The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ appears on the covers of nearly a hundred recently published books in English alone, with countless similar titles in other languages. Never has a temperate season been metaphorically stretched to accommodate such extreme agendas, from the romantic to the apocalyptic. Some call it a triumph of people power, the start of a transnational civil rights movement, the end of post-colonialism; others an Islamist takeover, the work of ‘hidden hands’, a harbinger of war. Commentators focus mostly on the power manoeuvres and economics, the threat or reality of violence, the maunderings of local and foreign heads of state. The result is spectacle, an objectified phenomenon shorn of its deeper meaning.
The Egypt described in most media is different from the one where I live. It’s a matter of what is placed in the frame; for instance, the ‘angry protesters’ as opposed to the families window-shopping and eating ice-cream a block away. ‘Hundreds of thousands of angry protesters’, the headlines blare, when I see maybe 10,000 Egyptians in Liberation Square, many of them couples with small children, neither angry nor protesting, only having a free outing, a chance to see other people, catch up on news, and, if single, perhaps to meet someone they like.
When I came to Egypt in 1980, Liberation Square was the hub of a thriving black market in foreign currencies, liquor and everything from hashish to Swiss cheese. In the late 1980s, for the inauguration of Africa’s first metro, it was endowed with a grassy roundabout and the Egyptian Museum was repainted pink. For years, the traffic-bound square was a renowned gay pick-up zone. Then came 25 January 2011, a joyless national holiday called Police Day. Liberation Square became the stage of a grand consensus that resonated throughout a world desperate to acknowledge the ascendancy of right over wrong and unity over divisiveness, however briefly and vicariously. These days, the square looks raggedy, a crater of confusion. In my 2012 Egyptian agenda, 25 January is still marked as Police Day, but also Revolution Day, hinting at the ambivalence last year’s uprising has left in its wake.
The only Egyptian president likely to retain his heroic status for future generations is Gamal Abdel Nasser. Half freedom-fighter, half tyrant, he embodied the conflicting desires of the Egyptian people both to win their rights whatever the cost and to defer to a strong, charismatic leader. This contradiction remains embedded in the Egyptian psyche, rooted in paternalist traditions and hierarchies whose exponential emphasis – in family, business, bureaucracy, religion and state – have bred equal parts rebellion and acquiescence, and between them a kind of paralysis. ‘We only work when they beat us,’ some Egyptians say unapologetically; ‘we love our slavery,’ others tell you. ‘The nation needs a strong father,’ many agree.
Democratic elections have predictably returned an Islamist majority in post-revolution Egypt, largely because religious groups have long maintained community-outreach networks by distributing cheap or free food, school supplies and medical care. In short, they act precisely like the paternalist state that subsidizes basic commodities and offers free education and healthcare as a kind of baksheesh for putting up with them. Imaginative leadership is not the forte of control-oriented governments, whose job is to eliminate competition and ensure the public’s dependency. No wonder Egypt’s new regime resembles the one it replaced in its hierarchies and defensive manoeuverings.
Egyptians are hardly alone in their willingness to surrender rights and responsibilities, to obey and conform. Traditions promote the behavioural means by which societies agree to live with themselves, preserving ethics and attributes that prove valuable. For example, sociability and forbearance favour survival, especially in crowded environments with severely limited resources. But although the usefulness of other traditions, like the paternalism characterizing so many societies, has worn thin, it is endlessly, automatically, replicated. The love of strong men and their displays of power, wealth and deadly gadgetry, their assurances of protection and ‘security’, all of this points to a shared yet unacknowledged past and poses questions few are asking.
Egypt’s paternalist traditions and hierarchies have bred equal parts rebellion and acquiescence
In his Anatomy of a Civilization, Egyptologist Barry Kemp reflected on the similarities between ancient Egypt, with its rigid hierarchies and ritual displays of power, and the world today, with its presidential cavalcades, popes waving from palace windows and monarchs celebrating diamond jubilees. ‘History is a subversive subject. It undermines our claim to live in an age of reason and progress. Technology streaks ahead… but institutional man (and sometimes thinking man as well) still struggles to escape from the Bronze Age.’ This struggle reaches deep into human nature and societal – indeed, biological – attachments to aggression, defence and the ‘leader’.
In Egypt, where high officials tend to view themselves as stern but wise fathers, the people’s response has devolved over time from dedication and respect to fear, mistrust and often loathing. From the start, the uprising’s focus on Mubarak was personal; he embodied the public’s disillusionment, resentment and the resulting contempt for power. Yet emphasizing Mubarak’s responsibility for Egypt’s impoverishment obscured the people’s role in that same process. ‘Has he some power over you other than that which he receives from you?’ asked 16th-century anarchist Étienne de La Boétie in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Egypt is not just fighting tyranny, but the traditions that uphold it, including deference to authority as a pillar of the societal order, which has so far guaranteed survival. Like much of the world, it is fighting itself.
By now it should be clear that basic freedoms are as vital as food and water; that without them ‘economic and political stability’ is mere oppression and ‘order’ sustained by force is a sham. States claiming to defend us from chaos are in fact sowing a greater discord. ‘They create desolation and call it peace,’ wrote Tacitus. Defensive thinking is by definition divisive and therefore destabilizing. The divided world is breaking apart, eroded by demagoguery and greed but also human ambivalence, the realization that so much is wrong alongside a reluctance to relinquish the status quo.
Sometimes history overtakes us, like the first and second world wars. However deep their roots or incalculable their outcomes, such events are assigned beginnings, middles and ends, numbered to identify the sequence and consequence of our actions, to serve the urge for order. The ‘Arab Spring’ may yet prove the folly of this rationalized, sequential view of human history that ignores its destructive cycles, and judges the achievements of men and nations rather than our performance as so-called Homo sapiens inhabiting the planet Earth.
Beneath my fifth-floor balcony protesters march to Liberation Square chanting ‘nation, nation!’ and ‘god is great!’ The crowds are largely male; some beat drums that make my windows rattle. They’re mostly men of modest means who have been subjected to education systems unworthy of the name. They don’t eat well or have enough water or space; the air they breathe is as toxic as their discontent. ‘The world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire only if it becomes conscious of it,’ wrote Marx. To me at least, the significance of the ‘Arab Spring’ lies less in what happened (and is still happening) but in how little reflection it engendered, and how quickly the portal of possibilities that opened last year in Liberation Square has shut down.