So rarely does a work of art, whether painting, music, film or otherwise, epitomize the complex sociopolitical realities of its time. One such example from Egypt’s past does so, simply yet profoundly. That film, “al-Baree” (The Innocent, 1985), was indeed a tour de force, telling the tale of tyranny and elucidating its dynamics with skill. Starring the iconic Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki - often seen as Egypt’s Al Pacino - and directed by Atef al-Tayeb, a leading pioneer of the “new realism” wave in Egyptian cinema, the Innocent says a lot about politics in Egypt, and the failure of its 2011 revolution.
The Good, the Bad and the Ignorant
The Innocent poignantly pulls together drama, artistry and a subtle message of great significance. With impeccable talent and skill, Zaki took on the character of Ahmed Sabe’ al-Leil, a hapless, illiterate young man who spends his years in obligatory government service as a conscript working in a prison. Ringed by infinite desert sand, the prison looks from afar like an island. But far from being an oasis, it is instead an infernal place, where savage punishment is meted out upon political dissidents. There, in the middle of emptiness, there is nothing but an eerie silence, poisonous snakes, and a scorching sun that bakes the prisoners’ faces. And of course there are the dark practices of systematic torture and humiliation.
Sabe’ al-Leil is the quintessential naïve peasant. With a mind like a blank paper and a soul accustomed to servitude, he is as pliant as a reed. He is indoctrinated with ease, injected by the prison’s nefarious jailers with what usually works better and quicker: hate and pride. A war is going on, he’s told, and he must be honored to defend the nation against the evil guys. The inmates are “the enemies of the homeland,” his superiors keep telling him. Sabe’ al-Leil quickly buys their narrative and becomes one of them. He takes part in ‘reception parties,’ beating-up sessions which form the new inmates’ reception at the prison’s gates, to make them realize they are about to enter a very different world. In fact, Sabe’ al-Leil became so dedicated that when one of the detainees - a renowned writer called Rashad Oweis - attempts a reckless escape, Sabe’ al-Leil chases him in the open desert. He wrestles him, and then chokes him to death. The last words of Oweis were spoken with a mixture of indignation and sympathy. He gazes at Sabe’ al-Leil and says: You’re a donkey; you don’t understand anything.
The movie raises a compelling argument: the sad story of oppression involves not only the oppressor and the oppressed, but also – perhaps, more importantly – those who lend the oppressors a helping hand. Among the ranks of those who ‘know,’ there are those who come to the aid of injustice out of personal greed for spoils; those who toe the line out of fear; and those who resent injustice but avert their gaze out of despair. But the movie focuses on the largely uninformed, men of ignorance who support men of power with unreserved conviction and blind submission. They don’t know, and they don’t know they don’t know.
Thirty years later, the movie’s message is still very relevant. The melodramatic contours of the 2011 Egyptian revolution - its peaks and troughs, moments of triumph and years of despondency - are all well-known. By now, it is not debatable that it has failed, especially since the rise of the military’s strongman Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to the summit of politics in 2013 and his election as president in 2014. The Arab Spring in Egypt was but a brief interlude between two winter storms. Thousands of innocents lost their lives, were thrown behind bars or vanished behind the sun; politics and the media have turned into a state-controlled Muppet show; and dissidence is punishable without delay. The mood among the community of Egypt analysts is very gloomy; many fear that the worst is yet to come. What caused that retreat is still a matter of great controversy.
It strains truth to argue that the Egyptian revolution went awry because of the revolutionaries’ lack of courage or the old state’s lack of resolve. There has been a great deal of both over the past five years, but in a country of ninety million, both groups represent small minorities. Rather, it went wrong because of the silent majority-- the great mass of Egyptians reduced by their political unconsciousness into, at best, mere spectators in their homeland; at worst, accomplices in crime. Victims of their own ignorance, they took the shadow for the substance, favoring despotism, condoning state violence and detesting liberties. The revolution failed at the altar of their ignorance.
