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Message to Mahienour El-Massry
Run, Mahienour, Run (Why Mahienour El-Massry matters)
The Program is Over, but the Show has Just Begun
(Lecture) Alexandria in the Egyptian State: What happened after cosmopolitanism?
The Disorient Express: Egypt and the Language of Darkness
Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East
Depending on the season: Unlike Noah film ban, Ten Commandments was banned in Egypt for different reasons
The insecurity of a security state: What can Hannah Arendt tell us about Egypt?
What Would People Say? The Obsession with Public Image in Egypt
- Message to Mahienour El-Massry
Most Viewed Posts
- Message to Mahienour El-Massry (268)
- Run, Mahienour, Run (Why Mahienour El-Massry matters) (146)
- The Program is Over, but the Show has Just Begun (257)
- (Lecture) Alexandria in the Egyptian State: What happened after cosmopolitanism? (177)
- The Disorient Express: Egypt and the Language of Darkness (173)
Category Archives: Extended Egyptian Revolution
Today, marks 100 days of activist Mahienour El-Massry’s imprisonment. Recently, Mahienour’s sister, Miral El-Massry, asked me to assist in collecting messages to send to Mahienour in order to lift her spirits up. So this blog post form was made with the aim for you to send your message of support to Mahienour. She has plenty of time to read these messages in her jail cell, and she would be more than happy to receive them. Your message will be printed, along with others, and passed onto Mahieniour through Miral. Please write in Arabic only. I advise that you to write in a separate text file/word document then paste it into the message box in case something happens and it’s lost when you click submit. Defamatory and not so kind messages will be removed. All messages will be printed on 4 September. Thank you.
The distant shouts of a female voice rang louder and louder in my ear: “A complete revolution or nothing at all!” I turned around and caught my first glimpse of a young woman of average height, who was outsized by her vocal powers. I was taken aback, impressed, and snapped an image there and then of Mahienour el-Massry — or Mahie, as she is known amongst her circles.
That day was Friday 27 May 2011, in a protest march through Alexandria’s Port Said Street on the Second Friday of Rage. The January 25 Revolution had opened up a world of endless possibilities, and people took to the streets to demand them. Many protests, vigils and revolutionary exhibitions later, I would gradually become more acquainted with a remarkable human being that I have come to consider a friend, inspiration and the conscience of Alexandria.
In a city where you can count the key activists on your fingers, Mahienour (an activist and a lawyer) had immense influence on revolutionary Alexandria. As human rights lawyer Marianne Sedhom remarks, “Mahienour’s loud voice in a small city allowed her to have a greater impact, shape the debate, and inspire many.”
Mahienour, along with seven other activists, is currently serving a two-year sentence for defying the Protest Law, which they were protesting on the day of the retrial of the Khaled Saeed case. Saeed, as you may well know, was killed by the police on June 6, 2010. Public anger against his death by torture initiated the rapid countdown to the 2011 uprising.
Ironically, it was this month four years ago, during the first Khaled Saeed protest, when Mahienour pulled off one of the most daring feats of bravery seen yet. Central security forces at the Cleopatra Hamamat tram station (the site of the protest) were gradually fencing in Mahienour, along with twenty protestors. She was increasingly worried about the safety of protestors arriving from the Corniche and Port Said Street, who were bound to get trapped and arrested.
In a “Run Lola Run” moment, Mahienour took the initiative and ran shouting a slogan in reference to Saeed’s death, and protestors who had arrived late, were lost, or trapped by the security forces, just joined her, running after her through the street, as she called on residents and workers in the area to join in. Many did. As friend Kholoud Said Amer recalls, “We just ran behind her and chanted what she was chanting, and in two minutes, after we were 20, we ended up being a force of 300. The biggest protest until then.”
The security forces were knocked off guard and, rather than arrests, all they could do was prevent the protesters from entering Medhat Seif al-Yazal Khalifa Street — where Saeed had died earlier that month. Mahienour, who was brutalized two years earlier (July 2008) at a police station (as a result of her support for the April 6 Youth Movement’s activities) was clearly on track, and back with a vengeance. She would play a key role in the succession of protest events leading up to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, and beyond.
