Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Three questions

Many people are wondering when civil war or a revolution of the hungry will happen in Egypt. In reality, they are already happening, in some respects for years, writes Gamil Matar

Al-Ahram Weekly

The crisis in Egypt would have reached the point of no return were it not for the fact that the Administrative Court issued a ruling against the electoral law governing the parliamentary elections that would otherwise have proceeded on schedule on the date set by the presidency. Fortunately, the presidency speedily yielded to the court ruling.

Even so, government agencies in the US are not alone in their concern over the potential repercussions of the deteriorating situation in Egypt. Russia, Germany, France, Israel and the EU Commission signalled their anxieties even before Washington. Yet, it was quite a precedent when The Washington Post and Bloomberg issued editorials, signed by their respective editorial boards, sounding alarm bells. The Bloomberg article was the most hard-hitting. It stated bluntly that all available alternatives for resolving the Egyptian crisis were disheartening. This applied in particular to the option of an army take-over. If Egyptian army intervention follows the Turkish or Pakistani models, or even that which the Egyptian army itself had tried before, there would be grave regional repercussions. On the other hand, if the army does not intervene at all in some fashion or if it intervenes too late, Egypt would nosedive into conditions of a failed state. Yet, according to the editorial, the political plus economic alternative (another round at the polls followed by steps to secure the promised IMF loan that the current rulers, their Islamist groups and parties, investors and everyone else but the average Egyptian person are dreaming of) seems equally out of reach. This solution is contingent upon the restoration of peace in the street, consensus among political elites, a minimum level of competence and expertise in government and its negotiators with the IMF, all of which conditions are lacking.

I get around a lot and meet many kinds of Egyptians and foreigners. Everywhere I go these days I encounter three questions.

The first is: Where are we heading? Ordinarily, the people who ask me this do not expect an answer, although it is the question I am most frequently asked by people of all ages, classes and occupational backgrounds. It is not the type of question asked by a confident people in a stable society or in a country run by a government that has the trust of its people.

What most Egyptians might describe as a sense of being lost in strange and unfamiliar territory may, to the optimist, appear as a temporary disruption that will soon be sorted out. In the opinion of the expert in a strategic studies and planning centre, the condition might be construed as the confusion and mayhem that occurs after a vehicle screeches off the road into a ditch because the driver was unfamiliar with the twists, potholes and bumps in the road, and because he was ignorant of the type of cargo he was given the responsibility for transporting, whether in the form of human passengers, material or cultural assets, or civilisational achievements and cherished dreams. On the other hand, some heartless extremist types might even welcome all this destruction, death and sense of loss as the kind of surgery that is needed to uproot those cancers of liberalism, progressivism and scientific rationalism that began to spread their malignancy throughout the Egyptian body following the collapse of the Islamic caliphate. To this contingent at home, add those equally heartless abroad, both near and far, who want to see an Egypt tamed into submission and easily controlled.

Most of those who have been asked the above question admit that their answers failed to satisfy their interlocutors. Some answers were so optimistic that they sparked objections that the responder was offending the questioners’ intelligence. Questioners were equally incensed by another set of answers that were so heavily wrapped in academese and embellished by theoretical jargon that one was forced to recall the revolution’s charge regarding intellectuals’ share in responsibility for the decline in Egypt. Then there was that third set of answers that was brutally pessimistic, sometimes verging on the nihilistic.

The second question is whether Egypt is on the threshold of a “revolution of the hungry”.

The question, itself, implies the affirmative and that the rest is just a question of time and opportunity. In addition, I have observed — and this observation has been confirmed by similar observations by others — that this question is usually posed by persons who live well above the level of destitution and who fear that a revolution of the hungry would deprive them of the advantages and/or privileges they currently enjoy at their current economic level. Certainly no one at the starvation level or below has stopped me to ask whether Egypt is on the threshold of a revolution of the hungry. It is not the type of question they would ask because it inherently conveys the desire for reassurance that government institutions and agencies are still capable of keeping the hungry at bay. Or it conveys the conviction that the threshold is still a way off and that the opportunities are still at hand to bar the gateways to such a revolution. The conviction rests in the faith, inherited from the Mubarak era, that either the US, Israel, Europe or the Gulf countries will never leave Egypt prey to the wrath of the hungry.

