It is a chilly winter. Not yet you would say. Except in the Middle East, where the Arab spring has opened a Pandora box of winterly creatures that spared us autumn altogether. Rather than staying stranded in the complex political economy of the Arabian Gulf, where change is expected to come slow and the process of state-building hasn’t been finished so far, we looked with hope at North Africa when the people united with the cause of freedom and overthrew the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia and ultimately that of Libya as well.
What seemed to herald then the beginning of a new era in the Middle East is now the symptom of what Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil put into words months ago: To overthrow the dictator but not the dictatorship.
A new era in Middle Eastern politics has no doubt begun: It is a new era of authoritarianism, abuse and yet more silence for the people. Those of us who followed day by day the events at Tahrir, long before the spring would reach Yemen, Syria and Bahrain; we did so not without a certain measure of skepticism which was manifested by global leaders alike.
On the one hand, we had to celebrate how political power unexpectedly seized the street and grew exponentially by the minute until several weeks later the Egyptians were victorious; on the other, one could not express enough reservation about the transition of power.
Apparently successful examples of liberation from tyranny such as Iraq, Afghanistan and other lesser conflicted nations could never pass the stage of transition until alas another conflict would break free. I strongly believe that political power cannot be passed, created or transitioned; it is something that must happen and its absence is not a symptom of failure, rather, it is the failure itself.
By the end of the rather long period of protests (however brief compared to the situation in Syria and Yemen and to a lesser extent and for different circumstances, Bahrain), the same Egyptian army that had pledged loyalty to President Mubarak and that had ruthlessly launched attacks on protesters, decided to join the revolutionary struggle and from then onwards began to be voiced the all too felicitous claim that the army and the people are one.
Few people expressed criticism at the time and then a fragile period of transition began, one that saw the emergence of groups that had been forever silenced in Egypt – with the good and the bad; but ultimately the true colors not of the revolution (a revolution is always beautiful) but of the revolutionaries began to surface; quickly enough previously self-appointed activists fell prey to the opportunism typical of those keen and quick enough to realize that the change of regimes was only nominal and that they had to play their cards the best they could.
This was followed by the ruthless authoritarian grip of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forced that has put over ten thousand civilians on trial in military courts on bogus and meaningless charges, number which amounts to more than those tried in Mubarak’s entire rule.
Some countries in the region do consider relevant to charge a culprit on insulting the military, criticizing the government and spreading rumors; while this is true, none of those countries (perhaps with the curious exception of Turkey) unlike post-revolutionary Egypt, are confessed to be democratic and at best have insisted that democratic processes will last several decades. The list of abuses committed by SCAF runs very long: helpless bureaucracy, corruption, physical and verbal abuses, virginity tests, tight censorship on media and journalists, intimidation of Egyptian and foreigner alike, political maneuvering and endless manipulation.
The ugly truth of revolutions is that it is never revolutionaries who make the revolutions; they are only lying in waiting until political power is ripe in the streets and then they seize it, what happens then of course is precisely what I outlined above: political power, the result of human mutability and contingence is as such, a very fragile thing, it must be let happen, it cannot be seized lest it be destroyed and turned into violence.
Violence such as that practiced by SCAF is never political – because politics and political power is the will of a people, whereas violence is the will of one man or one group, and like with the Egyptian Pharaoh, political power by means of violence is a very solitary institution. This is what happened in Egypt, once the people achieved the revolution; their power was seized by revolutionaries – the same that will be turned into staunchest conservatives the day after.
But the trial of the revolution has begun. It began already when a young blogger, Maikel Nabil, a 25-years-old Egyptian Copt known for his radically unsettling views about the military and the State of Israel, began blogging about how the army and the people have never been one, and reported about ideological inconsistencies and abuses committed by the army on the people during and after the revolution.