Be wary of a full moon over Alexandria
Always true to the meaning of her name, moonlight, Mahienour would always be the one to hold a mirror up to society.
The arduous journey of Mahienour since the mid-2000s, when Kefaya came onto the scene, is nothing short of phenomenal, given how a young woman was forced to engage with an Alexandria that conspired to stack the odds against her.
The space for female voices in Alexandria’s public space was scant. This is after all a conservative society and the only alternative to the Mubarak regime was the Islamists, whose influence had virally spread through campuses and neighborhoods. More problematic, many across the social divide were keen on reinforcing a power structure that shunned women.
The city suffered tremendously from a brain drain, a lack of trust among its various political groups, and a civil society that struggles, even until now, to work together. More efforts were usually spent on breaking down barriers of fear and suspicion than anything else. This is in part due to the decades of disembowelment of the public sphere that has reconfigured social formations in the coastal city. But that is the subject of another article.
Cairo activists have faired, I have found, relatively better than their Alexandrian counterparts. Up until 2011 and the changes it brought, there was a near absence of local Alexandrian NGOs and human rights organizations. This means that there were no bodies to mentor, protect and aid Mahienour. For an activist like her, Alexandria was a very lonely place.
Mahienour grew up in an Alexandria that was a laboratory for the application of Egypt’s neoliberal policies since the 1990s — A destructive economic doctrine that widened socio-economic inequalities, and even shrunk the last major bastions of public space in the coastal city: the beaches, which have suffered greatly as a result of such policies. The widening of the Corniche ended up being consumed by a commercialization and privatization frenzy that took up most of the space. In short, the policies applied by the state in Alexandria were hostile to Mahienour’s egalitarian principles.
A friend of Mahienour told me that one of her defining moments was at a young age. She was sitting in the back of her father’s car, when an impoverished women passing by remarked, “I would give my eye for such a car.” The violence of poverty simply crushed her. But she would make it her mission to do something about it.
While Mahienour was a leading figure in the Revolutionary Socialists political group in Egypt, and her views are driven by class conflict, she did not go around trying to blindly impose a Trotskyist textbook approach on the public. Rather, as Alexandrian academic Radwa al-Barouni notes, she places humanitarianism above all political ideologies, with an obsessive drive for social justice and the rule of law being applied fairly and equally to all. She was heavily engaged in local issues and would cover issues that would be seen by other activists as “boring,” such as heritage conservation. Her ability to move confidently through the city’s streets, gather people from all walks of life, and convince them of an issue was one of her many hallmarks.
It always appeared that she did wonders for the Revolutionary Socialists, by making them more approachable and showcasing a third option in a city suffering from an abysmal state-Islamist binary. She seems to have made the group a somewhat acceptable force, but this was mainly because of the unified deep trust that many people had in her.
Belonging to the Revolutionary Socialists and interacting with various Cairene groups made Mahienour better known in international activist circles. Yet, the fact that Mahienour was based outside the capital and wrote mainly in Arabic attracted less international media attention to her.
There wasn’t a single struggle that was off limits for Mahienour: human rights, student rights, women’s rights, labor strikes, legal aid, anti-police brutality, housing for the poor, corruption, anti-military trials, heritage preservation, right to the public space, state-led land reclamation from the poor, climate change, street children’s rights, Syrian refugees; the list goes on.
Mahienour was always there, sleeping next to Syrian refugees in police stations to ensure they did not get tortured or deported, advocating for the 21 female supporters of the Brotherhood who were sentenced (and later acquitted) to 11 years in jail, and locating missing persons through the security labyrinth. Mahienour would rush to defend the victim’s rights — regardless of affiliation — and attend the funeral of people she had never met. Her very presence sent a message that this issue really mattered and raised protestors’ morale. Yet she paid a high price.
Mahienour was frequently subjected to scorn, chauvinism, defamation, sexual harassment, beatings, torture, and imprisonment. Yet despite that, as Kholoud remarks, “she would still maintain her humanity.” In person, I always found Mahienour to exhibit no traces of bitterness. She would approach you with a frightening humility, grace, selflessness, and sophistication. In a quiet and comforting tone, she would let you know that she expects the best from you.