The question regarding the revolution of the hungry might also come from people who feel certain that it is imminent and that the few remaining obstacles before it are fragile. They believe that all signs indicate that if the armies of the hungry decided to march against the cities, they would encounter little to obstruct their path. Some are so obsessed with such a scenario that they spend hours pouring over maps, pinpointing the rallying bases where the hungry will march from, highlighting their routes of attack, and identifying potential targets. At this point of obsession, the approach to the question departs from the spirit of inquiry and turns to a mania for fabricating a narrative from the realm of science fiction that projects some model of the aftermath of famine and war onto some virtual reality in Egypt.

Regardless of their degree of obsession, the alarmists point to the deterioration in the economy and to the splintering society. They also argue that the youth will not tolerate the mounting unemployment much longer, that millions of families will be unable to feed themselves because of rising prices, that anarchy on the roads and railroads are keeping imports of food staples from reaching their distribution points and, from there, to the slums and shantytowns in and surrounding the cities, and that the levels of security are insufficient to protect the suburbs and other areas inhabited by the middle class.

The third question is, are we at the threshold of a civil war?

I find it odd when this question is put to me by an Egyptian as though he or his parents or grandparents had experienced an eruption of civil war before. Perhaps some have looked at the histories of Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen and suddenly found themselves drawing comparisons between those countries and the current state of Egypt, and concluded that the Egyptian civil war has not broken out yet. I heard one person who had recently returned from Afghanistan remarking on certain similarities between the circumstances here and there before the outbreak of civil war. He spoke of the proliferation of weapons, street children and children in the street bearing arms, and large numbers of unemployed in slums and cities.

Often, too, people posing this question will rest their case on what they believe is the most crucial factor. We are no longer a nation with a single identity, they say. Worse, not only have identities multiplied, secondary identities have pushed forward to become primary ones and these are now in a race to show which can hate the others the most. Seemingly from one day to the next, identities have been “ideologised” or have fortified themselves behind barricades of sanctities. The question posers will then cite proof after proof that the institutions of government are falling apart beneath the pressures of conflicting identities and allegiances, and they recite one argument after another to prove that over time domestic peace will become less attractive than the returns from strife, occupation and plunder of residential communities. Such arguments will be corroborated by photographs and documents that demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that there are “foreign” elements, backed by deep pockets and protected by huge militias, that subscribe to beliefs or interpretations of beliefs that are “concocted” abroad. On top of all this evidence, the question posers will add that widely circulating piece of information regarding the abundant perforations in our protective borders.

By this time the person to whom they put the question as to whether we are on the threshold of a civil war will have realised that this is not the question that is being asked at all. Rather, they are asking, when, exactly, will the civil war begin? Because they have already made their minds up that civil war is inevitable.

As a people, Egyptians had no previous experience with the three states addressed by the questions above. We had not experienced the sense of disorientation that compels people to ask where we are headed. We had not experienced the hunger or the circumstances leading to it that have made some wonder when the march of the millions of hungry will begin. Nor had we ever had such a level of hate for ourselves or for one another, or exercised such a degree of extremism and terrorism against our fellow people and institutions, or smashed the Pyramids and blown up the Sphinx as the Taliban blew up the ancient Buddhas so as to warrant the question as to when civil war will erupt.

Perhaps, the problem is in the minds of those posing the questions. Each imagines a particular pattern of behaviour for a country whose people have lost their way, are growing hungry and are beginning to hate themselves and each other, and they expect Egypt to fit itself into that particular pattern. But, Egypt has not, and will not, stick to a pattern whether with respect to its disoriented compass, its revolution of the hungry, or its civil war.

As for my answers to the questions above, they are essentially the same. Egypt is, indeed, lost and has no idea where it is heading. The revolution of the hungry has been going on for years and its protagonists are the itinerant vendors who have taken over the streets and squares in the centre of the cities, the stone-throwing children, ex-cons and other criminals, pensioners and the jobless. The civil war has already broken out. It is raging in most of Egypt’s governorates, claiming hundreds of dead and thousands of injured, and its flames are being fed by regenerated anger and stoked by vengeance.


The writer is a political analyst and director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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