By: Dr Wael Haddara
“The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment, but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered.” – Edmund Burke
Burke was referring to the conduct of an occupying army. But it is a fitting description of the state of Egypt as we pass the third anniversary of the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution. Those first 18 days were heady indeed. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the march of Egyptians seeking freedom and social justice. But very quickly, it became clear that the struggle was far from over. The regime did not fall when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted on February 11, rather, as many Egyptians took to describing it, the regime sacrificed its head to save its body.
Mubarak’s prime minister remained in office until street pressure forced him to resign; some of the chief architects of the Mubarak regime remained not only at large but in their offices, carrying on the business of the state. The nature of the transition itself became contentious, with some Egyptians favouring a constitution-first and others a legislative assembly-first approach. A wedge was driven between those societal forces that had come together in early 2011 – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The inauguration of Mohammad Morsi as Egypt’s first ever freely elected civilian president ushered a new period of hope, but that brief experiment with representative government came to an end with the military coup of July 3, 2013. I have written elsewhere about the challenges of the president’s year in office. While far from perfect, the coup was a major setback in every possible way. Many of the decisions of President Morsi during his year in office were motivated by a desire to spare Egypt a prolonged power struggle. He tried to motivate various stakeholders to put the interests of the country ahead of theirs, while negotiating a phased elimination of privileges.
The country was passing through a bottleneck, the president would often say, and the challenge was to pass through the bottleneck “without the bottle breaking”. This approach was sometimes misunderstood as an attempt to strike a deal with vested interests. Rather, those choices were borne of a deep-seated desire to avoid an ugly confrontation. He understood, as Burke pointed out, that force has its costs for “the thing you fought for is not the thing you recover; but depreciated, sunk, wasted, and consumed in the contest”.
Since the coup, the new regime has tried a strategy of shock and awe. Media restrictions, detentions, and the worst acts of violence against civilians in modern Egyptian history have all left us no closer to the demands for freedom, justice and social justice. Nor has the regime found unconditional acceptance. The regime even tried to invoke the well-worn mantra of a “war against terrorism”, perhaps not realising that fighting a domestic war subverts the badly needed economic recovery.
Internationally, the African Union continues to hold Egypt’s membership suspended, resulting in the coup regime suffering the humiliation of being lumped together with a regime such as Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe. At home, the economy is slowly imploding with inflation reaching crisis levels, while the road-map on which the regime pinned its hopes for normalization has spluttered, as evidenced by the near total boycott of the recent constitutional referendum by young people. The ongoing street demonstrations, despite the violence, are a reminder of the failure of force to resolve the impasse.
And so this is where we stand on the eve of the third anniversary of the revolution. A segment of the population that continues to resist the naked power grab by the army and the security services; and a security apparatus seemingly intent on, but failing to, restore the “fear barrier” in the minds and hearts of the populace. The crimes committed by the security apparatus have become too numerous and too bloody to simply forgive or forget, and the army leadership has set itself on a path of confrontation with a determined segment of the Egyptian public.
On this point as well, Burke proves instructive:
“Terror is not always the effect of force, and an armament is not a victory… [with] force failing, no further hope of reconciliation is left. Power and authority are sometimes bought by kindness; but they can never be begged as alms by an impoverished and defeated violence.”
Today there is a generation of young Egyptians that refuses to give up on the pursuit of freedom and social justice. They were born on January 25, 2011 and they refuse to be cowed, intimidated, threatened or silenced. No-one can predict exactly what will happen in the coming days and weeks. But one thing is clear: There is no going back to the days of fear and repression.