Friday, August 20, 2010

1967, 2010: The Annals of Defeat

It was the summer of 1967, immediately following the Six Day War when an Egyptian PhD student was having coffee with a friend, also Egyptian, at a café in Kurfurstendamm, Berlin's main boulevard. The tightly packed café allowed for casual chitchats among strangers, and so the Egyptian friend was caught in a conversation with a German man sitting at a neighboring table. Noticing his heavy German accent, the German asked the Egyptian where he was from, but the Egyptian was evasive, claimed that he "does not have a country," and did his best to change the uncomfortable subject. Perplexed and anxious, the German continued pushing for a convincing answer. After some push and pull, the young Egyptian finally said that "he was from Israel!"

That was the sour effect of the catastrophic defeat. Among the ranks of the grieving, some were not only ashamed to reveal their Egyptian identity, but also felt no remorse for identifying with their chief enemy.

The PhD student who witnessed this conversation is my father. The incident left a lasting scar on his psyche. I heard the story, and more than once. To my father, any talk of the 1967 War was enough to evoke many bitter memories. To all Egyptians, "1967" was not a small loss; hopes were dashed, self-confidence was shaken, the defeat was soaked in humiliation and the future looked bleak.

The Egyptian army had hastily fled the battlefield after a decisive Israeli air strike. War on the Egyptian front lasted less than 6 days. Add to this the deceitful pre-war propaganda that so confidently vowed a swift victory. The Israeli army, Egyptians were told, consisted of nothing but a bunch of unorganized war gangs. Electrified by Nasser's mind-blowing rhetoric, the masses in Egypt believed that war would be a picnic, victory was imminent, and that fellow Palestinians were ready to crown with laurels the triumphant Egyptian army at the gates of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The parades of victory were envisaged before the war even began. On the 9th of June, painful disillusionment reigned.

Fast forward forty-three years to 2010. I was sitting a few weeks ago at a Lebanese café in another German city, Dusseldorf. As soon as the café's Lebanese manager noticed my unambiguous Egyptian accent, he said: "Oh, you come from the country of Mr. President Mubarak," then he fetched a sad sigh and said: "Ya 'eeb el-shom (what a shame)." Bombarded by the unforeseen comment, and because I instantly realized its validity, I paused for a second, before I set myself on a course of improvisation, but the damage had already been done.

The real source of sorrow comes from the fact that this is not an isolated incident. Very recently, the distinguished American political scientist Norman Finkelstein told me that he has noticed lately when he meets Egyptians in the US, that when he asks them about where they are from, "they say: I'm ashamed to say I am from Egypt."

But if 1967 symbolized defeat, anguish and shame, why do Egyptians in 2010 feel defeated so intensely, so deeply? Why is the lack of faith in the future so overwhelming? Why do conversations among Egyptians end with either the phrase "mafeesh fayda" (there is no hope), attributed to the pre-revolution Egyptian politician Saad Zaghloul, or with the "nothing really matters" posture, reflecting pessimism and apathy, respectively?

True, we have not been militarily defeated since 1967. But the ghosts of mental defeat are more haunting than the palpable images of material defeat. Psychologists explain that mental defeat results from the lethal mixture of failing in the present and losing faith in future recovery. "If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life," journalist and activist Marcus Garvey rightly opines.

Despite their significance, economic malaise cannot alone explain this irresistible sense of defeat. Even privileged Egyptians harbor the same "defeat mentality." It is certainly possible to speak of the "civilizational defeat," the gap with the first world that widens every day, our faltering education system that produces many graduates but few brains, and our backwardness in science and technology.

In my opinion, however, more importantly behind this sense of defeat is the lack of freedom, the routine curtailment of civil liberties, the breach of human rights every morning and every night, the sub-human treatment of detainees in police stations and state prisons. In such an outrageous milieu, unsurprisingly, one political detainee described his detention center as "the capital city of hell." And, CIA agent Robert Baer remarked, "if you wanted to make someone disappear – never to return – you send him to Egypt."

The case of Khaled Said, the 28-year old Alexandrian man who was brutally beaten to death by two policemen, was a reminder that we Egyptians – anyone of us with no connections, no immunity - are not protected against such atrocities. One need only be in the wrong place at the wrong time to be humiliated, tortured and perhaps even killed. And if one is killed, like Khaled Said, the authoritarian state and its formidable security and media wings will spare no effort to assassinate his character. That is double homicide, a la today's Egypt, under today's regime.

The Lebanese man was right. What a shame.

That is a worse defeat than 1967. In this sense, tragically, the tanks of the Israelis were more merciful than the clubs and sticks of Egypt's riot police. The Israelis, after all, were the blunt and visible enemies in 1967, but the security soldiers are our fellow countrymen, they are both victims and aggressors.

I feel defeated, but I am not ashamed to say I am Egyptian. My country has a great civilization, lovely people, a rich culture, a massive reservoir of soft power, and a huge future potential. I thus have no doubt that one day the proud nation of Egypt will acquire the democracy it deserves.

I am not ashamed, but I am anxiously looking forward to the day when no fellow citizen is harassed because a police officer "doesn’t like the look on his face," when peaceful demonstrators are not beaten or sexually assaulted, when the state of emergency - uninterruptedly applied since 1981 – is finally annulled, and when perpetrators of torture do not slip away from punishment.

The eminent Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany seals each of his articles with the phrase: "democracy is the solution." How right he is.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on August 19, 2010.