Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Chinese Syndrome

Along with the straitened heat and humidity of the month of August, watching the Olympic Games added a sense of disgrace and bitterness to summer in Egypt, for the disparity between Egypt and the advanced world was all too vivid in Beijing.

Egyptians apprehended how weak their nation was compared to other nations two centuries ago. The French invasion in 1798 was Egypt’s first encounter with modern civilization after centuries of isolation that threw the country into a black hole of feebleness and backwardness. The French fleet, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, included a large number of scientists whose mission was to survey Egypt’s geography, culture, anthropology, and history in a way that has never been done before, a huge effort that culminated in the 24-volume “Description de l’Egypte.”

Exposed to modern weaponry and scientific inventions that they never saw or dealt with, Egyptians were forced into comparing themselves with “the other,” their ignorance and littleness with the knowledge and strength of Westerners. They realized that something serious had gone wrong with their country. Two visions vowed to repair it: the first maintained that Islam had to be reformed (the solution promulgated by Al-Afghany, Mohamed Abdou, and Mohamed Rashid Reda); the second affirmed that the return to the Meccan brand of Islam is the only panacea to the triumph of the West.

The telecommunication revolution of the 21st century, however, guaranteed Egyptians’ continuous exposure to the superiority of “others.” The 24-hour coverage of the Olympic Games in Beijing, for example, was a painful reminder that in sports they favored the cozy seats of spectators to fierce competition in sports pitches.

The “Chinese Syndrome” started with the impressive opening ceremony, which was depicted by The Guardian as the ceremony that “outdid all of its predecessors in numbers, color, noise and expense.” The Daily Mail predicted that Hollywood will “study the DVD (of the ceremony) for years to come and plunder Beijing’s visual tricks.” The Daily Telegraph summed it up with the front page headline: “Beijing wows the world.” Unfortunately, what impresses the First World sometimes overwhelms the Third World with a feeling of lowliness and sourness; just like the encounter with the French invasion, seeing the signs of others’ advance imposes the discomforting, 200-year-old comparison between “us” and “them.”

Then came the ever-fresh disappointment of the routine breakdown of the Egyptian squad, the laments of which recur after every sports breakdown. Egypt’s ranking in the all-time Olympics record sheet is equivalent to its pitiful position in the global hierarchy of power and advancement. The United States, today’s sole superpower, won more than 2,000 Olympic medals since the inception of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Egypt won two dozen in the same period. What kind of feelings are Egyptians left with upon knowing that another nation earned more medals in one week than they did in over a century?

Part of the popular blame for the drastic failure in Beijing was laid upon the “irresponsibility” of Egyptian athletes and the “incompetence” of their federations. That is unfair and not particularly accurate too. Winning athletes are not made in a vacuum; they blossom alongside science, technology and material power, and wither in their absence.

Suffice it to know that the swimwear of legendary American swimmer Michael Phelps (who won eight gold medals this year and six in Athens four years ago) and the American swimming team was developed with the aid of US space agency NASA. Made from water-repellant material, the seamless suit helps swimmers keep the best body position in water and lessen drag. Swimmers wearing this new invention set 33 new world records since its introduction last February.

Beijing’s debacle should not have been a surprise, for how could one expect roses to grow in a field of mines? The real grief is, thus, not about the loss of Karam Gaber’s much anticipated wrestling medal, but instead is generated by the glaring evidence of the defeat of the whole nation, its littleness and weakness vis-à-vis advanced nations, and, more importantly, the self-pity that follows from the almost fatalistic belief that one’s nation is destined to remain forever in the backseat of civilization and progress.

The allegation that Egypt was last defeated in 1967 is a big lie. The truth is: it has been defeated ever since. After all, defeats in battlefields, markets and sports arenas are just the tip of the floating iceberg; beneath lies longstanding defeats in laboratories, universities and factories.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on August 28, 2008.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Inside Tyrants' Minds

During his recent visit to South Africa, President Hosni Mubarak was asked about Egypt's stance toward the International Criminal Court's indictment against Sudanese President Omar Al-bashir for war crimes. Mubarak affirmed his country's support of Sudan and solemnly added that "it is not appropriate to take a President to court."

