Egyptian parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in April have been postponed, and there should be a lesson in that for John Kerry, the new American secretary of State: don’t let what seems like pragmatism blind you to the powerful emotions of the people.
When Kerry landed in Egypt last week, on his first magical mystery tour through the Middle East in his new role, many of the liberals fighting the Islamist-dominated government of President Mohamed Morsi refused to meet him. I was among those in the broad coalition of the National Salvation Front who accepted the invitation and agreed to make a few remarks.
I hoped I could make Kerry feel the intense hopes and bitter disappointments experienced by Egypt’s revolutionaries. These same emotions are what drive so many to keep pouring into the streets in the face of savage government repression, keeping the revolution alive day after day, week after week. With parliamentary elections approaching in April, the Front announced it would boycott and the protests intensify.
That the meeting with Kerry took place in the “Aida” hall of the Marriott Hotel seemed somehow appropriate. A modern expression of a failed colonial past, it was built around a 19th-century palace constructed by a corrupt khedive to honor the French emperor for building the Suez Canal.
This, condensed a bit, is what I said there:
Secretary of State Kerry,
You are in Egypt at a very complex moment: a time when we are living pain and hope, dreams and nightmares—a revolution against tyranny.
Egypt does not need new aid from the United States. Egypt needs to build a new relationship on new foundations. Our country is not a lab for your experiments or a testing ground for your theories.
You backed up a semi-military regime in the past, and now you are supporting a semi-religion-based regime. You did this so that these regimes would play the roles that you demanded of them.
You supported Hosni Mubarak until the last breath—the very last breath—of his regime. You, the United States, stood against the dreams of the people while they struggled to escape the dungeons of dictatorship.
Your officials like to describe our revolution as an “uprising.” That may be the way it looks to you. But for us, it is a REVOLUTION—and it continues. Our noblest people paid with their souls so that we can build a country where we can live in freedom, justice, and dignity. We did not make a revolution in Egypt to repaint the presidential palace, to renovate it, or just to have your embassy protocol officers change their contact list.
If Abraham Lincoln, whom your country celebrates, had settled for buying new clothes for the slaves and kept slavery, America wouldn't be so proud of its freedom today, nor would such a “democracy” have made it the powerful country it is.
We, Mr. Kerry, want for our country, Egypt, to be a great nation also, just like yours. We have the foundations, the civilization, the vital forces that make it possible for us to achieve these dreams.
No, we are not an "uprising." We are a revolution that still continues in order to build a new relationship between the ruler and the people. But it seems that your administration in Washington and thus your embassy in Cairo want to tailor a democracy for us here which is size S for small at a time when we think we should have a democracy that is XXX large.
You don't realize, Sir, how grand our dreams are and deserve to be. Strangely, there is something that makes you think that we think that what we have is enough.
You used to describe Mubarak and his regime as democratic, legitimate, and elected—until hours before his overthrow. And you still describe the current regime of Mohamed Morsi as legitimate and elected at a time when he is killing peaceful protesters, and kidnapping and torturing young activists! This alone puts the regime’s legitimacy in question, if it has not lost it completely already.
Your president, Barack Obama, said the Egyptian revolution is one that will teach the whole world, and that is precisely what we want to do: to become a democratic model. But that appears to be way beyond your estimates for what Egypt can do, or what it deserves. Your embassy here reports that the current regime is elected, democratic, and liable to negotiate, while the opposition in Egypt is impossible to deal with and addicted to boycotts! Perhaps that really is what you see. But what we see is that Morsi, the man you are going to meet and sit with tomorrow, is detaining, torturing, and killing us in the streets. And what we see is that you are supporting such a regime. What we see is that you support the forces that want to stop the revolution in Egypt for their own interests.
What you are doing in fact is helping to build the Egyptian version of the Iranian state with its Supreme Guide. Maybe—I don’t know—you don’t care if we become another Iran. But for us, it’s our destiny that’s at stake and the future of our children, and we don’t want to see them live in a country ruled by religious or military fascism. This is our country, the place of our dreams, where we wake up every morning to the nightmare of our sons’ and daughters’ flesh and bone crushed under the armored vehicles you have supplied and suffocated by the tear gas you are sending constantly to your friends here in Cairo to use against us.
You imagine that you are able, because you are a major power, to make “a sweet drink out of salted fish” as our old proverb goes. You think that out of a pharaoh or a tyrant, you can make a democratic president, because he fulfills the role that is asked of him by the United States.
But we, Mr. Secretary, we do not attend costume parties anymore. We are not playing games. We are asking you now to do nothing for us. Just stop doing anything in our country, and stop supporting tyranny and fascism, and leave us to complete our revolution and achieve our dreams and our future, which were never so humble as you seem to imagine.
You can guess how Kerry responded. He said the United States did not take sides but had to deal with the elected legitimate government in place. He said he respected the “passion” of my remarks, but there were “practicalities” that had to be respected, too. He insisted that the Obama administration really had supported the revolution in Egypt. He reminded us that he had been in many protests when he was young, but that he had also been in the Senate for many years, so he has a broad experience of politics. He warned us against boycotting the parliamentary elections due next month, lest we create an opportunity for the military to seize power or the Salafists to take over. He suggested that Washington was quite powerful enough to protect its own interests in the region.
Kerry gave his very frank appraisal of the way the National Salvation Front is viewed. If I can paraphrase a bit, the gist of what he said was: Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood know you are weak; the United States knows that you are weak, and YOU know that you are weak! But as he left, he gently shook my hand and said, “Thank you, Gameela—thank you for your passion.”
The next day, Kerry met with Morsi and raised issues about the transparency of the election process. Morsi promised to do better. Then Kerry announced the United States would give the Morsi government another $250 million.
After that, on his way to the airport, Kerry got a firsthand look at the way “passion” and “practicalities” collide. His motorcade took three hours to make its way through the streets of Cairo, working around and through the protests blocking the highway. When he finally left, as the Egyptian press pointed out, it was through the airport’s Gate 36, which is used for cargo and for the corpses of foreigners being shipped home for burial.
On Wednesday of this week, the Egyptian courts ruled that the April elections would have to be postponed. Morsi agreed. The revolution continues.