I’ve sometimes wished I was a fly on the Mubaraks' living-room wall watching the drama unfold. I pictured the former president, his customary tenacity perforated with moments of genuine bewilderment, his sons’ and wife’s urgent counsels, the disagreements, the fraternal and conjugal strife, the small gestures of tenderness (a glass of tea, a cushion for the back) to mitigate the irritability, tension and bitter resentment in the face of such perceived betrayal. I wondered if they watched TV and saw the masses calling for their prosecution, and had reached the point of self-questioning, regret and/or fear. It’s the stuff that Ramadan musalsalaat is made of, and I’ll bet someone’s writing one or half a dozen right now.
The creative impulse unleashed in Tahrir Square has spread far and wide, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s been diffused. It has reached the conference rooms of corporate advertising departments, with the mobile phone companies who profited so richly from protest-related communications mounting huge patriotic (and logo-bearing) posters. Glossy magazine covers feature Egypt’s valiant youth, and colorful albeit bloodless sentimental accounts of the events. Egypt’s uprising has been commercialized but also mythologized in exhibitions and documentaries. It already exists outside of itself, although it has yet to be self-realized, self-aware. It came into being only half formed, the angry part, shaped by decades of disappointment and injustice.
"On what does the survival of oppression depend? On us! On whom must we depend for its demolition? On ourselves!" Bertolt Brecht, chronicler of human nature, was right but the trick is to demolish oppression on an individual and societal level. From the start, the uprising’s focus on Mubarak was personal; he embodied the public’s disillusionment and contempt for power. Yet this also externalized the problem. A cleansing albeit symbolic patricide was called for, but emphasizing Mubarak’s responsibility for Egypt’s impoverishment obscures the people’s role in that same process. "Has he some power over you other than that which he receives from you?" asked Étienne de La Boétie, in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. As disenchantment with the army grows, the question must be asked again, and unless the space is created for alternative leadership to emerge, Egypt will be asking it for decades.
The emphasis remains on bringing Mubarak to justice, with effigy burnings and mock trials awarding him an importance he no longer merits, when there is so much else to be done. Mubarak and his henchmen’s fate continue to overshadow the larger issues behind this uprising, namely the acquisition of personal and civic freedoms and the restoration of due process. With parliamentary elections looming, the Emergency Law is not just in force, but amplified by the curfew and protest ban. Mubarak’s imprisonment has taken precedence over demands for basic human rights, which continue to be abused. When you live in a police state for so long, some of it’s bound to rub off if you’re not careful. But the defensiveness, divisiveness, belligerence and utter lack of imagination with which Egypt has been governed in the past must indeed be relegated to history.
Yes, if there’s money floating around that Egypt can get back, by all means encourage the process. And arrest those against whom substantial allegations of corruption have been raised (a move which would necessitate the replacement of virtually every high-official in every governorate). Compose lists detailing each one’s offenses and publish it widely. But why should they get swifter justice than average Egyptians? Let them wait their turn. The days before parliamentary elections are numbered and each one spent following the drama of Mubarak and his sons’ incarceration, hospital interrogations etc., is time lost. How will the public prepare for these elections? Who will stand as their representatives, and on what platforms? Or should these hasty, quasi-forced elections be aborted or boycotted, with the public demanding instead to elect an interim ruling council, whose participants it nominates?
It’s time to get really personal, forgetting "them" and affirming "us", exploring the options that have been opened. More than the past, the future is at issue now, and the present with its urgent business of survival. The daily struggle that ignited this uprising will not be over any time soon. How can we meanwhile help one another and prevent the unscrupulous from profiting from this moment of vulnerability through crime and fraud? We hear sensational accounts of growing violence, but instances of people sharing information and resources, presenting alternative ways forward, cleaning and securing neighborhoods (in other words replicating the self-organization that characterized the best moments in Tahrir) should be publicized and imitated. Right now there are citizens with leadership qualities taking actions within and outside of the framework of civil society. Who are they? What are they doing? How can we help them? We need to know.
The creative force unleashed this year is the revolution, if it’s kept alive and nurtured so that beyond the anger, people can see themselves whole, as they wish to be. It takes imagination and resourcefulness to relinquish a self-image to which you’ve grown accustomed. Who will "the new you" be? Only when the change is visualized can the process of transformation begin. Likewise, on the level of society, how do you picture a reinvented Egypt? How would it work, what would it be like to live there? Whoever seeks a place in government should possess the clarity of vision to answer these questions, and citizens should have the sense to ask them or else be content with the Egypt they get by default.
When you’ve been denied the right to speak and act with confidence to shape and embellish society these powers may seem remote, yet they are present in everyone, awaiting the chance for expression. That chance is now. Personally, I don’t care about Mubarak and his family, however rich their drama. We’ve grown old watching them and they’ve wearied us. We care about Egypt, and the Egypt we see in our mind’s eye looks nothing like them at all.
Maria Golia, a long-time resident of Egypt, is author of Cairo, City of Sand andPhotography and Egypt, permanent correspondent for The Middle East(UK)and columnist for the New Internationalist (Oxford).