June 2012; Cairo
Dear Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei:
Happy 70th and thank you! Truly, thank you: for refusing to be part of this travesty of presidential elections, for rejecting any form of putsch or “revolutionary justice”, for insisting on a sound constitution and political pluralism, for understanding democracy at a time when those fighting military dictatorship have completely missed the point. I’m sure you feel sufficiently vindicated and at peace to enjoy your birthday; and you must realize by now how many Egyptians respect you…
Dr. ElBaradei,—It’s been nearly 20 months since I saw you, surrounded by familiar, famous faces, striding into Tahrir Square. You are tall. I could just make out your face a head above the rest from where I stood, and I didn’t have very strong feelings about it. All through the 18-day sit-in, personages like you would arrive, preceded by the requisite hubbub, always surrounded by faces. You would be mobbed by admirers or the curious (only members of Mubarak’s party and his police force were unwelcome, then); and before I knew it, you would be gone.
From that evening I recall a squat fortyish protester in a grimy galabeya sashaying in the direction of a crowd that was excited about greeting you. I recall the garment billowing; it was winter, remember? There must’ve been a strong breeze. I also recall the stubble on the man’s face as he started wagging his index finger high above his head in an emphatic nay-saying gesture, shouting as he did so. To him you were an emissary of a devil called America and, in that knowing and peremptory way so inherent to Egyptians that it crosses otherwise inviolable class boundaries, he was urging the crowd not to let you sully the sanctity of his patriotic Revolution.
That was the only time I saw you, in February 2011; and I have nothing to say about the occasion or the all-Egyptian faux-urgency of the man’s behavior. I’m sure you’ve seen it many times; I’m sure you forgive the man his ignorance, too. I thought highly of you then, but even I didn’t know enough about you to appreciate just how instrumental you had been to him being there at that moment.
Now it is clear to many besides me that, whatever else may be said about it, you’re the true godfather of our Revolution.
So I am writing to ask you why it has failed so miserably, and what it would mean for it to succeed—whether you really think the aims about which you give interviews will ever be achieved: the bread, the freedom, and the social justice for which the people wanted to topple the regime. I am writing to ask you how it is that such a large group of people end up collectively choosing to screw themselves over.
You’re the right person to address not just because you’re the closest thing in real life to that mythical Leader whose absence everyone has been lamenting. I choose you and not God, for example, because I agree with your views. I think any Egyptian with any sense of responsibility will understand why you haven’t been as proactive or incendiary as other pro-Revolution “presidential hopefuls” under the circumstances. I think most Egyptians with a little information and sense will agree with your views, provided they can make that tiny leap—so much easier for the rationally-minded and the English-speaking—from imagining a better or a more meaningful life to actually believing it’s possible. Maybe it is really to mourn the wrenching loss I’ve felt since the time I saw you that I’m writing. My stated reason is to ask you why Egyptians cannot make that leap.
Dr. ElBaradei,—For several days now I’ve been watching you speak on YouTube, admiring your moral and rational consistency: interview after long interview at various points in the endless downward slope that started just as soon as the Revolution seemed to triumph. I’ve heard you adjust to events by modifying what you had to say about the Muslim Brotherhood (your former allies as opposition under Mubarak) and SCAF, always careful to be fair and civil without shying away from directing blame, never forgetting the general principles on which a given judgement is based. Just now I read your recent statements to The Guardian and I was pleased with your “withering assessment” of the Brotherhood, even more so with you acknowledging the failure of young protesters to embrace leadership or direction.
What I still have trouble believing is that it took you that long to realize the Brotherhood was simply the other side of the same originally populist coin, and that the young protesters could be neither superheroes nor seasoned statesmen—just well brought up rioters.
What would it have taken for you to embody the necessary guiding principle, taking the concomitant risks as you did so, making Egypt your state whatever the cost?
Don’t misunderstand me—I don’t blame you at all. In fact the reason I ask is that I feel the answer to the question is precisely what it would have taken me, an apolitical individualist, to stay politically active after Mubarak stepped down. And my point is that it has nothing to do with your (my) intentions or abilities. To convince enough Egyptians not to screw themselves over without confronting them with all that is wrong with their lives is an all but impossible objective. Not that I have any sympathy with Mubarak, but I hope you will agree that Mubarak, in this sense, is one of history’s most fascinating scapegoats: every Egyptian was responsible for the state of things; and for the state of things to improve, every Egyptian would’ve had to take responsibility.
