Paradise lost? Egypt's American dream

Real democracy is not just an American ideal, but an ideal that unites freedom loving people everywhere. Many of us in Egypt want to re-live that dream, ending the nightmare of the status quo

Americans protesting for what Egyptians want
On 21 January 2014 09:20

According to American tradition and mythology, democracy has been defined by a very simple morality: Americans care about their fellow citizens, act on that care, and build trust. They do their best not just for themselves, their families, their friends and neighbours, but for their country; for one another, for people they have never met and will never meet.

Throughout history, American Democracy has called upon Americans to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and the nation. This is the American Dream: the dream of a functioning democracy.

We Egyptians, or at least some of us, had the idea of forging the same tradition, especially after the January 25 Revolution. We were a people who trusted and cared about each other.

In her 2013 book, ''Way Down in Upper Egypt: A western woman's life along the Nile; in depth and intimate,'' Jonna Castle says:

"Because of the social and generous nature of the Egyptian people, I cannot recall an evening when I was not invited to join another family for this special (Ramadan) meal…. Everyone is caring and loving… And I felt quite honoured to have been invited -- (a) non-Muslim to be in attendance.''  

This aspect of Egyptian tradition reached its high point three years ago in Tahir Square, where the January revolution started and people's communal solidarity became a role model for the Occupy movements that sprang up around the world.

This solidarity was expressed in a variety of social practices; the most prominent of which, as stated in Manuel Castles' book "Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age,'' was the protection of  the square by Christian Copts during the siege of November 21 while Muslims were at Friday prayer.'

Cairo's square ''was replicated in all major urban centres in which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators mobilized at different points in time during the year: Alexandria, Mansoura, Suez, Ismailia, Tanta, Beni Suez [sic], Dairut, Shebinel-Kan [sic], Luxor, Minya, Zagazig, and even the Sinai peninsula where reports indicate that Bedouins battled the police for weeks, and then by themselves secured the borders of the country'', Castles said.

The square remained the symbol of freedom for all Egyptians. Even when Mursi, who was not liked by many people, was in power, the square belonged to all of us.

We Egyptians are now faced with a non-traditional, radical view of ''democracy'' coming from the military-backed government. It says that ''democracy'' means that no one should care about anyone else and it means no trust and no shared responsibility.

It is the democracy of ''either you're with us, or you're with terrorists'', ''either you vote 'Yes' for the constitutional referendum, or you're a villain.'' In short, it is the democracy that denies the plurality of voices by deflecting attention towards one moral ideology: the democracy of a 98 percent ''Yes'' vote.

The government and its media have adopted a radical trend, which is to demonize the opposition as a whole.  

Two months after the July coup, an Egyptian court banned ''all activities'' of the Muslim Brotherhood. Later, the government declared the group a terrorist organization. Moreover, thousands of anti-coup activists have been killed at the hands of the security forces in Rabaa and Nahdah squares, and many others, including members of the April 6 movement like Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, were detained.  

Even when Mohamed El-Baradi, former Egyptian vice President, submitted his resignation following this military violence against civilians, Akhbaar El-Youm newspaper depicted him as stabbing a woman, who represents Egypt, in her back, and Al-Ahram portrayed him sitting on a chair drowning in a spot of blood that reads ''Iraq.''

Even sports celebrities like Mohamed Abou Treika and Ahmed Abdel-Zaher were harshly criticized for opposing the coup.

Abdel-Zaher, who plays for the Al-Ahli football club, was even suspended for making a Rabaa sign -- a four-fingered hand signal that is linked with support for ousted President Mohamed Mursi, after scoring a goal.      

Furthermore, over 2013, in order to divert public attention from the internal crisis, the government message machine worked, and still works, hard to demonize the US, the UK, and Israel as sponsors of terror and as conspiring against Egypt, which strongly encourages violence against innocent people of those countries.

''There is a plot to kill General Sisi, and the security services know it well; (the Egyptian people are to rise up in a) revolution to kill the Americans in the streets; we will enter their houses (i.e., of Obama and his ''puppets''), and we will kill them one by one", warned Mustafa Bakri, a pro-regime journalist, on a major television talk show.

Even Al-Jazeera (which played a major role in all Arab uprisings, as Castles says in his book), has been portrayed in a cartoon by Al-Ahram, Egypt’s top selling newspaper, as a ventilator that blows air, through a breathing tube, into the airways of a patient labelled ''terrorism'' in the intensive care unit.  

It is this radical view of “democracy” that led to the announcement of the state of emergency in the country for a month and then for two more, which undermined the economy, making no foreign investor want to come, and disrupted the tourism industry.  

If Egypt accepts this radical view of “democracy”, then all that Egyptians gained on January 25 from the nascent, real democracy that they hoped for will be lost. Bread: gone. Freedom of expression: gone. A strong national fabric: gone. A plurality of voices: gone. Social justice: gone. Love for other nations: gone.

A nightmare it is, but there is no denying credit to the government for their skill in demonizing the “other”.

Finally, to realize the dream, the nightmare must be ended. And only Egyptians can do this.

If we are successfully to overcome the government’s demonization of opposition, we must restore faith in the January 25 revolution and its aspiration for the kind of “traditional democracy” that is not just an American ideal, but an ideal that unites freedom loving people all around the world.

The writer, a Contributing Editor to The Commentator, is an Egyptian poet, actor, and political intellectual. He is also a contributor to the Jerusalem Post and a former lecturer at Um Al-Qura University, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

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