Egypt: binaries and traders in populism

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
8 min read

This past week has changed the Egypt’s calculations. Egyptians still do not know how many people have died in the past week – and the count is rising. What’s more, it is likely to rise even more – until there emerges political will to break this cycle of violence.

These few lines above will automatically place this article, I am reasonably sure, in the annals of “pro-Muslim Brotherhood” reading. That is the situation that Egypt has fallen into – where the binaries of both “sides” are forced upon any and every commentator, analyst, resident or citizen. That logic must be rejected on a fundamental basis – it is precisely that logic that has led Egyptians to this point. Of course, you can choose to do the same thing, again and again, and expect a different result. Incidentally, this is the dictionary definition of insanity.

Just be sure you pick the best option in front of you. On offer is the conversion into a nationalist right wing fascist supporter, or into an Islamist right wing fascist supporter. Please do not be fooled too easily; many have been already. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the quite intriguing transformation of people who were ostensibly human rights advocates, leftists, and even anti-army activists, into some of the most willing consumers of the new product for sale: nationalist populism. Traders in patriotism are certainly not in short supply – because, didn’t you know, the world is coming to an end if these terrorist Islamists are removed from God’s fair earth? No more talk, please, of distinguishing between those who are peaceful, without weapons, and those who are not – for surely, if they were that peaceful, they wouldn’t allow a single weapon to be anywhere near them in their sit-ins! Thus, we will compensate them – seeing as there were tens of thousands of people in the sit-ins, with only a handful of weapons (by the ministry of interior’s statements) and it was an armed sit-in, we ought to provide these sit-ins with more weapons. We’ll start with the bullets.

The reality of Egypt’s situation is clear: one can choose to fall into the binary trap, where you are either “with us” or “with them” – or one can see Egypt for what it is

H.A. Hellyer

The “traders of patriotism” have more bonuses on offer for those who would like their heavenly embrace. That embrace means, in the interests of democracy, take the most democratic measure possible and,constitutionally, ban political parties that relate to a “religious reference.” Because, that is the political way forward – despite the fact for the past three years, and by this same interim cabinet, it was insisted that parties with a religious reference would be permitted. Hence why, for example, one of the representatives of those parties (the Noor Party) was sat in the room when the military overthrow of Mursi was announced. If that proposal is taken forward, then will Noor be automatically illegal? Or is it exempt? Damn, but law (and ethics) is just so frightfully inconvenient. No matter; there’s got to be a way we can use the law to enforce our personal political prejudices and desires over the majority. Wait a second, wasn’t that what we were afraid the Islamists were doing when they were in power?

The revolution of the 25th of January took everyone by surprise – no one expected Egyptians to come out and protest against the security state. No one expected them to succeed in kicking up such a fuss, Hosni Mubarak became a liability for the military. More important than all of that, however, no one expected them to create a society where those binaries were rebelled against. The binary of ‘me or chaos’ (i.e., Islamists) that Mubarak thrust on Egyptians was rejected. The binary was replaced by a choice, and a promise; stand with us if you would fight for the promise of a better future. If not, then you can go home, we’ll fight for that promise anyway, and you’ll still be in that promise.

I remember those 18 days very clearly. I remember being utterly sceptical in the first couple of days, thinking that there was no way that Egyptian civil society could actually produce a rebel movement that would do anything but induce a widespread collapse of the state, and thus create chaos. When I first entered Tahrir Square, I saw something quite different than that – on the contrary, instead of chaos inside the square, it seemed to be far more orderly than anywhere in Egypt had been in quite a while. Moreover, what was inside the square was not just orderly – it was beautiful. A real cross section of Egyptians, from all backgrounds and political stances – days long gone, but the promise remains.

‘With us’ or ‘with them’

The reality of Egypt’s situation is clear: one can choose to fall into the binary trap, where you are either “with us” or “with them” – or one can see Egypt for what it is. These are all Egyptians, fighting with each other, and thinking that there is no way but their way. In such a polarised arena, the very notion of there being a third way is in itself revolutionary. It is where many revolutionaries of the 25th of January find themselves – rejecting the false choice between traders of patriotism on the one hand, and traders of religion on the other. They mourn the victims of the 14th of August and insist upon wide scale security reform – so that regardless of who is in power, the security forces will act with professionalism and restraint. As opposed to being simply described as the paragon of the “excessive use of force” – it’s quite the achievement, but one can imagine that there are better awards to run after.

To deny those binary choices is a negation, one that is needed, but the negation needs also an affirmation. One hopes that out of the midst of this turmoil, hardship, and death, there is an affirmation. One of life, co-existence, and progress – you know, those things you all claim to want, but seem far too willing to deny it to others. (P.S. to pro-Mursi camp: remember the Copts that have been killed in the past week, and remember the anti-Christian incitement your leaders have engaged in for months.)

The binaries shan’t satisfy the masses of Egyptians forever. It can work for a while, but not forever. Egyptians are young and they have all been mobilised at least once in the past year. For those who reject these binaries, what are they going to mobilise for, as opposed to simply against? The answer to that question might be a game changer: not today, but maybe tomorrow.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending