In Translation: Fishere on Egypt's presidential race

Egypt’s never-ending election season has just shifted — after the bore of the Shura Council elections, which most ignored — into presidential mode. The big topic of the past week has been about whether a consensual presidential candidate is desirable, or even possible. The Muslim Brotherhood has postponed endorsing its candidate of choice until after all hopefuls have registered, and it’s still not clear whether SCAF has chosen whom to back, with multiple potential candidates representing the military or “deep state”. Mohamed ElBaradei’s withdrawal from the race has created a gap on the liberal end of the spectrum, and undermined the crebility of the election and the transition as a whole (his argument, indeed, is that the transition needs a reboot before proceeding to new elections and a new constitution).

I picked this week’s In Translation article — as always expertly translated by the wonderful folks at Industry Arabic, who can tackle anything from arcane religious documents to angry op-eds to thick legal or technical documents — to show the debate on the revolutionary side of the spectrum, where many are rather despondent at the choices before them. Ezzedine Shukri Fishere — a friend, diplomat, professor and novelist currently shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his Embrace on Brooklyn Bridge — is close to ElBaradei and here frets about the rush to judgement among revolutionaries before it is clear who is even running or under what circumstances the poll will take place (including, of course, whether as expected it will take place under military rule).

Between Revolutionary and Foolhardy

Ezzedine Shukri Fishere, al-Tahrir, 19 February 2012

A hair’s breadth separates carefulness from cowardice. It is carefulness to avoid antagonizing people, especially foolish people. However, it is cowardice to flatter people and refrain from stating the truth so as not to anger them. There is nothing easier for a writer to do – any writer – than to flatter the public, since he is sitting at home writing, and exaggerating for the public will not cost him anything. To the contrary, it will increase his popularity, expand his base of support, and cause him to be showered with intoxicating comments and descriptions. No responsibility lands on his shoulders, since in the end he is just stating an opinion, and no one is held to account for an opinion. Hence, the easiest, the cheapest and the most comfortable thing is for the writer to say what he knows the public wants to hear, or at least avoid diving headlong into issues he knows for sure will outrage them.

However, as I do not earn my living from writing, and I do not intend to stand for election, I am able to swim against the tide, and tell the public things it does not like to hear. Whoever gets outraged can insult me as he likes, since stooping to insults brings shame upon the one who does so.

In this spirit, I remind the different sides of the current debate over choosing a presidential candidate for the revolutionary forces that there is a difference – a thin line – between being revolutionary and being foolhardy. To be revolutionary is to decisively reject the prevailing state of affairs in politics, ethics, thought and the culture of society, to be determined to change this situation in a radical way, and to be ready to make sacrifices to achieve this. On the other hand, foolhardiness – in the dictionary definition – is “base character, frivolity, recklessness, ignorance, stupidity, lightheadedness, excessiveness, wastefulness, straying from what is right, self-destruction and acting in a manner contrary to wisdom.” These undignified characteristics sometimes blend together. There are those who feel that being revolutionary allows, and involves being foolhardy, and that when they reject the prevailing state of affairs and insist on changing it, this grants them a license for frivolity, recklessness, excess and stupidity – and even self-destruction.

There are presidential elections coming up, and there is a shameful political reality that limits the options of the revolutionary, democratic, civil forces: either put forward their own candidate, knowing that he has a slim chance of winning, or negotiate with the other two forces – or both – over a joint candidate. Each option has advantages and disadvantages. Hence, coming to a decision in this matter calls for wise, revolutionary reflection, and not foolhardy, revolutionary sentiments.

The revolution has created possibilities that did not exist before. Foolhardiness squanders possibilities, and deducts from the strength of the revolution and its powers. The revolution comprises preparation for self-sacrifice; foolhardiness is self-destruction. The revolution comprises a rejection of the moral hypocrisy upon which society and its spurious manners rely; foolhardiness defiles people and their honor. The revolution comprises audacity, and clears space for the imagination and expecting the unexpected; foolhardiness gives in to psychological delusions, even after their illusoriness has become clear. The revolution comprises a rejection of the old, and seeking the new; foolhardiness is a rejection of the old, as well as a rejection of what we do not know.

I call on all those who have taken a position on the presidential contest before the situation has become clear to slow down a bit, think a little, and feel out the situation and their fellow citizens. Let’s all remember that reason and conscience require us to become familiar with what we do not know before we cast judgment upon it, especially if that which we do not know has said and done things in the past. It is not being revolutionary at all to issue verdicts without knowledge, invent interpretations and theories about what is happening around us, and interpret things through the lens of resemblances and suspicions without any proof except for confused notions. The revolution is meant to expand participation to include everyone, not to surrender to the rabble in such a way that we yield to emotions or the loudest voice, and leave reason aside.

I know that these words will not win me new friends. However, I follow the people’s poet, Ahmed Fouad Negm, when I say: “Blunt talk, like a sword, cuts where it passes. Praise is easy and comfortable, it deceives and causes harm. But words are a debt without hands attached: only free men are able to pay.”