The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Golia: Divide and rule

There is an Egyptian maxim describing the approach to administering power long employed here and elsewhere:  ‘if you starve them they’ll eat you, fill them they’ll kill you, keep them half hungry, they’ll leave you alone.’  It’s a solid strategy in rigid hierarchical societies like Egypt’s, but it fails when insular leadership can no longer gauge the people’s reality, and consequently goes too far. Lucky for them there’s a back-up plan, another tried and true technique called ‘divide and rule’. The regime has set it in motion and it is working all too well.

People are turning away from the demonstrators partly because they are confused, tired of the disruptions and generally broke, but also because the state is helping them along by pretending to compromise, by raising suspicions regarding the demonstrators’ motives (whether suggesting they are in cahoots with hostile foreign powers or that they are relatively privileged idealists who are gumming up the works for everyone else) and last but not least, by asserting that their resolve threatens Egypt’s  stability.  

Yet citizens overcame their fear of a formidable security apparatus to demand that the president stand down.  He had come to symbolize everything they could no longer endure, above all, the politics of intimidation and exclusion. That is why the committees of ‘wise men’ meeting with Vice President Omar Suleiman are so disturbing.  A really ‘wise’ man would know it’s pointless- and dangerous - to negotiate with a man of his credentials.  His appointment merely underlined the regime’s inability to effectuate significant reforms (as if the last 30 years was not evidence enough). Einstein: ‘you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.’  Trotsky: ‘You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on - into the dustbin of history! ‘

Hopefully, the pro-democracy contingent can coalesce into a movement to address not the regime (who already knows its demands) but the people, and remind them what they’re fighting for. Sympathetic agencies and individuals worldwide could contribute to a campaign to win popular support. Egyptians nationwide should be reminded, visually and persistently, of the uprisings’ dead and wounded, of how citizens have been repeatedly deceived by state rhetoric, and robbed of rights by a brutally enforced martial law that has impoverished their cultural, political and personal lives. Millions living in the ‘ashwiyyat, as well as in the countryside, do not have computers and internet. But they can read pamphlets, see posters, and listen to radio. Pop culture figures who participated in the demos could tour and perform. The state has a propaganda machine that fabricates lies and broadcasts them widely, while all the pro-democracy movement has to do is tell the truth - albeit  repeatedly  and in a variety of creative ways.

People who were born under the Emergency Law must be informed of what life was like – and could be like  - without it. Egyptians should be re-exposed to their own history, the birth of nationalism and the 1919 revolt against the British occupation and the monarchy, the military coup of 1952 and its outcomes, good and bad, the bread riots of 1973 and so on.  They should see pictures of other freedom movements, of the Berlin Wall falling and of heroes, like the 19-year old German pilot who flew a small plane from Hamburg to Moscow, eluding everyone’s radar and landing smack in Red Square, to the flaming embarrassment of soviet leaders in 1987. Or the 23-year old Czech artist David Czerny who covertly painted a Russian tank  - mounted in Prague as a symbol of the occupying Soviet power –an incandescent pink in 1991. These bold but playful acts of civil disobedience captured the popular imagination and boosted morale.

Egyptians are closer to change than ever, and cannot let it slip from their grasp. They have managed to send a moving message - that stability which comes at the cost of basic freedoms is a sham – and that the proofs of this are everywhere. Defensive thinking and an obsession with security, the pillars of fear-driven politics, have destabilized and divided humanity. Leaders in Egypt and elsewhere have convinced themselves -  and many of us -  that the only world order we can trust is one that goes boom.  But the ‘order’ they have sold us is an illusion, all brawn and guile, no brains and less heart.  Poverty, war, oppression and environmental devastation are, by contrast, very real. 

President Mubarak, unfortunately, is not alone in believing that chaos will ensue if he and his regime go.  But chaos has broken loose precisely as a result of his failed policies. Yes, Egypt will be an even bigger mess than before, but a potentially constructive one.  Yes, Egypt is losing revenues, but malesh. For two decades, the state has managed to rally people to the cause of economic reform along capitalist lines. Citizens sacrificed across the board, accepting derisive wages or coping with joblessness and rising costs of living while enjoying few if any fiscal benefits, and this in the virtual absence of civic and political freedom. Surely Egyptians would be willing to work for a greater and more equitably rewarding cause -  a self-governed, renewed and reinvented nation.  

For an Egyptian pro-democracy movement to survive the current behind-the scenes machinations and go the distance, it will have to start harnessing the popular sentiment that inspired this uprising in the first place, by reminding people of who they are and could be, and not what a dustbin mentality has tried to make of them. It sounds trite, but it’s true: united we stand; divided we fall.