Dramatic and eye-opening as it was, the revolution of January-February 2011 was not disillusioning to this majority on any level. Insouciant about public affairs, many of them then asked with infantile curiosity: What do the protestors in Tahrir want? It was, to them, as though the events were taking place in some strange, distant land, not in their own city’s central square, a stone’s throw from where they live. Today, the majority of Egyptians echo the preposterous accusations hurled at the revolution no matter how little coherent or convincing they are. Parroting the clowns performing nightly on television in the guise of pundits, they condemn the revolution as a “conspiracy” orchestrated by the US, or Israel, or Iran, or Qatar, or Turkey -- or indeed all of them colluding together. In a display of foolish irony, they grant the murderers of the ancien regime both amnesty and amnesia, while describing the victims of the revolution - those who perished or lost an eye or a limb - as Khawanah, traitors. Some even pine for the days of Hosni Mubarak, the despot recently convicted for embezzling public funds, saying he is a hero deserving an apology. It is this critical mass that sealed the fate of the Egyptian revolution. Had they not so cheerfully accepted the return of the old authoritarian state, winked at - even celebrated - its most grave human rights abuses, and raised its new leaders to the status of unaccountable heroes, the unmaking of Egypt’s revolution would not have taken place, and certainly not with such ease.
The Power of Ignorance
It is no exaggeration to say that education in Egypt is in shambles. The illiteracy rate stands at around 25% (more than 20 million people), and exceeds 30% among females. (1) But the poor quality of education and a school system that is based on rote memorization leaves many of the educated little better off. In the 2015-2016 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Egypt was ranked next to last (139th out of 140 countries) for the quality of its schools and universities. (2) “Egyptian education is in the worst era in its history,” said a researcher at Egypt’s National Center for Educational Research and Development. (3) Many university graduates lack basic literacy skills, misspelling as simple words as “but,” “this” and “that.” Last September, it felt awfully surreal when it turned out that the Facebook page of Egypt’s newly-appointed Minister of Education was replete with many grammar and spelling mistakes. Ironically enough, prior to his appointment as minister, al-Helaly al-Sherbiny served as a university professor, vice president of Mansoura University and under-secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education. Online activists were quick to quip that the education minister needed to be educated, to enroll in an illiteracy-erasing program. In January 2016, sixty seconds of the opening statement delivered by the parliament’s new speaker (a former law professor) included at least ten catastrophic pronunciation mistakes as he struggled to speak in formal Arabic.
The prevalence of Illiteracy and poor education has taken a great toll on society. Unawareness of basic political facts is rampant, including among university graduates. According to a poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), only 23% of Egyptians knew the year of the Suez Crisis, (4) an event as significant to Egypt’s modern history as the battle of Normandy is to Britain’s. The awareness of many Egyptians does not extend past the parochial domains of their personal lives or the results of their favorite soccer teams. A culture of mental laziness has led to an inclination by many to readily embrace the ideas offered by others. This is arguably an understandable option. The pursuit of knowledge carries with it the burden of thought, the responsibility of choice and confronting discomforting truths. This is why benighted people - the “bewildered herd” using Walter Lippmann’s expression - view ignorance as a shelter from evil, a feeling of sheer bliss.
On the whole, Egypt is missing a lot of sobriety. The susceptibility to emotional populist rhetoric is widespread. As a result of the gravitation toward emotional rhetoric and the absence of critical thinking, basic instincts - anger, fear, hope and desire - have taken charge. Obviously, too scared to think, too angry to contemplate, and too complacent to change, this majority opted for conformity. Judging by the results, this is no less detrimental than evil.
This begets the question: How can politics in a society with such a mental geography be reformed? How can history’s longtime subjects turn into its agents? The enlightened few can instigate a revolution (and they did, demanding freedom and social justice), but the realization of its goals on the long run needs more than the efforts of a small minority, however great its courage and devotion. More than two centuries ago, Maximilien Robespierre rightly opined that the “secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.” Indeed, when the simplest verities are lost, vulnerability to propaganda deepens. The perverted, state-sponsored propaganda of the counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt had, directly and indirectly, induced people to believe that revolution is sin, dictatorship benevolent, torture necessary and silence a virtue.
