The clarity of purpose that characterized the best moments in Tahrir is now but a fond memory. Egypt is like a family in an inheritance dispute; the fraternal rifts formerly suppressed by the father/tyrant are widening. Divided along sectarian, generational and ideological lines, Egypt is in disagreement with itself, the public’s attention sidetracked by myriad affronts and scandals. It’s hard to stay focused in such a charged atmosphere, especially when objective obstacles prevent the nation from prioritizing and addressing its issues. For one, the current army-supervised government does not represent the people, but more importantly, the people are unaccustomed to representing themselves.
In denying citizens their basic rights, the former regime effectively relieved them of their civic responsibilities. It was a convenient, paternalist arrangement; an authoritarian state did as it pleased and an infantilized public had someone to blame for everything that went wrong without ever having to do much about it. Egyptians shouldered their burdens, cared for themselves, families and friends, expecting nothing from government but disdain and bullying. But having accepted their exclusion from power for so long, Egyptians are now uncertain how to use what little leverage the uprising has given them, and are unacquainted with the duties that citizenship might entail.
The distance between people and power has nearly always been vast in this country. It was clear in the days of the monarchy and the British Occupation; there was no confusing "them" with "us". But for the last 60 years Egypt has been ruled by Egyptians, with such results as we've seen. The dynamics are not cultural, but human: "It is a truism of history, that given the opportunity the underdog will imitate his master," observed Barry Kemp in Anatomy of a Civilization, a brilliant synthesis of Egypt’s millennial process. Thus (modern) Egypt’s first three indigenous leaders began their careers as men of the people and in varying degrees ended up as poor imitations of the colonial overlords they so despised. Poor, because they possessed the same arrogance but weren’t half as good as managers.
Unqualified for the positions they assumed, they were hypersensitive to criticism, unable to concede knowledge gaps, entertain new ideas, trust new people or cultivate leadership qualities in others. They wanted power but were uninterested in the responsibilities that accompany public service. Predictably they served themselves, families and friends. Nor is it any wonder that citizens were not equipped with the political structures to register dissent and institute options. Blame the regime as much as you like, it is nonetheless the people who must face the consequences.
Egyptians are rarely in a hurry, but they should get busy now. While no one can predict the future, history argues that radical elements of society have advantages over moderates in determining the outcome of an uprising. They are better organized, more obedient and devoted to their cause; they had to be to outmaneuver the enemy. Those most marginalized are understandably hungriest for change and a taste of power. Should they acquire it, we can expect their behavior to mirror that of their oppressors: defensive, reactionary, control-obsessed. And so it goes, in the absence of a collective effort to responsibly up the ante, the lowest common denominator wins by default.
To break this reflexive pattern a third force is needed, one that transcends politics and religion. It will take time to build organizations, establish political alternatives, parties and representatives with viable agendas shaped by public demand and debate. But another kind of participatory change is already possible: a reaffirmation of the higher values on which this society has long been based. The popular slogan ‘raise your head, you are Egyptian’ sums it up, but only works if it’s examined and expressed not just in Friday demos but every interaction.
Egyptians were always remarkable for their tolerance of differences, their peaceful coexistence, humor and grace under pressure, their ability to pool resources, settle differences, make things work. They were champion survivors, unmistakably spiritual but never proselytizing, thoughtful but not self-important. They distinguished themselves from other nationalities because more than a love of country, Egyptians seemed to share an unconditional love of life. While it is true that anger and disappointment has caused many to abandon these ideals, they should be pitied not feared, for they are lost and almost surely outnumbered.
The bond of community has been diminished but not dissolved; the oneness of mind that characterized Egypt’s uprising was a momentary awakening, a return to self. Now more than ever, Egyptians must not only be themselves, but challenge themselves and each other to use their talents, words and actions consciously, not merely to survive this time but to live, at last, more fully.