Thursday, May 31, 2012

Morsy, Shafiq, and Political Story-telling

Visiting the profusion of temples and tombs along the Nile you see how good the Egyptians were at story telling.  Several familiar themes or narratives stand out.  One is about the importance of eternal life, and the elaborate process of successfully entering the afterlife.  It is a journey beset with challenges, strange creatures, and dangerous encounters.  In their tombs and temples, the Pharaoh’s attempted to create everlasting homes for themselves.  The futility of that task is made clear by our walking around their plundered and defaced sites.  Human attempts to separate themselves from the flow of time always have their limits, but the Egyptians sure gave it the old college try.  To build up this cultural edifice, this belief system, they created a wonderfully complex cosmology, and the walls and columns of the temples are covered with it.  To walk through any of these spaces feels like walking through the pages of an impressively old book.  Every wall and column is covered with stories of the greatness and piety of the kings.

One might compare it in a way to walking through Times Square in New York now, where every surface is covered, not with the stories of the power and piety of the Thutmoses or Hatshepsut, but the magical powers of the GAP jeans, Chase Bank, Big Macs, or other commodities being sold there.  Both the Temple at Edfu and Times Square create these totalizing spaces, leaving little room for other realities to intrude.  Both the jumbotrons on Broadway and hyperstole at Karnak are intend to leave visitors in awe, and to tell stories that people will find persuasive.  We have our story-tellers, who make big money on Madison Avenue telling stories that make us want to buy things.  They say “it is good to give us your money, for if you do, you will receive beauty, happiness, joy, and magical powers” from the energy drinks, iPhones, movies, or cars we are selling. The Ancient Egyptians had their high priests who told stories about the kings as gods, selling a political and economic order of a different sort.  They say “it is good to give us offerings and tribute.  We make offerings to the gods, and you make offerings to us.  In return the gods will favor us and we will  be able to gain passage to eternal after life.”

Both these examples make me think of the power and importance of story in the legitimization of politico-economic orders.  We are drawn in droves to these temples and tombs (and post-modern Meccas) because the stories they tell continue to fascinate us—the various gods and goddeses, the polymorphous beings, the tales of loss, revenge, rites of passage, and divine order all help provide answers to the large questions of life and provide a sense of order and meaning to the otherwise complex and unknowable reality we experience.  They still surface in our dreams and the commodified dreams produced by Hollywood.

Marwan, our young female guide at Luxor, expressed the determination we have heard repeatedly while here—we will do what it takes to get our country the government it deserves.  Not just another version of the Mubarek years, but real change.  To succeed in that regard will take all sorts of work and skills, and one of them is to continue to undermine the narratives of the old regime and to engage in the creative work of political story-telling.  It is here that we can find some linkages between the ancient temples and contemporary politics.  The story is being told on the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and on Facebook walls—of martyrdom and oppression, justice and liberation.  For the ancient Egyptians, the passage to the afterlife involved a series of challenges, and to pass them, over the course of the night, required protection of the gods, and knowledge of the special charms and spells to defeat the creatures along the way.  From the Odyssey and Aenead to the Harry Potter books, this idea of an arduous journey resonates with our own experiences of facing challenges and mysteries.  For Egypt, we can think of the past few years as a rite of passage in which the people have to pass a series of tests, of which the January 25 Revolution was just one of the first (and most dramatic).  The latest chapter—the Presidential elections—is just closing and we are trying to decipher its meaning.  It will be important to keep in mind that the process is nowhere near over, and the patience and perseverance will be needed to successfully carry on what was started last January.

This week, as expected, given the election outcome, Tahrir has started to fill again—not yet with the numbers of last year, but some—unwilling to except that Shafiq has taken second place.  It remains to be seen how large the numbers will grow in the weeks leading up to run-off election, but they will help to keep the candidates of doing anything rash. 

The results are certainly disheartening, and we are trying to sort them out as we continue to talk with the people we meet along the way.  There is a sadness and a cynicism in the people that is hard to hear.  It’s fair to say that we have gotten a somewhat stilted view of the situation from our pre-election conversations, with most of the people we talked to being in favor of Fatouh.  More recently, especially around Aswan, we heard support for the Nasserist Sabbahi, and he will be an interesting figure to watch in the next few years.  The educated and more liberal electorate, which is the segment of the population with whom we mainly interacted, voted for Fatouh, but that is not a large segment of the population in a country with a 40% illiteracy rate, and something like 30 million people living on less than $2/day.  In our excitement about the revolution and elections, I and a lot of people here let our hopes get the better of us, thinking that a more thoughtful, independent and open-minded candidate might take the day.

