The regime’s new clothes

Sometime in June, cars in Egypt began displaying plain sheets of A4 paper with the sentence: “Have you prayed for the Prophet today?”

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the message — Egypt is plastered with generic religious blessings and exhortations: stickers in elevators and decals on car windows, graffiti, messages over shops and even built into the brick walls of new buildings. But something about the sudden, swift propagation of this question, something about its studied anonymity and inoffensiveness, troubled the powers that be.

The Minister of Religious Endowments said the question’s sudden appearance was unnatural and suspicious, and had a “malicious goal.” He suspected there must be “a devil behind it.”  The Ministry of Interior promised to end the phenomenon, explaining that it might have sectarian intent, and that it is illegal to put stickers and signs in cars. The hunt for the disturbing question has been on ever since. Al-Masry Al-Youm reported, with concern, that a sticker had been spotted on a wall of the Police Academy in Tora Prison, where many recent trials have been held.

The usual suspects on the nightly TV talk shows have accused the usual culprits — the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whose younger members have reportedly in fact taken credit for the campaign — and lectured the public about sectarianism.  But it’s clear that the message was adopted by some as a much more generalized, and perverse, rebuke to the authorities.

A friend of a friend reported the following exchange with a cab driver:

Passenger, noting the flyer in the taxi window: “The government is going to make you take that down, you know.”

Driver: “Man, I’m Christian!” (showing the cross tattoo on his wrist).

Passenger: “Then why…?”

Driver: “The government belittles us. But don’t they know no people in the world are more childish than us?”

Passenger: “Let me shake your hand.”

But plenty of others don’t have the stomach for any commentary, oblique or otherwise. Another friend rode in a taxi whose driver had put up a sign, facing passengers, that said: “El kalaam fi el-siyasa mamnua” (speaking of politics is forbidden).

Do you remember the endless confused, elated chatter of 2011 and 2012, in taxis and everywhere else? It was probably the single most important, real change: the way people briefly aligned themselves with their own many voices, were able to speak for themselves and to each other. I write “people” and not “the people,” because if we’ve learned anything from the last three years, it’s that the second category — as an absolute — is a figment of both the revolutionary and authoritarian imagination. You can bet that anyone invoking it is not to be trusted. This applies to our prevaricator-in-chief — who likes to hold conversations with “the people” the way a ventriloquist does with his dummy — and to the chorus of jumped-up sycophants that brays at the public every night from TV platforms.

The new regime has its accomplices and plenty of supporters, relieved to see the state reassert its authority, and “the people” back to a state of appropriate passivity and silence. But the authorities’ hypersensitivity to dissent reveals a deep unease. Otherwise, how to explain the need to criminalize hand gestures, hunt down flyers, investigate telephone ads, and treat comedy shows as threats to national security?

The government is rightly paranoid, because it is a regime, like the Emperor of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, with no clothes. A castle of cards built on fake confessions, fake miracle cures, fake trials, fake crack-downs and clean-ups.

And it is rightly paranoid because when you don’t let people speak freely, everything they say takes on a shade of double meaning. The truth retreats into jokes, satire, allegory, allusions, hushed and wary conversations.

An Egyptian court recently ruled that the Islamic University of Al-Azhar had the right to suspend a student who reportedly told Mufti Ali Gomaa, “Hasbi Allah we nam el- wakeel (God is my sole and best representative), my colleagues died because of you.” The court acknowledged that the “hasbi Allah…” is not an insult, but argued that “the way the expression was directed” at the mufti, with a loud voice and testy manner, contradicted the student’s duty to respect the professor, and to “not even look at him with annoyance or aversion.” The court appears to have side-stepped the second part of the sentence, with its straight-forward accusation of complicity in murder, altogether.

Fascism has the curious effect of making words both meaningless and menacing. Propaganda leaches them of sense; dissidents and democrats feel hopeless as their reports and arguments sink like stones into a sea of silence and denial. But they also become more dangerous. The Ministry of Interior recently released a tender for a “public opinion measuring system” that will be used for “social networking security hazard monitoring,” i.e. spy ware that will monitor social media for “destructive ideas” such as: “blasphemy and skepticism towards religion; provoking regional, religious, racial, and class divisions; spreading rumors and intentionally twisting facts; fabricating accusations; libel; sarcasm; using inappropriate language; calling for overstepping societal constants; encouraging extremism, violence, and dissent; calling for demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes; promoting pornography, looseness, and lack of morality; teaching methods of making explosives and assault, chaos and riot tactics; calling for normalizing relations with enemies and circumventing the state’s strategy in this regard; fishing for honest mistakes; taking statements out of context; and spreading hoaxes and claims of miracles.”

Violence has to swath itself in words. In Egypt today unchecked brutality is surrounded by insidious mental violence, the ultimate affront: to make people recognize what they know is untrue. To sign a coroner’s report that does not give the real cause of death. To face trial for assaulting police officers when you were the one who was beaten. To confess to crimes you did not commit. Those who complain that the government’s lies are shoddy and ridiculous miss their point. There is a purposeful sloppiness to the concoctions. It sends a message: We make the truth. Agree with us or go to jail, get off the air, die.

We are not far from Albert Cossery’s 1964 novel “The Jokers,” in which young indolent anarchists plot (and almost succeed) in bringing down a governor through excessive, double-edged flattery. Their counterparts are a bunch of humorless terrorists, who make the mistake of taking the authorities seriously. The book’s original French title, “La Violence et la Derision,” makes the alternatives clear. It is eerily relevant, with terrorism attacks continuing and the Muslim Brotherhood, even in its victimized state, cleaving to bombast and distasteful counter-propaganda.

Today, the cult of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken such ridiculous proportions that it is hard to see where satirists might step in. In fact it is its own over-the-top rhetoric, wild claims and impossible-to-keep promises that do the most to undermine the new government.

A political activist was recently detained and questioned after standing in Talaat Harb square with a sign reading: “You promised us you wouldn’t lift subsidies but you turned out to be a liar, Mr. President.” The man was reportedly interrogated on charges of insulting the president, assembly, thuggery, breaking the Protest Law and blocking a public road. How he managed to commit these crimes when he was standing alone is a mystery. Clearly his mistake was to say what he meant. A better form of subversiveness these days would be — following Cossery — to stand with a sign lauding the president: “Thank you for lifting the subsidies, Mr. President. Please take the rest away too. We don’t deserve them or you.”

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Ursula Lindsey