acknowledgement of the Brotherhood’s hand in violence, I found this possibility dismissed under the absurd assertion that the Brotherhood “does not and cannot control” these elements.
Talking to anyone who lived or worked near the sit-ins or a quick glance at the Freedom and Justice Party’s official Facebook page indicates such a claim is far from fact (original Arabic and English translation here). I never in my life thought I would be digging through Facebook as an alternative to storied media outlets, but it speaks to the chaos of current events.
This doesn’t even take into account the inane, ongoing coup debate, complete with accusations of collusion with western powers. I want to emphasise: when both sides accuse the other of conspiring with the same party, it should be apparent that neither knows what the hell is going on.
This makes it refreshing to see that Tamarod has joined the campaign to end US aid and cancel the Camp David treaty as a first step towards greater sovereignty. Such action is precisely what Egypt needs more of now: it rejects aimless debate and offers a way forward with language and action that renders external players irrelevant.
Moreover, it moves toward clearing the second obstacle: calcified institutions, wherein lies the real root of violence. It is not enough to say “the military is the problem,” or “the Brotherhood is the problem.” The problem is that Egypt’s political institutions have long been ruled through channels so polluted and corrupt that Mother Theresa wouldn’t be able to pass through them without being stripped of every peace prize and beatification ever bestowed upon her. This is precisely the reason why it didn’t really matter who ended up in office last June: they were screwed from the start.
I have been reminded the past few days of the conclusion to Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs. Betrayed, surrounded, out of ammo and faced with certain defeat, the protagonist Said Mahran refuses surrender and chooses instead to make resistance his final act and in doing so is gunned down by the police. Even if you haven’t read it, this really shouldn’t spoil the ending; you know Mahran’s story would end this way from the start. He is the epitome of the Egyptian spirit: giving up or betraying what you believe in is a fate worse than death, especially when what you believe in is all you have left.
This spirit will either spell disaster or salvation for Egypt in the coming months. If those on the ground continue supporting institutions that only exist to consolidate power for a privileged few, divisions will deepen and violence worsen, perhaps irreparably so.
But Egypt is not the Brotherhood or the military and it will not be Tamarod or the National Salvation Front. The history of Egypt is so much longer than the past 100 years, and Egyptians have always been Egyptian before anything else. Any attempt to divide Egypt should be met with great distrust. For reconciliation to take place, Egypt must again believe in Egypt with all its ambiguities, complexities and history.
I cannot think of any other Egypt worth fighting for.