Opinionista Khadija Patel 21 March 2011

History is never neat

In the same way that time heals wounds of greater and lesser traumas smudging the details of pain at the time, history is surprisingly fast to step in after “the hurly-burly’s done and the battle’s lost and won” to relegate tumultuous upheaval to pages in text books. But it only has the appearance of neatness.

For a generation of South Africans who do not know a life bereft of the privileges guarded by the Bill of Rights, Human Rights Day is just another public holiday. Fifty-one years on, Sharpeville is a story safely tucked away in the pages of the history books our children read. The blood has been rinsed off the streets and the better known revolutionaries have streets named after them. The fight for freedom has become some other people’s business; we have our paycheques to earn.

When Egyptians queued outside polling stations on Saturday, waiting to vote in a referendum on proposed constitutional changes, the euphoria with which this first tentative step towards democracy was taken was most reminiscent of South Africa in 1994.  Social media channels buzzed with the excitement of Egyptians, telling the story of their first foray into a polling booth. Thumbs brandished with a spot of pink ink were displayed proudly across Twitter and Egyptians seemed punch-drunk on freedom. But between the vehement displays of euphoria, cracks are already beginning to show in the streets and Egyptians are about to find out that democracy, like reason, can be ugly when it’s not on your side.

The initial results announced on state television on Sunday gave the ‘Yes’ vote  a resounding victory, some 14 million voted for the amendments and 4 million against. And while the official turnout of 41% of eligible voters was far off the initial estimate of 60%, the Egyptian appetite for democracy will now be tested.

Though the cameras have panned away from Egypt to Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, there’s been an irrepressible spirit to the Egyptian people.  After despatching Hosni Mubarak with some aplomb they’ve not been content to sit back and allow the status quo to dominate.  After some more demonstrating in Tahrir Square and then some remonstrating on live television, the Mubarak-appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq tendered his resignation. And when rumours began circulating that state security officials were scurrying to cover up human rights abuses, protesters stormed its headquarters and branches prompting the dissolution of the state security apparatus. It seemed there was no putting down the Egyptian people. Even Hillary Clinton didn’t manage to be unaffected by the sheer charm of the Egyptian revolution and keen to jump aboard the Egyptian bandwagon. She visited Egypt this week, taking the scenic route, visiting Tahrir Square and being snubbed by youth leaders who rejected her invitation to attend a meeting. “Due to her negative stance towards the revolution during its inception and the approach of the US administration towards the Middle East region, we decided to refuse this invitation,” a statement from The Coalition of the Youth of the 25 January Revolution read.

But all the confidence and the gritty determination that has characterised Egypt this year is already beginning to show signs of wear.

Voters were asked to choose yes or no on a package of nine proposed changes, which will now open the elections to independent candidates, impose presidential term limits and rein in the 30-year-old emergency law.  A Yes vote will also allow parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year, a time-frame that advocates of the No vote say gives an unfair advantage to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, the only political parties with an established infrastructure in  Egypt. The youth leaders as well as presidential hopefuls Mohamed El Baradei, and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa were vocal advocates of the No vote in opposition to the country’s Islamist movement which had been currying favour for a Yes vote. And, while it is quite a leap to suggest the triumph of the Yes vote, a victory for Islamism in Egypt, the referendum was the first sparring bout between warring ideologies in the new Egypt.

Outside of electioneering and in the strongest display that the anaesthetic of the revolution is now wearing off in stark contrast to the solidarity of Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square in the height of the revolution, sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians claimed 11 lives.

Seamus Milne writing in The Guardian last week assessed the unravelling of the revolution this way: “It is scarcely surprising if elements of the old regime try to provoke social division, or attempts are made to co-opt and infiltrate the youth movements that played the central role in the uprising, or that the army leadership wants to put a lid on street protests and strikes.”

With upheaval uniformly sweeping through the Arab world, I was taken aback this week by a suggestion that we may well face a new world order in the coming months.  There is a definite sense of a changing political paradigm moving into place. With Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen sacking his government and looking increasingly likely to fall, the US is poised to lose another ally in the region. And even among existing allies they are fast losing muster. Saudi troops have occupied Bahrain to quell the popular pressure for an elected government, much to the chagrin of the American government which has so far taken the “urging restraint on all sides approach”.  Foreign intervention in Libya means the Libyan revolution has been co-opted by the outside. In the increasingly slim possibility of a revolution now succeeding in Libya, it won’t be Twitter and Facebook clamouring over the naming rights. The first air raids over Libya by international forces feel too much like two bullies squaring off in the playground. There may be some tinkering to the world order but the order is essentially the same.

Years from today 25 January may be just another bridge in Cairo, or it may as well just be yet another public holiday, celebrated more for the time it affords away from the banalities of work and school than for the changes it wrought in the world. The referendum so celebrated yesterday would be just another paragraph in a historical narrative. And the history books will tell an eloquent story of the uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and then engulfed an entire region, but like all historical narratives, it will be a selective version of events and ideas.

History, despite what our books may say, is not neat. Along the way to actually living democracy, things may well get ugly. DM


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