Up Against the Wall in Egypt

A recent conversation with an Egyptian businessman sheds light on the current situation in the country. He is a young man who started his own technology business and continues to try to grow it against all odds.  Such entrepreneurs can lead Egypt out of the economic doldrums.  His small business is not beholden to the state and employs dozens of people at decent wages. It is not unduly romantic to see such business as a microcosm of a desirable Egypt, as it employs both men and women, of different faiths and political views. In time a burgeoning Middle Class would demand, and ultimately find, respect for its freedom and property.  Up until 2011 the picture was bright. He was able to attract many foreign contracts by a combination of a good product at lower prices. Furthermore, Egypt was considered an upcoming “tiger” and an attractive destination.

The first hit came in January 2011. The idiot who turned off the internet to thwart foreign plotters probably had no thought, or little cared, that it would also irritate foreign clients. There was an uptick of good will during the short after-glow of the revolution. But by the summer of 2011 there was further turmoil, which continues to this day. For a man trying to sell his wares abroad, Egypt’s current reputation is a nasty head wind. The narrative is one of protests, sexual harassment, religious zealotry, intolerance, repression, violence and a near insurgency. Few Egyptians have read H.L. Mencken on Journalism, and they see dark plots where there is only the natural inclination to report the most stirring news. To be fair, Egypt has handed reporters plenty of rich yarn to weave a dark tapestry. Any attempt to find hope, or balance the picture, is often rejected as justifying government repression. There is even the occasional esteemed academic who rejects any warm feelings toward the country with unhelpful snark.

It goes without saying that the political and cultural elites of Egypt have failed it. This is of little comfort to someone trying to meet a payroll. Yet there is little concern for such men, or for the people who are on the receiving end of the payroll. They are squeezed on all sides. There is the Army, which is traditionally statist and has little understanding of the environment necessary to promote entrepreneurship. The Brotherhood respected the market place, but its eyes were always on a higher goal, and its aging leaders are willing to bring down the house. Many supporters of the former regime are smarmy, and a few are outright crony capitalists. Many of the activists agitating for political freedom lean heavily left, and have little sympathy for business or the role it might play in cementing actual freedoms. The population at large is suspicious of those who prosper and maintain foreign connections. The most damaging binary dynamic is that of protest and the government’s ham-fisted response to it.

Protesting to achieve social or political reform is now considered praise-worthy. The canonization of men such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King has obscured their real achievements. Their success is due less to their saintly character, or the purity of their goals, but more to their political acumen. In the struggle against injustice they chose their weapons well, and wielded them with deftness in selective battles. Above all, they were realistic political men. Even in the best of cases protest is an uncertain business. Indian independence was a bloody affair, and would have been far bloodier without the leadership of Nehru, who was not overly fond of Gandhi, and because of his readiness to cut deals, and if rumors are right, fall into bed with his opponents. Yet in Egypt people seek a narrative without shades, of right and wrong, good people and bad ones. It is a mirage. Questions must be asked about protest; such as who are the protestors, what is their program for governance, how do they see the rest of the world and society, do they relate to the average man, and most importantly, has protest worked or landed Egypt in deeper straights. Yet to ask these is to invite accusations of collaboration with the regime, indifference or even cruelty. These accusations must be received with equanimity and returned with affection. But they do little to further understanding or show a way out of the current mess. Protesters often have the enormous courage to face jail or worse, but not to subject their views and tactics to criticism. As an enterprise, the goals of protests are laudable, but  their balance sheet is increasingly negative.

The poet Qabbani wrote : “for daring to approach your deaf walls I was beaten with my own shoes”.  The lines are meant to evoke anger at the cruel ruler.  But we can read them in a different way; as a cautionary tale about the futility of approaching the crumbling walls and seeking redress from the fearful men within. Better to keep the shoes firmly on, march forward, and build a different edifice; perhaps not a shining city on a hill, but a sturdier structure on less shifting sand.  It is not that Egypt has lacked for dissidents who withdrew from society to build a different one. Islamists, Salafis, and to a lesser extent Copts have all done so. Yet what they have built is either too small to matter or too grotesque to fathom. Neither the protesters, nor those seeking to silence them, have advanced a workable vision of governance, prompting one Egyptian historian to borrow from Kolakowski, and Baudelaire, to describe the conflict as between lovers of clouds and lovers of prostitutes. To describe a private business that makes a healthy profit from foreign exports as “non-governmental organization with foreign funding” is to provoke nervous laughter. In Egypt’s current koftesque stage what is literally true is also undeniably false.

In the end both protests and the attempts to suppress them have to be mindful of not crossing the line that binds people into a cohesive society, a test that Egypt currently fails. The authorities will not calculate the cost of success, nor the protesters the cost of failure. The vision remains of raging against a wall, rather than building a bridge. Few are willing to either co-opt or be co-opted.

Another conversation closes this post. It is with a veteran of the student protests at Columbia. The aging man, still inordinately fond of his younger, slimmer and hairier self, recalls a heady moment of protest. He had taunted and jeered the police for two days before finally lobbing a rock in their general direction. He was charged by a policeman who pinned him with the hackneyed scream “Spread’em .. against the wall M*F*”. He shot back “can we discuss this over a slice of Pizza?”. The policeman softened slightly, “maybe, but after I bust you and get off shift”. The exchange did not save him from arrest, a night in jail, and a misdemeanor fine, nor change his persistently idealistic and radical politics. Still, even to his resolutely unsentimental listener, and one who harbors considerable doubt about the details, the fable has resonance.

 

— Maged Atiya



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