Egypt and the ‘opportunistic’ intelligentsia

Published : 20 August 2013, 12:37 PM
Updated : 20 August 2013, 12:37 PM

Growing up in a traditional Chittagonian family meant that, before the age of seven, I had finished the Quran, by virtue of attending a dawn madrassa for about two years, before I headed off to school. My mother was steadfast in her goal to get our religious duties fulfilled early in life so that we could then concentrate on common curricula in order to earn a living. Making her children learn how to read the holy book and pray Namaj, common among parents of her generation, sowed seeds of piety in young, impressionable souls; for some it will last for the rest of their lives. But even for those to whom it was not as enduring, slowly getting clouded with competing ideas, it has still left an impression.

As one grows, depending on life experience, learning, opportunities, background and decisions made, he or she may turn left or right, or remain undecided. A majority turn left or right, though, as both narratives have compelling arguments which sway individuals, and that is a good thing. It should, after all, be free for individuals to choose their own professional, philosophical or spiritual orientation. This is a rock solid concept for a true democracy, allowing it to embrace fundamentalist elements as happily as secular ones and eliminating reasons for conflict, as the majority's wishes would be established.

But as with any system, the gulf between reality and theory in 'democratic systems' is wide. Notwithstanding, the rift between right and left has been significant in shaping human societies. Interestingly, the victor is what many nations across the globe aspire to be. Memories flash back of efforts to establish democracy and to 'help the desire of the people to be fulfilled', spanning a long period – in Korea, Vietnam, in the USSR, Iran, Iraq, China, Afghanistan or in central and Latin America. And how sweet and successful they have been.

Even so, the thirst for 'democratic freedom', and movements stemming from such yearning, not only continue, but inevitably involve western powers. The Arab Spring has been the most recent incarnation of such involvement. Regardless its mixed effects, it is perhaps not surprising that a model developed in the west hundreds of years ago (and suitable for economic, political and cultural expansion) has yet to be accepted as the most appropriate model for post-colonial states.

As the theme – transition to democracy and prosperity – is wholeheartedly, even bizarrely pursued, with such an unseemly agent of democratic change as the military, by the secularist part of the society, one is bound to wonder what is 'the end' here for which 'the means' (the killings) are callously disregarded?

You would have gathered by now that I am talking about the horrific military actions in Egypt on 14 August in order to drive Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party supporters out, causing many deaths. Wide condemnation followed, but was it as vociferous as that which rose in similar situations: for example, during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, or in the struggles against the Asad regime?

Political analyses of the issues are widely available, and one could try to understand the frustration with an elected party that has been accused of Islamising Egypt, or its inability to be inclusive, 'reformist' or to provide stability. But how could the secularists imagine that the military, effectively the main ruler of Egypt for many decades, would be the people's saviour?

Fundamentalists — individuals or parties — are dreaded for their intolerant views on important issues: on women's role in society, on restricting people's lifestyle choices, on discrimination against (religious) minority groups. Who would argue if people rise up against these dogmas? Interestingly, people rose against communism and other totalitarian regimes, which are interpreted as systems without religion.

But the army's violence and the mild western reaction, as commonly feared, would not only push Egypt to the brink (similar to what happened in Algeria in 1991, when the Islamists were prevented from assuming power after they won the first round of an election, a decade long carnage ensuing which took as many as 200,000 lives), but also overshadow the Brotherhood's incompetent governance under a cloud of injustice and terrible wrongdoing.

Further, this struggle will resonate with Islamist factions in the region and it could even galvanize a future force. In fact, what guarantee could the military or its joyous 'secularist' supporters give that a future election will not again be won by the Brotherhood? We should not forget that 'secular' or 'fundamentalist' ordinary people long for dignity and fair treatment; certainly they do not wish to be shot at when they demonstrate.

Yet the relative calm and lukewarm reprimand invoked by these atrocities, specially from world intelligentsia, is shameful. Do intellectuals not bleed when fundamentalists are savaged? Within and outside Egypt the lack of general compassion and empathy for the Brotherhood can be and will be perceived differently. But could the secular party that boasts of tolerance, plurality, and acceptance of wider views, and assumes a higher moral ground by its superior knowledge and worldly intellect, condone a massacre?

Instead of burning with despair and anger, prodding the military to overthrow an elected albeit Islamist party, why do they not try to put their efforts to reason with the 'extremists'? Why did the intelligentsia not go to 'less prosperous' villages and explain social, political or economic issues?

The most likely response would be that there isn't a lot that they could do when religion is used as a tool and most of the populace is illiterate and living in poverty. But if 'the world' can impose sanctions on North Korea, Iran (and Iraq, Cuba in the past) why can't it at least make the military accountable for its reckless killing? Can the USA, UK, EU, Saudi Arabia, Gulf states and other allies not suspend their military and financial aid?

It seems the world expects democracy to pick parties with 'specific ideologies'.

The Egyptian events are not unique. Many nation states experience polarised views and are unable to compromise, specially when there is a upsurge of nationalism, yet the intelligentsia can/should play a curative role rather than accentuate the faults of fundamentalists.

Aided by worldly learning, attracted by its promised broadness and erudite enlightenment, I have often revered the intelligentsia. But its unseemly quiet over the excessive force used to usurp the Islamists disenchants me.

Apprehension goes further, when we realise the uncanny resemblance of these events to incidents that took place this year in our country, where the onus to disapprove the wrongdoing also rests with the intelligentsia.

Over and over I have found piercing truth in George Orwell's words. In a letter responding to whether totalitarianism was on the rise, in 1944 he wrote, "…I must say I believe, or fear, that taking the world as a whole these things are on the increase. Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear, but only at the expense of strengthening (a) Stalin, (b) the Anglo-American millionaires and (c) all sorts of petty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle…but if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it…one must remember that Britain and the USA haven't been really tried, they haven't known defeat or severe suffering…"

In the same letter with his signature clairvoyance he also explained the opportunistic stance the intelligentsia can prefer to take, quite contrary to the common assumption, "… there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on 'our' side…"

Irfan Chowdhury writes from Canberra, Australia.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher