[Cairo, EGYPT] On Tuesday, as the parliament convened for minutes following President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to reverse the dissolution of the People’s Assembly ordered previously by the military, two groups of protesters stood outside: one chanting for the parliament, the other against it. On any other day, it would have been easy to predict the motivations and the background of the protesters in each group. But the increasing confusion and the continuous camp switching, which have become the malaise of the political scene, have rendered this guessing game almost impossible.
It’s a good exercise for us journalists, warning us against falling back into the comfort of stereotypes. But this state of confusion is also compromising our ability to make sense of what’s happening.
On one side of the street, a group of protesters were happy that Morsi overturned the military’s decision to dissolve the parliament based on a “faulty” ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court. On the other side, a smaller group was complaining that Morsi’s decision defies the rule of law in a dangerous precedent for Egypt’s first elected president.
Classify the first as avid Muslim Brotherhood supporters (Morsi was the head of its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party); the second hate the Islamists and will reject anything Morsi says, especially if it’s against the army’s decrees. Easy.
The first group, and the larger mosaic of opinions it reflects, includes those who view the current parliament impasse as a battle with the ruling junta. It only happens that the Brotherhood is at the forefront. The second includes citizens angry at the impasse itself, frustrated that political battles have again occupied time that should have been better spent solving their daily problems. For others on the same side, the battle is all about one political force trying to usurp all powers and thus recreating the Mubarak regime.
Even this explanation doesn’t do the scene we are in justice; it barely scratches the surface. Since the presidential election started, the politicized debate has been exposing extreme hesitation as much as polarization. Away from the traditional divisions of pro and anti revolution and pro and anti Islamist, many voters narrowed down their options between candidates known for their human rights abuses under Hosni Mubarak’s reign and others who spent their lives defending them. Their logic? You’ll be surprised how people justify their peculiar combination of choices.
The confusion in this voter mapping was turned up a notch in the runoff, when the choice was between an ex-air force commander and the Brotherhood candidate. Activists who had been chanting against the Brotherhood, criticizing the group for abandoning the revolutionary fight the sake of political gain joined the Islamists. Another group of activist and politicians, who had suffered the antics of Islamist parliamentarians ready to turn a blind eye to the abuses of the security and the mismanagement of the military-led transition, declared their support for who was labeled as the military’s candidate. A third group that was applauding the Islamists for walking the army line declared their opposition to the Brotherhood. Concerns of militarized and theocratic states litter the debate, as well as fears of recreating or maintaining the Mubarak regime.
In the latest political-legal saga, activists have been noting how the constitutional court and some of the now vocal judges had been silent about Mubarak abuses. They want to prove that the problem is political, not legal. But others echo the same argument, not out of and integrity or impartial commitment to justice, but for the sole reason of supporting their candidate or political force.
People suddenly find their friends and comrades adopting the discourse of their foes and vice versa. And that’s where the problem impeding serious and fruitful debate starts. People start seeing each other through the stereotypes constructed over the past 16 months. They ignore that although the rhetoric could be the same, the argument and the motivations behind it are different.
In my case for example, it’s easy to dismiss friends who had consistently been against any form of dissent, who had been consistently defending the military authority and its fatal abuses, when they suddenly talk about balancing power, respecting the judiciary and promoting democracy, as long as the MB are on the losing side. It’s easy to deduct their motives and their indifference to the democratic process. But it’s not as easy viewing others, with different background and moral references, without the biases I assume they have when they reach the same conclusion. I often catch myself, and my friends, responding to not what the people in front of us are saying, but to what we think they are trying to prove, assuming they’ve turned into replicas of people we’ve grown to loath. It’s black or white. We don’t acknowledge the colors and the possibilities in between.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with defending political affiliation or even switching sides in accordance with new developments. But as we are learning, jumping these lines has serious side effects. Our moral compass doesn’t know where north is, and navigating through the overlapping ideas is becoming even more challenging. The first block in the way is ridding our minds of the biases we associate to others’ arguments in a bid to at least have a meaningful debate — at least with our friends.