Spare Us the Intellectual Disneylands

Egypt continues to mesmerize, and, it seems, for many people around the world, to mystify, as well, at least to judge by the many wild and definitive assertions we hear every day about the consequences of developments in Egypt.

Egypt continues to mesmerize, and, it seems, for many people around the world, to mystify, as well, at least to judge by the many wild and definitive assertions we hear every day about the consequences of developments in Egypt: Islamism is dead in the Arab world. Pluralism is dead. Democracy has failed in Egypt. Qatar is fading. Saudi Arabia rules the region. Turkish and Iranian leaderships have lost. Egypt will suffer either civil war or a democratic resurgence. Arab Christians have no future in the region, and many other such statements that are asserted with the illusory confidence of absolute fact.

This is comical for revealing the ignorance of most analysts who make such statements, and insulting for revealing a subtle new form of Orientalist thinking that manifests itself in two ways: One assumes that Arabs and their political cultures can only be black or white—democracy or military rule, and nothing in between—and another assumes that the future of 350 million Arabs will be definitively set for decades by developments this week, or next month at most, disregarding both the force of human agency and the powerful corrective measures that come with time.

The most offensive aspect of so much of the international, especially American, commentary on Egypt is its absolutist nature that assumes three things that I believe are wrong assumptions: that current events in a short span of time will define Egypt for many years; that the people of Egypt essentially only face two choices, namely the Muslim Brotherhood or the armed forces; and that mobs of loyalists of both parties will clash and one of them will win, with no space in between for subtleties or nuances or groups of citizens engaging each other to craft a new political culture that is neither absolutist nor autocratic.

Much of the analysis about Egypt these days misses how life, ideology, identity and politics actually operate across the Middle East, which is basically through a process of constant negotiations of identities and authorities by a wide range of citizens who often are not formalized in clear organizations, and for the most part do not have websites, or Twitter and Facebook accounts. If Egypt teaches us anything for now it is that dozens of different groups of citizens will continue to engage each other in political battle until they agree on the outlines of a national political governance system that they all accept as legitimate and appropriate for their country.

These many actors, including the military and the Islamists, all evolve and continue to reconfigure their alliances, as their fortunes and public attitudes change on a month-by-month basis. Arab citizens, who now can express their identities and mobilize in the millions for mass political action, represent the agency of the individual citizen that remains, in my mind, the single most important development in the country since January 2011. This is the main reason why I feel that so much of the absolutist, almost apocalyptic analysis of Egypt’s condition is wrong and demeaning. Together, these millions of active citizens comprise that “popular legitimacy” that is now the great driver of national reconfiguration and re-legitimization. Everybody, including Islamists and the armed forces, is now ultimately accountable to the Egyptian citizenry.

Egyptians are not merely mobs who must choose only between democracy and army rule; rather they comprise thousands of citizen groups that rise and fall according to the times and the conditions. Some go to public squares, some give to local charities, some stay home and watch television and vote when they are given that opportunity, and many millions do some or all of these things. This historic assertion of citizen agency in the past 30 months has resulted in indigenous political movements whose fortunes rise and fall. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolutionary youth, Salafist Islamists, the National Salvation Front opposition grouping, the traditional parties and the armed forces have all continuously evolved since January 2011, and they all have only one thing in common: They are accountable ultimately to the will of the citizenry, and cannot try to impose a system of rule or national policies that the citizenry does not accept.

Egypt will be defined ultimately by the consequences, consensuses and compromises of this great amalgamation of different indigenous groups who now speak out, organize, mobilize, vote, protest and take long afternoon naps, with the certitude that they will make up and once again win the opportunity to speak out, organize, mobilize, vote, protest and take long afternoon naps. This beast has many, many more options than democracy or military rule. International observers and analysts of Egypt should have both the human courtesy and the analytical professionalism to acknowledge this, rather than entertain us and snare us with their own penchant to take thrill rides in their intellectual Disneylands, where Arabs and Iranians hurtle down the mountainside in a runaway civilizational train and can only choose one of two extremes, without having the option of that vast middle ground of human normalcy that defines about 8 billion other people in the world.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

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