North Africa, West Asia

Power and the divine: self-repression in Egypt

Focusing on the afterlife, the rewards of heaven for the just and hell for the unjust, keeps the masses in check and accepting of their social reality. This needs to change.

Maged Mandour
16 March 2018

Rana Magdy. Public Domain. To understand how power functions, one needs to examine how it penetrates and controls the daily lives of the citizenry on the micro rather than macro level.

Of course, there are common indicators of how repressive a society is, such as freedom of the press, treatment of minorities, and the level of violence practiced by the state on its citizenry. However, this approach misses an important aspect of power, namely, how the masses are kept in line without the need to resort to mass violence.

Ideological domination is the tool used; it is accepted by the masses as an essential component of their social reality, leaving no room for cognitive dissonance.

In autocratic polities, one of the most critical notions of the ideology of power is lack of control, where one’s ability to influence one’s life and surroundings remains constrained and limited as an ideological construct and a fact of life.

The mass of the populace hold the belief that their ability to affect change, even in their own personal lives, is severely limited and constrained by external powers.    

The masses accept their repression and lack of freedom as a natural condition of their existence, and any defiant members become quickly ostracized and repressed by their fellows because they risk creating uncomfortable levels of mass cognitive dissonance.

As a result, on behalf of the ruling elites, there is no need for direct intervention by the state as the populace engages in a process of self-regulation and repression.

The role of religion

As a student of the Egyptian polity, one of the most important ideological pillars of repression is the use of a religious construct that promotes apathy. The divine is constructed as an ever-present force in daily life.

Decisions related to work, children and marriage, for example, are constructed as part of a pre-ordained plan by the divine, as such, one is fated to have a certain job or a certain number of children.

Abysmal social conditions are also projected onto a divine power that is both just and above comprehension. These critical decisions are considered to be outside the realm of human control.

This coping mechanism is adopted by the vast majority, especially with the increasingly worsening conditions in Egypt.

If one, for example, suffers from prolonged bouts of unemployment, one appeals to the divine or believes that his/her suffering is part of a divine plan that is just, and that one will be rewarded later on in life or in the afterlife. 

Suffering for redemption

The second lag of this religious construct is the deep-seated belief in the importance of suffering as a tool for redemption, where one’s bad deeds are erased as he/she suffers injustice in this life.

In cases of injustice, for example, patience and prayer are advised rather than active resistance. There is also a religious notion that when a person has been unjustly treated, there is a direct connection to the divine, where their prayer will surely be answered with the usual caveat that the response might be delayed until the time is right.

Additionally, there is a direct connection made between suffering and the goodness of one’s soul, where the true believer is thought to always be inflicted by suffering as a test of fortitude by the divine.

This ideological construct is also coupled with a conception of the divine as a force that is arbitrary and beyond comprehension, while at the same time directly involved in the details of daily life. Thus, it is not unusual that Egyptians attribute small events, like catching a bus or a train, to the direct workings of the divine.

This sense of loss of control manifests itself in the concrete belief in magic and other super natural forces. For example, it is not unusual to hold different forms of amulets and blessed items to ward off evil spirits or even to affect the behaviour of one’s superiors. This is also reflected in the widespread belief in dreams, fortune tellers and magic.

Even Sisi himself is reported to have had a dream that he was destined to become the president of Egypt, claiming to have seen late President Sadat, an Omega watch, and a red sword.  

This ideological construct has a number of obvious implications on social and political behaviour at both the micro and macro levels.

Collective apathy

The primary impact is that it converts the populace from subjects to objects with little control over their lives. A sense of collective apathy sets in as one suffers from self-alienation and loss of control over one’s fate. This directly leads to the acceptance of social injustices as a form of divine ordinance, rather than a manmade phenomenon that should and can be resisted and changed through acts of individual and collective resistance.   

Individual agency is replaced by reliance on the intervention of the divine that is bound to correct social ills at an undetermined time in the future.

Another direct impact is the dulling of the ability to connect between issues that one faces with the broader social context. For example, deteriorating health conditions many Egyptians face are connected to a divine test rather than rising environmental degradation, poverty, malnutrition and lack of funding in public health.  

Then there is self-repression that the citizenry practice against individuals who rebel against these conditions or show signs of resentment, since this is seen as a rebellion against the divine.

The end result is that the masses are persistently engaged in a process of self-repression, without the state needing to intervene.


This does not mean that the issue resides solely in religious doctrines per say, nor does it lie in a legacy of brutalization and violence practiced by successive autocratic regimes. It does not even lie in poverty and superstition, which are wide spread in Egypt, it rather lies in the social conditions that make the belief in this construct a necessity for survival.

Even though this belief system might appear irrational to the western reader, it is perfectly rational if one places it in the proper social context of mass repression, deprivation and violence. It is accepted by the general populace as a necessity for survival, otherwise life would become unbearable. Thus, this ideological construct is a coping mechanism.

This is a necessary construct for the mass of Egyptians to accept their social reality. Focussing on the afterlife and the rewards of heaven for the just, and hell for the unjust, is what keeps the masses in-check.

In order for social change to occur, a process of change in popular beliefs needs to take place in a manner that would resonate and have social meaning for the popular classes. Empowering changes in the popular belief system and the surrounding religious construct are essential for the revival of political life in Egypt in the time of autocracy.

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