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19 March 2018 12:37 (South Africa)
Opinionista Kalim Rajab

Egypt: A tale of frogs and scorpions

  • Kalim Rajab
    Kalim Rajab
    Kalim Rajab

    Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

A week after the military ousted president Mohamed Morsi, difficult questions need to be answered to ensure the fate of the scorpion and the frog does not await Egypt.

One day, a scorpion made its way down the shifting sands of the desert and found itself at the banks of the River Jordan. Contemplating how to make it to the other side, he came across a frog floating downstream.

Salaam alaik,” the scorpion beamed, “Greetings, dear friend! Would you be so kind as to offer a poor pilgrim passage across the treacherous waters so that I may reach the other side?”

“Good heavens, no!” replied the frog, “I know who you are. You will sting me without the slightest thought and leave me for dead, given the chance.”

“How can you be so heartless with your words, oh frog, nothing could be further from the truth. And besides, why should I sting the one who offers me safe passage?”

“Alright,” said the frog, impressed, “hop on and let’s go!”

And with this, the frog proffered his back and the scorpion hopped on gratefully. Yet scarcely had the pair made it halfway across the river when the scorpion instinctively, fatally, stung his helper. As the pair sunk to the bottom of the raging torrent, the frog cried out despairingly, “Oh cruel master, why? With one stroke of your tail you condemn us both to perish. Why?”

“Because, my friend ... this ... is the Middle East.”

I thought of this timeless parable as I saw recent developments enveloping Egypt this week. Originating from the Levant, over countless retellings it has morphed into many iterations; malleable as it is to whichever context the raconteur so chooses. Despite this, at its heart it remains a Middle Eastern parable, for its mixture of enigmatic fatalism and inevitable doom is curiously Middle Eastern. It is a tale of people and spirits which, with seemingly the best of intentions, are only able to effect tragedy upon themselves and those around them.

Who would want to be an Egyptian analyst right now, given the upheavals of the last few days and the breathless speed with which events have ebbed and flowed? The specific events which led up to last Wednesday’s military coup - from the hopes and aspirations of the Arab Uprising two years ago to the bitter resentment that the Revolution had been hijacked; from the arrogance and incompetence of president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to the backroom intrigue which led to the military coup - are now fairly well understood.

That so many Egyptians should wish to get rid of a president who bumbled from one misstep to another during his year in power is understandable, given how their once-aspirational dreams had seemingly been dashed. But did these grievances really justify the harshness of military intervention? Will it not expose Egypt to the same unintended and tragic consequences which the parable warns of?

The principal Egyptian army general, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, certainly seems to have had the same doubts at some point even if they were subsequently discarded to protect the military’s power interests. On 11 May he said, “For those who say to the army ‘go into the street’, if this happened we won’t be able to speak of Egypt moving forward for 30 or 40 years.” He had close precedents to hand. Turkey, for example, effectively lost a decade of economic stability, media freedom and geopolitical power after 1997 when the military forced the civilian government out of power. The same has happened in Pakistan since basically forever. And, of course, his own country, in which the military state has played a deep and debilitating role for long periods since the first Egyptian Revolution of 1952.

Now that he has actually decided to “go into the street” in spite of his apparent fears, how does he ensure Egypt is able to reclaim the revolution? The Middle East is notoriously difficult to predict, and as I mentioned, woe betides anyone claiming to have an Egyptian telescope to the future. The secularists have hailed the coup as a crucial step in the right direction but at this uncertain juncture it would seem such sentiments of faith cannot realistically be made without at the very least answering these questions positively over the coming months.

Firstly, can the Muslim Brotherhood be drawn back from the margins? Will a genuine hand of friendship be extended to them to be included in Egyptian society, even if they are rightly suspicious and wounded?

To understand the perspectives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists today is to understand shades of grey. They find their hard-fought electoral mandate forcibly overturned by a military who for the last year supposedly was their partner, but who over half a century had sought to destroy them. They find their leaders once again imprisoned by this military, even if only temporarily - surely déjà vu for them as they remember years of banning and torture in dark prison cells under presidents Nasser and Sadat. And perhaps harshest to swallow, the message that even if they win power in elections, they may still be removed from office by non-democratic means. The Brotherhood is hardly saintly. The party, after all, has a long history of violence and intimidation, and links to Hamas. Despite many secular Egyptians disliking them, it is difficult to deny that the Brotherhood has the most sophisticated political and welfare networks in the country, replete with a long history of social justice successes in the country - part of the reason they were originally voted into power in the first place. As much as the secularist revolutionaries and military would love to, unfortunately the Brotherhood cannot just be willed away. They will always remain a powerful force but whether this force will be malevolent or harnessed as a force for good, remains in the revolutionaries’ hands to determine. They simply have to be brought back from the margins for Egypt to move forward.

Secondly, can the new leaders implement a wider version of constitutional democracy rather than a narrow interpretation of it?

These distinctions were not clearly understood in the lead-up to the elections. The penalising form of “first-past-the-post” or Westminster system was implemented without consideration that perhaps, given Egypt’s tortured past, more inclusivism was required in the electoral process. Proportional representation, which brought these benefits, might have been a more appropriate response. So too might a government of national unity. Additionally, the experience of other transitional democracies has been that the creation of strong, adequately resourced and independent civil society organisations to complement the organs of power, are very much needed. Without public protectors, human rights commissions, a judicial services commission, citizen networks, national accord frameworks and such to assist the disaffected, remain the likelihood of people continuing to believe their only realistic outlet to express their grievances being through the street.

Thirdly, will former army leaders be put on trial for Mubarak-era crimes, even if they are subsequently proved innocent?

Fourth, will the Mubarak-era elite not enjoy a resumption of power and tacit privileges?

Both these points remain vexing issues because, as Human Rights Watch has observed, it has become clear that the real power currently lies in the hands of the military and “the deep state”, despite what the revolutionaries believe. Both were firmly entrenched under the Mubarak dictatorship; both have adapted brilliantly to the new state of affairs without being pushed out; and both effectively still represent “a state within a state”. Even if any of the liberals, leftists or even Islamists were to win power in future elections, the continued existence of remnants of the old regime would mean the new government couldn’t wield true power. Transformation, as distinct from purging, of both these institutions as well as the Mubarak-era judiciary, is much needed.

While there are certainly a wider host of other questions, unique to Egypt, which will have to be answered, these to me remain the most pressing.

In the unprecedented protests in 2011, the voice of the Egyptian people, long supressed, seemed at the time to be saying, “We demand all of our voices to be heard.”

Now after having gone through an election, in which a party for which they didn’t care legally won a mandate, they seem to be adding, “We agree that all voices need to be heard just as long as we happen to agree with the outcome!”

In setting aside, even temporarily, several of the principles which turned their 2011 actions into an irresistible tidal wave of change, let us hope that the Egyptian revolutionaries have not unwittingly invoked the return of the spirit of the frog and the scorpion to Egyptian society. Were that to be the case, then it would represent a tragedy playing out in which the secular revolutionaries are unwitting, recurring players in a chain of events which will lead to its own inevitable denouement. DM

  • Kalim Rajab
    Kalim Rajab
    Kalim Rajab

    Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

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