North Africa, West Asia

The Stasi, Freud and Egypt’s predicament

The German Stasi can explain much about the tendency of Egyptian state and security agencies to protect themselves.

Khaled Mansour
17 November 2016
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Pieces of files of former GDR secret police Stasi in Berlin. The Stasi used a network of agents and informers to collect details of almost every citizen in East Germany, to better quash dissent.Picture by Frank Jordans AP/Press Association Images. All rights reservedI better understood the tendency of the Egyptian state and security agencies to protect themselves after a few hours at the Stasi Museum in Berlin.

It was there in the grim, soviet-style offices of the Stasi — the former East German Ministry for State Security — that I remembered another office in which I was humiliated 25 years ago. The managing editor of the state-owned news agency was sitting in a clichéd three-piece grey suit and a dark red tie behind a huge clean desk. He grew visibly annoyed as he looked at me. Instead of the customary, “sit down, please,” he said, coldly, “Is this the way you behave in your father’s presence?” I was surprised and wondered what he meant. Seeing my confusion, the editor bellowed, “Take your hands out of your pockets! And go get yourself a decent hair cut that is suitable for our respectable organization.” I moved from shock to incredulity and resisted laughing or exploding in his face. What stood between us was not just his unchecked authority over a young trainee reporter who could be sacked at will, but perhaps more importantly, an unbridgeable gap in world view.

The Stasi and Egyptian security agencies seemed to fear the same season: spring.

What is left of this incident almost 25 years later is the question of why (or, better, how) simple gestures of difference (most men wore their hair short in Egypt then) constitute such an offense to such a man. He looked visibly angry. Why did he, and many men like him in positions of power, feel perplexed and undermined by others — usually younger women and men — who handle their bodies in a different way or write in an uncommon fashion. What makes this an insult, or even a personal assault or threat to state security, leading to harsh reactions and institutionalized restrictions on freedom of expression?

The Stasi and Egyptian security agencies seemed to fear the same season: spring.

Putting one’s hands in one’s pockets in front of a superior could demonstrate a level of relaxation and lack of fear that is unacceptable in a hierarchical society, while wearing one’s hair long might be seen by some as an emasculating act. This might account for my former editor’s remarks, but why the level of visible anger?

The Stasi had a special department to work on behavior, sports, arts and culture. According to historians, East German security officials believed their country was always under threat from external enemies, and that such enemies used tools like “critical opinions, unconventional lifestyles, and oppositional conduct” against the state. It was the job of Stasi officials to find these elements and render them harmless. A law school study guide written by one Stasi officer, dubbed “securing youth policies,” summed up the threat: “raucous behavior, modern haircuts and clothing … trashy literature … heavy metal rock bands … independently producing hostile and negative views, for example in the form of political sketches, songs, slogans and chants.”

For those following Egypt over the past 20 years, and the period after January 25, 2011 in particular, similar “threats” are pursued here and their perpetrators sanctioned by the police and prosecutors. The Stasi and Egyptian security agencies seemed to fear the same season: Spring. For the Stasi it was the 1968 Spring of Prague that they feared could spread to the German Democratic Republic. For them, this meant the “enemy was lurking everywhere,” and placed a heavy burden on resources. After all, it’s difficult to watch all young people who might be cutting their hair short, or dying it pink, or singing heavy rock, or using profane language. From about 2,700 “society watchers” in the late 1950s, the number approached 100,000 by 1989 when the state collapsed.

In the five years following the upheavals of 2011, Egypt has legally harassed, arrested, or sentenced to harsh prison terms, numerous writers, bloggers, social media personalities, journalists, members of religious and sexual minorities, and many others who have expressed a different view to the dominant (but fast eroding, if not collapsing) social, political, religious and patriarchal frameworks and interests of the state. This repressive attitude, defended by the police, media, judiciary and religious institutions, is becoming increasingly harsh and violent, at the same time that the nation’s moral and value systems are changing.

The state bureaucracy, particularly security agencies and other institutions like state-owned media, Al-Azhar and the Coptic church, all deploy a variety of tools to control public space, as well as what is said, worn and exhibited, with a view to defending a conservative and patriarchal code of conduct, which is being challenged by an increasing number of people in Egypt today, particularly younger generations.

Several recent cases evidence the state’s futile attempts to control freedom of expression in Egypt: novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced in early 2016 to two years in prison for “undermining public morality,” after he published a chapter of his novel in a weekly literary magazine.

Amr Nohan, who was serving compulsory military service, was sentenced in late 2015 to three years in jail by a military court for superimposing Mickey Mouse ears on the image of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nohan was charged with attempting to overthrow the government.

The state bureaucracy, particularly security agencies and other institutions like state-owned media, Al-Azhar and the Coptic church, all deploy a variety of tools to control public space.

Four Christian teenagers received prison sentences in February 2016 for producing a 32-second video mocking the Islamic State, showing members praying and taking one of the group hostage and cutting his throat. They later fled the country and are seeking asylum in Europe.