Friend and activist Magda Magdy pointed out, “her strength just emanates outwards and seeps through you. We feed on her strength, positivity and deep belief in people, and in the revolution itself.”
Her unmatched stamina and endurance helped her survive the successive waves, not only of state crackdowns, but of activist disintegration. When local activist groups were breaking partnerships as a consequence of increased repression, or more often due to trivial matters, such as a movement’s logo not being placed first on a banner or a stolen idea, Mahienour stuck through the tough and mundane.
Alexandria’s security apparatus has come to fear Mahienour, not least because she never hesitated to publicly name officers, who assaulted her, on television.
Lawyer and friend Salwa Besher mentions that when the military was threatening to evict the residents of East Alexandria’s area of Toson in 2008, Mahienour rushed there, talked to them about their rights, visited them daily, examined legal measures and was their voice in the media. The countless protests, sit-ins, and court cases helped sustain a “war of attrition” that largely staved off the state takeover until the 2011 uprising, after which the court ruled in the residents’ favour.
The linear geography and urban dynamics of Alexandria aided her work, a matter she was well aware of. There are no real posh and secluded neighborhoods (such as the Zamalek island equivalent) in Alexandria, and the notion of gated communities is in its infancy. The public, across classes, are forced to interact. This is reinforced by a transport system that is relatively cheap and moves along three main routes: coastal road, Port Said Street and Abu Qeir street. This is in addition to the web of microbuses, whose hasty drivers weave in and out of the informal settlements on the city’s outskirts. Alexandria’s urban landscape, one could say, lends itself to an overall configuration that enables ideas and movements to rapidly spread through the city. And Mahienour had mastered with efficiency the veins of the city to her advantage.
This grid system helped nurture the rise of protest marches following the uprising of 2011, when there was a mass proliferation of often short-lived Alexandria-based social movements — which even included, bizarrely enough, an Alexandrian secessionist movement. While it often seemed the stage became over-crowded and confused, Mahienour rarely lost her focus on achieving the revolution’s goals: bread, freedom and social justice.
Many Alexandrian activists had eventually gravitated towards Cairo, believing change could only come through engagement with Tahrir Square. Some have migrated to the capital to enhance their activist profile and enjoy the liberal scene, or moved on to a different pathway in life. Mahienour was one of the few key figures who stayed back to hold the fort, committing herself fulltime to activism in Egypt’s second largest, and often forgotten, city.
In fact, Mahienour was a staunch advocate and spokesperson for decentralization. She always argued for the need to organize parallel fronts in Alexandria to counter the heavy concentration on Cairo and, as Magda notes, she reminded others that Cairo may be the capital and epicenter, but it is Alexandria that is always at the frontline of Egypt’s struggles.
One of her attempts to break away from the centralization was to join up with colleagues to establish a newspaper called “The Second Capital,” to give a voice to Alexandrians, particularly in impoverished neighborhoods, and allow the residents across the city to tell their own stories. She wanted to enable a culture of citizen journalism to thrive and allow Alexandria to, once again, take on a life and vitality of its own. However, hurdles such as funding, time, and, mainly distribution problems resulting from the domination of corporate media, doomed the venture.
And it is possible that one of Mahienour’s main achievements is giving voice to women by inspiring countless numbers to take to the streets to protest for freedom and rights. As Marianne notes, “She was an example to all of us, to find a young woman that we, including men, could follow, whose decisiveness enabled her to take decisions when everyone else was hesitant, and who had no goal except to carry out public welfare, because she truly loves her people.”
Why Mahienour matters
When Mahienour, along with colleagues, was arrested and detained during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, I realized then how her absence affected the activist community. Mahienour’s presence gave the community much needed focus and cohesion, yet it meant that once she was off the streets and in a jail cell, activists and lawyers would be thrown into a disoriented state. This is the situation today.
Mahienour is, however, a woman that is guilt-ridden and who genuinely believes she is not doing enough. The regime thinks otherwise though; “They fear her enough to send her to prison,” Magda added.
