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Alaa Al Aswany

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The Phenomenon of the Tame Citizens of Egypt

Posted: 06/19/2012 12:30 pm

Twenty years ago I was working as a dentist for a government department, and one morning I was treating a member of the staff. He was lying in the dentist's chair with his mouth open and I had put a metal clamp around his tooth so that I could put in a filling. While I was busy at work, the clinic door opened and the head of security for the department came in and unexpectedly said, "Could you please get rid of this patient straight away? The head of the department is coming to have his teeth done."

"I'll need another half hour to finish with this patient," I told him.

"No, you have to finish him off right now because the boss is on his way," said the head of security, speaking in a commanding and provocative tone.

"I can't leave the patient with his tooth exposed. The boss should have contacted me through his secretary to fix an appointment," I said.

The head of security smiled sarcastically and said, "The boss doesn't fix appointments. When he wants to have his teeth done, you have to be ready."

"I don't work for the head of the department, but for a government department that he happens to head."

"For the last time, get rid of this patient because the boss is on his way," the head of security responded curtly.

"I won't tell the patient to go until I've finished his treatment," I shouted in his face.

The patient had his mouth open and was unable to speak, but I noticed he was making some sounds and pointing at me. I undid the metal clamp around his tooth and took it out. At that point the patient jumped out of the chair and addressed the head of security: "Whatever the department head says. Tell him to come at once and I'll finish off my treatment later."

Not only that, but the patient went out with the head of security to welcome the boss and escort him into the clinic. He didn't leave before asking, "Anything I can do for you, sir?"

I felt very disappointed by the man's attitude. I had tried to defend his dignity but he had let me down and welcomed humiliating treatment by the head of the department. I had taken the right position but this worker was accustomed to abuse. In his view, to insist on one's honour was stupidity or madness and he could no longer see beyond his material interests. Toadying to the boss would bring him bonuses and privileges whereas in return for defending justice he would have to pay a heavy price that he could not afford to pay.

I recall this incident now as I try to understand what is happening in Egypt. Egyptians carried out a major revolution that many historians and political scientists consider to be one of the greatest revolutions in history. Millions of Egyptians went out into the streets and were beaten, killed, run over by police trucks and blinded by shotgun pellets. Thousands of them were killed or injured in order to restore freedom and dignity. In the end they triumphed and forced the tyrant to give up power.

But how, after this great revolution, can it happen that Ahmed Shafik, a follower and loyal disciple of the deposed dictator, is standing for the presidency? The answer is that the Military Council has resisted change and preserved the Mubarak regime, which in turn has carried out a careful plan to undo the Egyptian revolution. It deliberately tarnished the reputation of the revolutionaries and tried to crush them through a succession of massacres, while exhausting the Egyptian people with artificial crises. It then put Ahmed Safik forward to be president of Egypt by any means possible and at any price. The law disqualifying old regime politicians has been blocked and Shafik has been protected from trial in connection with the 35 corruption complaints filed against him. Then the elections were rigged in his favor and the second round of elections will also be rigged for his sake.

The Military Council is intent on pushing Ahmed Shafik into the presidency to protect the interests of the military and to restore the old system as it was or, probably, even worse than it was. The Military Council bears primary responsibility for obstructing change and thwarting the revolution.

All this is true but it is not enough to explain what is happening. Why have all the problems -- the breakdown in law and order, the artificial crises and the price rises -- driven some Egyptians to turn against the revolution while they have not broken the will or shaken the faith of the revolutionaries, who have faced a succession of massacres by the police and the army? Why does one Egyptian curse the revolution because he can't find fuel for his car, while Dr. Ahmed Harara, who lost both eyes in the revolution, is still smiling, more faithful to his principles because of his sacrifice?

It's clear here that some Egyptians feel closer to the revolution than others. The Egyptian revolution, like all revolutions, did not involve the whole Egyptian people, and after the revolution, the people split into three groups:

First, the revolutionaries, who were determined to carry through the revolution whatever sacrifices they had to make.

Second, the followers of the old regime (the 'filoul'), who would fight fiercely to restore the old regime to protect their interests and for fear of being tried for their crimes if the revolutionaries came to power.

