I don’t intend to add much to what others have said and written over the last two weeks in defense of press freedom and the independence of the Journalists Syndicate or to condemn the state’s continued harassment of youth protesting its policies.
The current situation requires more than a declaration of principled positions. It calls for an assessment of the gravity of the present moment and the courage to find a way out of the impasse.
The crux of our predicament is not the successive crises that have buffeted the state, but the way they are handled.
The basic formula seems to be to smear anyone opposed or ambivalent about the government's stance then talk about achievements in various different fields. The actual substance of the issue is never convincingly addressed.
Developments in connection with the Tiran and Sanafir Islands are illustrative of this form of crisis management: the demonstrations of April 15 and 25, followed by a security crackdown on hundreds of peaceful protestors, precipitating a showdown between the Journalists Syndicate and the Interior Ministry.
True to form, the usual accusations of treason, foreign collaboration, and fifth columnists were marshaled to vilify anyone who dared criticise the border agreement or urge the government to reconsider.
The same tactic was used against those calling for peaceful demonstrations against the agreement, then against demonstrators themselves, then against those who defended the demonstrators.
The smears were repeated a third time against the Journalists Syndicate, its leaders, and those who stood with freedom of expression and syndicate independence. Throughout all this, the state never clearly articulated its position on the matter of the islands themselves or the fallout from the deal.
Instead, officials reiterated the need to trust the state and have faith that Egypt’s interests stand above all, accompanied by comments from pundits, strategic experts, and university professors who ultimately speak only for themselves.
When it came to touting state achievements, two issues were conflated—the crisis that preoccupied the public and the inauguration of new projects.
In the end, the public received no response that satisfied its wish and right to know, while new projects did not receive due attention and serious consideration. Instead, they became yet another arena for dispute and polarization, totally divorced from any understanding or assessment of the value of the enterprise or what it offers the nation.
This tactic of avoiding the original topic by smearing detractors turns every issue deserving of a respectful, constructive debate into a shouting match involving nasty accusations and cheap point-scoring.
So instead of dealing with the actual issues at stake—about which there may be legitimate political and ideological disagreement, as is normal and necessary in any pluralistic society—we are immediately polarized and any chance for dialogue lost.
This makes escalations inevitable and leads the country into further confrontations, with the public ultimately paying the price.
This is not an appeal to abandon differences or hold our tongues to unite our ranks. On the contrary, the state can only advance through pluralism, by respecting the law and constitution and removing restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful protest.
These are the tools by which society participates in governance and oversight and corrects its course. They function as a safety valve as well that is needed more by the ruler than the ruled. Individuals advocating for their beliefs is a good thing, a condition for the construction of a society and economy on sound foundations.
What the country needs now is not official silence or disregard of popular protests; nor should people be told to listen only to the ruler.
We need the state to take a new tack and treat the public as a partner in decision making, one with the right to know, monitor, assess, and reject, and not as a passive recipient of charity and surprise decisions that they should gratefully and obediently accept.
Major state projects in housing, agriculture, and energy may temporarily win the public’s approval, but regardless of their importance, the lack of participation and information and an unwillingness to hear differing opinions will sooner or later turn these projects into the object of criticism and suspicion.
Good governance necessitates recognizing the existence of society and social and political forces, engaging them and involving them in decision making, and accepting their criticisms. Otherwise, we will keep running around in circles, incapable of realizing the development and stability Egyptians so desperately want.
(This article was originally published on Ahram Online on May 14, 2016.)