The last time I saw Mahienour, she told me she planned to attend my lecture titled, appropriately enough, “The Agony of Alexandria” (that would take place a week after her trial). But added, “If it [the trial] does not go well, then I ask you to write me at least the main points of your speech.” At that moment, it dawned on me the great loss for Alexandria if Mahienour was to be locked away again.
I stopped myself from telling her that I feared that rather than writing the speech’s main points, I would be writing an article on her imprisonment. It was difficult enough losing our friend Sherif Farag (Alexandrian activist and lecturer at the faculty of fine arts, unjustly imprisoned since last November). But the cautious optimist in me tampered it down to, “everyone will be praying that you make it through any ordeal and that you are with us in the front row.”
Knowing Mahienour, she would rather see exposure redirected towards the forgotten detainees languishing in prison rather than towards her. However, the reason why Mahienour matters is because all detainees matter. Mahienour has grown to be more than just an activist, but an ideal, the embodiment of the struggle, the moral compass of Alexandrian society, the voice of the other Egypt we don’t see, and the signpost of a better Egyptian future.
By illuminating Mahienour’s struggle against injustice, we are making the case for those less known and forgotten detainees.
“A complete revolution or nothing at all” was Mahienour’s ultimate cry. Her call for a complete revolution may not necessarily take on the form of storming the Bastille, but, even more powerful perhaps, it takes the form of an indomitable spirit like Mahienour, who brings hope to the streets she walks, sways the hearts and minds she encounters, and leaves a trail of forgiveness, empathy and humanity in a society that lacks it.
The regime, ever so predictable, has sought to stifle the voice and incarcerate one of the chief visionaries of Alexandria’s streets and its modern agora. However, what is unpredictable is the widespread reaction in seeking freedom for a young woman who has done too much good for many, to just accept the unjust status quo.
A co-authored piece with Nesreen Salem in TIMEP
Some 2,000 years ago, under Roman occupation, Egyptians were banned from practicing law, and this was not simply due to imperial discrimination. The Romans excluded them because Egyptians made too many jokes and sarcastic quips while in court, thus undermining the significance and procedures of the trials. Egyptian humor is, and has always been, a thorn in the side of every dynasty, invader, and regime through the ages.
Now the government has taken the dramatic, although unsurprising, step of banning Bassem Youssef’s show Al-Bernamag. While disappointing to say the least, focusing only on the banning of this particular show causes one to miss the bigger picture. Youssef’s work is the product of Egypt’s hyperactive and humor-driven society. The regime may have grounded the F-16 of humor, but it still must deal with the decentralized, guerilla-style humor that permeates society, circulating through round-the-clock, web-based jokes, memes and video parodies. This was made evident by the recent election-cum-Sisi-coronation—the jokes were in abundance even while Sisi was not yet president. In fact, the regime may have inadvertently shot itself in the foot, as one can quite easily forget how humor operated in the pre-al-Bernamag days.
Bassem Youssef’s rise occasioned a sort of centralization of humor across the entertainment landscape, with many of the post-2011 uprising jesters being eclipsed by, or choosing to concede ground to, Youssef. Many were not opposed to this arrangement because Youssef helped to spotlight Egypt’s fault lines and therefore provided a limitless repository for much of Egypt’s humor.
Had the regime accepted this arrangement, it would have taken on the lesser of two headaches, considering that Youssef was less harsh towards the regime than he was towards Morsi. Youssef’s removal will inevitably raise the profile of the piranhas of humor present in social media. While they were always there, they were arguably less noticed in the shadow of al-Bernamag.
Youssef leaves an important legacy of framing serious discussions within a satirical framework. When a military representative announced that the armed forces had found a cure for Hepatitis C and AIDS, Youssef (a physician by training) made it his mission to hold the military accountable for their claims, creating an online counter to mark the day that the cure had been promised to patients (which has been kept alive on social media). When the Egyptian government announced that they would use coal to mitigate the country’s fuel shortage, he dedicated a show to exposing the dangers that lurked behind that decision. Before going on air, a visibly angry Youssef said, “They’ve taken everything, and now they want to take the air we breathe.”
