“Why not from the start?” is an Egyptian saying I learnt as a child about the unnecessary postponement of an eventual outcome. Like many parents, my mother used to respond with “no” to any request I had even if she only heard half of it. It was therefore quite common that incomplete sentences along the lines of “I want to go to…” or “I need money for…” would be met with the most abrupt refusal. It was also quite common that after about a whole hour of negotiations, she would finally agree and I would, out of breath, half-furious, half-pleading, “Why not from the start?”
She never had an answer for that question and neither did all other parents. It was only when one of my schoolmates decided to come up with a theory that explains what she called “parents’ weird behavior.” According to her, parents are always after one of two things. They either want to teach you a lesson through proving who the boss is and making the final approval a condescending act on their part that should make us stay grateful forever. Or they really are not in the mood for approving any request or have reservations about it and do their best to push your limits until you give it up, but when you don’t they have no other option but to give in.
Of course, none of us cared about psychoanalyzing our parents. Finding a way to make them agree to a request within first five minutes of making it was the one and only priority we had. It was only later that I realized that there is no way you can look for solutions without going back to causes and it is impossible to understand an action without digging deeper into the brains and psyche of the person who did it. I am no longer in touch with this nerdy classmate of mine, but I admit I owe her a lot now, much more than she can imagine. I am too old to seek my mother’s approval for anything, but it is thanks to this theory that I am able to decipher actions quite similar to hers even though the comparison is too unfair. This time it is done on a much broader scale: a national one.
“Why not from the start?” wondered Egyptians as they stared at the TV screen to hear the Presidential Elections Commission announcing the exclusion from the presidential race of two of the most controversial potential candidates: the Salafi Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and former intelligence chief and Mubarak’s first and last vice-president Omar Suleiman. Nobody was able to figure out this unjustified delay even though it was obvious that none of them was eligible even if for different reasons. It was then when I retrieved the parents’ theory and was amazed at how applicable it is to the current situation and to any dictatorial system of governance that is constantly preoccupied with the means to teach its people lessons and use them as guinea pigs.
Reports about Abu Ismail’s mother being an American citizen, which violates one of the main candidacy conditions, were leaked, nobody has a clue by who exactly, at a time when his popularity had reached its peak and his supporters were multiplying at the speed of light and also at a time when there was growing concern over the possibility of his victory – an assumption that was totally dismissed two months before. It will be extremely naive to assume that Abu Ismail, a Salafi preacher who appears on religious TV channels and promotes all kinds of extremist ideologies under a government that had zero tolerance for Islamists, did not have his name adorning the cover of a fat file at the State Security Bureau. The file would definitely include all sorts of information about his family including his mother’s favorite underwear, let alone the fact she had lived for years in the United States and was already a registered voter in Santa Monica, California. The Interior Ministry, and of course the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, would have then taken the easy and most logical way and would have announced from the very beginning that the man could not run. Yet, they chose to let him place his posters in every single corner until he haunted us in our dreams and to be on TV every other day talking about his plans of forcing women to wear the veil and separating between sexes in the workplace and to garner that sweeping support that suddenly translated into in six digits. A clear-cut verdict on Abu Ismail’s inability to run could have also been issued on the spot. Yet, it was important to leave the matter hanging for a while to allow for mass rallies by bearded men carrying black flags and shouting slogans with every other word being “jihad” or “bloodbath” or their synonyms. The end result was scaring people to death of the theocracy Egypt was bound to become if the man made it and making many turn to the military council, which I believe has the last say over the court and the elections commission, for help in a tacit admission that it is only their last-minute interference that would save the day.
Is that a lot different from the “who’s the boss” strategy my mother religiously adopted? Not really! I would only change its name to “the scarecrow strategy,” one in which you need to make your adversaries feel how indebted they are to you and how unable they are to manage without your assistance.
Suleiman was the head of intelligence for two whole decades, a time seen as Egypt’s worst in terms of democracy and human rights. He was also the vice-president Mubarak chose to reassure the people about his sincere readiness to implement democratic reforms and respond to the demands of the street. Let us set aside a shameful CV, a big part of which can be compiled from Wikileaks, that includes his involvement in the siege on Gaza and the efforts he exerted to deepen the rift between Palestinian factions to suck up to Israel, his role in providing the U.S. with information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, his supervision of extraordinary rendition programs in which terror suspects were sent from the U.S. for extortion of confessions under torture. Let us instead focus on one very meaningful scene that depicts the reaction of protestors in Tahrir Square to Suleiman’s appointment as vice-president and this will be more than enough to consider his candidacy an outright treason of the revolution. Let us also look at Suleiman’s interview with ABC, in which he clearly stated that Egyptians are not fit for democracy at the moment and accused all the revolutionaries of being funded by foreign powers while asking them menacingly to “go home.”
In short, there is nothing about Suleiman that would have made him play any part in a country struggling to get rid of an autocratic past together with all the people that represented this autocracy and helped it survive. Suffice it is to say that a few minutes after Suleiman’s candidacy was announced the imagined title of his campaign that got viral on the internet became “You are all Khaled Saeed” after the famous Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeid” created to pay tribute to the young man brutally beaten to death by state security and who is considered one of the main triggers of the revolution. It is not clear who really fielded Suleiman but rumor had it that it was the military council. Even though the two are not generally on good terms, they were both an integral part of the former regime and therefore could be the only ones remaining outside bars who have full access to information about its crimes. They might find it in their best interest to cooperate towards the elimination of any of its traces that might implicate them in the future. The timing was also perfect to an extent that the man previously looked upon by Egyptians as a ruthless monster who would turn Egypt into an open air concentration camp, was starting to be seen by the misled-cum-scared few as the guardian angel who will save Egypt from the grip of Islamic rule. Yet, there was no consensus on the necessity of banning a candidate from running like that on Suleiman. It was actually because of him that some miraculous unity was forged between Islamists and liberals, regardless of course of the huge difference between the motives of each. Suleiman failed with misery in the test the military council set for the Egyptian people and he was out in a split of a second, definitely not because of the geographical distribution of popular endorsements or the missing four signatures.
Is that a lot different from the “push your limits” strategy my mother religiously adopted? Not really! I would only change its name to “the test balloon strategy,” one in which you gauge your adversaries’ reaction through embarking on a provocative action while pretending it is well-intended, then innocently withdraw when you are shocked by how furious they are at your decision.
One thing I am sure of: dealing with grownups as if they are children is bound to send you shamefully defeated and leave you utterly helpless as you lament your inability to judge how mature those “children” have become and how resistant to pressure they are.
Just think how the situation would be if those grownups are also revolutionaries!
(Sonia Farid teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)