North Africa, West Asia

Being a "boogieman"

Maged Mandour

The author shares his personal experience of transformation, living abroad, after a revolution kicks off in his home country and hopes that one day he will no longer have to be a "boogieman."

Maged Mandour
20 March 2014

Ever since I started writing for openDemocracy, the bulk of my articles have revolved around societal analysis of the post-Arab “Spring” Middle East, and since I am Egyptian and have a personal interest in the country, the majority of my analyses have been focused on Egypt and the failures of the revolution. 

It is not very hard to decipher my political inclinations; a left leaning analyst, who is opposed to both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood with a deep commitment to democratic civil values. This, however, was not evident, it was rather a process of transformation I went through, which started when I first arrived in Europe, more than half a decade ago. It reached its culmination with the outbreak of the revolution and has continued ever since.

The first part of the journey begins prior to my arrival in Europe, in Mubaraks' Egypt. I use this term deliberately, since it felt as if I was a serf on what seemed to be a large estate, with the picture and name of the owner plastered all over the walls, streets and stations of this rather large fiefdom. As a serf, at best a semi-free serf on this large estate, I engaged in a very common deception that most of the other serfs engaged in; the illusion that I was better than my fellow inmates.

Not only did I confine myself to this sense of unjustified superiority, I also engaged in the practice of blaming my fellow inmates for their as well as my own plight. I argued, and believed, that Egyptians are inherently weak, submissive, cowardly, and ignorant. I shared the rhetoric of the regime, that without strict control the Brotherhood would come to power and impose a reign of almost medieval terror. I bought into the colonialist rhetoric of the nature of the “oriental” - a man who needs to be “taught” a lesson almost like a lost child. Of course, all of these stereotypes were not applicable to me, I was different, more “civilised.” I remember a conversation with a Swiss friend, when I first arrived in Europe before the revolution, when I argued that Egyptians, “need a father figure” and that our history is filled with such men that lead the nation. I also argued that without such a figure, the Egyptian political system would collapse. Sub-consciously, I was looking for another Mubarak.  

Those conceptions, were also coupled with an admiration of the west as the apex and acme of civilisation. I saw myself as belonging more to western civilisation than to the Middle East; identifying myself with universal ideas such as democracy, personal freedom, secularism and human rights that I assumed were of an exclusive western pedigree. I assumed that I would feel more comfortable and at home in the west. This assumption also involved the notion that Europeans would welcome me with open arms, as one of their own. I just needed to explain and show that I was not like the “others”, that I was different and more “westernised.” This, however, only proved to be a mirage.

When I moved to Europe, more specifically Switzerland, to start my Master’s degree, filled with unbridled optimism, I assured myself that I would feel more at home in Europe than in Egypt and that it was only a matter of time until I was accepted as a full member of European society. This, however, was not the case, as I soon underwent the “trauma” aptly described by Franz Fanon, when a member of the middle classes of the colonised world moves from the periphery to the centre. I experienced the first sensations of what it is to be a “boogieman”. 

My first major trauma started with the initiative to ban mosque minarets - a country that has only four mosques with minarets - endorsed by Swiss voters. This, of course, was followed by a major vilification campaign against Muslim immigrants. For the first time in my life, I realised that the values I so admired and identified as European were not applicable to me, which prompted me to look deeper into European colonial history and to make linkages between the colonised world and the history of exploitation and abuse that still continues to this day. 

I understood then that the best I could hope for was to be 'westernised', which naturally implies a dichotomy between the civility of the West and the barbarism of the East. When forced to make the choice I embraced my Eastern barbarism, and I consciously rejected the label of the 'civilised barbarian'. In reality, I was left with a rather clear choice, either to accept the colonialist rhetoric and its logical conclusion and embrace my new identity as an inferior “civilised” savage, or to lapse into nativism and reject this rhetoric completely. Both choices involved a radical rupture with my past identity, and in the end I was aided in my choice with the outbreak of the Arab Revolutions.   

The outbreak of the Tunisian revolution sparked a sense of excitement in me that I had not felt in a long time. I remember saying to my European friends that it was proof that the Arab nation was not dead. However, I still didn’t believe this could happen in Egypt. I hoped, but did not dare dream. The events of the Egyptian revolution that followed pushed me towards rejecting the colonialist rhetoric of the inferiority of the 'oriental'. 

In many ways the revolutionary struggle was not only a political upheaval I saw happening in my home country, it was a personal upheaval as well, shaking me to my core. The psychological chains that had constrained my thinking were irrecoverably broken in a way that felt physical: I had mixed feelings of shame, excitement and happiness. The inmates that I had so despised proved to me, and more importantly to themselves, that their plight was not due to their nature; it was due to societal and global forces that Egyptians had been fighting against since the beginning of the nineteenth century.

I also lost faith in the market. Like most business professionals, I subconsciously shared a number of liberal myths regarding the nature of the market, the importance of profit, the inherently selfish behaviour of man, and most importantly the ability of the free market to create wealth and solve societal issues. I came to see the impact of neoliberal policies on the masses in Egypt; the accumulation of wealth to a ruling elite coupled with the deprivation of the masses. 

Egypt was praised by international financial institutions, while the military dominated and ruled the economy and the masses were languishing in poverty. The veil was lifted and I could see the ahistorical and almost child-like belief in 'market fundamentalism'. My allegiance shifted from the capitalists to the masses. Furthermore, as a business professional I found my participation in this system quite discomforting and decided to try and seek refuge in academia and research.       

The outbreak of the revolution had a dual effect, in terms of my relationship to both Europe and Egypt. It increased my sense of alienation in relation to Europe, as I fell more into my native ways. I rejected the notion of the 'civilised savage' and started to reject the notion of European superiority by learning more about the darker side of European history. I embraced being the “boogieman”. On the other hand, I felt a sense of connection with Egypt that I hadn’t felt before, the sense of pride was overwhelming. This feeling however did not last for long.

Once the forces of the counter-revolution started to gather strength, I felt the sense of alienation returning once again. This time it seemed overwhelming. This became acute with the coup that removed President Morsi from power. Once again, I felt a sense of estrangement from my countrymen. The worst massacre in modern Egyptian history took place and most of the people around me were supporting this horrendous act. This time, however, the sense of unjustified superiority did not return, neither did my contempt for the 'oriental', rather I gained a deeper understanding of revolutionary forces and the enemies we were facing, and I realised that in the past I was a part of the problem, rather than the solution. I had finally developed a sense of where I stood in this struggle: I finally developed a “revolutionary consciousness.” I was determined not to repeat the same mistakes again.

Now, I return to being the “boogieman” in both worlds. In Europe, being a Middle Eastern Muslim man, I am the ultimate target of the European right, who are gaining popularity every day in Europe's deepening economic crisis. In Egypt I am now a traitor, foreign agent or part of the “fifth column”, or a supporter of Zionism, Qatar or Turkey; I am a “boogieman” regardless. Like many others, I hope that one day I will no longer have to be a “boogieman.”                 

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