Youssef empowered the underdog, helping his audience to deal with their turbulent political reality and giving them hope for change, all based on the underlying notion that we could, as one person put it, “laugh all folly out of existence.”
The possibility of satire stealing the show from traditional politics is not a new consideration. When Jacques Chirac won the French Presidency in 1995, French media debated whether the satirical puppet show Les Guignols de l’Info, (which showed him favorably in contrast to Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin) had influenced the outcome of the elections. Youssef’s show stopped airing during the critical period around the election, citing the desire to avoid any such accusation. Moreover, the announcement came one day after news leaked that the Interior Ministry was seeking bids for a system to monitor and censor Egyptians’ use of social media outlets, foreshadowing the fate that many suspected was in store for Youssef’s show. While al-Bernameg has ceased, satire is practically writing itself in this mad climate. How could it not be so, when storks and Muppets are targeted as secret agents?
To lose a talent like Bassem Youssef is a tragedy. But the comedy has yet to stop. Satire will survive with or without al-Bernameg, and it will outlive every government. As eleventh-century Andalusian scholar Abu al-Salt put it, the Egyptian character is dominated by a humor mixed with sarcasm and cynicism to a level more pronounced than any group he had ever encountered.1 Thus, the current regime is fighting a cultural DNA that has passed on this effective and timeless weapon. Al-Bernameg was the latest incarnation in a long, evolutionary process of satire-generation—latest, but not last.
Even when Youssef announced his decision to permanently stop producing his show, he did not miss the opportunity to quip about the circumstances that forced him to do so—“I want to give you, but I can’t.” This self-imposed censorship—a sort of creativity-suicide—should raise questions about our perception of the role of satire as well as our understanding of politics: where there is politics, there will always be satire; one cannot exist without the other. Cancelling the show will only put an end to the show; it will not affect the other satirical powers that be, of which Egypt has an abundance in various forms. However, many in Egypt have come to view satire as they view the opposition: an uncomfortable siren amidst nationalistic euphoria. They now exhibit a preference for silence that largely did not exist when Muhammad Morsi was in power (except among supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood). Pinning al-Bernameg as a tool of the opposition has warped the public’s understanding of what satire is, but it has also exposed the government’s fascistic tendency to silence all hints of opposition.
Youssef, a product of the revolution, was devoured by the counter-revolution. However, just as it was not Youssef that brought down Mubarak, it will be the harsh realities of Egyptian life that threaten the new regime—humor will only grease the wheels of opposition.
In any case, Youssef leaves a dangerous legacy with which all successive regimes will have to deal—al-Bernameg opened up a media space that will not go away so easily. Youssef showed what is possible in a better Egypt, the gulf between accuracy and intentional misrepresentation, and the necessity of critical thinking. The fact that the show recorded an Egyptian viewership of 8.3 million—one-tenth of the total population—and had many more viewers across the region is a testament to the existence of an enormous constituency that is eager for something to fill this cultural space.
Youssef noted that “maybe the disappearance of al-Bernameg will force [people] to think about new, more creative means of [opposition].” The problem for the regime is that Pandora’s box was opened in early 2011, and “creative means” is all that Egyptians have to work with now in an environment of rising authoritarianism. The punchline is yet to come.
“Inevitably, our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.” – Public intellectual Walter Lippman, 1922.
With emotions running high on the eve of the 1952 coup, one of Nasser’s colleagues panicked and was close to tears. Nasser said firmly: “Tonight there is no room for sentiment. We must be ready for the unexpected.” The colleague soon regained his composure and asked Nasser, “Why did you address me in English?” Nasser laughed and replied, “Because Arabic is hardly a suitable language in which to express the need for calm.”
Whether or not this is truly the case—and I am not convinced that it is—the Arabic language today is certainly living up to Nasser’s perceptions, as it is being used to intentionally bring about anything but calm. A schizophrenia increasingly pervades Egyptian colloquial speech, empowering people to express wildly irresponsible and impulsive views and actions and yet expect positive outcomes—sadly, one frequently encounters such behavior these days.
