A growing era of 'With us or against us'
At the end of a turbulent year it seems that there is not enough space for every one around the globe. It's as if the world has been divided into two opposite and conflicting camps, with neither of them making the slightest effort to bridge the gap or compromise to facilitate positive exchange. In other words, it is the World Cup finals, with the two competing teams fighting for their lives.
In every field, the entire world reduces to the question, "With us or against us?" The result is a black-and-white picture where each and every one must endeavour to fit, without the option of allying with any other shade of the spectrum.
All through 2007, indeed, the world afforded dozens of examples of people who failed to exert themselves sufficiently to find a common ground accommodating differences. The evidence is all over, from the Saffron Monks challenging the military strictures of Burma to nuclear Iran wrangling with a resolutely arrogant West. Dividing its feelings equally between consent and dissent -- and ending up sans president -- Lebanon demonstrated yet again that it deserves its reputation for volatility. Pakistan lawyers obstinately railing against the state of emergency had to face the batons of President Pervez Musharraf's security -- until the General was forced to take off his own military garb in the end. Every day held news of the inter-Iraqi vendetta of booby- trapped cars, of which the occupation forces remained clear by and large, and likewise the Palestinians: the war between Fatah and Hamas, who decided to kill each other by way of diversion perhaps, has eased the burden of Israel.
In Egypt the year was an open arena for haggling and confrontations of every kind: the government and the opposition; the regime and the press; the press and the press; a new justice minister and judges contesting his commands; the luxury of Cairo and the deprivation of Upper Egypt; the conflict between overabundance and neediness with which society is increasingly infused, recurring in the contrast between empty private North Coast resorts and overcrowded shanty towns. Duality re- emerged in numerous contexts, literal and metaphorical: protests in factories, universities and downtown streets on the one hand, and ever more vigorous Central Security Forces on the other; the nine o'clock news on the state TV and the independent newspapers' headlines; official statements and talk-show hosts; skimpy outfits and hijab ; bloggers and censors; the Muslim Brothers militia parade at Al-Azhar and in the rest of the country...
Every event of significance -- the constitutional amendments, for example -- polarised the people into unthinking support and predetermined opposition.
It was a year of chaos: on the jammed streets, in the price margins... The public was kept busy arguing issues like the president's health, unemployment, political reform and the inheritance of the presidency, social equity, constant regress in Egypt's regional role, frequent tales of torture in the police stations and the future of state subsidies, American aid and the influence of business tycoons. In more ways than one, satellite channels seemed to monopolise the space for every-day debate.
In 2007, leaders of the Jihad Islamic group attempted to repent for sins committed long ago. "Facebook" took the young by storm, with tens of thousands spending a total of seven billion minutes on the Internet, chatting and browsing (no one will ever know for sure if it was a waste of time). The notorious El-Torbini -- once a street child himself -- raped and killed dozens of street children before being hanged to death. Absurd fatwas further contributed to soiling the image of Islam, and swindlers found victims in unprecedented numbers. Thanks to a successful television drama, King Farouk, Egypt's last monarch was resuscitated together with the monarchy, but in such a flattering way as to make you think that the Free Officers undertook the 1952 Revolution because they had nothing better to do.
It was the year of illegal immigrants drowning by the dozens on the shores of the northern Mediterranean in search of a job or a death in foreign land (or waters); likewise those who seek employment -- and marriage -- in Israel (29,000 according to the latest statistics): the phenomenon of immigration is so wide-spread that some intellectuals have called for a movement of "immigration back to the homeland". All of which is not to mention the hundreds whose blood was spilt on the asphalt of the highways due to impulsiveness, negligence or sheer humbuggery.
2007, however, was the year in which Egypt decided, once again, to revive the dream of being a nuclear power, evoking nostalgia for a time long gone. The economic boom throughout the year has yet to yield results for the ordinary person whose picture never appears in the papers. And so begins the new year, the advent of which has reduced neither the pessimism of those who have given up hope in all things nor the optimism of those who insist that what we have is the best of all possible worlds. While in Cairo the discourse of change progressed at a pace not always to the liking of the elite, the opposition parties or Washington, a more visible change took place in Paris and London, with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy to office and the long awaited end of Tony Blair's term, making way for his grimacing successor Gordon Brown.
World events seem interesting, indeed, with Ankara electing its first ever Islamist president, Abdullah Gl, and Vladimir Putin preparing to leave the Kremlin only in name while retaining the adjunct of "father of the nation". As for Venezuela, the people have unexpectedly decided to remind their hero Hugo Chavez that there is no such thing as security in politics by denying him a new term despite his challenging Washington and making no end of fiery statements.
For their own part, workers, students and employees in Egypt, who went on strike on a number of occasions throughout the year, have been discovering that protest is indeed a legitimate human right. In its turn, the government too realised that obstinacy is not the answer; quickly and effectively granting rights is not necessarily an indication of weakness or cowing in but rather a sensible recipe for avoiding trouble. Such lessons will prove indispensable during the Chinese year of the Rat, which begins in February: perhaps Egyptians could make use of rats' flexibility and skill in transcending obstacles and not giving up in the face of difficulties. In 2008, Egypt will also have to remind itself of its poor, who have awaited an improvement in their conditions for years, balancing development with social justice.
The government might perhaps find it useful to reconcile the potentially contradictory requirements of security and civic liberties, as well as contemplating a different way of handling what is widely seen as the problem of the rise of the Muslim Brothers in a way that allows it a more positive engagement with their rather unclear "programme" and ideas -- so enabling people to see them clearly for what they are.
In the future, 2007 will likely go down, like so many years before it, as a time during which Egyptians and Arabs achieved far less than they aspired to. Yet this should not prevent us from endeavouring to make 2008 different. That said, could anyone foretell with any degree of confidence what will come to pass over 2008?
Perhaps one can, since the crises of 2007 will not simply vaporise once the year is over. Knowing, too, that the next year will happily witness the departure of US President George Bush, it may be wise for Arab capitals to familiarise themselves with the programmes and agendas of the more prominent US presidential candidates and open up channels of communication with their camps rather than the usual practice of dealing with the US elections like a lottery card.
The next year will no doubt carry with it new, gripping episodes of the saga of pursuing an ever elusive peace in Palestine. It will provide further evidence of the inefficacy of verbal battles not backed up by action, and the chances are there will be further pressure on Sudan and more violence in Iraq and greater deterioration in the international image and status of Arabs. This can be predicted with certainty, unless of course a different approach is adopted in the course of 2008 to improve our performance. Yet change is sure if we stopped sending Israel gifts of normalisation free of charge, for one thing, until the conditions of Palestinians have improved on the ground and their land protected from settlements regardless of negotiations and the negotiations discourse. Better still we should endeavour to act, and act rather than simply wait to see what will happen to us. Perhaps then, by the time another 12 months have passed, we will be able to make optimistic prophesies. Happy 2008!
Assem El-Kersh is a writer for the Egyptian Al Ahram Weekly
Topics: Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf