A perfect storm of butterflies

International Herald Tribune Daily News

June 23 2011

Philip Whitfield

Cairo: History and prose join at the hip. Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s opening words in Shakespeare’s Richard III: Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun (sic) of York, reveals olid jealousy to dethrone his brother Henry.

Some of Shakespeare’s most puissant words appropriated a momentous event, a dastardly Machiavellian plot to heist the crown of England by one sibling rival over another.

What about this rallying cry? Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood. Not Shakespeare’s, but said to be Daniel Burnham’s, America’s preeminent city architect-planner, the designer the first skyscrapers after Chicago’s Great Fire eviscerated four miles of downtown. Burnham’s inspiration? The pyramids in Egypt.

What’s heard in and around Giza, today? Mealy-mouthed casuistry. Confuse, not clarify. The grand aspiration of freedom and democracy is doused in driveling prate, WIFM – What’s In It For Me?

And cop-outs. Fear stalks. Some Egyptians observing the stealthy wannabes salivating over political trophies are ordering packing cases. They’ve tickets to Europe to live out their salad days. Oldsters browse brochures for elder care in Eastbourne.

Why so? With a weather eye on the gathering clouds, they foresee a perfect storm, the confluence of bad politics, weak economics and non-deterministic social unrest.

It’s what the meteorologist and mathematician Edward Lorenz described as the butterfly effect. A small miscalculation yields widely divergent chaotic outcomes. Theoretically a butterfly’s flapping wings could cause a hurricane, he was to say, pinching a colleague’s comeback: One flap of a seagull’s wings could change the weather forever.

The chaos theory has been around since Henri Poincaré the French mathematician who died 100 years ago. Poincaré’s theory identifies predictable and random factors in order to take preventative measures.

What’s predictable in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood is by default the best-organized political party. It’s network of social and outreach programs define the movement. Banned, tortured and imprisoned for 50 years the Brotherhood emerges as the Freedom and Justice Party.

What’s random? The Brotherhood’s on-off alliances with the Wafds and others, some skeptical such as the new liberal Justice Party and the Free Egyptians backed by Naguib Sawiris. The Brotherhood may or may not seduce comrades from other parties. Brothers who’ve fallen out are forming their own parties including al-Wasat and al-Nahda. Other Islamists are making party plans.

The most unpredictable group is Hosni Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party, banned from running. All their followers aren’t criminals, just misguided. They’re not being offered a right-leaning Conservative choice acceptable to them. Will surrogates masquerading as reformers slip in?

There are many others, some with as much chance of assuming office as Britain’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party been fools of themselves since 1983.

Yet the time for frank talk is now. Eight out of 10 Egyptians gave an unequivocal go-ahead for constitutional amendments allowing the parliamentary election to be held in September. It would be a travesty if the poll were to be put back, as hinted.

Neither the government nor the military has a mandate to ignore public will. What credibility will be left if the result of the constitutional vote is ignored because it doesn’t sit well with the elite?

Meanwhile, the economic prospects are dire. The major foreign earner, tourism, languishes in the doldrums. Exports are comatose. Workers are sluggishly returning to their jobs. Unpredictable are foreign investors, who see projects falling behind.

Least predictable are social attitudes. Unrest there is. The worst violence has abated though harassment is widely reported. Given the enormity of Mubarak’s crimes the gush of energy is understandable, though not forgivable.

Chaos theory identifies the probable causes to be eliminated. Egypt has its head in the sand. The government is not addressing the need for national debate in a constructive manner. Why? They aren’t running for election. They’re timeservers holding the fort.

They put off appointing an information minister. Why? Writing the brief would cause pandemonium. Censorship would have to be addressed. Egypt’s rulers prefer lurking in the shadows of doubt, sufficient to scare off some investigative journalists who weigh up timidity versus Tora.

Society’s divisiveness needs addressing openly. Bring political opponents together to bellyache on TV and across the nation in open televised sessions. The electors deserve the chance to size them up, to sniff out equivocation before voting.

The government should come clean about the economy’s parlous state.  Require publicly owned companies to announce rationalization schemes to achieve viability. Include the numbers of workers to be let go. The political parties should publish their plans in manifestos. Do they intend more featherbedding? If so, who and how? Who pays?

On the social front, the youthful Revolution leaders should speak convincingly. They are the credible ones to persuade the violence-inclined to end harassment. Start programmes to engage the miscreants’ energies usefully.

In The Tempest Shakespeare’s oft-quoted metaphor ‘What’s past is prologue’ translates: What’s happened merely sets the scene for the really important events to come – those on which greatness will dilate.

The actors with butterflies in their stomachs should be bidden adieu.

Is this momentous moment in Egypt’s history to be fumbled? No. Yield to a statesmanly visionary with wisdom and the gifts to articulate an inspirational cause, a plan worthy of those who sacrificed their lives for liberty.

Virtue trumps calumny.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at pjwcairo@yahoo.com or twittered @mohendessin.

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