North Africa, West Asia

Orientalism and decentralized repression: the case of Egypt

Maged Mandour

It is essential for the revolutionary movement to create counter hegemony within the realm of civil society, where a competing narrative must be built to break the asphyxiating hold of elitism and orientalism prevalent amongst the Egyptian elites and middle classes.

Maged Mandour
30 October 2013

I had a conversation with an Egyptian acquaintance, who can safely be classified as a member of the Egyptian elite. She expressed her dismay with the character of the Egyptian people by arguing that Egyptians are disorganized by nature, as well as lazy, apathetic and deceitful. She sounded like a nineteenth century colonialist or a racial supremacy theorist. Unfortunately this is also a widespread view amongst the urban middle classes - the backbone of the Egyptian revolutionary movement - and it has devastating political and social effects. This “orientalism” is part of a wider international discourse on the nature of the Arab world, which has been exploited and reinforced by the ruling elites to strengthen their grip on power. Furthermore, the so-called failure of the Egyptian revolutionary movement has consolidated this view in the minds of many.

In his important work “White Masks, Black Faces”, Franz Fanon argues that the middle classes of the colonial world have been traumatized by their encounter with the “white colonizer”, in short he argues that the middle classes hold many of the same prejudices against their own people and perceive themselves as more civilized and European than the rest of the country, especially in the rural areas. However, upon any encounter with the European in his/her native country, they must come to the realization that they are not accepted into those societies where they feel such a close ideological connection - hence the trauma.

Egypt is not an exception to this phenomena: although colonialism has ended, its enduring legacy remains. Egyptian elites still hold large segments of their own societies in contempt, especially the rural and the lower classes. Egyptian society is divided into “welad el nas”, which loosely translates into “sons of people” and all the others; a telling classification to say the least. This classification is not rhetorical; it has real social meaning and affects a person’s rights and obligations. For example, a visit to a police station - a terrifying experience in Egypt - entails different treatment from the officers depending on your "status", and this classification almost has legal force.

This pervasive orientalism has been fostered and developed by Egyptian elites across the political divide. During the years of the Mubarak regime, government officials complained that although jobs were available, the Egyptian youth were simply too lazy to work. Mubarak was famous for his paternalist attitude towards Egyptians and constantly complained of their ever-burgeoning demands; the image of the patient father with a spoiled child comes to mind. On the other hand, Khairat El Shater, the deputy guide of the Muslim Brotherhood complained that the electoral program of President Morsi could not be implemented because it required “active and aware” people, implying that the Egyptians were neither of those. Even the so-called liberals did not escape this elitism; Alaa El Aswani, self-proclaimed liberal and writer, argued that the right to vote should be restricted to those that can read and write; effectively barring almost 28% (World Bank, 2010) of the population from their basic political rights. This argument was made in the midst of confrontations with the Islamists, arguing that the bulk of their support came from illiterates and peasants.

The situation was made worse by the failure of the Egyptian revolutionary movement, who not only failed to bring down the regime, but also failed to create a sense of revolutionary consciousness that would act as the backbone for breaking this widespread orientalism. Franz Fanon also argued in his seminal work “The Wretched of the Earth”, that it is only through revolutionary struggle that the oppressed can remake themselves and cast away their self-contempt; a dialectic process of struggle and a process that the revolutionary movement failed to accomplish in Egypt; recasting the Egyptian self-image. If anything it reinforced the existing stereotype, due to its failures and weaknesses.

This sense of paternalism is not simply a social malady; it is a political malady as well. Politically, the sense of self-hatred spawns a sense of apathy among the masses coupled with the cynicism that becomes the base of any repressive regime. The stage is set for the return of the loving father figure who will lead the people, like children, out of the abyss. In Egypt’s case, the military, personified in the minister of defense, will save the child; the Egyptian people from the mess they got themselves into - the revolution and democracy. A telling example of this is a caricature that was published in one of the national newspapers, where El Sisi was depicted as a superman saving Egypt - a smiling woman, an image that is overflowing with orientalist stereotypes. Of course, the father figure in this scenario is above reproach or critique. This was clear from the ferocious reaction to Egypt’s most popular satirist Bassem Youssef who dared to mock the military and the general in charge, upon his return to the screens on October 25.  

This is now the basis of the “false consciousness” being imposed within Egyptian civil society as defined in the broadest sense. It must eventually lead to what I call “decentralized repression”. One can safely argue that Egypt is currently undergoing this process where all dissenting views are censored by elements of civil society as well as the public at large, who are marginalizing and attacking all opposing views without the need for direct government intervention. One could also argue that El Baradei underwent the same process, and that his political role ended because of it. What the Mubarak regime and the military have failed to achieve over many years has been achieved by a determined civil society in the span of a few months.

What makes the situation worse is the cooption of a large number of intellectuals, defined in the broadest sense of the word, in supporting the military establishment. This has led to the decapitation of any possible resistance movement within the realm of civil society. Those intellectuals support and repeat this orientalist rhetoric employed by the military to consolidate its rule.  

Is the situation hopeless? As I have argued elsewhere, the ability of the regime to impose “false consciousness” is limited by material factors that, at some point, will lead to an inevitable clash with the ruling military establishment. However, it is essential for the revolutionary movement to create a counter hegemony within the realm of civil society, where a competing narrative can be built to break the asphyxiating hold of elitism and orientalism prevalent amongst Egyptian elites and middle classes. This can only be achieved through long-term revolutionary struggle and intellectuals organically linked to the revolutionary movement and the masses. Only they are capable of articulating this counter-hegemony and shattering the existing ideological construct.       

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