It is easy to see the extent to which media discourse has affected public conversation, even to the level of hearing a news anchor’s sentence be unconsciously mimicked word-for-word the next day by members of the public, such as, “Egypt is not ready for democracy and needs a strongman from the military to rule it” and “Why does Sisi even need a policy platform?” That is not to mention the media-inspired accusations and conspiracies that infiltrate next-day conversations. This might not be unusual in many parts of the world, but in Egypt, it can have severe or even fatal consequences—opinions are shaped and inflamed here by an inexhaustible imagination that can leap from suspecting every tourist of being a spy to nodding at (if not cheering for) a mass death sentence.
Mahienour El Massry, along with seven other activists, have been imprisoned. More info here:
The Agony of Alexandria lecture examines the political, economic and socio-cultural tensions running through the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The talk provides an analysis on how the state has politically branded the city for ideological goals, from Nasser’s reprimanding and marginalisation of Alexandria for its long association with royal decadence to Mubarak’s manipulation of the city’s public spaces for reconciliation steps with the West. This, among other factors, undermined the Alexandrians’ sense of civic ownership. Moreover, the post-2011 events are further fracturing the coastal city as decades of centralisation have come to a head resulting in the disruption of the urban fabric, brain drain to the capital, hampering of civil society’s growth, the rise of the real estate mafia and the gradual disintegration of the cultural imaginary. The session will conclude with comprehensive ways in which these trends can arguably be reversed. The working language for this lecture will be in English.
I’m pleased to announce that our awesome new book – Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East – has been published by Routledge and is now available. Edited by Linda Herrera and Rehab Sakr. It includes a chapter (Chapter six) from me and Dina El- Sharnouby, titled Distorting Digital Citizenship: Khaled Said, Facebook, and Egypt’s Streets, the chapter examine the rise and fall of the the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page and its implications of limiting youth problems to a security dimension.
Wired Citizenship examines the evolving patterns of youth learning and activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In today’s digital age, in which formal schooling often competes with the peer-driven outlets provided by social media, youth all over the globe have forged new models of civic engagement, rewriting the script of what it means to live in a democratic society. As a result, state-society relationships have shifted—never more clearly than in the MENA region, where recent uprisings were spurred by the mobilization of tech-savvy and politicized youth.
Combining original research with a thorough exploration of theories of democracy, communications, and critical pedagogy, this edited collection describes how youth are performing citizenship, innovating systems of learning, and re-imagining the practices of activism in the information age. Recent case studies illustrate the context-specific effects of these revolutionary new forms of learning and social engagement in the MENA region.
Other great chapters include:
Chapter two: Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: A View from Egypt – by Linda Herrera
Chapter three: Morocco On-Trial: De-colonial Logic and Transformative Practice in Cyberspace – by Charis Boutieri
Chapter four: Children’s Citizenship: Revolution and the Seeds of an Alternative Future in Egypt – by Chiara Diana
Chapter five: Cyberspace in Turkey: A “youthful” space for expressing powerful discontent and suffering – by Demet Lukuslu
Chapter seven: “Hungry for Freedom” Palestine Youth Activism in the Era of Social Media – by Mira Nabulsi
Chapter eight: Opening Networks, Sealing Borders: Youth and Racist Discourse on the Internet – by Miranda Christou & Elena Ioannidou
Chapter 9: Computer Intimacy: Digitally-Mediated Democratization of Arab Youth Culture – by Catherine Cornet
Chapter eleven: The Power of Online Networks: Citizenship among Muslim Brotherhood Cyber Youth – by Rehab Sakr
Depending on the season: Unlike Noah film ban, Ten Commandments was banned in Egypt for different reasons
Al-Azhar has called for the banning of the Noah film due to the religious violation of showing a Prophet. So far the screening will go ahead “despite religious concerns.”
Yet there was a time when such films were banned for different reasons. Film titan Cecil DeMille opened up negotiations with King Farouk for permission to film in Egypt the epic story of Moses in The Ten Commandments. The King agreed but was then deposed in July 1952. DeMille had to engage in furious renegotiation’s with the new rulers as the filming was set to start in the Autumn of 1954.
