The last few days have been dominated by news from Cairo. The beard-trimmers I saw on sale everywhere in the city two weeks ago have been brought out with a vengeance, and the army is back in the saddle. I am very struck by the stark contrast of views between the western press, long on cautions about the undermining of the democratic process, and the sheer exhilaration of every Egyptian I know. One dear friend, almost 80 years old, e-mailed me breathlessly from Cairo, after several days out in the streets:“The atmosphere was one of a massive carnival. The chanting for the PM and the Muslim Brotherhood, with its divisive philosophy, to clear off – and for a democracy to be institutionalised that reflected the country’s true nature of equality between citizens regardless of religion or sex, and for social justice, went on almost non-stop. In some places there was even dancing. I guess we only needed a samba band. And Wow, when the news got out that the army had arrested the President …”
I don’t know the answer (no one, if they’re honest, does), but I am suspicious of the easy caution which western commentators trot out, and which I sometimes hear myself beginning to formulate too. Certainly a military coup is a grave step; but intractable problems demand radical answers. A democratically elected government that understands the mechanics of the ballot box, but not the ethics of pluralism, and restructures the state and constitution for its own long-term accommodation, is not a normal government. Answerable to a shadowy murshid, Mursi’s was not the democratic, unifying government that Egypt so desperately needed and needs.
General al-Sisi is a religious conservative, appointed by Mursi. Many Egyptians I have spoken to in the last few days believe that he has led the army in a coup that is not the heavy-handed intervention of two years ago, but a real attempt to rebalance an infant political system thrown wildly out of kilter by anti-pluralist majoritarians. The army’s own record of course is far from democratic either, but it has been welcomed by the pluralists. We shall see.
Oddly, I find myself thinking of England in 1648, after its second Civil War, when the army saved the revolution with an equally brusque and unconstitutional intervention, seizing Westminster and purging parliament to prevent negotiations with the King. Howard Brenton has recently written a play about this short period, called 55 Days, in the course of which Oliver Cromwell says ““We are inventing a country. We are in an unknown region, floating on nothing, trying to think thoughts never thought before. We are in mid-air, Heaven above us, Hell beneath.” Cromwell of course went on to do what Mursi did, and fixed the constitution in his own image; but let’s not underestimate the scale of the challenge, or too readily doubt the integrity of those taking it up.
Meanwhile, this film clip of the crowds in central Cairo is very inspiring – seen from the sky, floating on nothing, with everything beneath. I think it might be seemly to be reticent in our criticism of those who are inventing a country.