There is power, and there is truth. Then it's up to you what to say and do. An essay to mark Jan. 25 in an Egypt where things change and stay the same.
CAIRO – It is January 25 — again.
A few years ago, that day would have just been a public holiday, marked as “police day” on the official calendar; but nobody, at least in my generation, really cared much to celebrate the “law enforcers.”
Then, in 2011, it was the birth of a revolutionary uprising — primarily against the oppression practiced by those same law enforcers. For two years after that, it became a reminder of missed opportunities. In 2014 — well, we have all heard the blasts.
But I have come to understand that all these anniversaries are what we make of them. It is us who imbue them with meaning, and apply our hopes, dreams and fears to them. So, I have decided to take January 25, make it my own, and turn it into something a bit different. I will view it, henceforth, as a day to remind me of the choice we must all make. The choice is to live with dignity by speaking truth to power. Or not.
It sounds, I suppose, easier than it is. It is deceptive as well, because one is often faced with the post-modern insistence that truth is subjective. Thus, in “truth,” there is no truth. I’ve never quite subscribed to that. Rather, I think what is important is to not be insistent that one’s subjective view of truth, particularly when it comes to events, must necessarily be “the truth.”
Humility goes a long way — and not least, I think, in terms of how one understands complex events and empirical matters. Nevertheless, there remain fundamental principles in this world — and for those of us who did go to the streets in January and February, I would surmise there was a principle that united us: The principle of speaking truth to power.
After all, was starting a revolution essentially anything more than a corrective wave, driven by the desire, and possibly the need, to speak truth to power?
But what does this mean today? Was the truth clearer in the 18 days? Are things foggier now? One could argue that speaking truth to power is more challenging today because the “powerful” is popular? It might be that the context has bestowed popularity on those in power today, but it took Hosni Mubarak 30 years to lose his popularity. One could argue, he was still pretty popular when the first spark of the revolution was ignited (from the margins).
It is no less the case in Egypt than anywhere else that empirical truth is more often found on the margins, than it is in the populist press — an industry that is invariably governed by corporate interests, and networks of influence that have little fealty to concepts of justice.
That is not to say that popular positions are useless. On the contrary, they are immensely useful, if only to know who is consistent, and who is not. There have been many in the past three years who have promoted all sorts of principles, but only stand up for those principles, it seems, when their partisans are being attacked.
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Security forces on Jan. 25, 2011 in Cairo (M. Soli)
Palestinian thinker Edward Said used to write about people like these, whom he called “insiders” — those who promote special interests see his ‘Representations of the Intellectual’. He contrasted them with “intellectuals.” To his mind, intellectuals ought to be those who question patriotic nationalism, corporate thinking, and a sense of a class, racial, or gender privilege. The notion of speaking truth to power, in that regard, is key because it is central to Said’s conception of the intellectual. I have no doubt that had Said, the prototypical intellectual, remained with us today, he would have been in that Square of Liberation in 2011, as were many of his students.
But there remain other kinds of “insiders,” in the Saidian sense. The insider is replicated and reproduced — in a variety of contexts — and some are very surprising. There will be those insiders who fail to question their own partisan grouping, all the while condemning others for doing the same.
There will be those who are insiders that fail to question, for example, the political Islamism that has manifested itself in the Egyptian scene of the past three years. One ought to be clear, political Islamism practiced and preached by the Muslim Brotherhood did not simply fail in the sense of trying to grab power, manipulate it for its own partisan ends, and then being foolish. That would be letting it off the proverbial hook. It failed particularly because promoting its special interests — and only that — drove its actions. Speaking truth to power, and holding power to account ought not be a part-time activity, nor should it be selective. Otherwise, again, it is not principled, but simply another form of seeking power for yourself or your partisans.
