Egypt, an escape from reality

The spread of absurd conspiracy thinking reveals a hard truth about Egypt's condition, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
13 March 2014

Have you heard the news? Apparently, kofta - the grilled meat-pastry popular in the middle east - can now treat HIV/Aids. Or so goes a “medical discovery” announced by Egypt's armed forces.

There is more. The discovery puts your love of Egypt at stake. If you don't believe it, your patriotism could be in question. But we must be careful, some argue, to keep the details secret in case other nations find out about it. 

The late Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Hafez, who wrote extensively about Egypt, once deemed the Egyptian army - despite its resounding defeat in 1967 - the most modern and advanced structure of Egyptian society. When comparing it with Egypt's cultural world and intellectuals, Yassin al-Hafez favoured the army without hesitation.

But what can be said now?

Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian surgeon and satirist - who has mocked the "medical discovery" with the same relish as he did the mangled English of ousted president Mohamed Morsi - has written of the “lack of values that has made the people of Egypt not much different from cavemen who believe in superstitions.” He continues: “At any moment their religious and patriotic passions can be manipulated until they finally carry torches and burn scientists as witches, infidels, or traitors.” 

Egypt's recent decades are a tale of slow collapse. At heart, this is the result of Egyptians' inability to make their history with their own hands. Amid this prolonged escape from responsibility, the gulf between narcissistic self-delusions and actual reality has widened.

Yet Egypt’s geopolitical and economical decline has been accompanied by an extraordinary rise in Egyptians’ infatuation with their “7,000-year old” civilisation. And when the gap becomes too large to cross and too hard to avoid, there is - after humour - only one place to go: summon a conspiracy theory (see "The Arab future: conspiracy vs reality", 18 August 2009).

The “chewing-gum incident” is perhaps most expressive of this perennial phenomenon (though there are dozens of similar examples). This refers to a claim in the 1990s that the Israelis were supplying the Egyptian market with chewing-gum with ingredients that rendered men sexually impotent and women sexually demanding. The absurd implication of the idiotic rumour was that “Jewish men” were going to take advantage of the situation.  (The Israeli chewing-gum conspiracy was even discussed in the Egyptian parliament.)

Even after the January revolution, the inescapable anxiety and unrest of a difficult transition ensured that some traces of this conspiratorial mentality would survive. But many hoped that Egyptians would gradually begin to take charge of their world - and to bridge the gap between rhetoric and ability, delusion and reality.

In the event, the discourse turned out to have staying power. It conjured various conspiracies that were attempting to damage Egypt, with western-funded NGOs (always an easy target) among the agents. In the fog, some voices appealed to Nasser to return from wherever he is to save the country; while others reappointed the octogenarian journalist-oracle Mohamed Hussein Heikal as a prophet-architect of Egypt’s future. The culmination of this trend was the military coup and the decrees that followed, which promised to unwind the January revolution. This exposed the frailty of democratic inclinations among the so-called liberal elites, and confirmed the absence of democratic credentials among leftwing and Nasserist cliques. 

As the revolution met its fate, Egyptians’ lack of control of the world around them reached its nadir. Their levels of expectation and rationalism have declined accordingly. The underlying reason is that what started as a popular revolution has ended up as a near-military regime; the promise of a break from the post-1952 past has ended up by reforging the bond with this legacy and its military component. 

If on top of all this, a party emerges that seeks to consolidate its seizure of power - and to lure Egyptians from the real problems they face - then all the elements required to burn minds across the country (not just Cairo, as in early 1952) are present. In effect, such a party already exists. Without any novelistic amusement but in cold fact, Egypt today is living a form of magic realism. And this too can only end up badly.

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