May 24, 2011


A major characteristic of our culture - that I have understood recently - is that we operate on a binary system. We can only view things in light of one of two extremes. There are no middle grounds. We either love the SCAF or hate them, people either go to heaven or to hell, a person is good or a person is bad. The degrees that lie between any two extremes are non-existent, in most of our thinking. If we ever change our opinions we go from one extreme to the other. Operating within such a binary system reduces any situation to a single factor. In many cases we are unable to describe a situation based on all of its dimensions. At times we can even criticize those who can see the various angles in a situation as being too lenient. Flexibility, pragmatism and ability to compromise are sometimes used as insults. What was surprising for me was the realization that this is not the curse of the simple person but that it is a trait shared by a significant percentage of our population regardless of their education and / or exposure. 

This way of perceiving the world might not have been as big of a problem for me in the past, but in light of the developments that are happening in Egypt today, I find this binary view a major impediment to our development. If a revolution means an overhaul of an existing system (whether political, economic or social) it does not mean reversing EVERYTHING. Because as a matter of fact, the world is not binary and the choices are almost always more than just two. There is no better example than what Nasser has done to Egypt; he turned the entire system upside down in such a manner that somehow, he actually recreated the same exact injustices. It's like looking in a mirror, everything that was on the left went on the right (well, in Nasser's case it actually all went to the left) but the picture hasn't changed. Of course my example is very simplistic but it illustrates a very binary view of the world.

The same thing is happening today. We are unable to view a bigger picture with multiple factors. I take the case of Amn El Dawla. We all recognize the atrocities that occurred in that apparatus, the level of interference that they had in our day to day life and the behind the scenes manipulations that happened. Nevertheless, there are other aspects to Amn El Dawla that we are unaware of and there is a role – that might have not been fully delivered – in the protection of our national security. The fact that this apparatus did not do its role does not mean that we should do without it. Another example would be market economies. The fact that there was no mechanism for the redistribution of income is totally independent from whether free market economies are the way to maximize competitiveness. In both examples the dominant opinion is to get rid of Amn El Dawla and of free market economies. It's a verdict based on a binary view; good versus bad full stop.

The examples are endless, the SCAF, labor rights, protests, Essam Sharaf, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. In every one of those examples and in another million cases the dominant call is for a stance of either with or against. And with that stance comes a judgment on you being either good or bad.

This binary approach is a major challenge to our progress; it promotes exclusion, undermines diversity and belittles creativity. As a nation we have undergone several abrupt changes in the past 60 years that resulted in a polarization of our values. Starting from the 1952 revolution, the communism era, the open market times of Saddat and ending with the horrific "identity disfigurement" at the time of Mubarak. None of the changes that happened in our society over this period were organic and the results are a multi-layered society with fragmented values and views. If we were to bring the pieces of this society together towards a unified vision for Egypt, we need to rise above this binary approach and start to realize that the world is more colorful than our black and white views.  

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