Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Retreat from Civilization in Egypt

I often wonder why any Egyptian would condone the sickening torture inflicted on suspects in police stations. Such condoning usually takes place when these suspects are charged with disgraceful crimes, such as child molestation or rape. How do these people, I often ask myself, so readily overlook the fact that a suspect remains innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, after a fair trial? And how can they possibly forget that the job of police officers is to ensure that the rights of suspects are guaranteed, and not to take it on themselves to "serve justice" so brutally?

It turned out many in Egypt revere force, and the show of crude force, much more than they respect the constitution, the law, and moral principles.

In the history of mankind, the phase of civilization refers to the emergence of a social order that allowed people to resolve their disputes and differences peacefully. In primitive societies, confined to wilderness and detached from arable land, violence was common, usually in savage ways. This brutality came under control with the advent of civilizations. The rise of institutions with clearly-stated laws, rules and procedures, and the development of moral and ethical points of reference rendered violence both prohibited and punishable.

Clearly, the adoration of force is reminiscent of the age of barbarism, defined by conflict and force. As such, it alludes to the process of "retreat from civilization."

The anarchy that dominates the Egyptian street is a vivid example of this retreat-from-civilization trend. Though traffic rules do exist, they are not even remotely applied, making Cairo's tightly-packed streets the arena of "a war of all against all." In the absence of the state and its representatives, the rule of the jungle prevails once again; survival is certainly for "the fittest," that is, the more aggressive and violent.

The same trend is reflected in the spread of the "baltaga" (thuggery) phenomenon in the last few years. Knowing that the state and its institutions are in many cases unable, or perhaps unwilling, to provide justice and maintain order, some people decide to rely on crude force to regain their rights, or settle scores with adversaries. With time and practice, this approach has become to many the first option to be considered, not the last resort.

Another basic feature of civilized men and women is the ability of self-restraint, which was conspicuously lacking during the Egypt-Algeria faceoff that followed the key match between the two countries' national teams in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers. The response of Egyptian media to the attacks on Egyptian fans in Sudan (and Egyptian interests in Algeria) was excessively emotional, amateurish, and hasty. Instead of rationally defining the problem and understanding its underlying causes, anger and frustration led many commentators to slide into diabolizing the "other," indulging in acts of chauvinistic self-praise and even inciting violence.

On the popular "Al-Qahira Al-Youm" night show, one anchor—Ahmed Moussa—retorted to the first news of the attack on Egyptians in Sudan by unleashing the barbarous mindset ordinarily hidden beneath the big smile and the fancy business suit. "Our people are being attacked and killed in Sudan. There are Algerians living here in Egypt, we can attack them too," he said. Fortunately, his co-presenter, Amr Adib, could still be reasonable amidst this unrestrained folly. He quickly interrupted Moussa and asked him to focus on how to resolve the crisis, instead of initiating a new unnecessary—and unethical, one can add— one.

The ascendancy of a barbaric culture—one that values force and disregards laws and moral values—in Egyptian society is indeed alarming. Symptoms of this mentality are apparent in the elections of professional syndicates and sports clubs. How, otherwise, could one interpret the winning of candidates who are widely known for having no credentials—no knowledge, outstanding managerial skills or expertise—but the ability to act like thugs, through using (or threatening to use) force, and intimidating rivals? Those who voted for these candidates were driven by the same mentality that, in the heat of the recent Egyptian-Algerian crisis, made many Egyptians ready to beat up any Algerian they can find in retaliation for what happened to our football fans.

During the recent Egyptian-Algerian media war, many in Egypt bragged about how "civilized we are" compared to other nations. Their point is valid. Egypt's chapter in the book of world civilizations is perhaps the longest. But a new culture has been slowly creeping beneath the fabric of Egyptian society, a culture that admires power to the point of fascination, encourages aggressive attitudes and disrespects laws, regulations and ethics.

Our ancestors must be spinning in their graves.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on December 24, 2009.


Nevine El-Saeed said...

I love the article. You have a great ability to get your readers engaged and unable to leave the article until fully done reading it. I was just going to read the first paragraph and then kept saying: one more, then one more :)
You are very right. The "survival for the fittest (most violent)" is ruling our daily lives. One very simple example I know many have experienced is when trying to stop (while driving) to allow pedistrians to cross the street and you find people honking their horns like crazy, calling you names, and some try to cut you and the pederstrians off to run off as if these few seconds are the difference between life and death for them.
End result: by time, you just ignore pedestrians and never stop to give them a chance to safely cross the street.

Hatem Y. Ezz Eldin said...

My Dear Friend:
"But a new culture has been slowly creeping beneath the fabric of Egyptian society, a culture that admires power to the point of fascination, encourages aggressive attitudes and disrespects laws, regulations and ethics".
This is very true. Yesterday I read an article for Fahmi Howaidi addressing this point in depth. I guess its title was "Al Masryoon Al Godod" (New Egyptians).
As for the Egypt-Algeria match crisis I don't blame anyone but our failure in general to call for and promote our rights at all levels, including political ones.