‘Let them play,’ said Egypt’s president

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

“Let them play has become one of Egypt’s most quoted phrases after the revolution even though it received little attention at the time it was said, or so it seemed. “Let them play” was the extremely basic, yet shockingly revealing, response of the former president when told of the opposition’s intention to establish a parallel parliament to the one dominated, through flagrantly rigged elections, by the then ruling National Democratic Party. “Let them play” was in a nutshell the attitude of a dictatorship that mistakenly saw itself as invincible towards an opposition that it, mistakenly too, perceived as helpless. “Let them play” was the ultimate manifestation of a type of arrogance that blinded itself to every possible threat to the extent that it needed not clampdown on any of its sources and would rather have fun watching the “game” whose results were presumably pre-determined.

“Let them play” was in a nutshell the attitude of a dictatorship that mistakenly saw itself as invincible towards an opposition that it, mistakenly too, perceived as helpless.

Sonia Farid

Turned out they were not playing after all and the president did not stay in power long enough to see how impossible it would have been for the nascent entity to challenge his authority. The parallel parliament did not actually topple the regime nor did the president’s phrase stir people into action on January 25, 2011, but the incident has ever since served as a classical example of the irony inherent in the reversal of roles that directly followed this showdown. For a very brief time, people started thinking of what a shadow government could do and how far it would be permitted to do it, but the eruption of the revolution rendered the matter totally out of context as hopes for a real government rendered a shadow one redundant.

It was only when the new regime proved beyond doubt that it is becoming a replica, a disfigured one for that matter, of the old regime that the issue of a shadow government was brought up once more. Abandoning all hope in any substantial change in the policies of the current government, the National Salvation Front, Egypt’s main opposition bloc, announced its intention to establish a parallel one in accordance with the initial aspirations of the revolution, none of which having materialized since the coming to power of the current president and the blatant exclusionist approach he and the Muslim Brotherhood have been adopting ever since.

Shadow government selection

The new government, expected to include 20 plus ministers, marks a significant departure from conventional awareness campaigns about democracy, citizenship, and power sharing as it moves to the practical level through offering the people an actual alternative to what they have, one through which political novices, which all Egyptians are, will be expected to get a glimpse of how a proper government is formed and on what basis its ministers are selected so that the end result would be an entity whose first and foremost priority is doing what is in the best interest of the country and its citizens rather than gathering as many members of the ruling clique as possible regardless of qualification, popularity, and patriotism.

Adding new portfolios, like human rights, Sinai affairs, and the Nile Basin to the shadow government underscores critical files that have been equally overlooked before and after the revolution as well as alerts the people to the inefficiency of a government that was supposed to right the wrongs of its predecessor.

The initiative is another chapter in the seemingly lengthy saga of peaceful resistance that had started a few years before the revolution, an extremely commendable one in fact. It remains problematic, though.

Besides offering a viable alternative, which is what a shadow government is generally for, the Egyptian version has set as its ultimate goal putting an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and this is exactly where the problem lies. A shadow government is supposed to monitor the performance of the actual government and offer solutions to problems it is unable to solve while exercising pressure on the various ministries to redress policies seen as damaging to public welfare. Yet being always established in democracies, toppling the regime is never on a shadow government’s agenda, simply because it does not question the legitimacy of this regime in the first place, which is not the case with the Egyptian opposition, currently collecting signatures to oust the president. A shadow government is an “opposition” and not a “revolutionary” group. The two terms are, however, used interchangeably in Egypt and the confusion is quite understandable for the same groups that form political parties are also resistance movements that organize street rallies against the government and their leaders are politicians-cum-freedom fighters. This overlap is here to stay as long as the status quo persists and as long as the current situation is too blurred to have clear cut demarcations applied to it.

It is, thus, hard to call this initiative a shadow government and even harder to call it by any other name. While finding an adequate definition might seem to mirror a state of uncertainty, which is the case with everything in Egypt at the moment, some certainties are powerfully starting to emerge. It is certain that the shadow government announcement offers another proof of the incessant pressure to which the government is being subjected as it stands accused of hijacking the revolution and betraying the Egyptian people and as disgruntlement is reaching its peak both in the street and among political circles.

There has so far been no official response to the announcement and even though the “let them play” discourse is undoubtedly the current government’s motto as well, neither the president not any member of his group seems willing to say it out loud. They have possibly come to realize that “playing” is not that harmless after all and that its outcome can be fatal for whoever belittles the “players,” which in itself indicates that we are not as fully back to square one as some pessimists would have us believe and that at least we have come to the point when the ruler is becoming aware of the sweeping power of those he had in the past only perceived as “subjects.”

As for the naming ordeal, it could be simply called an “Egyptian shadow government,” for Egyptians have become amazingly flexible when it comes to twisting, tweaking, and reversing all universally acknowledged concepts to create some previously unheard of structure that would suit an eternally bizarre situation that is not apparently not likely to come to an end any time soon!

Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University.

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