There is a popular parable (or do I say allegory?) used by some disenfranchised Egyptians to describe the situation they are currently experiencing. Here it goes: you are living in a house that is your own, a man barges in and occupies one of its rooms. You feel incensed and you pray to God that he will leave and focus your efforts to address this injustice. But then he brings his dog to live in the house – and you have to deal with him howling all night. So you forget about the man who has occupied your house and all you wish is that you would be able to get rid of his dog, that’s all you hope for. Then a donkey is brought into the house, and it is dirty and the stench is unbearable. And you forget about the man and the dog and you focus on the donkey – if only you could get rid of the donkey, that would be your one and only wish in life. But you end up with a state of mind in which you have forgotten about the man who originally occupied the house because the situation has gotten so much worse.
From the dawn of history, popular allegories and parables have been used by the people to articulate what political scientists theorize and render meaning to in highly complex terms. But the fact of the matter is that as many Egyptians tell us – the truth is bare and simple. This is how the narrative goes, as described astutely by one Egyptian:
The Egyptian people willed to rebel against the status quo – they reclaimed their house, but then through a camouflaged military coup, the man (Supreme Council for Armed Forces) stepped in and occupied the house. People went down to the street and insisted they did not go out and get killed and maimed so that we can have a change of president – what they want is a change of regime – an end to the military hold on power. But then as you struggled to bring about the end of a military regime, the Muslim Brothers were brought in and you were in a situation where you said: forget about the military, let us focus on making sure that the Brothers do not push for a hegemonic hold on the country in the name of religion. Then came the Salafis, the radical Islamists, backed by external powers, who presented a greater danger to national identity, citizenship and social cohesion. You found yourself in a situation whereby you said: forget about the Brothers, let us focus on blocking the Salafis from turning Egypt back several centuries.
Some readers might be offended by this allegory, insisting that it epitomizes the worst forms of Islamophobia. But the fact of the matter is, that what is being discussed is a military regime in alliance with political movements who claim their legitimacy from religion, but who at the end of the day are neither the representatives nor custodians of religion, as much as they like to claim they are. And whether we like it or not, we need to go beyond political correctness and listen to what is being said on the Egyptian street – even if it is not by the majority who can claim their legitimacy from the ballot boxes (parliamentary elections). True, the Brothers have built a strong constituency over the course of nearly forty years of work through the mosques and the welfare services. But it is also true that there is much to say about the processes and integrity of the elections. Despite all the media hype, we know that the higher authorities turned a blind eye to the abuse of religion by Islamists to win a constituency and demonize the others. We also know that in the Western media’s keenness to celebrate the “Arab spring”, there was a de-emphasis on the way in which the conditions of choice facing citizens did not allow for a fair and impartial consideration for who is the best candidate. The Brothers may have gotten a substantial vote anyway because of their constituency, but would it have secured them the clear majority they have in parliament today?
Looking retrospectively, many activists and revolutionaries are wondering whether they should have done more to prevent the man from entering the house in the first place. Did they as revolutionaries not welcome the man’s entry into the house by celebrating: “The people, the army, one hand!?”. Did they not claim victory too quickly when Mubarak was ousted and should they not have continued to protest until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ( SCAF) pronounced a clear exit plan? Of course at that point, one of the major weaknesses of the revolutionary forces was that they could not agree on a unified transitional government that would yield power. There was diversity without unity – and that opened the door for the man to come into the house. Others argue, even if they had maintained the struggle for a fully civilian government, were they not already undermined by the fact that there was a done deal between SCAF and the Muslim Brothers? Whatever it be, that political moment is lost now. And the struggle will now be on multiple fronts: against the military, against the instrumentalization of religion by political forces who rule in the name of God, in addition to the struggle for bread, freedom and social justice which the Egyptian people went out for in January 2011. All these struggles are intertwined. And we must not fall into the trap of assuming that parliament is the only source of legitimacy. The Egyptian street will continuously reinvent its strategies of resistance, subversion and entitlements’ making. Whether it reflects the majority of the people or a small group, it does not matter. What matters is that we do not lose our sense of the pulse of the street, even if it is a small alley far from the centres of formal political power.
Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and has just launched IDS Bulletin 43.1 “The Pulse on Egypt’s Revolt”.