August 14 in Egypt

August 14 in Egypt brought about the unhappy necessity of hundreds of condolences.  A common condolence in Egypt is “al baqia fi hayatak“, literally translated as “may your life take up the remainder“, but loosely hoping that the living would take up the mantle of the unfulfilled life of the dead. It is an imprecise condolence. It is there for the funeral of man who died in advanced age after years of struggling with dementia, when arguably there is little mantle to pick up from a life extinguished long before the body gave out. It is there for the funeral of a young girl, when it is impossible to know what joys or sorrows she would have endured and what generations would have sprung from her womb. It is even there for the funeral of a brutal man when no one would want to assume the mantle of what disfigured his life. But beyond condolences what do we really owe the dead, who are well beyond our emotions? Perhaps a stab at the truth,  illusive as that may be.

There is much confusion, most of it willful, about what happened, and how it could have been avoided. We should remain steadfast in condemning the extra-legal removal of an elected official, in this case President Morsi. But that removal is at best a distant cause for the violence of the day. The chilling phrase “rivers of blood” has been on the lips of many for too long. Khairat El Shater, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, threatened such an outcome if Ahmed Shafiq had won the Presidency in June 2012. Safwat Hegazy, a man Morsi saw fit to honor with a seat at the Egyptian commission on human rights, threatened such an outcome if the Constitution was prevented from passing by any means in December 2012. With so many threats the only unknowns were simply dates and numbers. Why has the Brotherhood, which made no such threats for 30 years under Mubarak, resorted to them in 30 months since his removal is an interesting question. Many Egyptians, probably including many in uniform, concluded that it was brought about by relative freedom. Morsi’s removal and August 14 were but a short step from that realization.

Then there are those who argued that a peaceful resolution for the large sit-ins was possible. Vice President Baradaei resigned in support of his belief. Then again, he believed in January 2011 that the Brotherhood was a minority conservative group that could be trusted to be a democratic partner, only to appear on stage on July 3 with those who removed Morsi by force. No one who observed the Brothers since January 2011 can have certainty that any deal they cut is more than a provisional measure designed to buy them time to violate it.

Others have insisted that the dispersal of the sit-in used “disproportionate force”. The numbers do support that. It seems four dozen policemen died in the melee, but more than five times that number died among the demonstrators. But would it have been desirable to use “proportionate” means and have a running battle go on for hours or days in a residential neighborhood? A feeble resort to violence is in many ways worse than a decisive outcome. The outcome was about what you would expect from the Egyptian police, perhaps slightly better than their historic norm.

Yet others argued that the sit-ins should have been allowed to linger and die out a natural death. But what empirical evidence do we have that such an outcome was probable? The Brotherhood convinced its members that steadfastness, similar to that of January 2011 which argued for immediate removal of Mubarak, will work. The sit-in could have continued for months or years. But at what cost to the residents, who were subjected to searches by Brotherhood “security teams”? And to what cost to the idea of a functioning government?  We can echo Burke’s famous statement “nothing is so oppressive as a feeble government”.

The reality of course is that many Egyptians cheered the men in arms on January 2011, including most of the Brotherhood. They cheered them again on July 3, this time without the Brothers. In the topsy-turvy world of Egyptian politics disfigured by religion  what is halal and what is haram switch roles with alarming regularity. Men with guns are bound to use guns. And let us not forget that the Brotherhood seems keen on possessing guns, so most Egyptians were left with the choice between those uniformed and armed, and those merely armed.

People attributed an urge for freedom to many actions in Egypt, often without defining what “freedom” means. Sensible people have correctly lamented the dearth of true liberals in the Egyptian public sphere. But how do you grow liberals in the shadow of the gun and the holy book, or worse in the shadow of the holy book armed with a gun, or the gun legitimized by a holy book?

Those who died on August 14 were strangled by a poisonous vine that grew from the seeds of “democracy” planted in a hostile soil. Very few died for principle. Most died for their team, others trusted pious men and mistook piety for honesty. Many died for a vision they could not or would not subject to rigorous critiques. Others died for the perceived right to oppress “the other”. To all those we owe compassion and empathy, for their loss of life, for the terror and confusion of their last few moments. We also owe them clarity of vision so that others do not follow.

What killed hundreds in Egypt on August 14 was a deadly mix of religion, guns and politics. Chart a path for removing both the military and religion from politics and you will be more than half way there. Chart a course to favor prosperity and dampen the visions of holy Utopias and you might even arrive at a sensible outcome.  Short of that, expect plenty of mantles to be picked up by the unhappy living.

–Maged Atiya

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