To make people work in their own interest, it seems, would have taken not only a narrow enough worldview to overlap with all those illiberal feelings that eventually dominated Tahrir—just like that of the “well-meaning” among our presidential candidates. It would have taken reducing the leap from imagination to belief to a slogan or a dogma. It would’ve taken, in other words, some kind of reversal of the original aims of freedom, pluralism, and equality.
Because they confirmed yet again that you could never be the kind of lying bastard who would use the sacrifices of protesters and the discourse of revolution to champion such a reversal, your statements reassured me about what I have to say to you. I don’t know if I could be counted among “the young” whose horn you are so fond of blowing, at 36. But I am going ahead with saying it anyway: What on earth did you think you were doing when you dreamed of a better life for Egyptians?
Not being a dedicated activist or ever particularly keen on protests—not someone who will be persuaded that, unless it articulates something definite and of truly public concern, standing on a street corner holding a sign and chanting slogans is any less ridiculous than it is—I am not a person you are likely to have heard of. But, sharing your sense of responsibility for human life on earth, for Egypt, I hope you will see something in what I have to say nonetheless: not a way out of the nightmare—never that—but a meaning or an insight into what you stand for, which I know now is exactly what I too stand for (however irrelevant I am by comparison). In your person I’m addressing my own painfully aborted Revolution.
Dear Dr. ElBaradei,—It took you 18 months and I don’t know how many stays back in Vienna, decisions, retractions, announcements and counter-announcements, to begin to admit that things are worse after the Revolution than they were under Mubarak. I trust you knew all along that the “transition to democracy” would take at least that long even with the cooperation of SCAF and the Brotherhood, which (as I expected, and you say you didn’t) turned out to be absolutely not forthcoming.
I trust you’ve understood Change, since you first called for it in 2009, as a matter of competence and conscience—democratic enough to include very arguably sectarian and anti-national bodies like the Muslim Brotherhood et al, in the context of liberal nation building, which you spent your life finding out how people do—but still (in terms of motivation and intent) essentially from the top down.
I would never blame you for transparent good intentions. But perhaps because I’m not as well-meaning as you, perhaps because I’ve seen more of Egyptian society since the Nineties, and perhaps because I am more prone to boredom than Sisyphean determination, I want to take issue with your motivation. Surely it is on people without access to Twitter and Facebook that Change will ultimately depend—on their capacity to want rights and freedoms, whether they understand them or not.
I think you were wrong to go along with the tendency of Islamists to use the trappings of liberalism including the voting part of democracy to totalitarian ends. I think you were wrong to expect Salafis to sit down with seculars and women without hijab to draft a constitution safeguarding rights and freedoms. I think you were wrong to insist on the myth of peaceful regime change through a SCAF-dominated transition knowing that world powers like Washington are prepared to endorse the worst forms of repression in the name of democracy.
I also think you were wrong to not speak out more forcefully and more often against the proactive and community-aware attitudes that have made boycotting the political process impossible, against the corrupting force of “traditional” and provincial values like religion, extended (patriarchal) family, and (xenophobic) patriotism. But I really don’t know what difference avoiding any of these mistakes would have made.
In retrospect the route you took seems to be exactly as noble as was required for it to lead to this: the vote between Mubarak’s last prime minister and the Brotherhood’s second choice for president, under conditions which Amnesty International call “the legal sanctioning of abuse” and no end of judiciary, political, and security misconduct (now with a constitutional declaration that divests the president of any power, too, and perhaps yet another secret alliance between Islamists and the military—in case the Brotherhood’s candidate wins). But it is not so much the route that I want to question as the reason you felt it was worth taking.
Pyschosocial questions about Egyptians as “a people making history” in opposition to their own illiberal and identity hangups seem somewhat more fundamental than institutional questions about unchecked power and ruinous corruption—against fascism; and that’s what I have in mind when I ask what you were thinking. I defer to your knowledge, of course, but I invite you to consider my existence.
