Sunday, June 24, 2012

Celebration



In about a week, Mohamed Morsi will be sworn in as the fifth president of Egypt. The streets of downtown Cairo are filled with dancing, smiling, ululating, shouting, and jumping people. Even in quieter neighborhoods, micro-buses and taxis honk in rhythm while their passengers wave Egyptian flags out of the windows. Others are singing, shooting guns and launching fireworks. Some news channels have already unearthed old archival footage of Morsi as a weirdly cherubic young man. On others, text messages are flooding the bottom of the screen. In translation: ‘a hundred congratulations to Morsi,’ ‘a thousand congratulations to Morsi,’ ‘congraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatulations to Morsi,’ ‘a trilllllllllllllion congratulations to Morsi.’

But really I’m struck by the noise, the way cheering wafts over the buildings for at least a mile and coats the air with energy. For the 24 hours preceding the announcement of the results, there had been a hushed sense of foreboding and doom. At caf├ęs, I would hear ‘3pm’ and ‘6pm,’ the two rumored times for the release of the results, poking out of quiet conversations. Most news in Egypt this year had been sudden. It was rare to have a long, nervous build-up, and nobody knew what to expect if Shafik were declared the winner. Would there be massive protests? Would Shafik crack down with security forces? Luckily, those questions won’t be answered.

Something else, less tangible, is going on too. What has bothered me about English-language journalism in Egypt, and the Middle East generally, is not the stereotypes or the simplification. In some ways, those are unavoidable. My problem is more with the endless, fruitless, and pretentious speculation about the designs of shadowy groups like the Brotherhood and the military council. There is a cottage industry of political science professors, think tank fellows, and correspondents who spend hours in person and online debating all of the possibilities.

They relish in the prospect, but rarely the reality, of having insider information about who is plotting what, and in the absence of that information they speculate. I had trouble articulating why I didn’t like it, until my partner Emily compared the analysis cycle to sports commentary, to the endless speculation that accompanies drafts, playoffs, and rivalries. The SCAF, the Brotherhood, and other political players are treated as competing teams in a game, not as potential representatives for the needs of millions of people. Egypt ends up sounding to us undemocratic because these analysts treat everyone as chess players who only want to consolidate their own power and win the game. They aren’t given a chance to be for anyone other than themselves.

I’ve met more than a few Egyptians who find this style of dinner party conversation infuriating. “Every time an American says ‘This is interesting,’ an Egyptian friend told me, “I want to tell him to shut up! That doesn’t mean anything."

Tonight, for the first time, that endless buzz has finally paused. Tomorrow Egypt will descend back into questions about who will be in control in a week’s time, what kind of deal the Brotherhood struck with the SCAF, and who is winning the game for the moment. It’s unclear whether Morsi will be able to do very much. The SCAF remains in control. The New York Times just called it a ‘Symbolic Win.’ That story will unfold tomorrow. Today, just for once, there’s celebration.  

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