The End of the Beginning: The Coming of Egypt’s Wise Men
And now we begin to see plans. Those protesting in Tahrir Square are still vitally important to the anti-regime opposition in Egypt – because they ensure that pressure is kept on the regime through international media coverage, and economic disruption. But if you want to see what change is going to look like – that show, although indelibly linked to one at Tahrir, is somewhere else.
That’s hardly surprising. From day one, it was clear that the protestors had no real leadership, and that its main strength was in being a spontaneous, grassroots phenomenon. What it coalesced around was relatively basic, but powerful – stay in Tahrir, until the President goes.
The anti-regime opposition describes these men and women as heroes – and few could deny their bravery, the strength of spirit, or their power of soul. Especially, and particularly, after violence was sent against them. As yet, though, these men and women, who have come from all walks of life and backgrounds, have not provided leaders for themselves. Perhaps somewhere in those crowds are the seeds of a new political party, or people whose names will be known for decades to come – but so far, we have not seen them.
But that does not mean that the regime does not have someone to talk to. They do – and those are the ‘wise-men’ who are, at this moment, negotiating with the government for an orderly transition. These wise men are some of the most well known names in Egyptian society, along with opposition leaders from a variety of political backgrounds. Some of those names were very quiet, and then suddenly appeared yesterday to add yet more pressure on the regime to change. This council of ‘wise-men’ are in an interesting situation. They have the clout, it is believed, to be able to come to an agreement with the regime that those protesting against the regime would accept. Moreover, and the regime probably realises this too: they have the ability, to come together as a collective force that can call for the biggest protests yet.
The idea of a ‘council of wise men’ that moves and shakes society comes naturally to this part of the world. Traditional Muslim societies discussed the concept of ‘those who loosen and bind’ – ie., the power holders in society, who may not be democratically elected, but who could command the support of the masses on account of widely held respect and admiration. These intellectuals, former statesmen, politicians and businessmen seem to have emerged as a neo-modern manifestation of that idea, even if not quite in the way traditional societies would have imagined. Behind this present council of ‘wise men’ is another one, ready to take over if they fail.
The end of this beginning is approaching, to be sure. The question is: what will the next phase look like? Even the most hard-core of those in the square are voicing relief that there is this council – because for change to happen, it needs a plan that Egyptians can rally behind. That plan will probably not come from the Square – but it will be the Square that provides the conditions for it to be accepted, or rejected.
HA Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and the Europe Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by Religion Dispatches on February 5, 2011: