Sunday, January 30, 2011

Domestic Defeats

By Mohammad el-Ashab
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 30/01/2011

The defeat of the June 1967 war caused the Egyptian street to explode in sorrow and anger. However, bereaved voices soon filled the country, asking for the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to withdraw his resignation. Today, some three and a half decades later, the children and grandchildren of those marchers are demanding that the regime be reformed. This means a defeat of another kind has cast its shadow on events, a defeat that can only be political, which is never reassuring.

Many things have changed when it comes to the type of the demands, the magnitude of the challenges, and the symbolism of the movement underway in several Arab cities, most importantly Tunis, Cairo and Sana‘a. It seems that the description once given to Arab identity, extending from a turbulent Gulf to a roaring North Africa, has now come to mean setting fires and not confronting Israel, which supposedly is the central issue that attracts the most fervor in the region.

Perhaps the prevailing deadlock, the accumulation of political, economic and social problems, and the widening frustration were all bound to generate a new identity. This new identity measures the dangers in terms of daily frustration linked to the spread of unemployment, tension over social issues, and the disintegration of the contract of civil peace that was justified by the need to fight the battle against the Israeli enemy. Other enemies appeared on the map: poverty, marginalization, authoritarianism and the lack of true democracy. This has further exacerbated challenges, which seem to have not been adequately prepared for, in terms of the opportunities afforded to people and countries.

One of the repercussions of the June 1967 defeat were the sharper questions that rose regarding the readiness of Arabs’ military, and economic, scientific and cultural capacities. At the time, people were truly taken by proposals about the conditions for progress and for putting an end to their backwardness. There were voices that examined the sources of imbalance, while others called for self-criticism. But even the best of the idealistic recipes for change were not put into practice. The least beneficial of them remain stalled, without even achieving the minimum of progress in terms of the objectives, which were once portrayed as being within reach. The result was that some people entered history at the expense of the loss of geography.

The defeat today has another flavor. It did not result from losing external battles, for which military equipment was heavily procured. It did not arise out of the failure of military plans drawn up by military generals either. It took place in domestic arenas, most importantly over the exclusive control of power and wealth by a faction of loyalists. Certainly, the impact of the domestic defeat will be harsher, as it takes place in the areas of those who do not fight, and particularly when the enemies are poverty, the monopolization of wealth, and the widening disparities among social groups, which are expanding in an obscene fashion.

Did the fact that Arab governments followed the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and reduced state services, produce all of this negative impact, which in turn led to more tension? Or, did the state’s limited capacities fail to satisfy the minimum in terms of the legitimate desires of young generations, who are ever searching for a place in the sun?
In fact, this description, which would ease people’s consciences, is incorrect. Instead, it involves a deeper understanding of the structural concept of social struggles and problems. Most severe crises do not include options that are viable for re-consideration- if not once every ten years, then with the rise of every new generation. What is at stake are methods of implementation that might be out of date, namely cementing the concepts of the peaceful transfer of power, encouraging good governance, and allowing elites to regenerate themselves.

Many people cheered the end of the Cold War and the international transformations that were delineated by many concepts and practices. The Arab world was no exception, and it cannot remain distant from the impact of fragments flying in every direction. However, wisdom always requires us to absorb events by anticipating them, and not by awaiting them passively. It is not that ideology has died, but the logic of monopolization which imposes the influence of a single party in power that has become obsolete and useless. This cannot be revived, even if a different terminology is used.

The single party system led to defeat in Egypt’s external struggles, and it is leading to a repeat of the tragedy domestically, as if nothing has changed in the world. If we assume that some external defeats can be explained and justified in terms of thought and preparation, domestic defeats are uglier and represent something no less than waging a battle armed with something called democracy, while we await the creation of the weapons of conviction and responsibility.

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