The Innocent had presented another veritable irony to contemplate. The majority of those incarcerated were intellectuals and writers, but all the brutal conscripts, just like Sabe’ al-Leil, were illiterate. In other words, lout men enslaved erudite men. By way of analogy, here’s a society where those afflicted with irrevocable ignorance wreak havoc on those blessed with knowledge. In 2011, this artistic representation was turned into a vivid reality in the breathtaking clashes that took place in Tahrir Square and the bridge of Qasr al-Nil. The street battles between the educated, full-of-vigor youth and the black-clad, black-eyed soldiers armed to the teeth with rifles, gas canisters and water cannons embodied the battle between enlightenment and the dark ages. Or as the New York Times put it at the time, “rarely have we seen such epic clashes between the forces of light and darkness.” In the heated action of those days, there was not one soldier like Sabe’ al-Leil; there were thousands, but they were outnumbered by the protestors, and taken over by their inimitable valiance. Mubarak was soon overthrown and a new dawn seemed imminent.
Now that the revolution has been defeated, and a return to the ways of the grim past institutionalized, the victors have opted for writing their own narrative. Indeed, for decades, Egypt’s victors - the formidable state and its allies in the security apparatus and business circles - have in search of survival relied on two instruments: guns to subdue the sober few and myths to intoxicate the rest.
Clowns as Mentors
The problem in Egypt is not that the narratives which have no fidelity to truth are aplenty; it is that they always find a receptive ear and an open heart. In the literature on modern Egyptian politics, the brief encounter Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayed (1872-1963) had with competitive politics is oft-repeated. Al-Sayed was one of the most influential liberal Egyptian intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century, a man of true enlightenment. In the 1920s, he ran in parliamentary elections in his small village in the Daqahlia province on a platform of democracy and modernity. In response, his devious rival rumored among the constituency of villagers that democracy is tantamount to impiety and polyandry. Consequently, Al-Sayed, dubbed in Egypt’s cultural circles as “the educator of a generation,” got trounced in the election.
This incident took place around 90 years ago, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. As it spread knowledge and raised awareness, the advent of globalization and the proliferation of information technology also gave a new tool to the ruling elite to tell its version of the story. A mutual need for an unwritten pact has in fact arisen. Power wants to survive, and the weary masses, which face the squalors of life from sunrise to sunset, cannot afford to lose hope. They need to be constantly assured that tomorrow will be a better day. It is a reasonable win-win, formula: survival for opium. But then, obviously, agreements need enforcers; stories need storytellers.
Much of the popular mood in today’s Egypt and the level of awareness in society can be gleaned by watching the theatrics of Tawfik Okasha and tracing the barometer of his popularity. Okasha is a controversial TV host who rose to prominence shortly after the 2011 uprising, appearing as host and full-time guest on the satellite channel he also owns: El-Faraeen. On air, he rambles on for hours, haranguing with inflated confidence about politics, economics, theology and even science and medicine.
Okasha sells his style, which is a mishmash of zealous rhetoric, whimsical humor and a dose of self-praise, to the uneducated, the poorly-educated and the unconscious members of Egyptian society— together, making the vast majority. He once predicted that the freemasons would invade Egypt on 13/13/2013 (yes, the 13th month in the calendar). Indeed, sketching at length the mischievous masonic conspiracies against Egypt is among his favorite subjects (he recently published a book entitled God’s Country: The Freemasonry and the Happy Millennium). Despite, or because of, his hallucinations and hocus-pocus, Okasha is massively popular. Last November, he was elected to parliament, securing more votes than any other candidate in all constituencies across Egypt. But as outlandish as he is, Okasha is not alone. The most watched talk show in Egypt, according to the TV audience research firm Ipsos, is hosted by Ahmed Moussa, a man widely labelled as “the informer” (he once said that he takes pride in being an informer for ‘security agencies’). Moussa’s modus operandi is to defame state critics and promote state policies in the most blatant, often slanderous, and eccentric manner.
