Expectations and Reality in Egypt: A Time for Authentic Pragmatism

This is an opinion piece on the value of withholding opinions; pretty unsatisfying, I know.

Since I conduct research on peace and conflict in Egypt and have barely been able to peel myself away from the coverage of ongoing events, I get a lot of questions on my views of what's transpired recently. In these situations, I usually strike a moderate, non-committal tone, unconvinced that any of the available options are satisfactory. But, the reality is, I don't have all the answers; no one does. The natural environment for our opinions is not necessarily the open air; they can be detained in the recesses of our mind until we have enough factual information or are in a position to make a real difference. I include myself as subject to this protocol as well.

The unexpected twists and turns of the unfolding events in Egypt--including the most recent Republican Guard massacre--should, if nothing else, force-feed all analysts, academics, participants, and spectators a heavy dose of humility and provisional political agnosticism to coax the elasticity of erstwhile entrenched political stances. Judging by much of the commentary in the wake of the massive demonstrations throughout Egypt leading up to and following June 30th, especially in Tahrir Square and outside the Raba'a al-Adawiya mosque, we're a stubborn, if not misguidedly confident, bunch--on all sides of any of the debates.

This confidence, it seems, stems from the ideological entrenchment and ambitious expectations that desire the wholesale implementation of one's preferred policies and principles regardless of the near guaranteed instability and violence that will result. I'm all for informing the public to alleviate ignorance and fear, but there's a fine line between information and distortion--especially in the midst of the current upheaval. The polarization of single-stream facile narratives that lack honest qualification shows that opinions are often shaped more by emotions and reinforcement than refinement through sincere dialogue. In this eruptive climate, Newton's Third Law becomes sound political analysis, as the repercussions of dueling myopic ideals and opinions are often overlooked. Defining moments must be followed by prudence and pragmatism; revolution must give way to evolution.

Pro-Morsi or anti-Morsi, it is a coup or it's not a coup, Islamist or secularist, and the ever-popular "legitimacy" or lost legitimacy: no one needs to definitively "pick sides" wholesale--however natural and fashionable--or unreservedly approve this move and oppose that one; sometimes there's nothing to approve and sometimes we have to wait and see. Such simplistic bifurcation is often determined by whose company we keep and whose voices we hear the most anyway. There are innumerable shades of grey and constantly shifting subtleties that bring neat-and-tidy ideals crashing to their knees. When we're neck-deep in exceptional circumstances, it's okay to say that we simply don't know.

Part of not knowing, however, is massaging one's expectations of unfolding events so that they're less of a straight line--it's messy in Egypt right now and it's going to continue to be messy; that's the reality. So, we can either dehumanize the Other and scream our ideals on either side of the political divide until we're hoarse--i.e., ballot-box democracy is impenetrably and self-evidently right at all times or liberalism, equality, guaranteed rights and freedoms should be applied immediately and universally--or we can act within the parameters of the current tumultuous situation rather than within what we wish it to be. These are the choices with which pragmatism presents us.

Often our goal is more about being the choir to someone else's preaching--no matter how superficial the sermon--rather than genuinely and meticulously trying to fashion a way out of this political entropy. Even this opinion piece isn't very satisfying (if you haven't already noticed), and nor should it--no one's answers, solutions, ideologies, grievances, or rants should be satisfying. That's not what it's all about; opinions aren't a drug, even if treated that way sometimes.

If we really want authentic peace and economic stability in Egypt, the only approach that has any hope of silencing the chorus of polarizing opinions that undermine progress is skillful pragmatism and sincere compromise that's sensitive to the needs and interests of all sides equally. Pragmatism and compromises aren't interested in who's right, but instead in what works. And, right now, Egypt needs ideas and actions that work. If these ingredients aren't part of the equation, the various internally consistent compendia of ideals that elitist figures of all political stripes endorse won't be fully realized anyway because they'll be perennially undermined by reactionary violence and instability. Egyptians are ultimately all in this together; what they do against their opponents, they do against themselves--eventually. Instead, we need to listen to the opposing voices on both sides of the political gulf, take them seriously, figure out why they're saying what they're saying, and mutually meet each other's needs and interests through pragmatism and compromise--even humility.

Easier said than done, I know. But, the fact that it hasn't even been tried in any authentic or sincere manner yet--by the Morsi regime or the National Salvation Front--is painfully evident all the same. And, this trend will, it seems, continue, with the Salafi Nour Party reportedly withdrawing from negotiations after the massacre of at least 51 pro-Morsi demonstrators (at the time of writing) outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo.

There were glimpses, however, of pragmatism and hopeful compromises among the new governing authorities. The Salafi Nour Party purportedly blocked the appointment of the deeply polarizing NSF figure, Mohamed ElBaradei, as Prime Minister, which led to a new offer to a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Ziad Bahaa El-Din, whose potential appointment seems to have been originally accepted by the Nour Party deputy, Bassam El-Zarka, who said of El-Din, "He is one of the liberal figures that we greatly respect." His appointment is almost certainly threatened now. What's more, the roadmap that General Al-Sisi outlined immediately after removing Morsi from office included forming a government of technocrats, which also fulfills the criteria of pragmatism and deemphasizes ideological loyalties. Naming Adli Mansour, a largely unknown, Morsi-appointed Chief Justice of the SCC, to the presidency shows some pragmatic prudence as well--although the procedure rather than the person guarantees that it'll be a lose-lose situation. Given the escalating tensions, however, we need to find a way back to this approach soon before polarizing opinions--by their very inability to fix anything for all Egyptians--leads to more polarizing violence.

The reality is that these are unprecedented times in Egypt's history, and a repackaged definition of democracy as voting in a four-year unaccountable autocrat is too simplistic in the current instability, polarization, and economic chaos. On the other side of the political divide, these uncharted waters that Egyptians are struggling to navigate beg for patience and prudence rather than uncompromising ideological makeovers. The unprecedented circumstances in Egypt trump both legitimacy and secularist idealism, or lost legitimacy and Islamist idealism. In many ways, at the heart of the political impasse in Egypt is the principle of universality--the irreconcilable demands of selective vs. all-embracing or private vs. public religion, behaviour, rights, and freedoms and their effect on Egyptian society and, to some, even divine sanction. And so, we have to think creatively rather than relying on outdated political models; pragmatism rather than idealism fits the bill.

The eclecticism of those who initially supported Al-Sisi's response to the popular uprising against Morsi--from the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb; the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II; NSF leader ElBaradei; and Tamarod ('Rebel') leader, Hassan Shahine; to the chairman of the Salafi Nour Party, Younes Makhyoun--gave promise to the implementation of a pragmatism obliged by the checks and balances of mutually dissenting voices. All that changed, however, with the Republican Guard massacre. While a lack of pragmatism and compromise can lead to violence as seemingly the only available alternative, violence, it appears, can also undo pragmatism and negotiations. On the ground--as also among the political elites--it's going to take much more time and effort to convince a weary and pessimistic people to adopt a pragmatic approach, but the already bumpy road ahead will become virtually untraversable until we do.