A Margin for Democracy: Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done

I remembered the words of the great poet Mahmoud Darwish in his poem, ‘Don’t apologize for what you’ve done,’ after an argument with a friend. “You write about self-critique and self-examination, but you don’t reevaluate your thoughts or your position,” he said. “But you yourself have examined, critiqued, and explained,” I said.  “No,” he said. “What you’re doing is clinging to talk about democracy, rights, and freedoms, without realizing that the country is in danger, that people are living in deplorable conditions. You don’t see the need to unite, you don’t see that this great cacophony of diverse opinions must be silenced.” 

“We won’t overcome the crisis we now find ourselves in if we accept that a diversity of opinions is dangerous, or if we hand the country over to the leadership of a man who can’t give us hope and a clear vision in return,” I said. “We won’t overcome this crisis if we believe that violating people’s rights and freedoms doesn’t necessarily mean oppression or lead to further violence; we won’t overcome it if we surrender to the idea that democracy is a luxury we can’t afford right now.”

“What about the people and their standard of living?” he asked. “Do you include them in your priorities? What can you give them besides words, and meanwhile they’ve turned away from you and your talk.”

“No,” I said, “you’re generalizing. I think some people are still waiting and listening. Others are searching for legitimate demands, for dignity that can stand up to repression, torture, and treason.”

“Again, you’ve fallen silent on this question you’re not up to dealing with,” he said. “What can you do for them?”

“I write to make people aware that democracy is necessary for progress,” I said.

“Many nations have progressed without it,” he said.

“I write to remind people that I still have hopes for a fair civil state, one that not only rejects religious fascism, but that will also oppose the military-security apparatus’ dominance over the presidency and politics at large,” I said.

“But many people don’t oppose the latter,” he said.

“I write to create the conditions for building a democratic movement,” I said. “I’m betting on the medium-term and long-term, and I realize that holding on to these principles will make a positive impact, even if it takes some time.”

“There you go again,” he said, “saying you’ll stand by your principles about the facts on the ground, about the interests of the country and its people.  But what’s behind these principles—isn’t it your overwhelming egotism, and that you’re overly concerned with consistency?”

“Have mercy on me,” I said, “This is how I understand the common good. This is how I can see Egypt progress towards democracy, justice, rights, freedom, and collective leadership: through transparency, oversight, and accountability.”

“If only people believed there was any other way,” he said. “If people like you could show them examples of what the presidency could achieve with regards to the military and development when not dominated by the military-security apparatus.

“No,” I said, “no—don’t group me in with those people, please. The presidency is backed by the military in Egypt; that arrangement comes with a special status for the military establishment within the constitution, as well as weak civil and development institutions. These can’t match the power of military solutions, and individual initiatives will wither when that cacophony dies down, just like you say.

“Haven’t you said the democratic transition won’t die, regardless of who the next president is?” He asked.

“No,” I said, “but I have said that I won’t stop defending the transition, no matter who the next president is. I hope for a civilian president, someone who will stand by the people’s rights and freedoms, who won’t trade them away for popular opinion or success at the ballot box.

“I’ll ask you again, what are you doing for the people?”

“I am raising awareness,” I said, “helping to shape a peaceful alternative that stands by these principles.”

“People say you’re bitter at having been cast out of the circles of power,” he said. “They say you’re sad to have lost popularity; do you admit that?”

“I admit I’m sad not to be able to see my sons, that the travel ban prevents me from periodically visiting them in Germany, like I used to do. I admit I’m saddened by our situation, but I haven’t lost hope.”

“You have to be patient about seeing your sons,” he said. “But haven’t your efforts to find a new role for yourself been thwarted by the constant criticism you receive?”

“I’m not a saint, or a monk,” I said, “but I’m not greedy either. I have a wonderful woman by my side, who is there for me whenever I falter, but the answer is no. Maybe you’ll believe me when I say this.”

“I can promise you this marginalization will continue,” he said, “that forgetting has begun, that your family and friends will leave.”

“I realize that we live in a society that doesn’t love the majority, only the strong. The only thing the elite rushes to do is join the victors, but this time I don’t have any other alternatives to offer.”

“That’s not true: apologize, change directions, and join the ranks.”

“No,” I said, “there is no other way, because I believe the stance I’ve taken is right, the woman by my side helps me persevere, and I have the memory of my mother, who would not forgive me if I spoke or acted against my principles. If I betrayed them, she wouldn’t accept an apology for what I said or did.”

Tomorrow, there will be a new margin for democracy in Egypt.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

Image: Photo: Ahmed Abdel-Fatah