A few months before that deadline, Demille and his colleagues were taken in a state car to a military encampment where Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser himself “strode in, filling the tent with a blinding charisma that was all dark burning eyes, flashing white teeth, and impeccable English.”
Demille was telling Nasser and Hakim Amer (Minister for War) why the film will be good, and they started to laugh uncontrollably. Nasser got hold of himself, and then burst out laughing again. To the incredulous look of Demille.
“You tell them what you are laughing about!” Nasser ordered Amer.
After Amer caught his breath, he began: “Mr DeMille…We grew up on your film The Crusades, and we saw how you treated us and our religion. Our country is your country.”
The slightly longer version of what Amer said: “the Crusades was immensely popular here in Egypt. It ran for three years in the same theater in Cairo, and Col. Nasser and I saw it no less than twenty times. It was our favourite picture when we were attending military school. And Col. Nasser was called ‘Henry Wilcoxon’ by the other students because he would grow up to be a great military leader someday, just like Coeur-de-Lion.”
With that the deal was sealed, and Nasser’s army even acted as Pharaoh’s soldiers in the film.
However, by the time the Ten Commandments was released in 1956, so much had changed on the political scene and it was the year of the Suez War and Arab nationalism was in overdrive mode.
The film was banned in Egypt because Nasser felt it favored “the Jews over the Egyptians”
Clearly, Nasser should have realised the obvious that Egyptian national interests don’t do quite well in the Bible and the Quran.
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille
By Scott Eyman
Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic The Ten Commandments
By Katherine Orrison
My larticle on understanding the Egyptian political situation through the works of Hannah Arendt. Published in Politics in Spires
In Egypt, it is clear that constructive results are not going to materialise anytime soon. Increasing state violence, arrests and intimidation have no clear logic beyond an attempt by the security apparatus to regain power and tighten control over the economy. It is an outworn order that risks collapsing.
The insecurity of security
While the regime does have a serious security issue on its hands, namely the Sinai-based terrorism that has now spread to Cairo, the regime is increasingly blurring the lines between terrorism and anyone who opposes the official line. Labelling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, outlawing anti-regime protests, cracking down on NGOs and the clampdown against anti-regime activists and journalists are indications that the security state is disintegrating. The regime is carrying out violent measures against Islamists and youth – two major groups that cannot afford to be alienated – signalling the regime’s struggles to control a significant segment of the population via peaceful means.
According to Hesham Sellam, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, “These are the actions of a security apparatus that has lost the capability, coherence, and discipline to contain its challengers through targeted repression, and institutional and legal engineering.” Sallam argues that state increasingly can only justify its existence at the end of the barrel or through the desperate propagation of incoherent, xenophobic and militant nationalism. If this continues, he explains further, the Egyptian state will inevitably fail to establish any semblance of control, which successive governments have tried to impose since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
In the meantime, there is no sign that the regime can deliver the security or stability that is required to attract tourists and investors. Billions in Gulf aid money will not resolve Egypt’s structural tensions. Reducing a bloated bureaucracy, addressing the subsidies burden and solving rampant unemployment remain in the queue. Meanwhile, with half of Egypt’s population under the age of 25, there is a startling lack of opportunity for an emerging generation.
Egypt – politically, economically, and socially – cannot be saved through violent attack on dissenters, there is an urgent need for a broad political consensus to tackle longstanding crises.
Hannah Arendt’s understanding of violence can provide fundamental insights into the regime’s behaviour. In her 1972 work Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, Arendt points out that the rise of state violence is frequently connected to a decrease in substantive power as regimes mistakenly believe they can retain real control through violent measures (CR 184). Real and sustainable power arises when a concert of people get together in a space to exchange views. Thus, power arises through free choice. Violence sits outside the realm of legitimate politics. It is an expression of desperation. It renders speech, discussions and persuasion impossible, making support from the public harder to come by.
