The Arab World's Ideological Stalemate? (as experienced on my flight to Cairo)
Posted by Shadi Hamid
On my Egypt Air flight yesterday to Cairo, I witnessed one of the more intriguing in-flight exchanges that I can remember. A bearded, well-dressed man sitting a few seats behind me began shouting at the flight attendant. He was complaining that the in-flight movie was inappropriate. What are these “offensive images?” he asked. These included a 15-minute stretch of the movie where at least one woman at any given time was wearing a bikini. In a couple of scenes at a club, members of opposite sexes were dancing in close proximity while, it appeared, consuming alcoholic beverages. “Are we really all Westernized now?” the man behind me asked, as if posing a question to those of us in the back of the plane.
The man’s arguments were rather interesting. He pointed out that if you took a poll of the passengers, most would agree the film was morally offensive. He asked the attendant, “if we ask the passengers what they think and they agree with me, then what will you do?” The attendant responded, “we don’t take public opinion (ra’i al ‘am) on the airplane.” The man was right: most passengers, and most Egyptians – the vast majority of whom don’t drink, go to clubs, or wear bikinis – would object to the film’s content. But at what point do they have the right to restrict minority expressions of unfaithfulness?
It was an odd, amusing exchange that justified the otherwise unpleasant experience of flying on EgyptAir. But it was a reminder of the fundamental lack of consensus in the Arab world over the boundaries and limits of the state. There are two groups – Islamists and secular elites – with worldviews which couldn’t be more different. They live parallel lives in parallel worlds, with parallel institutions. They rarely intersect. One group believes it has both history and the Egyptian people on its side. The other side, considerably smaller in number, likely has neither. It does, however, have the power.
This stalemate has paralyzed the Arab world for decades now.
Sunday’s elections will be just another version of this. The main players are the Muslim Brotherhood – populist, religious, and righteous – and the regime coalition which, with its president soon to pass, finds itself in an uncertain place. Both sides are strong in different ways – and weak in others. Neither seems to have anything resembling a coherent strategy for dealing with the impending transition that is soon to come.