It has become familiar to hear Egyptian journalists and anchors sputtering flimsy arguments such as that the world is run by an underground secret organization, that earthquakes and tsunamis are the product of a sinister US plan, and that Egypt would - thanks to a miracle - turn overnight into a superpower. Others defend rotten values with unmistakable alacrity. Hypocrisy is virtuous, a leading journalist once said. Another argued that the country was in need of a “repressive police state.” Others advocated the formation of death squads to liquidate every source of irritation, be it dissidents, demonstrators or street children.
There are a number of commonalities among Egypt’s clown-like influencers. First, they’re all middlebrow, even though they’re so popular and influential. Their massive popularity does not create Egypt’s malady of ignorance; it reflects it and then nourishes it. And so delirium has become the official language of Egypt’s public landscape. On the other hand, intellectuals who devoted themselves to a life of knowledge and rectitude, have been, sadly, pushed out of the public space. In exile, solitude, or a self-induced bubble of life’s inanities, they seek inner-peace, and forgetfulness of the fact that their country was once the beacon of enlightenment in the region. If they attempt to debunk the official narrative, they would get quickly witch hunted by those in power, their media puppets, and the dogmatic imbeciles who tend to believe both.
Second, all these agents of ignorance consider the “January revolution” to be a term of opprobrium. They dare not speak its name unless wedding it to some manufactured tale of conspiracy. To be sure, the revolution in 2011 did not just target an unjust authority, but also the entire culture of incompetence it had sponsored. At heart, these influencers are at variance with change, especially fundamental change, lest it deprives them of their prerogatives, and puts into place a system that judges them by their genuine skills, not their capacity for hypocrisy.
Third, they have totally aligned themselves to the regime. It is widely believed that the regime pulls their strings, unleashing them whenever needed to defend, attack, justify, sneer at opponents, and bay for more iron-fisted measures while it, simultaneously, makes sure they are always coyly silent about its own wrongdoings. In a sense, these icons of ignorance have become like a service class, the regime’s PR representatives. They are, to borrow the articulate expression attributed to Lenin, the “useful idiots” of Egypt’s new old regime.
In the climax of The Innocent, Sabe’ al-Leil encounters his moment of disillusionment. Amidst the frenzy of a regular ‘reception party,’ he finds himself beating and whipping his childhood village friend, someone he well knows is not “an enemy of the homeland.” He is thrust into the painful revelation that he had been stupid and stubborn—a donkey. In response, he bristled with rage and revolted. He is finally conscious and liberated.
Sadly, most Egyptians have not been as fortunate as Sabe’ al-Leil, despite the many moments of inspiration they have been offered. The lessons of the revolution, which came in 2011 like a lightning bolt, and the events of yesteryear, went unnoticed. Knowing that the lives of thousands of victims have gone up in smoke in Tahrir and on the streets of Cairo and other cities was not enough to make them see the glaring truth about what is really going on in their country. And still they fail to see the injustice, the suffering, and the role they inadvertently play in perpetuating both.
The revolution erred because it clamored for freedom to a sleeping people. Before setting off on the pilgrimage to Tahrir, the revolutionaries had to wake them up first.
Nael M. Shama
* A shorter version of this essay appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on May 30, 2016 under the title "Egypt's Innocent Donkeys".
(!) “More than 25% of Egypt’s Population ‘Illiterate’,” Egyptian Streets, 9 September 2014, http://egyptianstreets.com/2014/09/09/more-than-25-of-egypts-population-illiterate/
(2) World Economic Forum, The Global Competitiveness Report (2015-2016), http://www3.weforum.org/docs/gcr/2015-2016/Global_Competitiveness_Report_2015-2016.pdf , p. 179.
(3) Quoted in Ahmed ElShamy, “Global Competitiveness Report Puts Egypt in the Dust,” Al-Fanar Media, 27 October 2015, http://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2015/10/global-competiveness-report-puts-egypt-in-the-dust/