Casting a Shadow Over Tahrir Square
by Sami H. Elmansoury
What is the price of founding a democracy—and what is the price of suppression?
It is no secret that I am no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood. As the grandson of deeply proud immigrants to the United States who emigrated from Egypt at the heels of conflict, there is nothing more that I wish to see than an incredibly tolerant, open-minded vision for Egypt brought to fruition—a society which cares less about what faith one holds or in what background one was raised—and most about the merit and character of the individual. While I far from loathe the practice of faith, I loathe its use to manipulate any society, to compel a people, or to gain power over others. I am disturbed by any ideology which makes one belief supreme in the public arena, because it will always be at the expense of citizens. And I recognize that in a genuine democracy, no ideology should relegate those outside of its spectrum to a direct or implied second class.
Yet I refute the belief that violent suppression is the way with which to broaden minds. It did not work under Former President Mubarak, and it will far from work today. And just as I have vehemently condemned the burning of churches and the threatening of minority groups, I am appalled by the death of unarmed members of sit-ins—it matters in no way to me who they supported for President, or whether they were caught in the crossfire. Second to its immorality, this type of violent action only seeks to empower those who are pushed away, and erodes at the very foundation of genuine democratic principles.
For decades, the Brotherhood in Egypt was repressed, yet they emerged in full force, swinging at the polls. In many ways, the repression of the Brotherhood under revolutionary President Gamal Abdel Nasser led to the extreme views of the likes of Sayyid Qutb, and several other leading Brotherhood figures. For those “pro-democracy” individuals who have been unconditionally supporting the bloodshed that pinnacled yesterday in Egypt, I call to question how this moment will be any different from what we have seen in the past. I genuinely question how this will be the moment which vanquishes the ignorance of division on faith-based and ideological lines. Or is this merely placing a blood-soaked Band-Aid on issues that Egyptian society does not as of yet know how to constructively address?
Far from suggesting that Qutb and other early Brotherhood leaders were admirable figures in Egypt’s history, I am acknowledging that torture and death only succeeded in inflaming and empowering them. Prior to Nasser, mentality-speaking, Egypt was a very different world; one that did not readily accept those who sought to divide Egyptians or others on faith-based lines, whether for political or religious gain. What responsibility for this change, then, must be placed on a military-backed regime that held Egypt in a stranglehold for decades? As far as studied eyes can justly attest, one can at least partially blame years of despair festering under a military dictatorship for the rise of the Brotherhood—and the rise of more violent strands of religious ideology.
As an American, I remain proud of my country for its separation of church and state. It is the hallmark that drives so many to flee oppression to a different life here at home. While no society can rightly claim perfection, we work diligently to pursue a “to each his own” model, and it works. It would be a beautiful development to one day see a similar mentality overwhelm Egyptian society, where people begin to authentically live and let live. Where religious practice is not condemned—as is suggested would happen by the misplaced rhetoric of those who oppose the separation of religion and state—but where there is no hand-in-hand compulsion on the other.
But such a society will not be created by pushing citizens already skeptical of such views over the edge of hope. I once mentioned to a young but vehement Egyptian critic of the separation of religion from politics that our system in the United States works to help prevent religious ideological dominance—while simultaneously encouraging, not denying, the free exercise of religion. His response disheartened me. “No,” he said. “We already tried that for sixty years, and it was unbearable.” So for those who advocate for such a separation across the Middle East, therein lies the core of the problem—not at sit-ins at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque nor at Cairo University.
No. Authentic democratic engagement, on an equal footing, is a process that must emerge via education and dialogue. It denotes the pouring of ideas—if even by force and with risk—into the public arena, and allowing people to deliberate and to choose, not to be cornered to their death after decades of a torturous rule that they now fear may return on the backs of many of their more liberal-minded brothers and sisters. It means converting hearts and minds via powerful ideas for the nation. It compels one to prove to society why one vantage point is stronger than the other, and to accept that there will be victories and losses. And it means that those who wish to maintain their views must be permitted to do so, even if it is with strong frustration to the other, without oppression or arrogance over them.
While I wholeheartedly acknowledge that Egypt under Morsi did not particularly allow for this vision to be fostered—and I have written about the many pitfalls of a short-lived Morsi administration—with all of my efforts to comprehend the justification, I fail to understand how the current brutality solves or resolves what people emerged to speak out against on June 30 of this year, when millions protested their recently elected president. Nor do I understand how looking past such violence or dehumanizing the other builds trust between powerful ideologies, between faiths—or, most significantly for us as Americans, where the inconsistent nature of our views has confounded so many Egyptians—between East and West.
My intentions in writing this piece are where they should be—forged by today’s reality, while looking in hindsight at Egypt’s tumultuous past. If hindsight is truly the broadest horizon, then let not our era be a most dire exception. And for those who proudly continue the call for a genuinely equal citizenship in a more tolerant democracy—and I categorize myself there—live the life you wish to see for others. Lead by tolerant example.
And woe to all of us who allow innocent blood to stain our calling.