He probably had been under the radar for a long time before that, accordingly, his house was stormed, and he was put in prison, tried in a military court as a civilian and given an extended sentence of three years for doing nothing but expressing his opinions publicly on the web. Although many others (in fact thousands) were tried the same way, Nabil was the first political prisoner of post-revolutionary Egypt, and the only one who remained in imprisonment only because of a blog.
Other prominent media personalities who had risen in the course of the revolution as star bloggers were otherwise released. Nabil’s case did not gain much prominence at home or abroad derived from the facts of his life: An ethnic Copt, an atheist, an atypical radical, supporter of Israel, critic of the revolution. His plight fell on almost deaf ears.
Over forty days ago Mr. Nabil began a hunger strike to demand his immediate release. Now entering the 43rd day, an appeal had been scheduled on October 4th, however it was postponed until October 11thbecause of a court file that did not arrive on time; circumstance that no one seemed to bent on overturning other than a few activists who were at the court and who were harassed, threatened with imprisonment and one of them summoned into the court briefly: For no other reason than using her phone camera in a demonstration in front of the military court, Sahar Maher was charged with misdemeanors, her phone confiscated and she was informed that she would be as well tried on a military court the following week.
Even at the prospect of his death, knowing full well that he had committed no other crime than the exercise of free speech, not only the decision remains unchanged but the support of Egyptians at home and activists abroad is rather weak compared to other cases where the risk involved was substantially less. The few people campaigning for his release, among them his father and brother and some activists, among them the very prominent Egyptian blogger Mona Eltahawy, have assured us that the postponement of the trial is nothing but a death sentence.
So much for democracy, it is not only that the true intentions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces have truly surfaced but also have the capabilities of the Egyptian populace. The belatedness in expressing vocal support for the case of Mr. Nabil derive from the fact that few in Egypt today are willing to hear any criticism on the outcome and success of the revolution and like Mr. Nabil said, what was true for himself in March, is already true for many others: There’s more fear in the streets now than there ever was under Mubarak.
No doubt there is a long road ahead of Egypt in this new era, however, of what of worth is all this bloodshed, all this madness, all this sacrifice? What is the worth of this all if once the beginning had been supposedly achieved; the rights of the innocent cannot be protected, if criticism cannot be heard, if the life of this one man is not worth another public outcry like the one at Tahrir, then what was the life of Mohamed Bouazizi worth after all? What was the life of Khaleed Said worth at all?
This one case, apparently simple and straightforward as it is, it is ought to put the Egyptian revolution to its hardest test yet, to its definite trial, which in case of failing, will leave us with the bitter taste of realizing how it is that it took only a couple of weeks not to liberate Egypt, but to make it go from oligarchic authoritarianism to military authoritarianism. It is time to stop finding guilty culprits abroad and elsewhere for everything that happens at home; in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Israel and everywhere in the Middle East.
If it wasn’t the case that there’s so much wrong with ourselves, it would only suffice to ‘overthrow’ one power or the other to change our lives, but time and again, this old and rather dead paradigm is proven wrong on and on and on. How can we stand up to tyranny in the region if we cannot change our own ways of thinking? If we cannot change the prejudice and the hatred we are taught at home? If we cannot let go of tribal, religious and cultural masks?
So right she had been in the 1990’s when Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller declared in recanting her older socialism, that she would go in the direction of Kierkegaard (introspection) rather than Marx (political action) because the revolution, the revolution of everyday life, that revolution is ought to begin in yourself – it cannot be brought from anywhere, no one can bestow it upon you, there’re no manuals written for revolution.
Egypt has to redefine the meaning of patriotism for the Middle East now, whether it is an awakening of values, human ideals and the autonomy to use your own judgment, or if once again, it is more and more of the old anti-imperialist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, backward, monolithic and especially egoistic system. It remains to be seen whether Egypt will remain enslaved to Pharaoh or whether they will cross the Reed Sea, and then finally understand that politics is not about how I feel about Maikel Nabil or not, or anyone, but about how we build the common world.