Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Egypt in Turmoil – Empowerment Doesn’t Come Easy

Two years ago, when Egyptians inspired the world with their astonishingly successful and mostly non-violent revolution, commentary ranged from pure cynicism to the kind of unsubstantiated gloom and doom that Richard Quest specializes in.

Kofi Annan, speaking to Richard Quest at Davos in February 2011, said that obviously there was a need for reform, but “change has to be managed. I can understand there’s impatience and people want to see things move ahead very quickly but one has to be careful not to move at such speed that one creates something that is unmanageable down the line.” It sounds admirable and wise, but the problem is that real wisdom and the ability to take things slowly only comes with experience and being empowered for a long time. 

When the first democratic elections were held and there was such a poor turnout it was more grist to the mill of gloomy predictions that Egyptians would never truly get it together. 

Now Egypt seems to be in unmanageable chaos if you take a snapshot. President Morsi has declared a state of emergency in the three cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia following violent protests against the death sentence handed down to men found guilty for the part they played in the Cairo soccer brawl that left 74 people dead.  

The state of emergency, deaths at the hands of police, and the curfew have driven people to a frenzy and raised all manner of ghosts of how life was under Mubarak. It’s hard to get a reading on President Morsi because he speaks always with his head and not his heart, but he doesn’t seem to be a despot in the making. He just has read Egyptians wrong and doesn’t have that depth of understanding about the road to empowerment that Egyptians really need in a leader.

And the biggest problem is that Egypt had a democratic election, but Egyptians didn’t turn out in droves to vote. Out of close to 51 million registered voters, 48.15% abstained, and of those who did vote, only 51.7% voted for Morsi. Nobody changes overnight from being totally disempowered to being totally conscious of all their rights in the healthiest sense. It's a slow process. So they ended up with a man and a party who didn't truly represent the country. 

Now they’re paying the price. This doesn’t take away from the supreme courage Egyptians showed two years ago. But they’ve still got to learn how to put the same kind of effort into voting as they did into overthrowing Mubarak. And when people have been disempowered for a long time there’s a lot of suppressed rage. It has to run its course. Even when circumstances are radically altered, it’s never enough, so that rage button keeps getting pressed. 

Expressing is part of empowering yourself. I remember when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and he sometimes spoke publicly to large crowds acknowledging their right to their rage. Whites criticized him for stirring the mob, but I don’t think that’s what he was doing. He was affirming people’s right to their pain and anger, giving them a way to express, an opportunity to vent. That’s how you avoid violence.

Barack Obama said in his book “Dreams From My Father” that it takes longer to eradicate the damage done by generations of disempowerment than it took to create the damage. I think he’s right. It’s something that President Morsi doesn’t seem to have grasped yet. He has said many times that he cares about all Egyptian people, but that isn’t the same as being voted into power by them. And his actions are unwise.

But until Egyptians take all the power that is rightfully theirs and exercise it democratically they will feel the frustration of being ruled by somebody they didn’t choose. Anything that ruler does to infringe on their rights will fan the flames. The road to true and working democracy is hard, just as the road to personal empowerment. It’s not a static destination either; it requires constant maintenance and vigilance.

If you’ve been in a bad relationship where you were totally disempowered, it’s hard to face the truth that part of your disempowerment is your lack of awareness of your own rights. Once you start becoming aware and you end the relationship, the chances are that the next one will only be marginally better. But each time, you learn a bit more.

Eventually you’re free. I believe Egyptians are on that road, and that no matter what obstacles lie before them they will triumph. They’ve shown incredible courage, resilience and resourcefulness and for that they deserve the world’s continued support and admiration.