Although she argues against violence, Arendt made qualified exceptions. She makes a point in her 1963 book On Revolution that violence may be required in initiating a new beginning such as a revolution in order to secure freedom. Yet this contrasts with the negative role of violence – its suppression of freedom. Contrary to the popular view of a peaceful uprising, the 2011 Egyptian revolution saw violent conduct from many protestors. Police stations were burned to the ground and symbols of the state were attacked. These actions, among many, helped to alter the political dynamics in favour of the street, and as Conor Cruise O’Brien once stated, “Violence is sometimes needed for the voice of moderation to be heard.”
Still, violence, state or otherwise, should not be glorified. State violence makes holding order difficult in the long term. As the bloody crackdown launched by the Egyptian security forces demonstrates, violence makes the situation unpredictable and perilous; it also does not guarantee the intended outcome. Arendt has much to say about this too. She remarks, “The danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end (OR 177).” The problem is that Egypt has long moved beyond such a framework. The spread of pain and suffering is too widespread to manage or control.
Arendt stresses that violence cannot create power, it can only destroy power (CR 155), meaning that it only takes away the conditions in which power can exist, merely forcing a group to disperse. Yet it does not create power which relies on the number of individuals supporting a certain group. In light of this, violence does not require numbers; it requires implements, the tools of violence that multiplies human strength. Therefore power is “not confronted by men but by men’s artefacts” (CR 106). As such, violence is the poorest foundation for a new government.
Arendt uses the example of a disruption in a university class. If one student successfully disrupts the class by yelling or using violence, while all other students choose to carry on peacefully, this breakdown in the academic process would not be due to the disruptive student’s greater power, but rather due to the entire group of students’ choice not to exercise its power to overpower the student (CR 141). In the context of the Egyptian regime, security sector violence subdues the majority to cause it not to exercise its power.
A search for salvation
To survive, a regime needs a genuine powerbase of believers (CR 149). This powerbase, at the moment, appears to be a large swathe of the Egyptian public cheering on the crackdowns and arrests, and adulating Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as their messiah. Sisi does not want to become a dictator as much as the people want to make him one. Yet this base rests largely on a quickly hatched informal pact in which the instability-weary public surrenders democratic governance in exchange for security and economic progress. Neither is likely to eventuate, further entrenching the use of violence and consequently exacerbating the instability of the regime.
Arendt warns that violence, like any mode of action, can change the world, but alas, the most probable change is to a more violent world (OR 177). Yet as she notes in The Human Condition(1958), the unpredictability of political action and violence can be countered through promises and forgiveness to help stabilise action and provide healing. Making and keeping promises helps to give signals to the public about the future, ensuring steadfastness. Forgiveness tempers the irreversibility of violence by forgiving past mistakes (HC 241). An alternative to forgiveness is punishment, which involves reparations to rectify the original transgression and bring it to a close. This should not be confused with vengeance that reacts by perpetrating a mirror image of the original wrong.
Distressingly, the Egyptian story of the past three years has been anything but promise, forgiveness and punishment. Instead, it has been one of promises to elites, forgiveness for old regime figures, and punishment for those who criticise the established state chorus.
As elites seek to exhaust every polarising measure before arriving at the obvious station of compromise, Egypt’s road to progressive and inclusive politics is going to be stained red with calamity. In the absence of a visionary leadership, violence will likely continue unabated and further enflame the serious empathy drought in the public discourse.
The spectre of unpredictability, an important Arendtian theme, is another added challenge for the state. The 2011 Revolution brought a new beginning which opened up spaces in which individuals could share with one another their identity and engage in speech and action in which freedom and plurality materialised. It was a Pandora’s Box that unleashed a wave of political change that cannot tolerate the resurrection of Mubarak-style authoritarianism for the very reason that its foundational social contract is no longer feasible. In a paradoxical way, Egypt is a new Egypt even if it still looks like old Egypt.
It may be the case that Egypt’s move towards democracy will eventually happen because they will be left with no other choice as the tools of violence become blunted, but this will not be because the establishment will simply have a change of heart.
“To substitute violence for power can bring victory,” Arendt states, “but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished but it is also paid by the victor” (CR 152).
The question now remains how high a price is Egypt’s regime willing to pay, and also how long the classroom will remain apathetic. A state is predictable, a revolution is not.