Two weeks in and Mubarak is still hanging on to power in Egypt. The story is now already slipping down the columns of the newspapers and headline orders of the broadcast media. What is wrong those Egyptians – why are they keeping us waiting for a resolution of their revolution? Don’t they realise that we need something definite to happen or our attention will go elsewhere to whatever newer excitement seduces our imagination?
Well, I was in a radio discussion on Sunday with Dr Harry Hagopian and I was interested in his observations on the situation. He was asking for a longer-term, more intelligent and reflective approach by the West to a changing Middle Eastern situation. And he is right.
Two images came to my mind while discussing the helplessness many of us feel when the inspiring revolution seems to dissipate as the days go by and the powerful retain their palaces. Hope begins to wobble.
First is the day I stood at Oxford Circus in central London, unable to pass because a man was standing on the roof of a building and threatening to throw himself off. The police had closed the roads and the pavement. Bored of waiting, some guys behind me started to shout, ‘Jump!’ So sad that their entertainment wasn’t coming fast enough.
Second is the image that haunts me whenever I stop to think about it: Mary standing watching her son die a slow death on the gallows of Golgotha and helpless to do anything other than stay there. No solutions. No resolution. No intervention. No ‘helpful’ advice. No expediting the end for the sake of the victim and the observers.
Helpless observation is not something we crave. We like to intervene, make it right – or, at least, do something. But, history and experience teach us that the hardest times are when we cannot do anything other than watch. The powerlessness mocks our self-understanding as powerful agents. The scandal of inactivity embarrasses our need for heroism. If nature abhors a vacuum, then so do we abhor a silent waiting.
This is not an excuse for apathy or an apologia for selective disengagement in the matters of the world and its politics. It is the opposite, in fact. It is a call for more intelligent reflection instead of instant reaction. It appeals for study, learning and ‘deep’ comprehension rather than shallow, immediate and ill-informed reportage – the sort of commentary that is never an innocent bystander observing from a distance, but actually becomes part of the event by shaping perceptions and invoking activity (‘just do something’).
We have had to be disciplined in our diocesan relationships with Zimbabwe that we don’t do things that salve our feeble consciences while militating (with all the best motives) against the real needs of the people there. Doing something does not necessarily mean that something useful has been done.
We still await the exodus from Egyptian slavery to freedom in a promised land. But, even that association forces us to remember that the original exodus was followed by forty years of wandering (terrible waste of resources – why didn’t they just allow a woman to look at a map?) and the expiration of a generation of romanticisers. Most of the ‘liberated’ did not see the promised land. We need to learn from this something about the way history unrolls – and how long it takes.