Egypt: Into the Unknown

From the Arabist, a long and worthy read on the past three years in the Arab world. From excitement to fear to depression, there are still deeper changes afoot. Here are a few excerpts especially poignant to Egypt:

The traditional elites are fearful of change, perhaps now more so than pre-2011, and do not appear to have this in mind. Medium-term survival is trumping long-term vision; their obsession with preserving their ascendency open-endedly is plunging their countries into the abyss. Their best argument is that the emerging elites, who could only be Islamist, are part of the old paradigm and have proven to be as power-hungry and inefficient as their predecessors. The old fallacy of stability is holding back the need for trial and error, however cautious. This bodes badly for the future. Cycles of discontent will likely repeat themselves, with the costs and barriers to change increasing each time.

And here is the practical result:

The framework is therefore a mixture of gridlock and vacuum. There are no broadly appealing ideologies, in the east or west. Economically, Western capitalism—a frequent substitute for failing political paradigms—is in crisis. In many quarters, once again apathy towards political engagement is growing, manifested in part by a retrenchment into one’s immediate community, isolationism, or virulent nationalism. People are trying to navigate the economy and society for individual survival rather than big ideas. Democracy is being tested; populism is order of the day. Modernity is bringing an identity crisis to the region as it has elsewhere. The role of Islam, which for a century has been perceived by many thinkers and citizens around the Arab world as a solution to all its ills, remains ill-defined and on trial. As a reaction, in many quarters Islamic ideology is becoming more assertive, less open to change and ever less likely to provide a fruitful structure.

Trying to find a silver lining:

Third, in this context, the challenging, slowly and painfully, of all the old narratives—pan-Arabist, nationalist, various shades of Islamism, anti-imperialism, “the resistance”—is ultimately positive because none of them work. They are used reflexively to fill a vacuum, to cover up for a lack of program, vision or ethic, and they are constantly belied and undermined by reality. Events, in a sense, are calling every narrative’s bluff.

Perhaps it is too early to judge the nationalist narrative, as Egypt is currently in the midst of (re)employing it. In any case, the author wisely ends with current reality:

That, of course, is the optimistic view. Until then, for those living through the tumult, it is all about surviving to see another, more hopeful day.

In speaking with a new, friendly family we have met recently, the young husband asked me of my opinion on the constitution, having told them I have been interviewing some of the authors. I told of my experience more than my opinion, but that I was impressed by the manner in which committee members engaged with each other and the issues.

He reacted somewhat angrily, however, about his own possible participation in the referendum. The anger, if that is the right word, seeped out as if it had been bottled up, and was certainly not directed at me.

He is just waiting things out, he said, unsure about everything. The way I write that suggests resignation, but it was issued with a tension that made our friendly visit somewhat awkward. Recognizing the fact, everyone quickly changed the conversation.

But upon reflection, and after reading the article, this husband is exactly the person from whom to test the young generational waters, living within but without clarity of all the author expresses. It is from him the coming order will emerge – however long that takes.

And that, if the author is correct, is into a future yet unknown. There is no model. Enjoy the ride.

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