There were reports of some manipulations of the vote, perhaps a small amount of fraud (but not enough to nullify the results, just to decrease their legitimacy so far, although this may change as the results are certified).  So we all left trying to figure out how Shafiq got as many votes as he did.  People are often motivated more by what they fear and by what they have to lose, and it looks like that helped drive turn-out for Shafiq and Morsy.  The secularists afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Brotherhood (and lots of other people) afraid of the military.  The only institutions powerful enough to stop or limit either of those powerful actors is the other.  The Copts and Sufis feared any Islamist candidates (including Fatouh), and so voted for the secularists Shafiq or Moussa or perhaps Sabbahi.  Many (but certainly not all) in the tourist business, having taken such a hit in the last year, have a strong economic self-interest in law and order, so there was a lot of support for Shafiq there.  The near desperation we’ve encountered in the vendors would be a sign that they would settle for Shafiq, as long as it meant a return of the busloads of overweight, sunburned, Euro-laden Europeans.  One of our young hosts in Aswan, Mohamed El Batiti made the interesting observation that if the MB had followed through on their original claim of not fielding a candidate, then no one would have voted for Shafiq.  This fear is real for many in Egypt, and not without merit, given some of the more extreme versions and voices that emerged from or splintered off from the Brotherhood over the years.

For instance, one of the Nubians we spoke to had voted for Shafiq in the first round, because he felt the country needed someone with a stiff spine.  It’s certainly possible that both Fatouh and Moussa came across as too soft.  Our older, mild-mannered tour guide Amro also favors Shafiq over Morsy, noting that he was a decent guy who had not gotten his hands too dirty with the Mubarek regime.  His main fear is of the Muslim Brotherhood going too far, taking the country in the direction of Iran.  There is a lot of pent up energy behind the Brotherhood, after 80 odd years of pretty severe repression, and he is concerned that they would proceed to purge the military, police, and courts, leaving them with few checks on their power.  So with a parliament dominated by Islamists, a president from the only other institution with enough clout to balance them makes sense.  This would put a huge burden on Shafiq to deliver on the demands of the revolution, but this outcome is just unacceptable to the Tahriris.  Amro says that Shariq is not a stupid guy and he knows that a return to the status quo ante is not an option.  Perhaps it would take a military man to oversee the transfer to civilian control of the military.  Amro also liked that Shafiq has no sons (three daughters) and is a widower, so there is less of a chance of him trying to start his own family legacy, the way Mubarek had been doing with his son Gamal.

Explaining the vote for the Brotherhood is The Muslim Brotherhood is clearly very powerful as an organization here, so, despite the fact that Morsy was a last minute addition as their candidate (he is jokingly referred to as the “spare tire”), apparently that political machine still voted as a bloc for him.  That 25% of the electorate delivered, and few question that this vote was basically legitimate.  I have been impressed by the number of men with the distinct grey calluses on their foreheads, a sign of the frequency and fervor of their daily genuflection.  It’s a fair guess that they voted for Morsy (or maybe Fatouh) en masse.

But, reflecting the views of so many here, our young, and politically savvy liaison with the Nubians in Aswan, Mohamed Batiti, doesn’t like Shafiq at all—noting that he had no real accomplishments as the Minister of Aviation (just expanded the airport, while getting himself rich in the process), and was in power during the battles in Tahrir, when he stood by and let that happen.  A lot of people seem to like Sabbahi, as a “man of the people” who would have the interests of the poor at heart, a secularist, and someone with associations with a period of national pride and economic growth (the Nasser years).  Perhaps in 4 years Sabbahi will have had enough time to build up his political machine to run a more successful campaign.  The country is lacking in the If the new constitution sets adequate limits on military and state power, protects religious freedoms, and limits presidential terms, then the revolution will not have been in vain.  In any case it won’t have been in vain, as there has been huge progress already.  But these things always take a long time to sort out.

Marwa is determined to do what it takes for the sake of the country.  A great love for her country and a great sense of selflessness.  She has taken a great hit economically, but she says it is worth it.  She, like so many other young people we have met here, are determined to see the country do better.  People say they want Shafiq because he can restore order, but no one we’ve talked to thinks that electing Shafiq would quiet things down—quite the contrary.

At the end of the journey through the underworld, the last test of the dead was to have their heart weighed, to see how much good they had done.  The greater their crimes, cruelties, or selfishness, the heavier their heart.  Only if their heart was lighter than an ostrich's feather, would they be allowed entrance.  For this generation of Egyptians, they face a similar challenge.  If they can stay strong, their hearts light, perhaps they can enter  the political equivalent to this better life they seek—a just and sustainable social order.  There are great and difficult challenges ahead.  A new constitution must be drafted;  the new government carefully watched;  the economy rebuilt; people will have to keep making sacrifices in time and money, and perhaps even with their lives, to maintain pressure on the government to move forward.  And along with this their stories must be carefully crafted and told in ways that wide swaths of the people can hear them, be moved by them, and flock in droves--like tourists to Karnak--to live out those stories.  In the weeks ahead we will see what the next chapter will be.

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