Wisdom can come from a political satirist, such as Jon Stewart, who notes: If you don’t hold on to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies. And in the past three years, we have seen the same principles violated, time and time again, but by different people on different sides. When that takes place, one can be sure it is not a reordering on the basis of justice that is sought for. Rather, it is simply power for yourself or for your partisans. In such a situation, there is nothing to be said about “speaking truth to power,” because you would not tolerate anyone speaking truth to you when you hold it yourself.
How rare are those that have held to those principles, regardless of who it hurts or whom it protects. One cannot, for example, be against the killing of protestors when one individual sits in the presidential palace, but make excuses for such depravities when another individual does — and both partisans of the Muslim Brotherhood and the current Defense Minister have done this.
One cannot, for example, be against a constitution and a constitutional process that is not built on consensus and certain principles when one’s enemy is forming it, but support it when one’s partisan is forming it. One ought not to speak of “merchants in religion” when one’s side engages in a flagrant misuse and abuse of moral and spiritual realities for partisan political points, but then make allowances for it when another side engages in precisely the same exercise. Are these principles? Or are they simply other tools in a power play?
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Still speaking up after the Revolution (Al Jazeera)
But is it always easy to speak truth to power? Is “truth” always that clear? A frequent side affect of living under a regime, or working within a system, that fails to respect the fundamental rights of human beings, is a corrupting and corrosive effect on one’s own self.
One need not get to the point of anarchism. But it is entirely legitimate to argue that while this kind of corrosion and corruption of the self can happen at any age, the corruption of this age, in Egypt as elsewhere, is the notion of the modern state. The modern state is passed of as a decent representation of what the human being can socially organize around — when actually, it is not decent at all; at least not this type of state. But in accepting it as such, with the weakness of civil society that inevitably and invariably goes along with such a state, the state gets almost a kind of divine status as a result.
Dissent, in this kind of world, is thus interpreted as treason, and inviting complete and social disorder. The reality is, however, that this kind of state, that needs to perceive dissent as so utterly dangerous, is in itself a truly cruel organization for any human being to exist within.
What sort of human activity can take place in such conditions — whether academic discovery, the production of knowledge, or public intellectual interventions? It truly baffles the mind, and one ought to be clear and declare plainly that it is likely impossible without continuous and continual vigilance as to the effects of this suffocating kind of existence.
What does that then mean, practically speaking, for those who did believe in those 18 days of the 25 January revolution, and now seek to continue? How is their dedication to “speaking truth to power” conserved and continued? Is this a time for “choosing the lesser of two evils?”
Is it a time when, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”?
Neutrality in situations of injustice is not a consistent position — and here, the Archbishop, as he so often does, spoke well. If the powerful is engaged in injustice, neutrality is simply accepting the powerful injustice, which by default assists him.
If “speaking truth to power” means anything, it means ensuring that the powerful will always be considered the primary focus of attention. Attention, in this regard, means only one thing — critiquing power.
There may be times when silence is warranted. Great men and women in history have often chosen the path of silence, and for justifiable reasons. Very often, the basis of that silence was simply to avoid deepening a crisis that existed, or choosing one’s battles in order to fight another day. That is not shameful, if indeed it is about strategy, as opposed to simply backing one’s partisans.
But it will never be justifiable to speak in favor of the powerful when the powerful carries out injustice. Indeed, an argument can be made that the powerful do not require assistance, even when they are carrying out justice. They are, after all, the powerful — they are not in need of more power to fulfill them.
There is one type of assistance that the powerful are deeply in need of, and that is “counter-power.” The succor and support that the powerful need is the help of restraint, and calling to account.
Critique and accountability — such are the duties of those not in power vis-à-vis those who are in power. As for those in power, their duty is to seek out those who would hold them to account, so that they might carry out their responsibilities appropriately and comprehensively.
This leaves us with lingering questions: Are the revolutionaries destined to be in the opposition, and at the margins? Should the revolutionaries ever attempt to grab power? More importantly, is there an inherent paradox between “revolution” and “power?”