This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
With Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns urging reconciliation of Egypt’s warring factions yesterday in Cairo, pro-Morsi demonstrators hit the Cairo streets. The New York Times reports reports at least seven dead and hundreds injured. Is this the beginning of the end or the beginning of another wave of street violence?
The military and police may have the upper hand in Egypt. What they don’t have is the ability to police the nation as if the post-coup political situation has been resolved, the people are united, and a smooth transition to democracy is on its way.
As to the American wish list the Times article quotes Burns: “The government itself has said it wants inclusion of all political streams. We have called on the military to avoid any politically motivated arrests. And we have also called upon those who differ with the government to adhere to their absolute obligation to participate peacefully.”
Participate peacefully sounds good but what it means when the military calls the shots, sets the political framework and defines the parameters of affirmation and dissent is another question. When you’re on the outs it’s hard to “participate” in a violent situation except through resistance – or acquiescence. The middle ground has given way. That’s the essence of martial law.
On how America is perceived in Egypt right now, here is the Times: “Mr. Burns said he had ‘no illusions’ about the suspicions of many Egyptians toward the United States. He emphasized repeatedly that the United States did not back any individuals or parties in Egypt, only the principles of pluralistic democracy.” Like “participate peacefully,” pluralist democracy sounds good but what can pluralist democracy mean with the military at the center?
What Burns is urging is a contradiction in terms – a military defined/enforced/policed pluralist democracy. This twist sounds an awful like Egypt’s neighbor, Israel, which has a legally defined/military enforced/policed ethnic democracy.
Democracy’s qualifiers are important. When is democracy, democracy? When is democracy something other than democracy?
The Times also has a long and fascinating article on the democracy debate within Egypt’s progressive camp. The debate centers on the military as the guarantor of Egypt’s revolution. Rabab el-Mahdi, a left-leaning scholar at the American University in Cairo, is pessimistic: “We are moving from the bearded chauvinistic right to the clean-shaven chauvinistic right.”
This military/democracy debate is also the theme of the new video from the non-profit media collective, Mosireen. The video asks if, in Gil Scott-Heron’s words, the revolution will not be televised, can it be instigated and controlled by the military?
As martial law continues and the crackdown against Islamists tightens, the debate among progressives is getting ugly. Some are going the hyper-nationalist route, condemning progressives who question the army’s roles as traitors. Are Egypt Firsters on the Left much different than Islamists on the Right?
Events in Egypt raise the issue of revolution in our times. In our globalized era, when is a revolution a revolution and when is a revolution something other than a revolution? The issue of when a revolution is truly a revolution is a perennial issue perhaps best left to historians of revolution. However, in Egypt the stakes are too high for that. The urgency of the now is where Egypt is.
As the situation in Egypt deteriorates the term “revolution” itself is coming under fire. Whatever the ouster of Mubarak and now Morsi may mean in the long run, so far in Egypt it hasn’t meant revolution. It hasn’t even meant significant change.
Globalization plays its role here. With everything so interconnected, can modern societies in a globalized world produce and survive true revolutions? In our social media world the revolution may indeed be televised – and therefore more or less limited to a social media project.
American government officials in Cairo pronouncing the American ideals of pluralist democracy after meeting with the American funded Egyptian military that green lighted the overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected government is a kicker. It is also part of our interconnected world.