Third, the tame citizens (like that civil servant whose teeth I was treating), who managed to get along with the old regime somehow or other, found a way to lead their lives and were not willing to pay the price for change. The great majority of Egyptians still support the revolution but in Egypt, the tame citizens form a considerable minority. The revolution took them by surprise and they did not take part in it but watched on television as if it were a football match, and when they were certain that Mubarak had been overthrown they took their children out to the public squares and took souvenir photographs. The tame citizens are the ones who have been most affected by the propaganda against the revolution and the ones who have been most angered by the succession of artificial crises. Now they are openly cursing the revolution and the revolutionaries.

Why are the tame citizens cursing the revolution when the revolutionaries haven't been in power for even a single day? Why aren't they directing their anger at the Military Council, which has performed the functions of the head of state and has had primary responsibility since Mubarak was deposed? The tame citizens may lack political awareness but I believe they didn't like the revolution from the start.

They had adapted to the old regime, coming to terms with corruption. Their ideas about the world became distorted -- courage was stupidity and sycophancy was a form of shrewdness. Tame citizens were not necessarily linked to the old regime by direct interests, but they created their own networks of corruption that enabled them to earn money illegally or at least unethically: the petty officials who took bribes in all government departments, the doctors at government hospitals who forced poor patients to go to their private clinics, the teachers who blackmailed schoolchildren into taking private lessons, the journalists who cooperated with State Security, misled public opinion and propagated lies in order to defend the regime. Would we expect such people to support the revolution?

It would be natural for them to hate the revolution because it brought them face to face with themselves. They strayed from the straight and narrow when they convinced themselves that change was impossible and that they could not reform the whole world so they would have to abandon their principles and put up with humiliation in order to live and bring up their children. Suddenly they found that other Egyptians who were going through the same hardships were insisting on freedom and dying for their dignity. The tame citizens, inasmuch as their morals have been distorted under the influence of the Mubarak regime, now form the bulk of those who support the counter-revolution, and they are ready to overlook the facts for the sake of seeing the revolution come to an end and the restoration of everything as it was. Those who saw with their own eyes Egyptian women dragged along the street and abused by army soldiers could only blame the victims, asking, "Why did they go out and demonstrate in the first place?"

Those same people who saw the army's armoured vehicles run over demonstrators at the Maspero building and refused to believe their eyes and accused the Copts of attacking the army are the same people who now ignore the fact that Ahmed Shafik's candidacy is illogical and illegal. They ignore that he is responsible for killing demonstrators in the Battle of the Camel and for smuggling money abroad for Mubarak and his sons. The tame citizens support Shafik and say he will restore law and order, by which they mean the old regime that corrupted them, with which they lived in harmony, which they now miss. The revolution forced Egyptian society to look in the mirror, revealing the gross deformities left by the Mubarak regime.

At the same time, when the Military Council insisted on pushing Shafik into the presidency, it was in effect the final and revealing scene when everyone's masks came off. While millions of revolutionary Egyptians flooded on to the streets to reject the return of the Mubarak regime under Shafik, the tame citizens have shown how opportunistic they are and how much they hate the revolution. As soon as it was clear that Shafik would be the new president of Egypt, by electoral fraud, prominent intellectuals changed their position from supporting the revolution to supporting Shafik, in the hope of obtaining positions they have long dreamed of. Some journalists who long supported the revolution have turned to promoting Ahmed Shafik through television interviews that were in effect blatant advertisements, though we do not know who was paid for them. Even the private television channels that were favourable to the revolution have now turned to promoting Shafik and have banned any criticism of him, because the owners of these channels are businessmen who know that the approval of the next president will earn them gold.

This is the moment of truth. While revolutionary Egyptians have set for the whole world an example of courage and sacrifice for the sake of freedom and dignity, the tame citizens have not understood the revolution and did not need it. In fact, they do not deserve it. They are servile and corrupt, interested only in their cheap spoils and narrow interests.

The conflict now is between the revolution and the Mubarak regime, which has absorbed the first blow and reorganized its ranks to launch a savage attack to regain power through Shafik. This should not make us pessimistic, because revolution means profound change and once it starts it inevitably reaches all aspects of society. Revolutions might falter but they are never defeated. A revolution is a unique human phenomenon and once it comes about, it is bound to continue. Revolution means that at a certain moment people put their principles ahead of their interests. They break the barrier of fear and accept death for the sake of freedom. Revolution is a rebirth by which people purge themselves of contamination and of their mistakes to start a life that is clean, just and free. The spirit that revolution revives in a nation never dies, however many conspiracies are hatched and massacres take place. The revolution will continue, God willing, and will achieve its objectives.

Democracy is the solution.

 
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