The litmus test of the Arab Spring is being delivered simultaneously at different undisclosed locations in Egypt – the particular importance of this cannot be overstated since it is both Tahrir Square and the person of Mohamed Bouazizi what stands at the symbolic heart of the Arab revolutions. Since Bouazizi has been dead for exactly nine months tomorrow, that leaves us with Tahrir and Egypt as the preferred trope of our greatest hopes about the revolutionary spring whose results, now going into winter, are less clear than ever. What is particularly difficult and complex about this test is not only that the questions asked are more difficult than those included in standard tests because they compromise our moral choices but also the fact that the results may define whether a man lives or dies.
It might be even a little late to write an article, since Maikel Nabil may as well die anytime soon, even during the writing of this article, unless affirmative actions are taken on the part of the Egyptian people and the networks of activists all over. This man, a young Egyptian, was arrested in March (once the Egyptian revolution had in theory apparently succeeded) and sentenced to years of imprisonment on the bogus and totally meaningless charges of insulting the army and spreading rumors. In response, over forty days ago he began on a hunger strike demanding a fair process and not only has his plight fallen on deaf ears, but he has also not been remitted to a medical facility and the case has been ignored by a vast majority of those in Egypt that call themselves activists and advocates for human rights.
What now connects Mohamed Bouazizi and Tahrir is that tomorrow (04.10.11) it will be exactly nine months since Bouazizi died in the hospital after he set himself on fire on 17.12.10; what caused the departure of president Ben Ali and triggered massive protests and uprisings all over the region, so that on this day Egypt will see a court appeal scheduled to decide Nabil’s fate, symbolically speaking, nine months after the revolution began, as if it were a pregnancy of which doctors are unsure whether it will be a miscarriage or not. Circumstances however, seem to have affected the blogger’s fate negatively; the fact that he declares himself in support of the Jewish state, belonging to a Coptic Christian family, not being a well known media personality, and more than anything, the sad fact of having been absolutely correct in his criticism of the army and the post-revolutionary situation in Egypt long before it was clear to the Egyptian street.
The way in which the case will result, is ought to define a lot about the true reach and intent of the revolution especially in light of the upcoming elections to be held in a matter of weeks, the first in Egypt in several decades. What is then the life of a man compared to the hundreds who have lost their life in the course of the revolutionary struggle? Probably the answer to the question far exceeds the complexity of what we can outline here, but suffice it to say that when a revolution is claimed to have been already achieved, with a very hefty price tag, involving significant loss of lives, there is but little sense in allowing a man to die just because of voicing an opinion or another. It was this desire precisely, the desire of Egyptians to express themselves freely and act accordingly what motivated the protests and what gave people the will and ultimately the political power to carry on with their plan to oust Mubarak until the very last consequences in spite of the risks involved.
The crowds of protesters celebrated the disposition of the Egyptian army back in February in support of their momentum and quickly enough it became common to hear people say that the army and the people are one. The particulars of this fallacy are the writing on the wall on a daily basis for over six months now, including military trials for thousands of civilians, all kinds of abuse and harassment, imprisonment, countless missing persons, deliberate measures against journalists, virginity tests performed on civilian protesters, storming into houses and other incidents widely documented both in the press and in the eye witness accounts of several bloggers. The fact that Nabil was among the first to point in the direction of such dark prospect shouldn’t tell us much about his arrest and eventual sentencing as much as it does give some clues as to why Egyptians who supported the army and its role during and after the revolution would resent him and not be particularly active in the cause to release him.
Be as it may, one finds it hard to believe that a country has been liberated from a tyrannical rule only in order to fall under even worse standards of tyranny in which civilians are tried in military courts and where criticism of the establishment is ground for incarceration. On this it is probably true that all Egyptians agree but the catch is that in this new republic, in which an era of freedom has just started, people refuse to stand for someone whose rights have been clearly trampled on, only because they cannot agree with his views. The people of Egypt should know that in allowing this to happen – or rather, in not opposing it – they have paved the way for a new era, yes, for a new era of authoritarianism, a new era of abuse and a new era of yet more silence. Even at the expense of disagreeing with Nabil’s assessment of Israel and other topics, it is an undeniable fact that his analyses of the situation in Egypt were correct. It seems as if nothing has changed in Egypt, as if – in words of Nabil – the dictator was taken out, but not the dictatorship.
What a sad reflection on yourself Egypt, a country that just months ago achieved what had been deemed impossible – the ousting of tyranny – and that most of us (including myself) did not believe would happen until the very last moment, but where a people decided to sit in until they would be freed from absolutist rule. The fact remains that Egyptians needed and still need to be liberated not only from the regime but also from themselves and from their own ways of thinking. Before a revolt can succeed to actually inaugurate a new era, the chains of the past have to be broken and it is here that resides the truly unique and human nature of politics: It is able to enact new beginnings and to promise freedom on the basis thereof. This means of course letting go as well of the familiar ways, of prejudices, of traditions, of historical traps, of taboos, of presumptions. It was not only until Hegel proposed the notion of a ‘presumptionless’ philosophy, that he became the political philosopher of modernity, if for no other reason. In such an insecure world as ours, it is imperative to realize that everything can be changed, transformed, annihilated and juxtaposed.
