Contrary to popular belief, Mark Twain never said that “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”, but the phrase touches on a truth. Denial is not universally scarce, but in Egypt it is both a river and a way of life. This is quite understandable. To cope with tough times, Egyptians have resorted to a plethora of remedies and antidotes, including denial, amnesia and an enormously creative sense of humor. Egypt’s Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, describing the psyche of the nation that clings to the present, hopes for the future and overlooks the past, summed it up well in his masterpiece Children of our Alley: “The lesion of our alley is oblivion.” The nation with the oldest history, ironically, has the shortest memory span.
But if ordinary Egyptians resorted to these psychological defense mechanisms as a means of survival, their rulers did so out of greed. Generalizations are slippery, but they are not always entirely futile. Based on the historical record, it is no exaggeration to argue that, once in power, the minds of modern Egyptian policymakers are afflicted with a lethal combination of denial, amnesia, shortsightedness, ignorance of history, suicidal indulgence in wishful thinking and surrender to the illusions of power — in short, subordination of logic to self-delusion.
Political leaders are, by definition, supposed to learn from the past and plan for the future, but the wisdom of hindsight and the art of foresight have mostly eluded Egyptian politicians. Obviously, if they assume that the past is meaningless and the future is guaranteed, then in the inner sanctum of power they are only left with the indulgences of the present, authority and affluence. Therein lies their present strength, and also their future vulnerability. Two examples from Egypt’s contemporary history tell the melodramatic tale of its rulers — jubilation, amnesia and eventual downfall.
The forgetful clique
Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s moment of glory was delivering a speech in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on June 29, 2012. Morsi celebrated his election victory that day with his zealous followers, sipping the ecstasy of victory and relishing the long-delayed compensation and vindication for the arduous decades he had spent opposing authority among an outlawed, repressed group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Amidst the intense euphoria, little did he or his cohorts expect that the celebration of the nascent freedom would soon be followed by a return to captivity and anguish, or that he himself would precipitate this fate.
In his impassioned speech, Morsi touched on the struggle of past generations that finally came to fruition with the election of Egypt’s first civilian president after decades of dictatorship and plunder. He rambled on about the “tree of freedom” that had been planted by the generations of the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s — but he paused when he mentioned the 1960s, and his tongue slipped. “The 1960s, you do not want to know about the 1960s,” he said.
Morsi’s allusion to the 1960s was easy to understand. The MB had experienced its worst ordeal in the prisons of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser (ruled 1954-1970). The memoirs and testimonies of the Muslim Brothers who were incarcerated at the time are replete with horrific prison tales: torture of Muslims by fellow Muslims, echoing screams from dark cells and guards whose absence of mercy knew no limits. It was in these wretched prisons that Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the Islamist theorist and MB leader, was imprisoned and hanged. These distressing stories reverberated through, were engraved on, the Brothers’ psyche, one generation after another.
Morsi took the helm. But it is one thing to seize power, and another to sustain it. His year in power commenced with great expectations. It ended in a fiasco of his own making. Morsi’s faults as president included power grabs that perpetuated authoritarianism; the pursuit of divisive policies that undermined national unity and stability; the deployment of an extremely poor and unpersuasive political discourse; catastrophic administrative inefficiency; and a lame foreign policy. At the psychological level, Morsi and the clique of senior MB leaders failed to bond with the people they strove to rule. They lacked charisma and charm, experimented with governance like toddlers do with toys, and committed blunders day and night. To add insult to injury, the MB seemed to put the interests of the group above the interests of the nation, giving the impression they were a group in itself and a group for itself.
Morsi seemed unaware of the fact that his popularity had dwindled to a dangerous point by the first months of 2013 — or else he didn’t care. He could have defused public anger in many different ways but he opted for inaction, which in times of crisis is tantamount to suicide. Widespread popular indignation culminated in the June 30 mass protests which paved the way for Morsi’s dramatic ouster by the military on July 3. But the state apparatus did not limit itself to conducting early presidential elections as the anti-Morsi protestors demanded. Instead, it embarked on a more comprehensive change that was premised on crushing the MB, tarnishing the 2011 revolution and restoring the clout of the security apparatus— a swift return to the habits of the authoritarian state.
So, in a tragic irony, Morsi, who had recalled the 1960s on his first day in office, confidently pledging that decade’s notorious ways would never re-occur, became the pretext for the return of its ethos to Egyptian politics. The 1960s’ republic of fear has returned, this time more forceful and more ghastly. Since Morsi’s removal there has been an unprecedented use of (excessive) force against protestors, crackdown on dissenters and stifling of freedom of expression. According to Wiki Thawra, an initiative established by the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights to document the victims of Egypt’s political violence, over 21,317 people were detained between June 30 and December 31, including more than 330 minors (1). Worse, 1,400 people have been killed (mostly by the security forces) since July 3 (2).
