Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 April 2004
Issue No. 686
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On the discourse of reform

Change will come and will go and will come again. And reform resonates through many different voices, writes Hala Mustafa

"I'd give anything to not ever hold a pen again, to not take up the responsibility of changing a world that doesn't change, a humanity that gets worse with change, and revolutions that I wish never started." In these few, succinct words, writing in Al-Ahram in April 1981,under the title:"The piper dies", the great Egyptian novelist Youssef Idris sums one of those moods to which writers, all writers, are susceptible.

Writing is but a mirror held up to the chagrins of society, reflecting the cultural structure that exists, responding to the thoughts of the elite. The writer captures the moment, encapsulates it; holds it up for all to see. The encapsulation involves honesty, entails revision, and becomes a part of the course of human evolution. Societies live through many different moments, some quiet and some boisterous -- many transitional. Moments of transition can be joyful, and they can be painful. Sometimes we reject these moments, sometimes we accept them. This is quite natural, for life doesn't cease within one moment. It doesn't tolerate a stagnancy of mood. Having written the above words, Idris went on writing, and society went on dreaming. And things kept changing, just as they should.

Yes, there are moments of frustration, but the frustration is only the flipside of aspiration, just as love and hate are two sides of the same coin, just as failure and success alternate. Nothing is made utterly of gloom or sunshine. Between the white and the black there are many shades. Societies change, just as the universe does. So long as the sun keeps on rising, so long as there is night and day, life will go on, and things will remain relative, tentative.

Let's go back to the Nasserist period in Egypt, a period which has been subject of much assessment and revisionism. Some people glorify Nasser's time; others see it as a source of all horror. This is all a matter of personal judgement. Can one really assess an entire era via a one-sided, subjective view? True, there have been many negatives. The Nasserist period had one political voice, one media, and one political party. But is this the whole picture? Not quite.

For all its restriction of political freedoms, the Nasserist era spawned a revival in literature, art and film. This was the period in which Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's best-known novelist, produced his greatest and most daring works, novels subtly critical of the political, cultural and social scene: Saeq Al-Qitar (The Train Driver), Thartharah Fawq Al-Nil (Chatting on the Nile), Miramar, Al-Maraya (The Mirrors), among others. These novels were serialised in state-sponsored papers and magazines, then transformed into film. Al-Ahram was one of the media through which these novels reached the public.

It was during the same period that Tharwat Abazah, another key Egyptian novelist, wrote his bestseller Shayoun Min Al-Khawf (A Bit of Fear), which caused a political storm, being seen by some as a scathing condemnation of Nasser. The novel was turned into a film which Nasser saw and approved for public screening, uncensored.

This is a bright side of the picture, and it is quite impressive. Nasser had many advisers who were annoyed by the freedom of expression, by criticism even if it was constructive, even if it was enriching to political life. Others among his advisers had a more profound and tolerant vision, a long-term perspective. In the end, history passed its judgement on these two different perspectives. The bright side of Nasser's time is still remembered thanks to those who adopted the latter point of view.

Criticism, intellectual and political rethinking, and a multiplicity of interpretations and opinion is the rule, rather than the exception, for societies as well as individuals. Any intellectual is liable to revise his ideas. Any thinker is bound to reconsider his own feelings, distance himself from past points of view, and amend others as he goes. Tawfiq Al-Hakim's masterpiece, Awdat Al-Wa'y (The Return of Awareness), was but a critical sequel to his major work, Awdat Al-Ruh (The Return of the Spirit). One does not need to be bullied or distracted to be critical. Such is the nature of freedom.

Why am I getting into this? Because of the ongoing debate on the matter of reform. Part of that debate seems to be heading nowhere. Political culture has played, and still does, a vital role in accelerating or impeding the course of change. For years, Egypt has had its mind made up. President Mubarak made reform and modernisation a national priority. Reform, by definition, is an evolutionary process, one that takes place in stages, through the uninterrupted accumulation of policy, until real change occurs. The ruling party has started to revise some of its thinking and modernise its structures. The state, for its part, has introduced significant legislative revisions, changing some of the extraordinary, freedom-restricting, laws. Lately, it abolished imprisonment for journalists in publication-related cases. The process is ongoing.

What I want to say is that reform takes place from within. The wheels have been in motion before the US came up with its ideas for reform and democracy in the Middle East. There is nothing to be sensitive about in this regard. Change is a sign of vitality in any political regime, not an occasion for justification or apology.

What is happening in the world around us lends further evidence to the above statement. America, the world's uncontested great power, has reviewed some of its policies within the past few months. It has moved on from semi-unilateralism on international issues to involving its European allies in decision-making. France, a country assertively independent on international issues, is calmly revising its position. Politics is a process of change, and political discourse is also mutable. International circumstances change, so do regional and domestic ones. It is hard to cope with these changes while keeping discourse in a straitjacket. We cannot all read from the same book, and blame those who don't. Anyone following up the ongoing debate in academic and intellectual circles must notice how repetitive some of the premises have become, from the statement that "reform is not to be dictated from abroad," to the assertion that "domestic forces know best," to the view that "divisions on reform involve everyone, rulers and citizens."

The above debate, with its customary prognosis of known facts, often smacks of unnecessary defensiveness. We should remember that achievements have been made and more are on the way. One doesn't need to be noisy to change things, unless we are speaking of coups and revolutions. Politics, in this case, may have gained a head start on debate, on the very discourse that was supposed to guide it. When cultural legacy is heavy, it tends to get in the way. Naguib Mahfouz used a houseboat to recreate this situation. In Chatting on the Nile, the houseboat teems with events, but it remains tied to the shore, rocking idly on the water.

* The writer is the editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Dimocratia (Democracy), issued by Al-Ahram.

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