At those moments when great ideas were being embodied in crowds, when crowds were inventing their own organizations, when the burning urgency of social action became emotionally and almost tangibly perceptible, the people — for suddenly it was no longer merely the crowd, but a people, bearing its own message — evinced implacable soundness of judgment. It was no longer to be put off with excuses. Only yesterday it could have been terrorized, bribed or swindled, but now it was displaying an astonishing clearsightedness; or rather, facts and signs, history and day-to-day existence had at last coincided and were interacting on each other.
— Jacques Berque, Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution, on the 1919 Revolution
Now I realize that I spent my life striving for the absolute and that the absolute is the spouse of death. I realize that there is no permanency and no stability in a life the nature of which is perpetual change. Now I realize that for me love meant losing oneself in the other. I realize that my crime was unpardonable because it was I who committed it, because there is no crime more serious than burying the self alive. My hands are stained with my own blood.
— Latifa Zayyat, The Search
I have never seen so great a concentration of Egyptian flags in one place at one time as I saw in Cairo during my short visit – flags large and small, waved by young and old, painted on the walls of building and the cheeks of children. Save one place, that is – at a football match. Without doubt, in overthrowing the dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has won a great victory that is worthy of such celebrations – much as Egyptians would celebrate a great victory on the football pitch.
To liken the revolution to a football victory may seem inappropriate, perhaps a touch heretical – but the parallel is a deliberate one. For there remains a vital question with which Egyptians must reckon, if we are to make the revolution last longer than the warm but fleeting glow of a football victory. We need to decide why we are waving that flag, what that flag means, who and what that flag represents.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest theme that I took away from my recent visit to Egypt was the struggle to redefine Egyptian nationalism. This is a struggle waged in the streets through protests, both planned and impromptu, several of which I witnessed. There were the Copts in front of the imposing Radio and Television Building, demanding an end to discrimination in employment and the construction of houses of worship, as well as recognition of their culture and way of life. There were the workers in front of the People’s Assembly, demanding higher wages, an end to corruption, and a voice in the socio-economic reform of their country. And there were the youth at Tahrir Square, demanding justice for their peers brutalized by the police and State Security.
All of these sectors of the population are seeking to redefine the Egyptian nation in different, important ways – but what they hold in common, I would argue, is the desire to extricate the power to define the nation from the Egyptian state. For their part, the Copts were defying a Church structure which has long collaborated with the state in exchange for a degree of autonomy in communal affairs. The workers were defying a structure of unions and syndicates which has long remained co-opted by the state, a means by which to distribute favors to regime loyalists. And the youth were defying the Ministry of the Interior whose monitoring and violence had sought to instill a systematic fear within the population which served to defuse threats to the regime.
The victories these constituencies have won are important ones. Habib el Adly, the former Minister of the Interior, will face trial for his abuse of power, and gradually, the crimes committed by his agents in the Ministry are coming to light. Persistent worker sit-ins have prompted resignations of corrupt managers, and Egypt is now witnessing the rise of independent trade unions. The military has agreed to rebuild the church near Helwan recently burned in a sectarian attack.
But the challenge of redefining Egyptian nationalism for the post-revolution age remains. This is why, to my mind, the current debates about amendments to the constitution, the sequencing of elections, and presidential personalities seem rather beside the point. What was so thrilling about the revolution was how Egyptians seized control of their own affairs – how we took responsibility for such matters as protecting our neighborhoods and cleaning our streets into our own hands. A state which had consciously abdicated its responsibilities in countless areas was shown, at the end of the day, to be little match for the initiative of Egyptians ourselves.
Now is surely not the time to take a step back and reinvest the state with powers and responsibilities it has abused time and time again in the past. What I am proposing here is a radical refashioning of the relationship between Egyptians and the state, as part of which the latter will at last become the servant of the former and not vice versa. If Egyptians are to trust the state again to administer our affairs, the state can no longer remain an arena for barter of loyalties, favors, and resources among power-brokers. The state must become both more and less than this – more, in the sense of an impartial arbiter for the distribution of resources and the administration of justice, and less, in the sense of a ‘mere’ representative of the popular will.
How to get there from here? Not, I would suggest, by simply casting aside one set of personnel for a different, ‘technocratic’ set. The impetus for this new state and, by extension, for a new Egyptian nationalism, must come from the people. We must continue to set an example for the state, as we did during the revolution. It is only with the continuing, integral involvement of the Egyptian people in establishing new precedents for administration and welfare that a fundamentally different governing entity will arise – one that is worthy of the revolution.
All of this requires a different nationalism – a nationalism that encourages participation and involvement, a nationalism that embraces diversity and pluralism. The legacy of post-colonial Egyptian nationalism under Nasser and his successors was one of mobilization but exclusion as well – exclusion of women, exclusion of Jews, exclusion of Islamists. Is it possible to conceive an Egyptian nationalism that mobilizes without excluding? I saw glimmers of this nationalism in the revolution, when Islamists rushed to the side of secularists to rescue them from the violence of the ‘thugs’ or baltagiyya. My hope is that this palpable sense of common cause, this pluralistic Egyptian nationalism, will not be lost in the midst of all the current flag waving. Because there is a country’s future to be decided, not the result of a football match.