The condemnation of Nabil by Egyptian society is the ultimate symptom of their political ineptitude and of their immaturity, condemning a young man to die only because of dissent of opinion, which was after all the fuel of the revolution itself. When Maikel Nabil decided to exercise his right to freedom of expression in that so-called new Egypt he was actually exercising the right of all Egyptians, standing for their rights and for their freedom since it is part and parcel of democratic processes to challenge the grip of authority and to demand accountability for wrongdoing. Whenever we accept that someone’s rights are trampled on just because of dissent, we are not only standing idle before tyranny but we are also openly queuing up in line to be abused next. Political activism in Egypt has lost nearly all meaning, being nothing but a meager reflection on radical European ideas washed down and reduced to infantile clichés about disobedience, fuck the system and other petty slogans. Egyptian activists debate themselves at the moment between opportunism and defeatism. At a time when they should be standing in protest in behalf of this one man that represents the difficult task of thinking for yourself, they’re kept busy with the farce of Ilan Grapel, an alleged American-Israeli spy, while neglecting their own.
On the eve of the French revolution, in the year 1784, Kant wrote one of his most famous texts addressing the answer to the question of ‘What is Enlightenment?’; according to the famous philosopher ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity’ and defines immaturity as ‘the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another’. The motto of the Enlightenment was defined by Kant as ‘courage to use your own understanding’. When the French revolution broke, things in Kant’s native Prussia stayed more or less the same and the goals of the Enlightenment provided little ground for political change, so that Prussia stayed more or less authoritarian well until modern times, with the even greater paradox that in such enlightened times it was by all means possible to criticize God and the church at the same time it was strictly forbidden to criticize the ruler, Frederick the Great, without the risk of exile and other heavy fines. Not unlike the situation in Egypt after the revolution, where lots of new and formerly outlawed ideas are not accepted and acceptable, for so long as the authority of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces is not questioned or challenged in absolutely any way.
Kant’s Prussia learnt the hard way that it is very difficult to revolutionize without reform, more difficult than reform itself. The reform is not a couple of empty lines thrown into a piece of paper for public display as reform is usually understood in the Middle East – an essentially meaningless tactic aimed at pleasing audiences, a reform is primarily a change of heart. So in this line of argument, the logical order to follow would be Enlightenment or maturity, then reform and then revolution – not the other way around. When a man remains unable to think for himself, it is unlikely that he may be able to lead a country or a society into the future in such uncertain times. Not thinking for oneself is Egypt’s modern plague – much more lethal than all the Biblical plagues together; this is easily detected when attention drifts from the core matters of politics and life in society to trivial affairs of less than secondary importance right now such as the relations with Israel, petty religious strife without any theological basis, the all too fashionable conspiracies about how the West planned Arab Spring to destabilize the Middle East, after it was already accused of not lending enough support for Arab Spring. Every problem in Egypt, from the pollution in Cairo to the burning of Coptic churches, it is all a Zionist and American conspiracy against the people of Egypt who are universally innocent and righteous.
If this man happens to die incarcerated, it is not only that this will be in the conscience of those Egyptians who refused to take a stand while it was still possible as they did in several other cases, but it will stand as a heavy sore wound at the heart of the Arab revolution, that in practice condemned a man to die for the same reason that the revolution had begun in the first place. I refuse to resort to those typical Middle Eastern concepts of hero and martyr, without ground in objective reality, but still will recognize that to the same extent that Bouazizi was a symbol at the heart of the revolutionary moment, this man, Maikel Nabil, is also a symbol in the other end of things. He represents the minority (liberal) opinion that has to be protected by the (democratic) majority because it is only in a permanent state of questioning and challenging that this maturity, this autonomy, required for Enlightenment can be found. Unlike cars, malls, resort complexes and themed parks, human institutions cannot be imported and cannot be thought to be infallible. Every country and every people must find its own path, must find in itself its own spiritual resources to guide itself, and not to guide itself into freedom (which is a groundless concept) but to guide itself in freedom into fairness, justice, equality, etc. There is no freedom without personal autonomy, without maturity to think for yourself and question, without courage; otherwise it becomes freedom only as non-slavery, but still too far apart from the human dignity that a revolution is ought to bestow upon a nation.
You’re still on time Egypt, on time to show some courage and some compassion, in time to assert what it is that you stand for, and if you are worthy of your freedom, if you are worthy of a revolution, if you are going to go into history as a textbook case of revolutionary promises or of revolutionary lies. Maikel Nabil needs to be free, and you need him to be free more than he needs it. If you could supposedly free a country, what does it take to free a man? Show some dignity and stand up for your rights, before they wrong them too.