Egyptian law contains no articles requiring young men to trim their hair to a particular length, or a specific way academics should talk about Islam, or stipulations about prohibited body language, yet Egypt’s Penal Code provides judges with a number of ambiguous articles that can be interpreted to incriminate and punish “violators” for undermining “public morality,” tarnishing the nation’s reputation, or defaming monotheistic religions.

The strict observance of a public code of conduct, speech, dress, and so on, helps them justify the erosion of this very code in private encounters.

The teenagers, for example, were convicted under article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code, which forbids “ridiculing, or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife.” The law does not specify what constitutes an “insult,” or amounts to “inciting,” leaving it almost fully to the judge’s discretion and, hence, the influence of dominant societal constructs and ideas. This has resulted in a situation in which the Egyptian state is battling the Islamic State with global support, but its judiciary also jails people who mock the Islamic State.

But it isn’t just draconian laws and cultural norms that are responsible for this crackdown. Other disciplinarians — editors, police officers, judges, right wing demagogue television anchors who call for “liquidating” Islamists without trial — seek constant affirmation through banishing and punishing the “other,” whose mere presence constitutes a direct challenge or threat.

This logic appears to adopt the following reasoning: We will fight the Islamic State, but we will also defend a conservative version of Islam, which cannot be criticized in public, especially if this criticism comes from a member of a minority group.

The strict observance of a public code of conduct, speech, dress, and so on, helps people justify the erosion of this code in private encounters. This fluid separation of the public and the private isn’t just hypocritical, but permits an element of control amid the perceived “loss” of religion, patriarchal control and national pride. And so, the “id” — the Freudian concept that groups all primitive and instinctive parts of the personality, such as sex drive — can be let loose in private, while a mercurial superego, rooted in an imagined political and cultural past, can reign supreme in public.

Over decades of cultural and political stagnation in Egypt, the national psyche has been torn between claims of grandeur, usually rooted in a distant past, by the nationalist state and/or Islamist movements, and a reality of accumulating failure on the other. Old norms and traditions, especially those related to politics, religion and sexuality, have become extremely contentious.

Fethi Benslama, a renowned French Tunisian psychoanalyst, argues that many Arab Muslim communities have embraced a collective belief in an unblemished origin to which they can return if they observe Islam correctly, as a way of coping with the violent disruption by colonial powers, and later, at the hands of collaborating elites. Dislocated, these Muslim Arab selves, Benslama claims, have become desperate and willing to submit to any form of comfort, bent on blaming others, preferably minorities or foreigners, for their predicament.

The Egyptian state’s crackdown on what it perceives to be subversive behavior runs deeper than a mere desire to control society. It is rooted in a collective dislocation, a legacy of colonial modernity that seeks to cling to the status quo and an imagined past.

***

Psychoanalysis might provide some further insight into why state and society behave in such a way. Treatment of the “other,” therefore, is intrinsically linked to one’s own self image, making the debasement or punishment of minorities, or those who dress or express themselves differently, necessary for one’s own self-esteem. To perceive difference as a threat is to adopt a contradictory position: one in which otherness is loathed, and yet is also a reminder of one’s own inadequacy. It is as if Egypt’s elites — politicians, judges, editors, policemen — in defending a glorious religious, cultural, and political past, are reminding themselves of their present material inferiority through their own egotistical performances of superiority.

Sigmund Freud, in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1939), warned of the disintegration of society in the case that there is an, “Unsuccessful struggle against the external world if the latter changes in a fashion which cannot be adequately dealt with by the adaptations which the species has acquired.”

The Egyptian state’s crackdown on what it perceives to be subversive behavior runs deeper than a mere desire to control society. It is rooted in a collective dislocation, a legacy of colonial modernity that seeks to cling to the status quo and an imagined past.

The increasingly ferocious backlash against freedom of expression in Egypt in recent years is partly the result of a perceived threat to a patriarchal and romanticized national psyche.

The increasingly ferocious backlash against freedom of expression in Egypt in recent years doesn’t just reflect the governing elite’s desire for social control, but is also the result of a perceived threat to a patriarchal and romanticized national psyche that was repackaged in Egypt’s early post colonial years, particularly the 1950s. Decades of cultural and socioeconomic decay, especially since the ignominious defeat of 1967, rendered the stereotypical Egyptian psyche, such that it is, torn between self-righteous, state-sponsored nationalism, Islamist ideologies and a reality of failure and debasement. The origins of this can be traced back to society’s harshest and probably first violent engagement with modernity, when the Napoleon-led French army invaded the country in 1798. Since then, many norms and traditions, especially in relation to politics, religion and sexuality, have become contentious.

The current state of neurosis in Egypt is one in which the two selves, propagated by religious and neoliberal elites, are meant to preserve a status quo under the benevolent protection of the father-dictator.

