Talking democracy

Maria Golia writes:

Several years ago, I attended a posh dinner party where conversation turned to Gamal Mubarak’s chances of becoming president. Most guests said they didn’t mind the idea and even supported it. They were intelligent, well-travelled Egyptians who might have known better. “The people will never go for it,” I said, “they’ve had enough of having nothing”. Protests arose regarding the number of families who owned satellite dishes, as if this signaled some great achievement. Populist outrage overcame good manners as I accused both Mubarak fils and my dinner companions of not knowing much about where they lived or with whom. “Oh come on, he’s a good man,” said a well-known businessman, “you can’t hold it against him just because he’s the son of the president”. This bit of sideways logic silenced me; nothing I could say would matter and dinner was anyway about to be served. I didn’t see this circle of acquaintances much afterwards; some have lately gone to jail and others into politics.

I was reminded of that conversation at a very different, recent gathering, where concerned members of the 30-40-something bourgeoisie and academia spent a convivial evening talking about the revolution. One woman asked if I’d seen it coming. She said she didn’t: “We knew things couldn’t go on like this, but still…”. She wanted to be involved, had attended revolutionary youth meetings but found them incoherent and was wondering what to do. So was an articulate young man who felt the real revolution must come from within the privileged class who should step up to the plate and present alternatives. “We can’t leave this to the masses”, someone else said. But who were these masses, anyway? For many of my companions, Tahrir was their first real contact apart from exchanges with cab drivers and employees.

The separation between Egypt’s haves and have-nots has never been quite so profound, partly because there have never been so many millions belonging to the latter category, but also because the opportunities for encounters between Egyptians of different backgrounds have grown slim. To reduce the stress of urban life – the overcrowding, traffic, pollution, noise – we stick to our neighborhoods, workplaces and shopping routines. People who once regularly visited village relatives stopped going; they were too busy, those places too far and painfully deteriorated. The Emergency Law has made public entertainments rare and civic activities nil; mosques and churches became the default gathering places in the absence of more inclusive, accessible venues. The consequences of this social disconnect are now unfolding.

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