In January 1898, the great writer Emile Zola wrote a letter titled J’Accuse (I accuse!) addressed to the President of France Félix Faure and published in L’Aurore (The Dawn) accusing the government of purposeful wrong-doing against an innocent citizen, Alfred Dreyfus, an Army General Staff officer who was sentenced to penal servitude for life. Today there is a strong sense of indignation in non-Islamist policy-circles in Egypt against those western governments, media, development agencies, and think tanks who chose to side with an authoritarian regime against a citizenry who dared to dream of “bread, freedom and human dignity”.
June 30th, 2013, will go down in history as the biggest ever people’s revolt against a regime that Egypt has witnessed in its 5,000 year history. The turnout excelled by far the largest ever turnout that the country witnessed during the 18 days of protest against President Mubarak, 30 months earlier.
A youth-led initiative Tamarod Rebel first started gathering a petition to press Morsi to step down and call for early presidential elections. They claim to have collected 16 million signatures. They appealed to Egyptians to go down to the streets on the 30th of June (which marks a year since President Morsi assumed power), holding a red card and blowing a whistle, just like in a football match.
But the millions who have gone out around the country were ordinary citizens who may not have participated in the 25th of January revolution and many do not have any political affiliation. They went out spontaneously to express their rejection of the current regime because they have had it with the dwindling quality of life. People felt compelled to go out, mostly around bread issues - but not strictly so.
For the past twelve months, the quality of life and basic freedoms have been dwindling dramatically, and yet throughout it, the west’s support for Morsi’s regime is perceived as being almost unyielding.
From the conversations and interviews I have been pursuing in Egypt, it would seem that if the non-Islamist opposition, youth revolutionary movements, academics, and non-state media would have something to say to the pro-Morsi western policy-makers to hold them accountable, it would go like this:
J’accuse the western policy-makers who have time and time again issued statements in favour of the government’s “transition to democracy” and have dubbed Egypt as a young democracy when all indicators on the ground suggested the reproduction of a highly virulent strand of authoritarianism.
J’accuse western officials who insist on referring to President Morsi as “the President-elect” when they were well aware that he won by less than one percent, and instead turned a deaf ear to many independent whistleblowers in Egypt who had pointed to rigged elections that were neither free nor fair.
J’accuse the western media outlets who are misrepresenting the current revolt y as a case of two factions of the Egyptian people of equal constituencies, without recognizing that millions have risen against the Muslim Brotherhood across the country, compared to a handful of thousands of supporters in one corner of Cairo.
J’accuse western development agencies who made shameful compromises on the values of inclusive democracy and development just so that they can earn the nod of approval of the Brothers in power, all the while using a rhetoric of democracy promotion in Egypt. I personally participated at one of these development agencies’ meetings in an Upper Egyptian governorate last month where they gave a Freedom and Justice party leader the floor to present the official stance, but there was no counterpart to present any other perspective. When I questioned the FJP leader about government accountability and citizen rights, the western facilitator removed the microphone from me and reprimanded me in no uncertain terms.
J’accuse western policy-makers who assumed the Muslim Brotherhood’s stance of blaming the mess that the country is in on the refusal of the opposition to participate in dialogues with the government, but failed to recognize that power sharing premised on majoritarian principles (according to who got the most votes in elections) hardly has the stamp of inclusiveness marked on it.
J’accuse western think tanks who constantly pounded us with messages about how the Muslim Brotherhood were a moderate force who condemned violence, and yet turned a blind eye to their direct involvement in physical and sexual assaults against women and men in front of the Presidential palace on the 5th of December 2012, when their sole 'crime' was to protest peacefully against the President’s usurping of legislative and judicial powers. This is not to say that other political forces did not resort to violence - the attempted torching of several Muslim Brotherhood premises over the past year attests to the increasing abandonment of the revolution’s earlier catch cry “selmeya” peaceful [non-violent] however, analysts never bothered to present us with a nuanced analysis of why people were becoming so radicalized in their expression of opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
J’accuse certain forces in western academia who sought to self-censor researchers who dared criticize the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood – under the rubric of not tolerating Islamophobia. It became impossible to discuss the regime’s ideological thought or governance record because it became convenient to confuse Islam with a political movement - the Brotherhood, which many Egyptians believe are not entitled to speak or act as if they are the guardians of Islam.
J’accuse western policy-makers, the media and researchers who represented the Muslim Brotherhood as the only true authentic, grassroots, people-based force in Egypt while vilifying and demonizing everyone else as “secularist” and “elitist” – forgetting in the process to listen to ordinary citizens, and capture their pulse on how they are experiencing daily life under the Brotherhood’s reign.
So what next?
Just like the west supported Mubarak and lived to regret it, they have thrown themselves into the arms of another authoritarian regime - believing it will deliver on its security interests and quest for stability. What was required was not that the western policy-makers side with the opposition against the regime, but at the very least show a minimal degree of impartiality in engaging with all political forces equally. Irrespective of the outcome of the revolt that started on the 30thJune, it is time for the west to show it can be responsive to the people. Switch sides, and openly declare allegiance to the people’s will and support for the demands they are pressing-through your ambassadors in Egypt, your senior policy makers and leaders. Failure to do so will come at a considerable cost, one that the west cannot afford.