In Plethora of Egypt Analyses, Empathetic Response Remains Elusive

by Melinda Holmes

Amidst the deluge of writing on Egypt since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, most analyses seem to be aimed at either catching up the fickle foreign observer on all that has passed since democracy was “achieved” with presidential elections, or passing judgment on the methods the Egyptian people are using to achieve political reform, namely popular protest. This voluminous response has left me overwhelmed with the sense that although we now gather information and follow news in real time, there is no reason to think we should be able to generate analysis apace without sacrificing thoughtfulness. While an adequate interpretation of events in Egypt may be elusive, our reaction is not hard to interpret. Public response reveals a trend in our own society more dangerous even than hasty analysis. The idea that we can know another’s story well enough to not only judge them, but to assess the value of his or her life, is the worst kind of arrogance.

From calls to wipe out Islamism while the getting is good, to assertions that Egyptians are intellectually unfit to have democracy, and to superficial coverage that amounts to little more than labeling to which camp’s statistics the deceased are added, the international coverage and reactions have lacked empathy. We see the same in the tallying of casualties in this perpetual war on terror: American, or not. We see it in the measurement of gun violence on our streets in two columns: white, and not. It is this callous mindset that dissects the life of Trayvon Martin to ascribe blame for his own murder, that excuses the assassination of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki because he was in the wrong country, had the wrong father, and ascribed to the wrong faith. It is this callousness, which dehumanizes the other whom we do not understand, that is on public display in the differential response to political violence in Egypt.

The individualistic society encourages us to mount our soapboxes and voice our uncritical opinions without concern for the privilege that elevates us. The U.S. government no longer filters what the world understands about America. Increasingly, the media has taken up the mantle of cultural interchange, and for better or worse, we are exposed. The world is not insulated from our free expression, so when we carelessly append #Egypt at the end of an idle thought or uninformed opinion, we are sending a message directly to the Egyptian people.

Calls on President Obama to act in defense of some purified theoretical concept of democracy misplace equally the responsibility and credit for the situation Egyptians have created as they hold out for the true freedom and justice to which they aspire. To imply that Obama could or should “fix” Egypt is nothing short of demeaning. The difficulty of some in accepting that the ballot box is not enough reveals the crisis of our own democratic experiment, where civic engagement for most stops at voting for president, and politics is nearly obfuscated by money and special interests. Yet many observers have deemed themselves qualified to judge the path to liberation Egyptians are taking. Many seem incredulous that the democracy Egyptians are demanding is one that will look nothing like our own and will fulfill the demands of the revolution: bread, freedom, and social justice. To assume that we can imagine ourselves in another’s shoes, and thereby gain a sufficient understanding with which to judge the complexity of their lives, contexts, and struggles, is to deny their agency.

In our time there is no excuse for elevating your voice above those you claim to represent. Instead of providing a platform for Egyptians to raise their own concerns and address the events unfolding in their country, too many pundits succumb to the patronizing habit of making assessments absent of contextual grounding and prescribing simplistic solutions. Solidarity is important and the coming people power revolution requires it to be honed. As policy analysts and advocates, activists and citizens, we need to form opinions and proffer analysis, but we are not entitled to pass judgment. We must make room for the very real possibility that we do not know the other’s reality, whether he is a black teenager in Florida or any one of the millions of Egyptians actively shaping their destiny.

About the Author

Melinda Holmes is a graduate student of international affairs at The Fletcher School. Originally from Maine, she is focusing her studies on the role of faith in public policy and human rights advocacy with specific interests in Islam, feminism, citizen diplomacy, and community mobilization. She lived Cairo for one year before, during, and after the 2011 uprising and returns frequently to Egypt.

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