What is the point of “breaking”—your word—and rebuilding the security apparatus if it is on the basis of arbitrary power and systematic humiliation (a process in which the victim is as implicated as the culprit most of the time) that any authority is respected? What is the point of avoiding rigging where votes can be bought? What is the point, even, of demonstrations when the demonstrators cannot agree on a demand and where—without a a more or less neutral army—just as many baltagiyya or thugs can be instantaneously deployed to turn the protest into a massacre? What is the point, indeed, if people are going to mistake what could have been an effective reform movement for a futile attempt at an old guard-style “revolution”? What on earth is the point, Dr. ElBaradei…
What did we think we were doing—I ask you, at the eleventh hour—by seeing the Brotherhood as a legitimate “national faction” with rights when all that could mean was turning a freedoms-oriented Revolution into an excuse for sectarian totalitarianism and providing all manner of Islamist extremists with political cover? That squat fortyish man whose interests you had at heart when I saw you in Tahrir, and who nonetheless wagged his finger in protest of you being there—I ask you—was he really staging a revolution? Was the revolution he was staging our Revolution? What is the nature of the collective will he was expressing? Is it any less totalitarian than the will of the sixty-year-old “nationalist” police state or the proposed quasi-theocratic “renaissance”?
I was exactly as fed up with the Mubarak regime as you were: in my having to get an education outside the country for a university degree—a requirement for what few citizen’s rights can be had—to be any use; in the incompetence that surrounds my work at a state-run newspaper; in my encounters with the Interior Ministry; in my observation of the economic and educational state of society; in the general sense of indignity I felt as an Arab, as a Muslim, and as an Egyptian; and in the “ideological” limitations of the vast majority of even potential “revolutionaries” who failed to see Mubarak as an extension of the military takeover of power of July 1952.
I was perhaps even readier than you to make personal sacrifices to topple that regime. And, from the evening of January 25 until the result of the March 19 referendum on constitutional amendments, in 2011, I believed we really were toppling it. I realized we could never peacefully explode the criminal military core of the Egyptian state, but I thought we were on the right path to contending with it as a civil nation, becoming part of contemporary history. After the referendum I realized we had failed, but I thought we could still uncover that core and expose the Brotherhood for the power-hungry, retrogressive force that it is. Then there were parliamentary elections while young men were being killed, and the Brotherhood-dominated parliament proved even worse than I might have expected. And then no one but you refused to participate in yet another travesty of democratic process. At some point I realized that we had missed our chance, maybe: probably after one of the massacres in late 2011. Protests that had given us power to depose the president were so overused and emptied of content they were not only politically ineffective; they drove the neighbors in Abbassiya to actively attack protesters.
By that point I had already stopped going to protests. I’d stopped feeling that protesters, whose sacrifices were turning into a cheap political card in the hands of Islamists and whose leaders—the star activists—felt no responsibility for the loss of life, were expressing anything like my Revolution. I began to feel there was no point targeting the political process until Change happened from the bottom up; and it was then that I thought of you, while you were in Vienna…
I thought of you, of Egyptian culture, and of the madness of endorsing Islamism as the only possible alternative to nationalism however politically suppressed Islamists had been: What did you think you were doing when you called for Change from the top down? Why did we call our protests a revolution? Was there an alternative to either?
Dr. ElBaradei,—Since January 2011 I have wept three times only: once, after coming home the morning of January 29, from the sheer horror and beauty of our battle against Mubarak’s security, which we had unequivocally won; another time, when I realized the Islamists had managed to obtain a yes vote for the benefit of SCAF in the referendum on constitutional amendments—I was in France then, on a writer’s residency in the Riviera, and I remember retiring early to my room in the beautiful villa where I was staying and thinking there was not much left to fight for.
The third time I wept, Dr. ElBaradei, was on the announcement of the results of the first round of presidential elections, even though the results were precisely what I had expected, when it was demonstrated to me with unprecedented clarity that fascism and the herd mentality were still far stronger than the civil nation that I aspire to being part of.
I am not weeping now, but I ask you—apart from silence and the slow apolitical work we were all already doing under Mubarak, when apolitical work was both more effective and easier to do—where do we go from here? Now that our sacrifices and aspirations have been turned into a struggle between two kinds of fascism whose sudden alliance may render us nonexistent, is there really anywhere we can go, Dr. ElBaradaei?