In Translation: Back to the Past in Egypt

The team at Industry Arabic -- look to them for all your Arabic translation needs -- brings us the latest installment of our In Translation series. Abdullah al-Sinnawi is the editor of the socialist newspaper Al Araby and one of the many public intellectuals who supported Morsi's ouster and the ascension of Abdel-Fattah El Sisi, couching his support in terms of restoring the authority and prestige of the state. Now he harsh words for a regime that he describes as rudderless if not deeply disingenuous. The title used a particularly loaded term: the word "normalization" in Egypt usually refers to normalization of relations with Israel, something much of public opinion does not really accept and much of the leftist intelligentsia has always viewed as a humiliating capitulation. 

Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak's son -- a free man again -- visited the pyramids recently with his family. 

Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak's son -- a free man again -- visited the pyramids recently with his family. 

Normalization with the Past

Abdullah al-Sinnawi, al-Shorouk, 6 May 2015

“Why are we protecting Mubarak?....You’re accusing us of being traitors.”

With this unequivocal expression, he tried to dispel any suspicions as to why the Military Council was putting off trying a president who had been ousted by his people.

During the first weeks of the January 25 Revolution, public squares full of anger were calling for the past to be put on trial for its sins. They called for all issues to be opened to questioning and accountability, so that Egypt would not be governed in the future in the same careless manner as before.

This forthrightness was not customary in other leaders and gave the strong impression that the young general who made this statement might be the future of the military establishment.

It did not occur to him, during this lengthy meeting in April 2011 that was attended by six journalists and military figures, as he made this firm response to the questions and doubts raised by the protests, that the question of the past would rear its head again, with greater anxiety and more serious misgivings, four years later when he would be president of Egypt.

It is natural for radical transformations to raise major questions.

It is not a sufficient response for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to say time and again that the past will not return. Pledges must be given shape through policies and confirmed by solid stances. This is what is sorely lacking in Egypt at a time when the public’s anxiety has almost reached a breaking point.

A quick glance at the current mood in Egyptian society reveals that its great gambles have been frittered away and its confidence in the future has fallen; that it does not know what priorities govern politics or where we are headed.

There is no discourse that interprets or explains the causes of crises or the nature of issues.

There is no coherent policy put before public opinion and no free media able to address the public mind.

There is an abject poverty in the public discourse that is unparalleled in Egypt’s modern history.

It is as if Egypt “the sorrowful” is a sail without a ship, in the words of the late Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudi in his last rubaiyat. The crisis of public discourse results from the lack of any vision of the future that determines the main goals.

It is impossible for any regime to advance one step forward and solidify its legitimacy without declaring where it stands and what its commitments are.

The return of the past to the forefront of the political, economic and media landscape is a complete tragedy for a country that launched two revolutions to claim its right to social justice, human dignity, and the transition to a democratic society and modern state.

The country paid a heavy price in terms of its security, stability and the blood of its children, and it did not reap any rewards either time.

The first revolution was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the second one has almost been hijacked by the party of the past.

Based on past experience, a second hijacking of a revolution will have a steep price, as it will tarnish a regime that bases its legitimacy on the revolution and on a commitment to the constitution that emerged from it.  It will make a dent in the popularity of the regime and exhaust its political capital.

This will lead to renewed political tumult that Egypt cannot bear, and to chaos that will confound any attempts to end violence and terrorism.

Like any crisis of this sort, breaking the cycle takes time.

Any claims to the contrary are ignorant of history and the progress of societies.

The issue is not that Mubarak appeared on a private satellite channel talking about how proud he is of the role he played in war and government, and praising the current president’s wisdom. Nor is it that the media carried coverage of his 87th birthday celebration with the song “May you long live as the leader,” while other media went further afield to follow the social news of his family attending funerals and visiting the pyramids.

The real issue is not about what certain media does as much as it is about the reality of certain policies.

What is the nature of the current regime?

There are two main hypotheses.

The first is that it supports normalization with the past and its policies and figures.

This hypothesis has its logic, as the current economic policies are almost entirely copied and pasted from those adopted by the Policies Committee headed by Gamal Mubarak, youngest son of the former president.

Lots of talk about investment, the private sector and growth rates, without any plan that makes social justice a priority, even though it is a pressing need.

The Hosni Mubarak issue is above all a political one. He was the head of a regime who was overthrown by his people without being held accountable for the mistakes of the thirty years that he ruled Egypt. The issue of Gamal Mubarak is just as serious, since he symbolizes a project to bequeath the republic as an inheritance without the least constitutional basis, as well as policies that married power to wealth in a way that led to the largest plundering of public funds in Egypt’s history.

Certainly, the former president is the preferred example for a class of influential businessmen and his youngest son, their economic leader. Their influence in visual and print media continues to be felt.

Their first and last concern is to whitewash the past and subject the present to the same choices, as if matters had resumed their natural course after July 2013 and as if the January 2011 Revolution were nothing but a “conspiracy.”

Promoting the past lends legitimacy to violence, which is a terrible tragedy in any political or ethical sense of the term.

The most serious crime against this country is that the July 2013 Revolution is being portrayed as a “counter-revolution.”

This is a responsibility borne by the current regime before history.

Power cannot handle a vacuum of vision and direction.

In the absence of vision, the past steps forward to fill the vacuum and enlists the present to its cause.

When the public sphere narrows, politics retreats and security come to the fore.

The most dangerous part of this is that the political vacuum extends to the media in a manner that forebodes a potential collapse. It must not be forgotten that half of politics is talk.

This means that exchanging information and opinions is a vital necessity for any society.

A society deprived of politics and a country with a barren media landscape will descend into crisis at the first dangerous juncture.

Everything is hanging over an abyss; a collapse isn’t far-fetched.

On the other hand, the second hypothesis is that the current regime has nothing to do with all this celebration of the past and with the attempts to whitewash Mubarak’s reputation.

This hypothesis rests on semi-confirmed information that the president is perturbed by this media  coverage.

In this context, the president’s statement that he does not intervene in the judiciary or the media is worthy of note.

The statement in itself is positive, but the president’s responsibilities require that he declare his position and solidify the constitutional legitimacy of his regime.

Slipping into the past – which means opening war on the future – is more dangerous for the country than terrorism’s bullets and explosive devices. If society's discontent starts to reach the boiling point then political equations are likely to be completely overturned.

No one has the right to gamble with the country’s future.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.