Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"No Despair With Life, And No Life With Despair"

First off, a brief explanation of the excerpt from the poem in this post from earlier today: September 1, 1939 is one of the most famous poems by W.H. Auden. It was written at the start of World War II, as both a lament for and attack on Europe, which had allowed itself to slip back into war.

Amnesty International has described the constitutional amendments passed in Egypt today as a great "erosion" of human rights. It would be more accurate to say that the amendments formalised the erosion that has been taking place for the past twenty-six years, since an uninterrupted state of emergency first gave Mubarak's regime the powers it has now permanently acquired. Egypt was a police state long before this week. In fact, it is doubtful that the regime could have passed these amendments today had it not spent the past quarter-century working to erase every memory of and attachment to whatever meaning individual and political rights held for the majority of the Egyptian public.

Analogously, however depressing today's results may be, such a harsh but singular blow has as much potential for inducing defiance as it does despair and apathy. So, if one were to attempt to explain the apathy of much of the public (the government reported that only 27% of the electorate voted, with 76% supporting the amendments, and even those figures are certainly inflated), it is arguably not because recent government crackdowns caused people to suddenly despair, but because a long history of repression has gradually eroded hope. The resultant apathy can lead people to be a source of their own repression, which becomes a source of great frustration for those actually trying to change things for the better. The Sandmonkey, after a long but well-worth-reading description of Sunday's anti-government protest, expressed this frustration:
Where does the government, the corrupt ministers, the ruthless SS officers and their soldiers come from? Aren't they egyptians? Don't they come from egyptian families and households? Aren't they born and raised here like the rest of us? Well, what does that exactly say about us? Whether we like it or not, the government is a reflection of the people. So if the government is ruthless, corrupt and dictatorial, what does that say about the people? What does it say about the parents of the police officers that order their soldiers to beat up and sexually assault women? What does it say about the families of those corrupt government officials who sign away our future and that of our children for a bunch of dirty money? What does it say about a nation that produces such a government, and accepts it, even as it plunders the country and enslaves its people?

Maybe the government is right: Maybe we don't deserve Democracy. Maybe we don't deserve our rights. Maybe we deserve everything that happens to us. We, as people, seem to lack the sense of self-respect and dignity that makes the human being demand his/her right, so how do we expect the government to respect us or give us those rights? We clearly don't deserve them. We clearly deserve to have our rights stolen, our friends imprisoned, and our women assaulted. Cause, otherwise, how would you explain how accepting we are of those things?

Maybe we don't deserve any better.

The past century of Egyptian history is sadly full of people who tried to make a difference and ended up despairing of the people's capacity to bring about change. National hero Saad Zaghlul's reported statement "mafeesh faida" ("It's no use") is the most famous example of this. It is difficult for someone living abroad, like myself, to criticize this attitude. After all, emigrating from one's original home country because of its deep flaws constitutes a concession that one cannot change those flaws, at least not in the foreseeable future or from within.

(One of these days, I do intend to start writing more about what it means to immigrate to a new land and to grow to love it as your home; however, within this post I'm focusing more on what it means to emigrate from one's country of origin.)

With that in mind, I have no intention of criticizing people who are doing much more for Egyptian democracy than myself for their perceptions of what they are up against. I would argue, though, that there is more reason to hope than may be immediately apparent. The regime is not omnipotent: it is precisely because of its vulnerability that Mubarak and his people are trying to gain more power. The public, that has been persuaded over time to give up its aspirations for a free and better life, can be persuaded over time to rediscover those aspirations. It is no coincidence that the increasing heavy-handedness of the regime is taking place at the same time as increasing, if still limited, public dissent.

It is worth remembering that the quote that is translated in the title of this post is also drawn from Egyptian history. Despair is exactly what the regime wants to achieve in its opponents. The refusal to lose hope is in itself an act of defiance.

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