The wrath of the state reached its zenith on August 14, 2013 with the bloody dispersal of the encampments of Morsi’s supporters in Cairo that left hundreds dead and thousands injured, representing one of the worst days of violence in Egypt’s modern history. By the evening of that day, the camp of Rabaa in east Cairo (which protestors had transformed into an Indian shantytown) had been reduced to what resembled a battlefield in Syria’s bloody civil war. When the clouds of tear gas dissipated, the magnitude of the tragedy appeared. Images captured rows of corpses wrapped in bloodstained white sheets, wrecked and burned cars, and debris eerily scattered all over. For a moment, it seemed as though a scent of death was floating in the air or that crows were flying amidst the black clouds, croaking the story of Egypt’s failed democracy and ending the power dreams of the MB.
Indeed, in a sense, June 29, 2012 and August 14, 2013 in turn represented the climax and anticlimax of the MB’s brief post-revolution power venture. This fate could have been avoided if only Morsi and his aides had realized that history can repeat itself. It takes no political literacy to know that we are what we remember and that we are condemned to repeat what we forget.
The blind state
The modern state in Egypt, established following the 1952 Free Officers coup, was not only ubiquitous, stretching its presence in all directions and domains, it also bestowed on itself an aura of metaphysical prowess. It thought it was invincible, and it wanted others to think the same way. Because prestige reinforces survival, the state, and its squad of representatives, allies, clients and puppets, strove for decades to make Egyptians believe not only that the system was unbreachable, but also that their own wellbeing was conditioned on the survival of the system.
Then came the events of January 28, 2011, shattering this psychological edifice, perhaps for good. The revolution began on January 25, but its most dramatic and decisive day was January 28 — “Friday of Anger”. Following the Friday prayers, peaceful demonstrators marched to Tahrir Square in the millions, while smaller provincial demonstrations targeted local police stations in Cairo and other cities with shouting, rocks and Molotov cocktails. Around 100 police stations were burned or damaged in the span of a few hours. The scenes were surreal, hitherto unthinkable. Egyptians held their breath as they saw police stations—places they had avoided in the past for fear of mistreatment—consumed by fountains of flame and turned into black facades, atop heaps of rubble and overlooking ruined police trucks.
By the evening, there were no police officers on the streets of Cairo, not even traffic officers. It looked as though they had vanished into thin air, or as if they had been swallowed by a black hole. The army and popular committees filled the security vacuum in the neighborhoods. But the Mubarak regime had breathed its last with the collapse of the police, although its official death was only announced through Mubarak’s resignation two weeks later. Mubarak had finally lost his stick, and no carrots could convince protestors to leave Tahrir, the hub of the revolution, and go home.
But forgetfulness, we must not forget, is the plague of our alley, and it is endemic in the state’s upper echelons. Following the downfall of the MB, the police state again used brute force to quell dissent and restore order — the same misguided methods that had led to the eruption of the revolution in 2011. Old habits die hard, foolish habits die harder. The police apparatus quickly forgot that the activists who called for a day of demonstrations against Mubarak in 2011 had deliberately picked January 25 — Police Day in Egypt. Mubarak’s regime deserved to go for many reasons, but a single cause of people’s indignation was the culture of humiliation sponsored by his interior ministry.
It is easier to forget the past than reflect upon it. It is not astonishing that those who are long on muscles but short on brains are so unaware of the lessons of history. After all, Egyptian police officers seem to be more interested in dominating the country than understanding it. But the velocity with which memories of near history are erased — including scenes witnessed with one’s own eyes — is unfathomable. Thomas Jefferson once said “power is not alluring to pure minds.” Otherwise it can become recklessly blind and deaf, forgetting that plummeting from the summits of political might can happen in the blink of an eye.
The wide-scale repression has already backfired; it is terrorism’s most effective catalyst and raison d’être. The Rabaa massacre and the state repression that preceded and followed it played into the hands of jihadist fighters, who are waging an insurgency in Sinai and slowly creeping into Cairo and the Delta region. It has also alienated the revolutionary youth, who feel that their revolution has been stolen, that their struggle has gone in vain. Let there be no doubt, they will soon rebel again. And although another January 28 is not imminent, it is inevitable if the state continues to act in a way that is out of touch with history and out of touch with morality.
Egypt’s lamentable modern history has followed a circular rather than linear pattern. A single step forward was followed by ten steps back and countless massive defeats were punctuated by meager gains. But the future will come one day. In preparation for it, Egyptians must not forget the lessons and must not forgive the sinners.
Nael M. Shama
(1) Sarah Carr and Leyla Doss, “Too Many to Count,” Mada Masr, 31 January 2014.
(2) Amnesty International, “Egypt Three Years on, Wide-Scale Repression Continues Unabated,” 23 January 2014.
* This article appeared first on the website of Le Monde Diplomatique (English) on February 20, 2014.