What can one, in the sincerest quest for fairness and objectivity, learn from the statement other than Mubarak's belief that, unlike ordinary people, presidents are above law, even if they are charged with atrocious war crimes?

Power corrupts souls, and minds too. To justify imperialism and enjoy complete impunity for its wrongdoings, the imperialist discourse has gone to great lengths to paint a distorted portrait of the indigenous populations of colonized lands. It alleges that the 'subject races' belong to inferior species, are less sophisticated, incapable of functioning independently, and innately inimical to reason and knowledge, hence entitled to less rights and privileges.

Whether used consciously or not, many tyrants – loosely defined as unjust or oppressive rules -- resort to the same justification to perpetuate their rules and abort means of accountability. To them, people are irrational, ignorant, prone to emotional fluctuations, and they beseech domination.

Mubarak's statement, therefore, stems less out of casual sympathy for a fellow member of the 'Club of Despots' than out of a powerful belief that Presidents are indeed elevated in status and should remain unassailable.

The psychological impact of the practice of absolute power for a long period of time is mostly overwhelming. Noam Chomsky argues that it is easy for most people to construct patterns of justifications for almost anything they choose to do; even murderers and rapists instinctively believe that they are doing the right thing. If this is generally true, then it is surely a much easier job for leaders of undemocratic societies, who are usually surrounded with, and influenced by, scores of hypocrite and fake sycophants. As a result, most tyrants become partially enclosed in a bubble of self-delusion, where they ardently engage in a process of self-promotion and adamantly obstruct the access of unfavorable information.

The longevity of authoritarian regimes and their feverish attempts to survive often lead to their exclusion as well. The exclusive reliance on trusted individuals, the corrupt networks that grow in the regime's secluded womb and the fortifications erected to protect the regime pave the way for a hazy sense of reality and addiction to illusions. Over time, thus, narcissistic dictators fall prey to a single-minded mode of thinking, which substantially depends on futile optimism, an exaggerated self-confidence and suicidal wishful thinking. As one scholar pointed out, the "narcissistic leader prefers the sparkle and glamour of well-orchestrated illusions to the tedium and method of real accomplishments."

One particular symptom of that self-centered mental process is the deep-seated belief of many tyrants that they embody the state. According to this view, the discussion of the private interests of the leader is, in essence, relevant to the national interest. When, in 1944, the 24-year-old King Farouk heard the phrase “the will of the people” from the Wafdist politician Abdel-Salam Fahmy Gomaa, he retorted: “My good Pasha, the will of the people emanates from my will,” a naïve conviction he dearly paid for eight years later.

The personification of the nation endured the demise of royalty. Sadat's delusions of grandeur were behind his repeated usage of the possessive pronoun “my” in reference to the Egyptian people, army, constitution, etc. This personalization reveals an inner-conviction of being the king who is God’s shadow on earth, the feudalist who owns the land and people, the Pharaoh who is equated with God. The structure of Egyptian politics did not change much after Sadat; hence there is good reason to believe that Mubarak, after 27 years at the helm of the state, follows the same calculation.

A typical consequence of such a distorted mindset is the equation between personal criticism and disloyalty. The exalted self-perception leads tyrants to believe that their actions merit praise and appreciation only; critique reflects either ignorance or treachery. Saddam Hussein was notorious for liquidating aides who had criticized his policies or suggested alternative approaches; other less-paranoid leaders find imprisonment or exile a reasonable punishment.

There are certainly exceptions among tyrants, the type of exceptions however that consolidate the rule, not refute it. A quick look at the psychological profiles of Third World leaders – Egypt included -- provides sufficient evidence.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on August 14, 2008.