The upheaval of 2011 dealt a major blow to patriarchal and conservative societal norms, hence repeated efforts to portray January 2011 as a conspiracy by “others” — foreigners, outsiders, traitors — not truly patriotic Egyptians, and to return to an assumed status quo ante through repression.

This is exemplified by writer Ahmed Naji’s case. Naji is in prison over “explicit sexual scenes” in his novel, a chapter of which ran in a Cairo weekly literary magazine. Why would an Egyptian court find the dissemination of a work of imagination in a publication with limited circulation, however obscene or offensive, a threat to public morality in a nation of over 90 million people, nearly 26 percent of whom are illiterate?

Naji once said, “they [the judiciary] work as the guardians of social morals and virtues, rather than of laws that protect freedoms. This has become worse since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president. He came to power through an alliance with state institutions, such as the judiciary, and together they share the responsibility for guarding their gains. Sisi looks after his interests, while the judiciary dedicates itself to policing morality and teaching us virtues.”

The court of appeals that sentenced Naji (after he was acquitted by a first instance court) concluded that the law is intended to protect public morality, religion, patriotism and the family. Naji’s writing, the judge argued, undermines society itself, and ignores the values and ethical boundaries of society, inciting debauchery. The judge called on parliament to increase prison terms for such offenses, “because spreading vice in an attempt to destroy the values and moral code of society is a grave matter requiring a harsh punishment.”

The increasingly ferocious backlash against freedom of expression in Egypt in recent years doesn’t just reflect the governing elite’s desire for social control, but is also the result of a perceived threat to a patriarchal and romanticized national psyche that was repackaged in Egypt’s early post colonial years, particularly the 1950s.

The judge went on to criticize all those who think the moral code is relative and not immutable and unchangeable. It is shameful, he said, to leave “the fate of our nation to the mercy of those who treat it lightly and scandalously as if playing cards.” He concluded: “down with such freedom, which brought us corruption, loss of ethics, and moral looseness since the incidents that hit our beloved Egypt” — in reference to the upheavals of 2011 that are commonly referred to as “incidents” by those who view them as destabilizing conspiracies, rather than calls for freedom and social justice.

If the state did not crack down on freedom of expression, this might be construed as an admission of the impossibility of return to an imagined past, and a step towards submitting to an ill-defined new reality. The current state of neurosis in Egypt is one in which the two selves, propagated by religious and neoliberal elites, are meant to preserve a status quo under the benevolent protection of the father-dictator. Any challenge to this order also represents a challenge to the father figure leader.

Free expression is therefore more threatening when it doesn’t replace the old with a completely new reality, but questions the sacred, and opens new possibilities for the adult to choose and bear responsibility for his or her choices. It is also a rejection of the hypocritical conservative position, by which dominant societal guardians use a moral code to repress public dissent, while in semi-public settings this moral code is being violated systematically and in a pervasive manner, such as through economic corruption, torture in prisons, impunity and the demise of the rule of law.

It would have been an easier task if the governing elite and institutions were the single source of evil, but it is a deeper malaise that lies in a fractured national self, deluded into a state of permanent victimhood.

What threatens individuals is writ large in terms of state institutions, as was evident in the Stasi’s documentation at the museum in former East Berlin. No wonder the Stasi helped train a nascent Egyptian state security agency in the mid 1950s and supported it for 20 years.

The increasing weakness and deepening failure of patriarchal institutions (religious, political and social) to ensure hegemony over the family, traditional institutions and society at large is evident. The only way to cover up this failure is to invoke an assumed social and moral code.

The current state of neurosis in Egypt is one in which the two selves, propagated by religious and neoliberal elites, are meant to preserve a status quo under the benevolent protection of the father-dictator.

Egyptians largely refuse to publicly admit what the majority of us condone or accept privately: that our moral system has become utterly dysfunctional. The widening gap between reality, desires, and societal codes hasn’t left much room for compromise. As a result, the rich and the powerful ignore public morals within the confines of their compounds and clubs, while the poor are increasingly dismissive of them in practice.

The stereotypically angry, conservative Egyptian is now a gift to paranoid conspiratorial thinking about foreign agendas and influences; or the so-called “forces of evil” in presidential statements. For Egypt to get out of this quagmire, deep political and institutional reforms are necessary, as is the end of the unchallenged dominance of the governing elite. This will take time, because ultra-nationalism and patriarchy are integral to material and psychological interests.

The upheavals of 2011 rekindled a hope that the state and society might embark on a transformation, but we were naïve and oblivious to the depths and complexity of material and moral corruption in wider society. It would have been an easier task if the governing elite and institutions were the single source of evil, rather than a deeper malaise that lies in a fractured national self, deluded into a state of permanent victimhood.

N.B: This article is based on “Freedom of Expression in Egypt: How Long Hair, Pink Shirts, Novels, Amateur Videos and Facebook Threaten Public Order and Morality,” a much longer piece by Khaled Mansour for the September 2016 issue of The International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, Vol 13, Issue 3.

This article was first published as a two part series on MadaMasr: part 1, part 2

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