Curious onlookers look at the debris outside La Moneda government palace in Santiago de Chile, on the morning of Sept. 15, 1973. (AP Photo)
I watch from afar the tragedy of Egypt and, inevitably, I think of Chile. I think of Chile and its coup, and I mourn the dead and I mourn history repeating itself. Yet again the massacres and the soldiers in the streets and the jails filled with tortured bodies. Once again the exiles and the censorship; once again a general with dark sunglasses justifying bloodshed in the name of the fatherland; once more the branding of any opposition as terrorism.
And then I remember that Chile is not only a study in sorrow, and tentatively, doubtfully, I perceive a possible way out for the troubled land of Egypt.
After all, fifteen years after the September 11, 1973, coup against democratically elected President Salvador Allende, the Chilean people managed to defeat our dictatorship in a historic plebiscite, an event recently recalled in the film No. Reaching that triumphant day, October 5, 1988, was possible only because we had laboriously created the Concertación, a variegated alliance of parties and citizens that imposed a transition to democracy so successful that Chile will celebrate this November its sixth presidential election in twenty-four years. So my country can perhaps offer Egyptians a strategy whereby a fearful and divided populace can rid itself of an oppressive regime.
Can Egypt reproduce this model? It is a daunting task. Chile, unlike Egypt, had a long history of democratic politics, a tradition that allowed Allende to initiate a peaceful revolution, the first attempt to build socialism without resorting to violence as its unruly midwife. Nor did Allende try, like Morsi, to grab all power for himself or persecute and arrest his detractors. And Egypt, unlike Chile, is haunted by religious discord, making compromise all the more difficult.
Despite these salient contrasts, the dire dilemma faced by Egyptians today is strikingly similar to the one we Chileans confronted back in 1973. The coup against Allende was made possible because the forces for democracy and change were badly split: the Christian Democratic Party, which should have been a progressive ally of the Unidad Popular coalition headed by Allende, ended up (with a few honorable exceptions) fomenting the coup, under the illusion that the military would soon return the country to a constitutional regime. This myopia and selfishness was actively cultivated and financed by the CIA, which was desperate to destroy Allende’s experiment in social justice—one that, if it had triumphed, would have ominously affected American and multinational corporate interests. But the antagonism of the CDP was facilitated as well by sectarianism and arrogance among far too many revolutionary militants, including myself. And it was complicated further by an extremist left-wing faction inside and outside the Unidad Popular that scared middle-class sectors of the country, feeding the dread of committed patriots that Allende—a lifelong believer in pluralism—was paving the way not to democratic socialism, but to a “second Cuba.”
I could rehash this conflict at great length, pointing out that the CDP was more to blame than our side, given that its leaders rejected last-minute calls from our president to find a constitutional path out of the crisis. They’d answer that we were insufficiently democratic and puffed-up with power and… Though today such finger-pointing can help set the record straight, it was not crucial during the urgent years after the coup, when we needed to find common ground on which the majority of the country could meet (the Unidad Popular plus the CDP polled 65 percent of the vote in the 1970 elections), a consensus between those democrats opposed to Allende and those who supported him.
Such an evolution was anything but easy. When catastrophe afflicts a nation, it cannot emerge again into the light without many of its citizens descending into a dark night of the soul, a soul that is both political and spiritual. One cannot be reborn without questioning one’s own responsibility, what we could have done to avert this collective and individual suffering. The strains accompanying any rebirth are compounded by the temptation to indulge in excessive self-flagellation, the desire to accommodate one’s new allies without betraying the moral principles and goals of liberation that fed our dreams in the first place.
Those years of dictatorship, then, were years of darkness and despair. But they were also full of illuminations and redemptive self-scrutiny, an examination of the past so that its mistakes would not be endlessly replicated. On the left, we needed to realize that we must never take democracy for granted, never forget that we can disagree with our adversaries without hating them, never flinch from denouncing human rights violations anywhere in the world, especially if they come from regimes that espouse revolution or are instituting radical transformations that we applaud. And the Christian Democrats needed to criticize their own opportunism, their indifference to the sorrow of others, their self-righteousness, their coziness with the rich and connection to the powerful in Chile and abroad. Both sides had to learn how to practice tolerance in the everyday grind of common struggle, effectively overcoming ancient resentments and bitterness—because Pinochet would not fall until we came to trust each other again, until we shared a vision of what could replace his dictatorship, putting the emphasis on what joined us today and leaving for tomorrow our continuing discrepancies.
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This is the elementary and arduous lesson of Chile for Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood must realize how its narrowness and fanaticism corroded democracy and excluded the very sectors that are now necessary to restore it to legality. And it must shun the siren calls of those who would rather see the country slipping into violence (just as most, though not all, of the left avoided these calls for armed struggle in Chile). The liberal and secular Egyptians who hailed the army takeover must severely condemn their ill-advised faith in the military as saviors—and stop justifying their acceptance of the coup as something that history forced them to do (just as eventually most, though not all, Chilean Christian Democrats repented of having encouraged the armed forces to oust Allende). Both the Muslim Brotherhood and its democratic rivals have, undoubtedly, an ax to grind—but while they grind it on each other, they should remember that the one wielding the real ax on real bodies is Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the latest heir to Pinochet.
The process of reciprocal exploration by Egyptians of past errors will take a long time. There is no guarantee that these two hostile camps will manage to surmount their discord, will ever again find themselves side by side in Tahrir Square confronting a despotic regime. They face far more obstacles and mutual suspicions than we Chileans did, recriminations and duplicities that have deeper roots in history and religion. And we had the advantage of being part of an irrepressible movement toward social justice in Latin America, as well as a place in the worldwide transition to democracy in those years, as South Korea, South Africa and the nations of Eastern Europe can attest. The Arab Spring shows few signs, thus far, of a steady march toward peace and prosperity, with Syria only the latest horrifying casualty of basic disagreements among those supposedly fighting tyranny.
The troubles ahead seem enormous. And so, some final words of advice. One word, in fact: patience.
A sacred virtue in Islam, one of the holiest attributes of God, the most difficult demand of Allah for men and women to follow, the most challenging to abide. The ninety-ninth name of God: as-Sabûr, God the Patient, the Timeless One.
And for nonbelievers, Shakespeare: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
And for both, for those who trust in God and those who trust only in their own humanity, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
Patience with oneself and patience with others, patience to speak the truth and patience to listen to a foe. Patience that the dark is not eternal. Patience, because the people of Egypt, like the people of Chile, are not going away, will not disappear into the night and fog of neglect and oppression.
Someday in the near future, alas, yet another country will again find its democracy abrogated by another group of unelected soldiers who place themselves above the law.
On that day, I can only hope that an Egyptian will be able to write the following words to the citizens of that afflicted nation: “There is a way out. Just learn,” he or she will say, “from the lessons of Egypt; please mourn with me the repetition of history, and share with me the certainty that it does not have to be this way. Please believe me,” I hope he or she will be able to whisper, “that patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
“What Happened to Egypt’s Liberals After the Coup?” asks Sharif Abdel Kouddous.